Deeper Learning: What Is It and Why Is It So Effective?

March 7th, 2015 No Comments Features

deeper learning

You can’t search for something you’ve already found, can you? In the case of deeper learning, it appears we’ve been doing just that: aiming in the dark at a concept that’s right under our noses.

“Sometimes our understanding of deep learning isn’t all that deep,” says Maryellen Weimer, PhD, retired Professor Emeritus of Teaching and Learning at Penn State. “Typically, it’s defined by what it is not. It’s not memorising only to forget and it’s not reciting or regurgitating what really isn’t understood and can’t be applied.”

Here’s one attempt to craft a definition: “When engaged in deeper learning, students think critically and communicate and work with others effectively across all subjects. Students learn to self-direct their own education and to adopt what is known as ‘academic mindsets,’ and they learn to be lifelong learners.”

Here’s another: “Deeper learning is the process of learning for transfer, meaning it allows a student to take what’s learned in one situation and apply it to another.”

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It describes the aim of every reasonably devoted educator since the dawn of time. But therein lies the problem: aim and execution are two very different things. When it comes to deeper learning, we’re aiming for something we understand fully in theory but barely at all in practice. What was once a pedagogical fantasy is now an indispensible necessity, and it’s time for us to wake up.

A Good Approach By Any Other Name…

Deeper learning is “an old dog by a new name,” according to Ron Berger, the chief academic officer at Expeditionary Learning, which has brought deeper learning to 165 educational institutions across 33 U.S. states. It’s about combining in-depth academic knowledge and skills with the belief that students must also master communication skills, learn to collaborate effectively, and manage their own learning in order to be ready for college and beyond–pretty much what we’ve known all along, right?

Right, says Berger, but have we been doing it all along?

Deeper learning recommends teaching strategies that have long been considered good practice, like project-based learning, long-term cumulative assessments, advisory courses, and block scheduling. These practices aren’t new, but they’re not being practised, either. They’ve been devalued.

“The push in [education] has been so deeply around accountability based on high-stakes assessments that educators have become more and more fearful that the kind of going deeper [learning emphasised by deeper learning] has not been celebrated and prioritised,” says Berger. A high-achieving educational institution in this country, he says, is one with high test scores. The goal of deeper learning is to expand that measure of achievement to include more than just standardised tests.

What separates the deeper learning method from traditional methods, says AIR fellow Jennifer O’Day, is a systemic, institution-wide dedication to pursuing communication and “soft” skills–which sometimes get pushed to the back burner as standards are increasingly tied to test scores–just as aggressively as mastery of academic content.

Deeper learning, then, is also about deeper commitment. It’s about shedding our resistance to “another new name of something that’s being forced on us” and recognising the affirmation of some of our longest-held instincts. This is the real deal, folks. And there’s plenty of evidence to back it up.

Deeper Learning in Practice

In New South Wales, the deeper learning movement has been spreading its roots since 2011. The Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, a system of almost 80 academic institutions and 40,000 students, was one of the first systems to adopt the technique. At Parramatta Marist High School, one of the diocese’s leading institutions, the students themselves sing the praises of deeper learning.

“Seniors contrasted the previous education method with the changes this one brought when instituted during their ninth grade year,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, who visited Parramatta Marist to investigate the hype. “They said that working in small groups allowed everyone to participate, and students who might be prone to slacking off felt more peer pressure to contribute.”

One seventh grader spoke about how working in small teams helped shy students make friends more easily. Students who otherwise would hold back in a large discussion tend to open up in small groups, he told Wise.

Many noted that students would often teach each other. Student-led tutorials permitted each individual’s skills to complement others’. “One student observed that in traditional lecture [courses], he ‘just wrote down for no reason.’ Now he is linking information to what he needs to know.”

As an added bonus, Wise observed a direct relationship between deeper learning and digital learning.

“While pedagogy and a culture of learning clearly dominated at both the Catholic high school and elementary school I visited that day, underneath both learning systems was a strong technology foundation.” Quoting Greg Whitby, he adds, “The importance of technology is to personalise education. Multimedia is a real hook in the digital age. It makes kids the co-creators of knowledge.”

The case extends to online learning settings, too. At the Sydney Distance Education High School, leaders are implementing the same deeper learning concepts–only in a largely digital environment.

“The very structure of digital learning–personalising education, competency-based, 24-7 learning, and the ability for constant communication–makes this a powerful learning tool for deeper-learning strategies,” administrators say.

Like the United States, Australia relies largely on standardised testing. Just because the institutions Wise visited are “nongovernment institutions” doesn’t mean their students can skip the Australian national exams. That’s not the point, anyway. The point is this: adopting the deeper learning method has actually improved these students’ test scores.

And it’s doing the same thing in the U.S.

A recent study by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) found that deeper learning public institutions graduate students with better test scores and on-time graduation rates nine percent higher than other institutions. Graduates of the deeper learning program were more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, attend selective institutions, and report higher levels of academic engagement and motivation to learn. Perhaps most importantly, deeper learning benefits students regardless of their background or incoming achievement levels.

O’Day, who co-led the study, says it’s the first of its kind to provide data-driven incentives for educators to adopt institution-wide deeper learning.

“This is not some fluke,” she says. “It is what happens inside the [institutions] for the kids and the kinds of opportunities they have that makes a difference to these outcomes.”

These are the same opportunities that make up a typical day at High Tech High Chula Vista in California, where in math students study the relationship between surface and volume in a piece of origami; in world history they demonstrate what they’ve learned about ancient Egypt by writing and illustrating a children’s book; and in science lab they’re test-firing the rocket they built in partnership with their peers. Course projects require students to learn across disciplines so that they understand the connections between academics and the world in which they live and will some day work.

Contrast this with a long day at a public academy in San Diego, where students are expected to earn good grades, prepare for higher education, and work well with others.

It’s that job readiness factor–the ability to navigate the real world with relevant knowledge and problem solving skills–that makes deeper learning so effective.

“It’s an approach that should be championed by everyone concerned about the future of high-quality job creation,” says Meier Wright, former California secretary of trade & commerce. “I say this as someone who has worked for more than 25 years with entrepreneurs and civic and business leaders to create fertile ground for the growth of major employers statewide. Virtually every task force, every economic summit and every conversation about our success was influenced by our need for a well-educated workforce.”

Here’s How You Can Make It Work For You

What constitutes a deep learning strategy? It’s a question that deserves some serious consideration. Take a look at the following five principles and give some thought to what you might add.

1. The Three Competencies

The 2012 Deeper Learning Report recommends that teachers equip their students with three types of competence: cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Cognitive refers to reasoning and problem solving; intrapersonal refers to self-management, self-directedness, and conscientiousness; and interpersonal refers to expressing ideas and communicating and working with others. Together, the researchers believe these competencies can lead to success in not only education, but also in career and health. Conscientiousness, in particular, is most highly correlated with successful outcomes.

2. Test Format

Researching the way certain test question formats promote higher-level thinking skills, Kathrin Stanger-Hall put together a list of study strategies that highlight the difference between surface learning and deep learning. Here are a few samples from each list:

Cognitively passive learning behaviours (surface learning approaches):
I attended my course.
I reviewed my course notes.
I made index cards.
I highlighted the text.

Cognitively active learning behaviours (deep learning approaches):
I wrote my own study questions.
I tried to figure out the answer before looking it up.
I closed my notes and tested how much I remembered.
I broke down complex processes step-by-step.

Stanger-Hall included both kinds of behaviours on a survey that she had students complete at the beginning, during, and at the end of a course. Her students identified which of the behaviours they were using as they prepared for course exams. Stanger-Hall wanted to document whether having to answer some test questions not formatted as multiple-choice questions changed the approaches students said they were using to study. Her data show that it did. Not only did students in the experimental group use more of the deep learning approaches, but their exam scores were significantly better than those in the control group.

“Until teachers stop relying on questions that can be answered with details plucked from short-term memory,” observes Weimer, who wrote about the report in a recent Faculty Focus blog post, “there isn’t much chance that students will opt for the deep learning approaches.”

3. Predicting and Retrieving

James M. Lang, professor of English and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, says two key cognitive activities seem to be especially promising in terms of their ability to maximise deeper learning: predicting and retrieving.

He cites a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in which researchers gave participants test questions on subject matter before they had the opportunity to study or learn it correctly. One of the researchers’ interests was determining whether incorrect answers on a pre-test (which are likely to happen when the subjects have not yet been exposed to the material) would create further difficulties for the learner down the line. In other words, if learners gave a wrong answer on a pre-test, would that answer stick in their heads and make them more likely to repeat it on subsequent exams?

Not only did the researchers discover that wrong answers on pre-tests do not interfere with subsequent learning; they also discovered that asking learners questions about subject matter before they learned it actually improved their performance on subsequent tests. The authors speculate that this happens because an initial attempt to construct a response to a question create[s] a fertile context for encoding the answer when it is presented.

Lang also cites a substantive body of research around the power of retrieval practice, also sometimes called the “testing effect.” In one demonstration, described in a 2008 article in Science magazine, researchers had participants memorise 40 English-Swahili word pairs over the course of a single day of studying and testing. When they brought the participants back a week later to give them a final test on the word pairs, they found that those who had taken multiple tests on all 40 word pairs remembered more than twice as many of the pairs as those who had more study time and fewer tests. Results like these have been replicated in dozens of other contexts and settings, and at all levels of education.

4. Source Diversity

“Teachers are only one source of knowledge,” writes education strategist Monica Martinez in a recent Edutopia article. “Students at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota learn filming from a local nonprofit in the area, and students at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia learn from scientists and researchers at the Franklin Institute through mini-courses.” It’s a good way to incorporate technology, too. Students at King Middle School in Portland, Maine Skype with authors of the books they read for English or history courses, and students in a technology education course learn about the design process through a YouTube video of engineers from IDEO. Doing so promotes both deeper engagement and understanding.

5. Curriculum-Wide Adoption

In order for deeper learning to become the norm rather than the exception, it has to be a priority for local, state, and national policymakers, says Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at the Stanford and advocate for education reform. The U.S.’s Common Core State Standards, which begin to push towards critical reasoning and problem solving and application of knowledge, are only being applied to math and literacy, she said. “What about other subjects?”

Most importantly, educators must be given enough time to create a thoughtful deeper learning curriculum. In many countries, Darling-Hammond says, educators are allotted 15 to 20 hours a week just dedicated to curriculum creation. It’s a simple formula–one that we’ve been looking for but already know: The deeper the commitment, the deeper the learning.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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