How you think matters: Deep learning

deep learning

How we learn has a profound effect on the way we work and the results we produce. Researchers have found that there are three basic approaches to learning: Surface learning, strategic learning and deep learning (Bain, 2012). Surface learners approach learning as an exercise in recall, memorizing facts and definitions in anticipation of taking a test. Deep learners, on the other hand, approach learning with the desire to understand the meaning of an idea, to tear it apart, to see the concepts behind the ideas, to identify the logic of the idea, to see how ideas fit together. Strategic learners often earn high grades and may look and sound like deep learners. Except that they focus their learning on determining what the “professor will put on the test”, then they study that material exclusively to achieve high grades.  Think of surface learners and strategic learners as “task oriented”, and deep learners as “learning oriented”.

On first blush, it looks like the strategic orientation is a better approach, after all it is efficient and effective. The issue is that students learn procedure, facts and figures, but not the meaning behind them. They learn how to plug numbers into a formula, but not what the formula means.  They become “routine experts”. That is, they understand expertly how to use a formula, module or tool. That’s fine if the situation is routine. But in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, we face few routine decisions. Strategic learners have difficulty adapting to new situations.

Deep learners are more effective in analysis, critical thinking, complex problem solving and creativity, because they don’t default to the template. They are able to adapt and create, because they think more deeply, connect and integrate ideas. They are adaptive experts, able to respond to complex, changing situations. They see opportunities for innovation and change. Deep learners are more dogged.  They may take longer to be effective, but once they get up to speed, they perform more effectively.  For instance, a study of a sales force converting to a new technology showed that strategic learners sales performance recovered from the change more quickly, but it plateaued, while the deep learners performance took longer to recover from the change, but in the longer term they outperformed the strategic learners. What’s most interesting is that deep learners do not necessarily have the highest grades. They take longer to work through ideas and information, as they integrate it. They are, however, better at analysis, critical thinking, creativity and complex problem solving.

So what kind of learner do you want to be? Work with? Hire? The next time you want to hire a recent graduate, don’t look at their grades, look at how they think.

Source: Bain, Ken (2012). What the best college students do. Bellknap Harvard: Cambridge, Mass.

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7 replies »

  1. The problem is when universities prize surface and strategic learning over deep learning. I found that during my BA all I could focus on was strategic learning because my GPA needed to be ridiculously high for grad school. Then you get all these strategic learning focused grads! Luckily I took grad school as an opportunity to stop caring about grades and focus on the material, but not because any teachers told me to do so.

    • I totally agree Shonagh. Part of the issue is that the economics of education are producing massive class sizes. This makes it difficult to do any assessment that isn’t recall/multiple choice based, which encourages surface/strategic learning. Too bad there isn’t a “deep thoughts” standardized test… (okay, I was joking there). Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your thoughts with us.

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