Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Learning never exhausts the mind.” Even if a student weary of studying might disagree, the quote still speaks to the inherent ability within each of us to learn more and more, and to learn deeply. What does deep learning entail? Is it the same as cramming?
Examine techniques for learning in multiple settings and for multiple purposes.
What is the ultimate formula for learning at the deepest level? Is it raw intelligence, a great teacher, good studying habits, or a perfect study space? Is it critical thinking, creative thinking, a mindset of success or dogged determination?
The formula is probably a combination of all these things and more. Every student has unique stories to tell about how deep learning occurred for them. Stories about deep learning are the basis of What the Best College Students Do, a book by historian and educator Ken Bain. In writing this book, Bain conducted more than one hundred interviews with notable lifelong learners, like Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Bain asked each interviewee to talk about how they used their college experience to develop and feed their curiosity about topics that interested them – topics that came to define them in many ways. The deep learning each person experienced helped them go on to lead focused and purposeful lives.  
If Bain were to interview you, what would you tell him about an experience you had in which you learned deeply? What factors account for how you absorbed knowledge during that experience and how you used the knowledge for something that mattered a lot to you? Conversely, which factors were missing when you had the experience of not learning deeply?
Learning deeply, says Bain, “does not just mean the ability to remember stuff for an examination. It means the ability to create. It means the ability to analyze and synthesize, to solve problems, and to understand what that problem-solving means.” What matters most about the college experience and earning grades, he says, “is learning deeply, thinking about implications and applications, and expanding the powers of one’s mind. If students intend to learn deeply, grades will usually take care of themselves.”
In this section on deep learning, we examine key strategies you can use not only to get good grades but also to truly enjoy your learning experiences in college and to reap the greatest rewards from them in the future. Deep learning is a key to succeeding in college and in life.
How can you tell if you are actually engaged in deep learning? Ken Bain offers the following classification of learners:
Which learner do you feel you are now? Are you drawn to learn more deeply?
To illustrate the process of deep learning, let’s use an example of what deep learning is not: “cramming” for a test – studying right before an exam without much preparation beforehand. Can you remember a time when you stayed up late to cram for a test the next day? How did it turn out for you? Did you pass the test? Did you learn much while you were cramming? How much do you remember now of the material you studied then?
The problem with cramming is that it does not give the brain ample time to process information or to make the kinds of critical connections necessary for the brain to retrieve the information later on. When you cram, you simply forget what you have learned much faster than when you study diligently and steadily over an extended period of time.
Why would this matter? Why not just cram, take a test, do reasonably well, and move on to the next challenge?
One of the main reasons not to embrace this approach is that without learning deeply, you lose the opportunity to apply what you learn to other pursuits (in college and in life). For example, if you have classes later in college that build on earlier courses, will you retain and be able to apply what you should have learned from the classes in which you crammed? Will you need to learn the material on a deeper level this time?
Another cost of cramming is that you forgo the pleasure and satisfaction of acquiring knowledge at a deep level.
In sum, learning deeply goes beyond just test scores. It connects to skills you will need the rest of your life, like critical thinking, critical analysis, applying principles to solve problems, assessing your effectiveness, revising, and applying what you know.
So, if you are looking ahead to do well on a test or some other kind of assessment, avoid cramming. Start studying now and keep studying as you go along. Use your time-management skills and tools to make the time for it. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time, because every time you retrieve information or knowledge, you are learning it more deeply. Also, by spreading out your studying, you can avoid mental exhaustion and having to cram before exams. Take study breaks to relax both mentally and physically.
Sometimes the best way to learn a new idea is to first “unlearn” an old idea that is hindering the new one. This is certainly the case with principles of learning, because there are many misconceptions about how people best acquire knowledge and retain it. Below, we identify and deconstruct some of these misconceptions and replace them with ideas you can use to help you learn deeply.
If you believe your learning abilities are fixed, you put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you usually get straight A’s, you may avoid taking intellectual risks that take you out of your comfort zone or jeopardize your perfect record. Similarly, if you believe you are not good at something, such as math, you may avoid really trying or lower your expectations.
But students who have a “growth mindset” toward learning, and who believe they can really improve over time and with effort, are the ones who who tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process.  “Research suggests that students who view intelligence as innate focus on their ability and its adequacy/inadequacy, whereas students who view intelligence as malleable use strategy and effort as they work toward mastery.” 
Bust the Myth
If your tried-and-true study strategies are not working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, think about how it will go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you are accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of reality, or overshoot it, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called “metacognition,” and it is an important part of deep learning.
Bust the Myth
When faced with familiar terms or examples, you might find yourself feeling like you really understand the material. But in fact your brain might really just be responding to the fact that it has seen this exact material before. This is called the familiarity trap—when everything seems familiar and your brain does not have to work so hard and so it feels like you have mastered the material, even though you have not. Try to mix things up as you are studying.
More and more evidence suggests that confusion is where deep learning lies. It might even be that some level of confusion actually activates the parts of your brain that regulate learning and motivation, helping you achieve a greater level of understanding. If you are not confused, you might not be learning.
Try not to let yourself get discouraged if it feels like you are not understanding something. Not understanding can be a good sign.
Bust the Myth
Retrieve—don’t regurgitate. Develop your own test questions, ask yourself questions, solve sample problems, and analyze for deeper meanings. Need some good questions to ask yourself? Try this: Why is this answer important? What
does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example? Retrieving what you’ve learned from your memory helps you strengthen connections and relearn
each time you do it, that is, every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it and creating different pathways for retrieval. The more paths you create to knowledge, the more likely it is that you’ll
find a way there when you need it.
Planning reduces stress, helps you avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!
Bust the Myth
“Every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts.” This reminder from Michael Starbird (University of Texas at Austin) offers a good reason not to fear failure. Failure does not often feel good, but it may be your best teacher in helping you learn deeply. In fact, in the book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, authors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird say that failure is an important foundation on which to build success.
But seeing failure as an opportunity for learning requires a fresh mindset. Once you make a mistake, you can ask, why is THAT wrong? Failure is an important aspect of much creative work, though it goes by a different name: iteration. Iteration is important in refining, working though problems, starting small, and refining until more can be added. Iteration is a feature of work in design, science, technology, and really any field where innovation is important.
Bust the Myth
The following are additional study techniques you can use to work your brain, raise your grades, perform well on assignments, and, most important, learn deeply.
Studying with fellow classmates and/or working with them on projects and class assignments can significantly enhance deep learning. Group work can help teams chunk bigger tasks into more manageable parts and steps. It can also help participants manage their time better. In addition, group work often involves discussion and collaboration, which can improve everyone’s understanding of the material. Another benefit is the opportunity for feedback on ideas and performance. And working in groups always helps members develop stronger communication skills – both speaking and listening skills.
Getting the most out of working in a group, though, itself requires some special skills. The following video, Group Work, from the University of British Columbia, offers some pointers.
Below is a summary of the key points in the video:
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
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