Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning

I have been in the adult education and training business for almost four decades and I still see an unfortunate fixation on content. So much of education and training is focused on ensuring that learners know certain things. So little is focused on providing learners with the ability to actually go beyond knowing, to being able to do certain things. This dichotomy can be represented on a number of different axes:

  • Content vs. Skills
  • Knowing vs. Doing
  • Memorizing vs. Understanding
  • Surface Learning vs. Deep Learning

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, has gone through a lot of self-reflection and has written about and presented widely on how he has changed his approach to teaching in order to help students move to the right side of the axes noted above.

A couple of decades ago, Mazur came to the realization that although his students gave him good reviews and that they were largely successful in achieving good grades in his courses, many of them, in the end, still did not grasp basic concepts of Newtonian physics, nor could they apply these concepts in any meaningful way. His students could memorize formulas and apply these to basic textbook problems and pass their tests. However, they did not internalize these concepts and therefore did not really understand them.

Mazur came to the conclusion that the problems presented in the textbook modeled inauthentic problem-solving. Students were asked to apply procedures to find unknown answers. This does not mimic real life, wherein we usually know the goal at hand, but we need to figure out how to arrive at this goal. In the textbook approach, it is easy to merely go through the motions of plopping figures into memorized formulas that spit out the answer (that hopefully matches the one at the back of the book), without really understanding the significance of the answer or the meaning of the process that got you there.

Conversely, if you are given a goal to reach (i.e. the answer) up front, and then need to use the principles you have learned to reach that goal, you are more likely to grasp the underlying principles and to be able to apply these to solve all kinds of problems. Actually applying new knowledge to solve real problems allows you to go beyond mere memorization (the low end of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives), and to reach higher order thinking skills (e.g. analyzing, evaluating, creating).

So Mazur flipped his classroom. He stopped lecturing, assuming that his learners could read the text and/or course notes ahead of time. Classroom time is now devoted to problem-solving. Learners are asked to solve problems individually, and then they solve them in groups with other learners, and compare answers and debrief. This peer-to-peer instruction and collaboration is important, as Mazur feels that novice learners who grasp a new concept are better at teaching other novices. He, as the expert, with decades of experience in the field, cannot relate as well to the difficulties that novices face as he is too far removed from the time when he first faced these basic conceptual hurdles himself.

Also, Mazur has changed how he assesses his students. He applies the “Google test” to determine whether a certain question or problem is suitable for an assignment or exam. In other words, if the answer can be found via a simple Google search, it is not an authentic learning exercise. This is why all Mazur’s tests and exams are open book. The answers go beyond mere facts. They require learners to go through a process and apply what they have learned to specific problems, thereby demonstrating their understanding of the fundamental principles. You can forget facts (which only require short-term memory), but you cannot forget understanding.

Mazur uses the open book approach because he says that it mimics reality. In real life situations you are not put in isolation and told that you cannot access any resources to help solve problems.

In fact, some of Mazur’s exams are collaborative as well. Students do the exam the first time individually, and then submit. Then they do the exam again in a group with some of their peers (debating the correct answers) and submit collective answers. The learner’s mark is an amalgam of the individual and group efforts. Exams thereby become another learning opportunity, not just a measuring stick.

Mazur says that education is a two-step process.

  1. Transfer of information
  2. Assimilation of information

Step 1 is dead easy. Yet this is where most educators and trainers spend most of their time and effort. Step 2 is the harder nut to crack. This involves providing opportunities for learners to apply their new knowledge in different contexts, perhaps even screw up, get feedback, recalibrate, and try again, so that they actually reach understanding.

Whether in the education realm, or the corporate training realm, we should be putting more of our efforts into Step 2 in order to go beyond surface learning (that fades quickly) and to achieve deep learning (that sticks forever).

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