Encouraging deep learning

Read the following articles, noting points of interest and useful ideas you could incorporate in your teaching.

I am really surprised to find that in the different approaches to learning, the achieving approach can co-exist with the surface approach as well as the deep approach. Who knew that skimming the surface, learning facts and other information by rote can be called “achieving”  but it does. It meets the requirements of exams and other types of assessments and objectives within the classroom and curriculum.

Perhaps if the demand and standard for that type of learning ceased then surface learning would as well?

Unfortunately there is more than meets the eyes, with many students unengaged, learning in a teacher centered environment.

And categorising doesn’t help either. In a breakthrough study, Marton and Saljo (1976) found:

Deep and surface learning approaches are used by students depending on their perception of the task being completed. Students may, in fact, swap from one approach to another according to the demands of the task.

A student-centered or democratic learning model actively involves students in their learning, assessment, choices and input. Other important factors to encourage a deeper learning include:

  • Relevance of subject matter
  • Seeing the big picture
  • Reflecting can personalise
  • Being a passionate and interesting teacher
  • Providing an environment where students feel safe and comfortable in being themselves and expressing their opinions
  • Treating students with learning difficulties (ESL, disabilities) with respect and encouragement to further their learning.

Surface learning is also encouraged by the lack of questions in teaching, thinking and learning. “Instruction at all levels keeps most questions buried in a torrent of obscured ‘answers'” writes Paul and Elder (2000).

Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. “this is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning.”

Read through the resources below, taking your own notes about each of the approaches as you go.

Reading for meaning:

Even though later years students use a variety of information sources in their studies, and online resources may be the go-to for research, the VCE and HSC curriculum is still text heavy so learning strategies for Tackling Textbook Reading are vital. It is not safe to assume students who have spent most of their lives in the education system  have been taught how to make the best use of text books: how to approach them, break them down, understand their structure and how to pinpoint information easily.

Therefore, teachers play an important role in reading instruction. When students are given a task that requires attention to a particular text and/or research, teachers should identify the purpose: select sections that meet specific learning objectives and and then give students a purpose so they know why they are reading and what they need to learn.

Likewise, reading homework should have three parts: the purpose for the reading, how to approach the reading and how to use the information.

For example, in Media Arts, I would tell students:

Read the front page and back page of The Border Mail tonight. The purpose is to identify the audience of the lead stories on both pages. As you are reading complete a comparison chart of the differences in both articles, and come to a conclusion. In class tomorrow we will discuss and compare notes and write our own Page 1 or Back Page sports story in groups.

Students with low literacy skills is another challenge all together. While most students who have chosen to take Media Arts in the later years will have good literacy skills, there will be some who struggle. And for students, and teachers, in the field of science, history, physical education or art, it provides an even bigger challenge.

John Munro, from the University of Melbourne, found many of these teachers did not literacy as their responsibility, not did they have the skills to tackle the problem.

His innovation was aimed at teaching both subject knowledge and literacy skills at the same time. It involved students engaging in literacy activities for 15 minutes of lesson time for each hour of teaching. But not just any literacy, but the writing and reading of that subject. Each subject has its own vocab, ways of writing. “Physical education and woodwork teachers, for example, found it useful to begin every third lesson with a literacy activity that reviewed what the students had learnt during the previous two lessons.”

His High Reliability Literacy Teaching Procedures (HRLTPs) help teachers help readers comprehend text in simpler ways initially and then in more complex ways and “remind them how to store what they have learnt in memory so that they can use it for learning later.”

HRLTPs for teachers to instruct students include:

  • study between five and ten key relevant words or phrases that are the building blocks of the knowledge to be learnt.
  • read aloud short portions of relevant text
  • visualise/paraphrase each sentence in text
  • say questions that each sentence answers
  • summarise the text
  • predict/aniticipate ideas
  • review and consolidate

And he also put the onus on schools to have achievable explicit goals in literacy.

Marking the text

When students mark texts purposefully, they are actively engaged in meaning making. Students can:

  • Circle Key Terms (repeated words or phrases), Names of People, Names of Places, and or Dates
  • Underline Relevant Information
  • Number the Paragraphs, to act a future reference



Active listening

Listening is something we take for granted and yet it is a crucial tool for learning. Most experts agree that the most important steps to being an active listener are pay attention; show that you’re listening; provide feedback; defer judgement; respond appropriately, but learning how to do these needs more specific strategies, especially for students in the classroom.

Isis Artze-Vega (2012) suggests many ways to develop these; my favourites are Talk Less, Hold Students Accountable for Listening and Keep ‘Em on Their Toes.

By talking less, not only do students talk and contribute more to the discussion but teachers are listening  to what is said and developing  “empathy and understanding with the students and to assess whether they understand what they are being taught”. To interpret and evaluate the message, teachers are then able to “reassure the speaker that you have been giving him full attention” is a critical aspect of constructive listening. Feedback is usually given by asking for clarification or for more information, or at least giving some visible acknowledgment by smiling, nodding or frowning.

Listening skills also help in negotiating with students and defusing any potential classroom conflicts.

Specific strategies and activities that can help that appealed to me include:

  • Turning to the person next to you and explain …whatever I’ve just said, to break up the monotony of taking notes and me talking.
  • Open ended questions provide opportunities for expressing thoughts and feeling
  • Engage students to role play scenarios, pair them to do concept maps, group them to search for answers, and share experiences during the day.

One teacher made an interesting point about presentations in class, in particular the use of PowerPoint: “We have gone astray with our perfectly designed slides and actually discouraged them from note taking or listening. The best way to avoid ‘death by power-point’ is by building in slides with nothing but a key question or two that signal time to stop and discuss with each other the information presented in the last few slides”.

Effective questioning

… is another tool/skill that can lead to deeper learning. Relating questions to Bloom’s Taxonomy levels makes a lot of sense and is a great tool for all teachers looking to expand on a student’s higher order thinking skills.

Rather than list all levels and corresponding questions I think this chart is a fantastic resource: depending on the class level and even the level of comprehension needed for a specific lesson/activity I can immediately focus on what questions are needed to scaffold an effective learning experience.

The Canada Education website captures it well in the article Engaging Students Through Effective Questions,  “Effective teachers use a combination of open and closed questions, depending on their purpose.  In designing lesson plans, we keep in mind learning outcomes.  As our lesson plan becomes more specific and detailed, we ask ourselves, “What is my objective?”  or “What kind of question will help achieve the learning outcome?”


Wait time

Working hand in hand with effective questioning is the wait time after a response. Many studies show that increasing the wait time from the typical 1 second to 3-5 seconds produces significant and profound changes in the classroom, including:

The key features of wait time (my secret weapon!) I can use in my teaching would be:
  • It sounds simple, but it starts with: ask the question, wait, and then ask for a response.
  • When you ask a question, don’t preface it with a student’s name, for example, “Marsha, what are some of the reasons why Leonardo da Vinci is considered a genius?” As soon as you say one student’s name, all the other brains in the room immediately shut down.
  • Wait through the awkward silence
  • Don’t give the answer
  • Wait time 2 (time between the answer and the teacher’s reaction) is important too; it often leads into valuable discussions.

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