Answering my Holden

So last week in the first-year seminar we talked about the various kinds of learning strategies that students use in college. Surface learners do their best to memorize and regurgitate the material they suspect will show up on an exam, operate in survival mode and often feel a great deal of dissatisfaction and boredom with their college experience.   

Strategic learners, on the other hand, are adept at gaming the system, intuiting what the professors want to hear, and often have a glittering GPA without learning much more than how to obtain a glittering GPA. And they're just as bored and unsatisfied with college.

My first-year students recognized and even self-identified as these kinds of learners.  They were a little less able to recognize something called deep learning, an approach that is internally motivated, personally satisfying and often transformative. Deep learners don't ignore grades, but they don't operate solely for the grade.  They keep their eyes on the prize, which is seeing themselves grow and develop as they take in new information and make new connections.

One of my students was quick to object.   Her Holden Caufield phony alarm went off.  She sniffed and said, "That sounds great, but a lot of my professors teach in ways that make me act like a strategic or surface learner."  Her objection has been eating at me all week, mostly because I know she's right. Telling my students to become deep learners in an institution that does not always reward deep learning is a sure way to persuade them that whole concept is bogus.

I wanted some way to respond that was genuine because I do believe that deep learning can happen even in a bad class.  I had this experience as an undergrad.  A subject could be so interesting that even weak teaching couldn't kill my enthusiasm for it. Plus, I know that many of my students have been deep learners at one point or another.  They just don't recognize it when it happens because they lack any language to name it.

So this week I came up with an exercise for identifying when deep learning occurs.  I had the students answer four questions:
  • What new idea has really caught your attention or made you curious this semester?  This is the stuff that makes you want to learn deeply.  This is where your passion lies.
  • What were the ideas or information you found yourself thinking about outside of class?  If you're thinking about something outside of class, it clearly made a deep impression on you (also, it means you are making connections and finding ways to apply the material).
  • What do you feel proud of this semester?  Chances are what you take satisfaction in is an instance of deep learning.
  • What would you like to do better and how might you do this?  Set achievable personal goals.  Make them things you want for yourself and no one else.  Remember, deep learners are intrinsically motivated. They learn for themselves.
After some free writing in response to these questions, they shared their ideas in small groups.  It was remarkable.  This is an 8:00 am class and they often slump into class  half-asleep and a little resentful.  But they wanted to talk about those subjects and achievements that mattered to them: brain chemistry, psychological theories, medieval history, improved writing skills...  Really, no fooling.  That's the stuff they were talking about (and with every sign of keen enjoyment).

Once again I seem to have lurched unaccountably onto a good idea.  To quote Holden, “I don't exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.” 


T.J. Brayshaw said…
I may try this in my classes. I am always torn between two perspectives when I have a class with some students in the back corner that are asleep, rolling their eyes, or otherwise disengaged or resentful: I waffle been being frustrated that I cannot reach them or decide that this is on them, not me, and I content myself with teaching to the handful that seem really engaged. Neither seem fully satisfying.

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