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Mar 2004  Vol. 8   No. 1  
........   LEARNING ISSUES   ........
Encouraging Deep Learning
Chew Fook Tim, Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences

In my first semester of teaching, I undertook a survey on learning motives and strategies of students in my cross faculty module (BL1306: General Biology) of 350 and compared them to responses from students of two other large modules conducted by colleagues1 using the Biggs’ Learning Process Questionnaire2. We undertook this study as part of our teaching practicum under the Professional Development Programme-Teaching organised by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. The preliminary results were presented during our final teaching practicum seminar on 11 May 2002 and described elsewhere2. Basically, there were no significant differences in the proportion of students with surface, deep and achieving motives or strategies among our different groups of students and we generally felt that the data we obtained were representative of our general student population at the National University of Singapore.

However, what struck me clearly from the survey results was that a large proportion of students (although not statistically significant) using surface and achieving learning approaches were obtaining B grades or better than the deep learners in my module. Although the deep and achieving learners were scoring significantly better when the analysis was made at a higher cut-off point (A grade or better), I was concerned that this trend may encourage surface learning and send the wrong message. Hence as a group, the teaching team for the BL1306 decided to do something about this.

To address the issue, we needed to understand why students use a surface approach to learning. From our literature research3, 4, we gathered some possible reasons:

  • Modules that encourage rote learning were those that lacked a clear presentation of the overall objectives, those that had a structure that could not be followed closely, and those in which the topics were presented disjointedly.

  • The subject matter did not take students’ prior knowledge into account. Hence, students could not engage the content meaningfully. And if the module contained too much information or content for the limited time allotted, the students were compelled to just try to ‘cope’ rather than be deeply engaged. Other elements that promote discouragement and disinterest include teaching methods that are teacher-focused and mainly emphasise transmission of information rather than true understanding of concepts, as well as teaching styles that encourage cynicism/anxiety/other negative feelings about the subject.

  • The assessment tasks (e.g. exam questions which only require rote learning/lists of facts to pass or even obtain distinctions) encourage and even reward learners who take a surface approach to learning.

  • There is inadequate feedback on students’ progress.

  • Students do not see any intrinsic value in learning the subject, and the teachers or teaching process do not help them to see the value by stressing the relevance of the subject matter.

  • Students were previously successful in using only a surface approach to learning. Or they had multiple other commitments (e.g. taking too many modules, having a project that takes too much time, or other external distractions) and were only trying to do the bare minimum necessary to pass the module.

As seen, many of these points are within the control of the teacher to varying degrees, while others are not.

My teaching team thus decided to make some changes and act on the determinants that were within our control to encourage deep learning:

  • To prevent students from believing that assessments were just machinery for deriving grades and thereby remaining with a surface approach of learning, we re-designed the assessment tasks and style to reward students for understanding, making connections and exploring rather than rote recall of facts or information. For instance, we changed the finals into an open-book examination with exam questions that require application of knowledge in unseen situations.

  • We encouraged learning by experience (e.g. physical visits to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research).

  • To promote active engagement with the subject and learning tasks, students were encouraged to use the course discussion forum for the inquiry and exploration of complex issues/problems/case studies. The discussion forum also offered students the opportunity to discuss, debate and compare their understandings with each other and with teaching staff.

  • Apart from giving marks or grades, tutors were explicitly encouraged and shown how to give students qualitative feedback frequently on the assessed work as well as on discussions and email questions.

  • We explicitly brought out the structure of the subject and challenged students to make connections with what they already know, or to question their existing knowledge base. Lectures are designed such that connections within and between topics, as well as relevance to daily living, were emphasised.

  • As the first assignment of the module, we asked the students to list down their learning goals and standards. This practice helped students to perceive their own objectives for taking the course. To reinforce these goals, the students were asked every now and then to re-examine them.

  • We matched the level of the subject and the pace at which the module was presented with the students’ prior knowledge, and kept the workload to a level that allowed students to explore ideas widely and develop a level of interest that characterises a deep approach to learning. Materials and resources for such exploration (e.g. web resources, videos) were made available and accessible.

  • We modified our teaching to show our own enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter and to demonstrate our interest in helping students to gain the same intrinsic interest and curiosity.

The results of the latest survey (conducted at the end of Semester 2, Academic Year 2002–03) revealed that significantly higher proportions of students had used and achieved deep learning strategies and a significant higher proportion of these students had scored better grades than those adopting surface learning approaches. Thus, the teaching team was able to make a difference by acting on the determinants that were within our control.

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