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Supporting students achieve deep learning

People can remember easily what happened a week or a month ago, but as time passes by, it becomes harder to hold on to memories. Interestingly, we have a hard time remembering what happened precisely 20 months ago but at the same time we have early memories from our childhood that stay with us forever.

Many times a small thing like a smell, a sound or an image can trigger a trip down on memory lane and suddenly we remember not just the situation, but the whole experience and the feelings we had at the time. For me the smell of a two-stroke engine evokes one of my best memories: the first time my dad and my uncle took me to the motorcycle races. I still remember it as if it was yesterday: the joy I felt, the smell of motorcycles and the heat of the day. It was a real event for my 10 year old self; I felt present and engaged and I’m sure the memory of it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Remembering the learning content from classes works similarly. If the learning process engages students and helps them understand the purpose that the learning content serves, the material will be strongly embedded in their memory and they will be able to retrieve it more easily when they need it. For example, teaching negotiation skills through situational role-plays can help the learning process to happen on a deeper level because students will have a first-hand experience with a negotiation situation.

How educators can support deep learning

There are a few methods that can help students achieve deep learning in their learning process:

Life-long learning

Before teaching anything to students, teachers have to shape their perception about learning. Learning has to be desirable and students need to become life-long learners and seekers of knowledge.

Teachers can support this mindset with purposeful and engaging materials and through activities and discussions that show how students can implement their ever growing knowledge on a daily basis.

Self-directed learning

Students who have the right mindset about learning and are devoted life-long learners can be easily taught how to become self-directed learners. Once on the path of self-directed learning, students can improve their cognitive competence, will be able to search for relevant information, will strive to cover any knowledge deficiencies, and they will know how to track their own progress.

To help students improve their interpersonal competencies and step right on the path of self-directed learning, they have to be taught how to manage their own studying, how to create and ask the right questions and how to find the answer to their own questions.

Teaching students research skills at this point of instruction can prove really effective in their process of becoming self-directed learners. They have to know where and how they can find the necessary knowledge to satisfy their desire to learn.

Retrieving information

Deep learning doesn't really happen if students can’t retrieve the information they have learned, or they don’t know when they have to retrieve it. Students need to be taught to retrieve the right information at the right moment.

This can be done through project-based learning, situational role-plays and simulations. If learners try themselves out and apply their knowledge in controlled, simulated environments, it will be easier for them to identify the right information in their memory and retrieve it when needed in real-life situations.

Closing thoughts

In order to succeed in deep learning, students have to understand the class material and they have to know why it is important for them to learn all the information and how it will aid them later on in their lives and their careers.

To further improve the chances of deep learning, special attention needs to be paid both to the content itself and the teaching method. The content has to be interesting and the methods should be engaging in order to get the best out of the learning process.

It is the job of instructional designers and teachers to involve students in the learning process through beautifully created content and innovative teaching methods. When it comes to teaching techniques and teaching tools, it is safe to say that we live in the age of plenty. The most important task is to find the right tools and techniques for each class that fit the students’ learning needs.