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The two main barriers against deep learning

When I was in high school poetry was my least preferred subject. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the favorite student of my poetry teacher either. The reason for this was very simple: I didn’t have the necessary affinity towards poetry and I always had a hard time understanding and learning poems.

Although I tried many times to memorize poems for the sake of my grades, I never truly succeeded. After just a few days, all was forgotten and I couldn’t even recite two consecutive verses. As a result, my grades were outstanding — but not in a good way — and as an added bonus, I was regarded as one of the laziest students in poetry class.

At the time I didn’t give much thought to the issue; I labeled it as a learning disability and tried to live with it. But later, during my university years, I studied the cognitive process and read a lot about learning techniques. That’s when I realized what caused my so-called learning disability: I couldn’t learn poems by heart because deep learning never happened in my case; the information never got embedded in my memory.

What are the barriers against deep learning?

Usually there are two main elements that can prevent deep learning from happening during the process of knowledge acquisition:

1. A lack of engagement

The first one would be a the lack of engagement from the part of the learner. There are so many school subjects that students find it hard to engage with… When this happens, the main problem isn’t the class material, but more often than not, it’s the teaching method.

Just think about the traditional teaching method: the teacher holds a lecture, then students go home and learn the taught materials, and after a while their knowledge is tested via standardized tests, where they usually regurgitate what they have learned.

In this scenario students will never get to see the beauty of any learning material because they are blinded by the test fever. What they do is actually called surface learning — learning that helps them achieve their short-term goal of getting good grades.

However, the long-term results of this method are mostly nonexistent. Sooner or later most of the knowledge will be forgotten, because deep learning never happened.

How to overcome this

In order to avoid falling into the trap of surface learning, instructors have to pay special attention to what is taught and more importantly how it’s taught during classes.

Teachers have to engage students in the learning process, and the best way to do this is by creating memorable content that is enjoyable and easy for students to absorb in their long-term memory, where it can be knitted together with their current knowledge.

Creating content that stirs the interest of students is an important step but isn’t enough. Even the most interesting story can be told in a boring fashion, so the method of content presentation and knowledge transfer is just as important as the content itself.

It is easy to make classes interesting through engaging content and interactive teaching methods. There is a vast array of tools that can help transform any class into a cooperative environment where students work together and connect with each other, with the teacher, and also with the class materials.

In order to make the learning process more experiential teachers should consider incorporating techniques such as simulations, roleplays and creative assignments in their teaching methods. This way, students can learn from their own interaction with the course content. For example, instead of asking students to learn dozens of poems, teachers should be motivating them to think creatively and express their thoughts through their own poems. Creative thinking and self-expression will come in handy in any work environment and it will help students in their future careers.

2. A lack of purpose

The second important issue that can prevent deep learning from happening is the fact that students don’t realize the importance of the content they have to learn. They simply don’t see how the class material will help them later on in their lives. Honestly, not even now — when I know better — I can’t think of a moment in my life when reciting poems saved my day.

The learning process is driven by the desire to acquire important but also interesting knowledge that will prove helpful during one's career and personal life.

In most schools students don’t have the luxury to decide on everything they want to learn. In many cases there are subjects they simply have to learn, otherwise they won’t be able to pass the year. So they’ll struggle to learn them and get passing grades, but if they consider the content to be irrelevant, the information won’t be anchored in their long-time memory and inevitably will be forgotten.

The main problem here is the lack of emphasis on the real-life applicability of the content students have to learn during courses.

How to overcome this

When teachers point out the real-life usability of the acquired knowledge by rooting it in real problems and by showing the possible solutions it may offer in solving real situations, things improve. Students can be hooked.

For some students, math only means some random numbers that will never get out of their books or homework. While complicated calculus and math functions are not part of our average day-to-day lives, knowing what change you’re owed at the cash register, or how to calculate the interest for a simple bank account is truly useful. If students could make the connection between the random numbers in their math textbooks with their real-life application, they’ll pay more attention to class, and they’ll increase their chances of deep learning.

The same can happen in the case of physics, chemistry, and probably all STEM subjects.

And even more artistic subjects can be transposed to real-life usage. Take learning foreign languages for example. While the idea that learning any other language besides English is a waste of time, because everyone around the world already speaks English, is very widely spread, teachers can turn the wheel and present it in another way.

Future jobs will make people to be even more connected than ever; this means that communicating with Chinese speakers or Spanish speakers will happen more often and more easily. Obviously, speaking Mandarin or Spanish can help people get a foot in the door for a better-than-average job opportunity. Believe it or not, English is not the only language in the world, and any student learning a foreign language will definitely reap some benefits later in his/her adult life.

As for the real-life usability of learning poems, I’m afraid I have no tip to offer. We still don’t get along well. But I’m open to new ideas anytime.

So, when teachers add interesting content in their teaching method, create an interactive learning environment in the classroom, and are clear about the purpose of their instruction, students become more engaged and improve their chances of deep learning.

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