What the Best College Students Do
Stories about deep learning are the basis of the book What the Best College Students Do, by historian and educator Dr. Ken Bain. In writing this book, Dr. Bain conducted more than one hundred interviews with notable lifelong learners like Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, asking them to talk about how they used their college experience to develop and feed their curiosity about topics that interested and came to define them in many ways. The deep learning each person experienced helped them go on to lead focused and purposeful lives.
When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was in college, he was “moved by curiosity, interest and fascination, not by making the highest scores on a test.” Once you’re working in the field, he explains, “no one ever asks you what your grades were. Grades become irrelevant.” Tyson claims that for him as a student and as a professor, “Ambition and innovation trump grades every time.”
Stephen Colbert reflects on working at an improvisational theater in college during his interview with Bain. “That really opened me up in ways I hadn’t expected,” says Colbert. “You must be O.K. with bombing. You have to love it.” Colbert explains, “Improvisation is a great educator when it comes to failing. There’s no way you are going to get it right every time.”
Both Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert found what underlying conditions led them to deep learning.
Based on his research, Dr. Bain offers the following classification of learners:
- Surface learners do as little as possible to get by.
- Strategic learners aim for the highest grades rather than for true understanding.
- Deep learners gain a real, rich education in college because they pursue their passions more than grades. Deep learners are comfortable with experimenting more than with “getting it right,” and they develop a personal connection to their studies.
Which learner do you feel you are now? Which learner do you think would be most successful in college? Why? Are you drawn to learning how to learn more deeply? Why or why not?
The beautiful thing about leanring is that noone can take it away from you. – B.B. King
Learning deeply, according to Dr. Ken Bain, “doesn’t just mean the ability to remember stuff for an examination. It means the ability to create. It means the ability to analyze and synthesize, to solve problems, and to understand what that problem-solving means.” What matters most about the college experience and earning grades, he says, “is learning deeply, thinking about implications and applications, and expanding the powers of one’s mind. If students intend to learn deeply, grades will usually take care of themselves.”
But how does one learn deeply? What is the ultimate formula for learning at the deepest level? Is it raw intelligence, a great teacher, good study habits, or a perfect study space? Is deep learning the result of timely and effective learning strategies, critical thinking, a success mindset, or persistent determination?
The formula is probably a combination of all these things and more, unique to each individual. In order to discover the processes that work for you, it’s important to examine key strategies you can use not only to get good grades but also to truly enjoy your learning experiences in college and to reap the greatest rewards from them in the future. Deep learning is a key to succeeding in college and in life.
Think about something that you learned deeply. What environment led you to take a deep approach to learning? What were the conditions? Take a moment to write down the factors and situations that lead to deeply learning something.
Deep Learning vs. Cramming
How can you tell if you are actually engaged in deep learning?
To illustrate the process of deep learning, let’s use an example of what deep learning is not: “cramming” for a test―studying right before an exam without much preparation beforehand. Can you remember a time when you stayed up late to cram for a test the next day? How did it turn out for you? Did you pass the test? Did you learn much while you were cramming? How much do you remember now of the material you studied then?
The problem with cramming is that it doesn’t give the brain ample time to process information or to make the kinds of critical connections necessary for the brain to retrieve the information later on. When you cram, you simply forget what you have learned much faster than when you study diligently and steadily over an extended period of time.
Why would this matter? Why not just cram, take a test, do reasonably well, and move on to the next challenge?
One of the main reasons not to embrace this approach is that without learning deeply, you lose the opportunity to apply what you learn to other pursuits in college and in life. For example, if you have classes later in college that build on earlier courses, will you be able to retain and apply what you should have learned from the classes in which you crammed? Will you need to learn the material on a deeper level this time?
Another cost of cramming is that you forgo the pleasure and satisfaction of acquiring knowledge at a deep level. Once you truly learn something, it is yours long-term. Imagine trying to unlearn your ABCs or how to tie your shoes. The knowledge we gain is ours for a lifetime, so why not learn as much as we can?
In sum, learning deeply goes beyond just test scores. It connects to skills you will need the rest of your life, such as critical thinking, critical analysis, applying principles to solve problems, assessing your effectiveness, revising, and applying what you know.
If you are looking ahead to do well on a test or some other kind of assessment, avoid cramming. Start studying now and keep studying as you go along. Use your time-management skills and tools to make the time for it. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time because every time you retrieve information or knowledge, you’re learning it more deeply. Also, by spreading out your studying and not cramming, you can avoid mental exhaustion and have time available to take study breaks that will help you relax mentally and physically.
Describe A Deep-Learning Experience
If Dr. Bain were to interview you, what would you tell him about an experience you had in which you learned deeply? What factors account for how you absorbed knowledge during that experience and how you used the knowledge for something that mattered a lot to you? Conversely, which factors were missing when you had the experience of not learning deeply?
Review the list below of attributes of experiences that could lead to deep learning:
- Be actively involved with your learning.
- Engage in real and meaningful learning activities.
- Understand how the learning fits into a bigger picture beyond the structure of a course or class.
- Engage in reflective writing that personalizes your learning.
- Believe you are in a supportive environment without fear of making mistakes or taking risks.
- A sense of freedom from the judgment of others.
- Synthesize concepts.
- Relate the information to your life and experience.
- Integrate new ideas and knowledge with existing knowledge.
- Engage in discussion with peers or others.
- Take a deep interest in the subject.
- Reflect on your learning.
Which of the above remind you of an experience you had in which you learned deeply?
Write a reflection of a deep-learning experience you remember. When and where did it take place? How old were you? Were you with peers? Was it a classroom experience or did it take place somewhere else, perhaps not a formal learning environment? What were your feelings at the time? What did you learn? Were you able to apply your newly gained knowledge to a real-world situation?
Techniques for Learning and Retaining Knowledge
Sometimes the best way to learn a new idea is to first “unlearn” an old idea that’s hindering the new one. This is certainly the case with principles of learning. There are many misconceptions about how people best acquire and retain knowledge. Below, we identify and deconstruct some of these misconceptions and replace them with ideas you can use to help you learn deeply.
Myth 1: Talent Is Everything
As discussed in the mindset section at the beginning of this text, if you believe that your learning abilities are fixed, you’ll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you usually get straight A’s, you may avoid taking intellectual risks that take you out of your comfort zone or jeopardize your perfect record. Similarly, if you believe you are not good at something, like math, you may avoid really trying or lower your expectations.
On the other hand, students who have a “growth mindset” toward learning and believe they can really improve over time and with effort are the ones who tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process. “Research suggests that students who view intelligence as innate focus on their ability and its adequacy/inadequacy, whereas students who view intelligence as malleable use strategy and effort as they work toward mastery.”
Bust the Myth
- Know that your beliefs affect your behaviors. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Stephen Chew calls these “beliefs that make you stupid.” Watch his video, below, for suggestions on how to overcome these beliefs.
- Apply what you learn in practice. Practice builds accuracy and fluency. This fluency also builds the confidence and flexibility to apply what you’ve learned in different situations. Professor of mathematics, Michael Starbird, describes how practice leads to deeper understanding in the following video:
- Feed your curiosity. Ask questions, perform experiments, talk to experts, work with others, make mistakes, and explore your questions from many different angles. This inquiry practice helps develop a mindset of growth and will take you farther in your development.
Myth 2: I Only Need One Good Method for Studying
If your tried-and-true study strategies aren’t working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, think about how it will go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you’re accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of reality, or overshoot it, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called “metacognition,” and it’s an important part of deep learning.
Bust the Myth
- Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: What did I do? Was it effective? What can I change? Practice self-testing, described in the following video:
- Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions, and varied approaches to practice.
- Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at the following video by Dr. Stephen Chew:
Myth 3: If It’s Easy, I Must Be Learning
When faced with familiar terms or examples, you might find yourself feeling like you really understand the material when in fact your brain might really just be responding to the fact that it has seen this exact material before. To address the familiarity trap—when it feels like you’ve mastered the material, even though you haven’t–try to mix things up as you’re studying.
More and more evidence suggests that confusion is where deep learning lies. It might even be that some level of confusion actually activates the parts of your brain that regulate learning and motivation, helping you achieve a greater level of understanding. If you’re not confused, you might not be learning. Try not to let yourself get discouraged if it feels like you aren’t understanding something because that feeling can be a good sign.
Bust the Myth
- Retrieve—don’t regurgitate. Develop your own test questions, ask yourself questions, solve sample problems, and analyze for deeper meanings. Need some good questions to ask yourself? Try this: Why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example? Retrieving what you’ve learned from your memory helps you strengthen connections and relearn each time you do it; that is, every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it and creating different pathways for retrieval. The more paths you create to knowledge, the more likely it is that you’ll find a way there when you need it.
- If you’re confused, don’t give up. Working hard to understand a problem or to figure something out isn’t a bad thing, and it will likely lead to a deeper understanding of the material, which will stay with you for a long time. This work is especially important if your other courses build on the concept you are grappling with. If you need help developing new strategies, the following video might do the trick.
Myth 4: Planning My Learning Is a Waste of Time
Being a self-directed learner requires planning. Answering the following five questions can help to build a disciplined approach to help you tackle your academic work:
- What am I being asked to do?
- What do I already need to know that will help me, and what do I need to know?
- What’s my plan, and what steps are involved?
- What progress am I making?
- What would I change/do differently next time?
Planning can also help you develop a workable schedule for studying. Research shows, that studying in large blocks of time can actually be ineffective. It may cause you to become fatigued and overloaded. Spacing your studying into chunks is much more effective. Plan to space out your studying throughout the semester and take breaks. Build in rewards for yourself along the way. 
Planning reduces stress, helps avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!
Bust the Myth
- Target your studying: Try to study key themes, and take what you know about the exam structure into account when you’re planning. If you know you’ll have an essay, write outlines. If you have to solve problems, go over homework or make up your own problems.
- Review or practice throughout the term. Without regular review, you may have to relearn a large portion of the course right before the final.
Myth 5: Failure should be avoided at all costs
“Every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts.” This reminder from Prof. Michael Starbird (University of Texas at Austin) offers a good reason not to fear failure. Failure doesn’t often feel good, but it may be your best teacher in helping you learn deeply. In fact, in the book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, authors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird say that failure is an important foundation on which to build success.
Failure is an important aspect of much creative work, though it goes by a different name: iteration. Iteration is important in refining, working though problems, starting small, and refining until more can be added. Iteration is a feature of work in design, science, technology, and any field where innovation is important.
Bust the Myth
- Use failure as an opportunity to rethink and relearn. Ask yourself why you got it wrong and what happened. What is an alternative approach? How might a new approach be more successful? Watch Prof. Michael Starbird’s video about making mistakes as a strategy for learning:
- Give yourself permission to fail. When working through problems or studying unfamiliar concepts, consider allowing yourself to fail nine times before getting it right. This may free your mind to think creatively about solutions without the pressure to “get the right answer.” You may find that repeated failures may actually lead you to new insights about the problem that you can take into other contexts.
Many students believe they have one main way of learning that’s best for them and other approaches don’t work, but, despite multiple experiments, researchers have not been able to prove this hypothesis about learning styles. In fact, what the research shows is that while each of us may certainly prefer one or two ways to have information presented to us, the more modes we apply in and out of the classroom, the deeper our learning is going to be and the longer we will retain what we learned. That’s why more and more professors are using multimodal materials and teaching practices and many students are employing multimodal learning and studying techniques.
A mode is simply a channel of information or anything that communicates meaning in some way. Some examples include:
- Illustrations and photographs
- Audio and speech
- Writing and print
- Music and movement
- Body language and facial expressions
- Infographics and posters
- Videos and slideshows
- Hyper-documents and visual worksheets
- Interactive face-to-face, remote, and online classes
- And much more!
To deepen your learning while in class, participate in all activities including games, group projects, guided journals, presentations, reflection exercises, and small and large group discussions. Good multimodal learning is interactive and requires student involvement. To deepen your learning while you are studying, try to creatively employ as many modes as possible by reading, writing, drawing, singing, watching or creating videos, playing educational games, repeating key points aloud, making a model, or creating your own multimodal study strategies.
According to the Academic Success Center at the University of Arkansas, “Combining learning modes can result in a more balanced approach to studying and learning which leads to greater understanding, [deeper] comprehension, and [longer] retention.”
Additional Study Techniques
The following are additional study techniques you can use to work your brain, raise your grades, perform well on assignments, and, most importantly, learn deeply.
- Consider real-world applications. Use what you are learning when tackling real world events or problems, or consider real-world applications of what you’re learning. Reflecting on how the skills and knowledge you are building can be used beyond college creates more pathways in your brain and can help keep you motivated.
- Monitor your learning. Self-monitoring your learning includes evaluating, planning, and reflecting on your learning strategies and approaches. Reflecting on what you’ve done helps you see the value of certain strategies, leverage your strengths, improve on your weaknesses, and increase your sense of control over outcomes.
- Seek specific and meaningful feedback. Ask for and use feedback from instructors, tutors, and peers to adjust your learning and studying techniques and to avoid working very hard without results.
- Chunk the information you’re studying. Break the concept you’re struggling with into smaller pieces, and sort those pieces by theme. By focusing on chunks, they’ll be much easier to digest. Test yourself 5–15 minutes later. Mind maps and visual note-taking can also help with chunking.
- Set priorities. Set realistic goals and prioritize your studying by surveying your syllabus, reviewing material, and identifying the most important topics covered in the class or areas you’re struggling with.
- Create association maps. Mind maps and concept maps can lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to reorganize and make sense of the information. Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
- Make connections. Make connections between course concepts, different courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life.
- Ask questions to reduce bias. Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Asking good questions helps us solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and think creatively.
Becoming a Deep Learner
Write a reflection about the following questions:
- How could you move from being a surface or strategic learner to being a deep learner this semester?
- What strategies will you use?
- Think specifically about the course or courses to which you can apply what you have learned in this chapter section. What will you do differently?
- Has how you defined success in your courses changed as a result of what you have read?
- What myth stood out to you?
- How will you avoid myths about learning in college?
- "Fostering Deep Learning—A Report from the CFT's 25th Anniversary." Center for Teaching. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. ↵
- "Secrets of the Most Successful College Students." Time. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. ↵
- "Ken Bain: What the Best Students Do." Spin Education. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. ↵
- Dweck, Carol (2009) Mindestonline.com Retrieved: May, 10, 2014. ↵
- Ambrose, S.A, Lovett, M.C. (2014) Prior Knowledge is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php. ↵
- Clark, C.M., Bjork, R.A. (2014) When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, in Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php. ↵