Learning Deeply

Learning Objectives

  • Identify differences between passing a test and gaining knowledge (cramming versus learning)

What is the ultimate formula for learning at the deepest level? Is it raw intelligence, a great teacher, good studying habits, or a perfect study space? Is it critical thinking, creative thinking, a mindset of success or dogged determination?

The formula is probably a combination of all these things and more. Each student, though, will have unique stories to tell about how deep learning has occurred for them. In fact, stories about deep learning are the basis of What the Best College Students Do, a book 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. Dr. Bain asked each interviewee to talk about how they used their college experience to develop and feed their curiosity about topics that interested them—topics that came to define them in many ways. The deep learning each person experienced helped them go on to lead focused and purposeful lives.[1][2][3]

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?

Learning deeply, says Dr. 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.”

In this section on deep learning, we 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.

Deep Learning vs. Cramming

How can you tell if you are actually engaged in deep learning? Dr. Bain offers the following classification of learners:

  • Surface learners: They do as little as possible to get by.
  • Strategic learners: They aim for the highest grades rather than for true understanding.
  • Deep learners: They gain a real, rich education in college because they pursue their passions more than grades. They are also 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? Are you drawn to learn more deeply?

Five students studying in a classroomTo 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 retain and be able to 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.

In sum, learning deeply goes beyond just test scores. It connects to skills you will need the rest of your life, like critical thinking, critical analysis, applying principles to solve problems, assessing your effectiveness, revising, and applying what you know.

So, 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, you can avoid mental exhaustion and having to cram before exams. Take study breaks to relax both mentally and physically.


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  1. "Fostering Deep Learning—A Report from the CFT's 25th Anniversary." Center for Teaching. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Secrets of the Most Successful College Students." Time. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  3. "Ken Bain: What the Best Students Do." Spin Education. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.