Cumberland Times-News

October 12, 2013

Teachers can convert those shallow learners

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— In my last column, I proposed that learners in a class might be divided into three levels.

Shallow learners are mainly concerned with their grades; how much they learn is of minor importance to them.

Shallow learners rely heavily on what is presented in class and get little from reading the text. Memorization is their main learning process. If test questions are not those covered in class, they feel these questions are unfair.

Middle learners are concerned both with what they learn and their final grade. They understand that their own efforts out of class contribute to their own learning. If they get confused, they are more apt to ask questions or to talk to the teacher out of class.

Middle learners see the value of homework and answering suggested questions (such as from a test study guide) to engage their learning.

Deep learners are rare but spotted easily by a teacher. They have their own agenda in learning, often reading ahead in text or delving into other material. They realize that what they learn is mainly through their own efforts.

They don’t really care that much about their classmates’ opinions; so they often ask questions well beyond the level of their peers. They are self-directed learners and will continue to learn well past their graduation (life-long learners).

Two famous scientists that were deep learners are Newton and Einstein. In other fields, deep learners include Mozart, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln , the great philosophers of ancient Greece, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Most students will not fall exactly in one of the above categories but along a scale (shallow at 1, middle at 5 and deep at 9). The scale will change depending on the subject.

Realistically, teachers can only hope to convert shallow learners to middle learners by the end of a four-month course. Most students come into a class with a strong feelings about the subject.

For example, students beginning an introductory course in calculus (from the Latin word for rocks) may feel that this course is going to be difficult and painful. Early on, they will look for signs that their expectations are correct. Not understanding a point made by the teacher will cause discomfort.

Often students don’t bring their texts to class or even look at the text before class, relying exclusively on what they teacher can relate. Often, after a class, you will hear student comments as “I didn’t understand a word in that class.”

This student hopes that their fellow classmates will sympathize with them. (The student’s statement is a huge exaggeration; they are focusing on a few portions of the class presentation.)

 So an instructor in his/her class should try to persuade shallow students that they can have a chance of succeeding.

How can this be done? Graded worksheets are the way for my classes. In each worksheet, my students have to write some response, that could range from a personal opinion about a situation (subjective) to a numerical answer (where a problem is presented as well as an example worked out by the instructor).

Unfortunately, there is a price that the teacher must pay — the worksheets must be graded and returned to the student. (If there is no payback, the students will file away or dispose of the returned worksheets.) The worksheets must also present some of the concepts in language that will be useful to the student in reviewing.

I also remark to the students that I will not take test items word for word from the worksheets. Understanding and applying concepts is the goal. A necessary first step is to know the basic vocabulary, laws and principles so one can understand and apply main ideas.

The graded worksheets constitute about 40 percent of the total points in my classes; it is only fair that students be rewarded for applying the course ideas in class.

Just as last week’s column, I invite any readers to comment or critique my ideas through email rdoyle@frostburg.edu.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: The evening moon will grow to full on Oct. 18. This full moon is called the Hunters’ Moon, offering extra evening moonlight through next weekend.

On Oct. 16, the long awaited comet ISON appears 2 degrees north of the bright star Regulus in the dawn sky. (The Big Dipper’s pointer stars point upward and southward towards Regulus, the bright star in the sickle of Leo.)

Also on Oct. 16, the brilliant planet Venus will appear 1.5 degrees above the pinkish star Antares in the Scorpion in the southwestern dusk.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.