Cumberland Times-News

October 5, 2013

Students often display different learning levels

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Might there be a better way of understanding students’ difficulties in learning? Some ideas that have been widely explored include learning styles, multiple intelligences and bloom’s taxonomy.

In my opinion, these outlooks have not been successful in devising widespread strategies to make our students better learners. Now there is much talk about large scale use of external internet courses to revolutionize college learning (and to put most colleges out of business).

Many advocates of these proposals have not recently taught classes at the collegiate or secondary levels. Most of these proponents have an idealized notion of students, as they are today. They go through these courses and delight in the exercises; they assume that today’s students will have the same experience.

   Here is my take on learning, perhaps a simpler approach but one that today’s teachers might find interesting.

There are three levels of learners: shallow, middle and deep. Of course, these levels are part of a continuum where many students might fall between these categories. I also think that the levels will change for individual students depending on the subject matter.

Shallow learners rely heavily on memorization and tend to be very literal. It is much easier for them to memorize principles, laws and mathematical relations than actually understand them and be able to provide examples from their own experience.

For shallow learners to answer questions in their own words is a real challenge. They would rather look in the text or in their notes. By quoting this material word for word in their answers, they conceal their lack of understanding and feel safe.

Shallow learners look for reasons to skip classes. Their kind of learning is superficial and disappears a few weeks after the course is over. When the shallow learners begin a course that is built on the foundation of an earlier course, they don’t recall the key ideas that they had struggled with in the previous course.

   Middle learners benefit from work outside of class, such as homework and projects. They can see the connection between different treatments of the same material (such as the textbook, notes and class discussion).

Middle learners’ understanding is based on what the instructor does in class, their own reading and reflection afterwards. After going through examples in class or in the textbook, they can apply the key principles of a course.

Middle learners can appreciate the difference between teaching that encourages interaction and teaching that focuses on memorization. Middle learners enjoy experiences outside of class, such as conversing with the instructor and taking field trips.    

Deep learners are rare in most classes. They see the benefit of classes but prefer to learn beyond what is expected by reading and working through other materials. Deep learners know that what they get out of a course depends more on their own efforts, rather than what the instructor can deliver.

To a deep learner, it’s not the grade but what they can achieve on their own. Deep learners are not that concerned about what other students think of them. They often ask unusual questions in class that the instructor finds difficult to answer during class (without losing the attention of most students).

   My next column will follow up on these levels of learning and what could be done to move the shallow learners towards middle learning. I invite any readers, teachers or students to comment or critique my ideas through email rdoyle@frostburg.edu.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: On Sept. 25, the moon swung from the morning to the evening side of the sun. (Each day, the moon moves about 13 degrees eastward among the stars while the sun creeps about 1 degree eastward.)

Tomorrow the crescent moon and brilliant Venus (to left of the moon) will be easily seen in the 7:30 p. m. dusk low in the west.

On Oct. 11, the moon will appear half full (like a tilted letter D) in the southwestern evening sky. Binoculars held steadily will reveal some of the moon’s larger craters along the moon’s straight edge (where the sun there is rising).

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.