Moving from Surface to Strategic Learning

26 Feb

Most instructors are probably familiar with the distinction between deep learning and surface learning, and many of us have probably grumbled at least on occasion that students care more about the studying for the test than about digging into concepts and ideas across the content. 

What to do?  Greg Light, co-author with Marina Micar, of Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, introduces a third category – strategic learning.  It seems to me a way to start thinking about learning that hits the sweet spot between what motivates students (test) and what motivates faculty (content).

As instructors, we want students to think deeply about our subject, to ask innovative questions and to compare what they are learning to what else they know or think they know – to learn, to unlearn, to relearn. We want them dig into the content in order to become motivated by interest and love of our field.

I think students understand this, but they are also awash in time constraints, mixed messages about learning and testing, transcripts concerns and career tracking.  Fear of failure can loom large. In short, they need to learn to be strategic – to so strategic learning.

As do we.  To encourage students to take the dive to deep learning we can design assignments and activities that ask them to experiment with ideas and postulate connections between concepts.  And then grade them on these efforts.    

We can also prioritize content, distinguishing, as Light says, between what students need to be know and what they need to be acquainted with.  We can structure choices for them in what to study and in explicitly designing activities to support how they need to engage in learning – for our course, for our discipline, for learning in life.

Students in our classes look to us to determine what’s important. If we want depth from them, we need to convey that by showing them how to think like a botanist (or poet or mathematician).  And by rewarding them for taking the plunge with assessments that reflect what we’ve said is important learning, important to learn!

For more on surface, strategic and deep learning, see Jackie Lublin’s “Deep, Surface and Strategic Approaches to Learning” teachers’ guide

 For more about Making Scientists, see the publisher’s page, which includes links to an interview with the authors and to select resources related to their teaching project:


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