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Effective strategies for deeper learning and approaches to organising learning

5 min read
Olatomilade Folaranmi, Lead Instructional Coach and Research Champion, Trinity Academy Leeds, UK

What is deeper learning?

In a psychologically safe environment underpinned by the culture of high challenge and low threat, guiding the students in our care towards expertise becomes the priority and a non-negotiable. John Sweller, in the abstract of his 1988 paper titled ‘Cognitive load during problem solving’, writes, ‘Considerable evidence indicates that domain-specific knowledge in the form of schemas is the primary factor distinguishing experts from novices.’ (Sweller, 1988, p. 257) 

Deeper learning – sometimes referred to as deep learning – leads to robust and flexible schemas that foster expertise, enabling the detection and understanding of the complex elements to learning. Professor Mehta of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education defined deeper learning as ‘the understanding of not just the surface features of a subject or discipline, but the underlying structures or ideas’ (quoted in Mineo, 2019). A common theme between several definitions of deep learning is the idea of the ability to engage with multi-layered problems and go beyond simple recall, just as experts do in the real world (Glass, 2022; Briggs, 2015). A student with deep knowledge has a comprehensive understanding of a subject. They know the different parts of the subject and how they are interconnected. They can also see the big picture and understand how the different parts fit together. This deep understanding allows the student to apply their knowledge in many different contexts, to communicate about it and to think critically about the subject (Willingham, 2010). 

Why is deeper learning important?

Deeper learning should result in students remembering more for longer and being better prepared for the real world. The rise of technology and globalisation has made it possible to automate many tasks that were once carried out by humans. This has led to a decline in demand for workers with routine, repetitive skills. However, there is a growing demand for workers with deeper learning competencies, such as complex thinking and communication skills. These skills are essential for jobs that require creativity, problem-solving and collaboration (Murnane and Levy, 1996). Simple retreival of knowledge without the ability to see and adapt to different contexts is not desirable in the job market. 

How can we take our students from novices to experts? 

Securing fundamental skills and knowledge is the first step in developing the expertise of our students, just as laying the first brick is the foundation for a strong building. ‘To think critically, students need the knowledge that is central to the domain.’ (Rotherham and Willingham, 2010, p. 18) The teaching profession is not short of principles and frameworks that lean on evidence from research on how to sequence learning (Rosenshine, 2012; Coe et al., 2019), and these include the Early Career Framework (ECF; DfE, 2019). Standard 2 of the ECF, ‘How pupils learn’, is a rich source of information that can be leveraged by teachers to improve the likelihood of embedding knowledge. Leaders of teacher development can draw on the criteria stipulated by the ECF to develop and support teachers, whether they are early career teachers or not.

Checking for prior knowledge

Learning is a complex process and can look different depending on the subject, environment, age and many other factors. However, all forms of learning involve a lasting change in the way in which a person thinks, feels or behaves (Kirschner et al., 2006). This change can be small or large, but it is always significant. With this definition in mind, checking for prior knowledge and addressing any misconceptions and gaps in the learning or barriers that may hinder the acquisition of new knowledge are important first steps. Securing prior knowledge is an important factor in learning (Ausabel, 1968). Students will only learn when they have an idea of the content about which they are going to be taught. Strategies to check the quality of prior learning can include free recall, brain dumps or retrieval quizzing in its many forms (multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions, etc.) among others. If students lack the required prior knowledge, it is essential to provide them with additional instruction before progressing further. This supplementary teaching should not be impromptu but rather carefully planned and sequenced. Following reteaching, it is then important to assess students’ understanding before moving on (Boxer, 2021).

Teacher input of new knowledge

Like everything else in our profession, there is no one way in which to teach. That said, there are research-informed principles (best bets) to be considered when designing and delivering effective instructions. Effective instructions are research-influenced and adapted to the context of the teacher. The Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019) mentions some techniques to ensure that instructions are impactful: 

  1. Identify possible misconceptions and plan how to prevent these from forming.
  2. Anchor new knowledge to what students already know.
  3. Lessons should build from foundational knowledge to more complex content.


How to deepen knowledge

Unfortunately, the acquisition of knowledge does not always directly translate into deep understanding and the ability to transfer knowledge. It is not uncommon for students to have lots of knowledge but be unable to link it fluently like experts do. One reason for this is that students may lack the background knowledge necessary to deconstruct questions into what they are really testing: the deep structure. In practice, teachers can prevent this by pre-planning questions that assess prerequisite knowledge and addressing any gaps or misconceptions that they might reveal. Another reason is that students sometimes simply struggle to map the surface structure of the problem in front of them with what they have been taught in lessons (Willingham, 2010).

To improve the chances of knowledge transfer and the ability to detect the deep structure of problems, teachers need to increase opportunities for practice (Bauernschmidt, 2017) and experience with lots of examples (Willingham, 2010). These practices must be carefully sequenced, appropriately scaffolded and guided, and complexities should be introduced one at a time. It is also important that teachers are always asking questions that test the deep understanding of important concepts. This is especially effective when such questions are pre-planned.

A science teacher trying to deepen the students’ understanding of the roles of cell parts in specialised cells, for instance, might provide opportunities for students to compare muscle cells, sperm cells and fat cells. This will enable them to relate the energy demand of the cells to the number of mitochondria (the cell part responsible for aerobic respiration) that these cells have.

Overall, there is no silver bullet to guarantee the transfer of knowledge in our students, but we can all ensure that our classrooms are conducive to learning and that our students get lots of practice opportunities following effective teaching. I believe that teaching for deep learning is a worthwhile endeavour, as it fosters long-term knowledge retention and better prepares students for the challenges that they will face in the real world.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas