Learning deeply.

I recently finished reading “What the Best College Students Do” and it fits in with what I’ve been writing about in my blog. I’ve had a few weeks since I finished it to think about it, so I thought I’d share my thoughts about how it might apply it to my own life as well as how this might impact my teaching practices and how I think about them. I am writing this from memory, so any content I talk about is what I am recalling (best way to review a book, almost certainly not).

The book is definitely not about how to get good grades. Ken Bain focuses a lot more on what he calls ‘deep learning’. It is basically learning from a vulnerable and authentic place, a theme I’ve run across again and again in my readings this last year. 

This is contrasted with those he calls ‘surface learners’, who just learn what they need to get the grade or pass the exam. In other words, getting good grades to please someone else, not themselves. Sounds very familiar.

The profiles of ‘deep learners’ in the book include a lot of very prominent people, including Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson (two of my favorite people), but also other people who are not as well know but who he considers to be deep learners. What they all have in common is a curiousity about the world and a particular perspective and passion they found to follow through with. I found myself wishing I had that kind of clarity when I was younger. Sadly, I, like many others, were fixated on doing well in school as an end. Of course, that’s not really the point of getting an education. 

The book starts off with a course taught at a college in Texas called ‘integration of abilities’ that sounds like it would have been torture for me to go through. The whole idea was to get in touch with the rhythms of your own mind, perceive the world in multiple ways, break things down and build them up again. Basically getting in touch with what matters to you, linking your interests in disparate things together. From there, you go off and learn what you need to do to succeed. 

In the book, he highlights research about having a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’ (the former is far superior I’m learning in my own life now). Bain also goes through studies of how the brain best learns, what is a good use of our time (reading, writing, e.g.) and having self-compassion (basically accepting things that happen, not ripping yourself apart, and moving on). 

In sum, I would say the best college students take a Bayesian approach. They incorporate new data, new knowledge into their current model of the world. All these people also seem to take chances and be very self-assured. They also try, fail, try again and learn from their errors. They embrace failure as a way to learn. Almost the opposite of perfectionists.

As for how this will affect how I teach, or create the learning environment for students, I think it is a challenge to create a deep learning environment. But there are some things I will incorporate such as giving students chances for ungraded trial and error before a graded task is assigned. Also, having students keep a journal of their class appears beneficial as well. However, I think there are limits to what individual teachers can do; there do need to be cultural and institutional shifts that focus less on tests and more on truly measuring learning (the two aren’t necessarily the same thing). 

In my personal life, this is the message I’ve been trying to incorporate into my mind for the last year. Be vulnerable. Embrace failure. Try and try again. Do new things as much as possible. Ask whether you learned something new each day. Take chances. Bomb and realize that it’s not that bad; it is survivable. I still feel like I’m trying to find what I truly care deeply about, or at least need to get out from under the large amount of shame I carry around with me most days which really does drive my disconnection from the world (I’m reading up on this more- reading Brene Brown’s book ‘Daring Greatly’). I really want to come in from the cold and am slowly wending my way back into connecting and possibly learning deeply.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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