Learning, Part 3: Deep vs. Surface Learning (2 of 3)

This post is part of a (roughly) monthly series of posts on my favorite topic of all: learning.

Last time I brought up deep vs. surface learning, and why you should take a deep approach to learning, especially when it comes to English.  This time I want to talk about how to become a deep learner.

So how do we become deep learners?

Develop intrinsic motivation

There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation is being motivated by an internal desire.  It means that you feel motivated to do something because you want to do it.
  • Extrinsic motivation is being motivated by an external reward, like money or respect or appeasing someone else.

What this means is that if you have intrinsic motivation, you don’t need any extrinsic rewards to want to do something.  Even if you never made any money, never got any approval or never became famous, you would still do what you do.

Extrinsic motivation is helpful, but if that’s all you have, it’s also fragile.  If the only reason you’re learning something is to make money, what are you going to do if you find out you can’t make money from it any more?  If you are only doing something to make someone else happy, what happens if that person doesn’t care?

When we are driven by intrinsic motivation, there is no rush, no desperate need to cross a finish line, because the whole process is enjoyable to us.  When we are driven by extrinsic motivation, we hurry to get to the finish line because that’s where the reward is.  The process itself is an obstacle to the reward.  With intrinsic motivation, the process is the reward.

Can you see now how being self-motivated can lead to deeper learning?  Can you see how being pressured can lead to shallower levels of learning?

Reflect on your Learning

Surface learners spend little to no time reflecting.  To them, the lesson or class itself is where all of the learning takes place.  Before and after, there is nothing else to do.  They treat learning almost like they are taking a car to a gas station: I’m on empty, so I need to go to the gas station briefly to get filled up, then I don’t need to come back until I’m empty again.

But learning is an ongoing process.  Your brain is a muscle, and it needs consistent workouts to function at its best, inside and outside of the classroom.

Also, the process is never-ending.  What this means is you should be thinking about what you’re learning both inside and outside of the classroom.

The truth is, if you wanted to, you could take a single aspect of English and go on asking questions about it forever.

Student: Teacher, what does “overwhelm” mean? (1)

Teacher: It means several things.  It means beat badly, or affect someone deeply and emotionally, or give too much of something…

Student: Is it a verb? (2)

Teacher: Yes, it is.

Student: Can it be used any other way? (3)

Teacher: Sure.  There’s an adjective form – overwhelming or overwhelmed.

Student: Can you say “underwhelm” or just “whelm”? (4)

Teacher: Well, you can say “underwhelm”, although we usually don’t, but you can’t say just “whelm”.

Student: How do you use it?  Can you give me an example sentence? (5)

Teacher: Let’s see… for example, “The Hanshin Tigers overwhelmed their opponents, winning the game 10-0.”

Student: I see.  Why can’t you say “whelm”?  “Over” and “under” are prefixes, right? (6, 7)

Teacher: Yes, that’s true.  Actually, “whelm” is an archaic word, so that’s why we don’t say it.

Student: What is an “archaic” word? (8)

Teacher: It’s a word that we used to use, but we don’t any more.

Student: I see.  Why don’t you use it any more? (9)

As you can see, you can take just one word and come up with a ton of questions about it, if you start considering how and why.  You could go on forever asking questions!  LOL

You can do this both during a lesson or at home (be sure to write your questions down so you don’t forget!).  If you have or find a good teacher, he or she will love these kinds of questions (hint: that’s one way to tell if you found a good teacher, ask him or her lots of questions!  LOL).

Deep learners think about what they learn.  They take it with them and, when they have time, play with it in their mind.  They are curious, and they wonder.  So how do you reflect?

Next time I’m going to give you a simple tool to help you develop your reflection skills, and also probably the most important piece of advice to remember as a learner.  Hope to see you then!


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