20 February 2008

Implications of deep learning on foundation students

By Dr Yong Fung Lan

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)¬†

Effective learning approaches play a significant role in a student’s academic performance. Therefore foundation students need to modify their learning approaches to cope with a new learning environment that greatly differs from secondary school.

Students usually adopt surface, deep, or achieving approaches to learning, depending on instruction and assessment requirements.

Surface learners merely reproduce parts of the content so they accept information passively. They concentrate on what is required for assessment, without reflecting on purpose or applicability.

They memorize facts and procedures, distinguishing neither principles nor patterns. However, this superficial approach can be used for gaining greater insight into the topics.

Overall, surface learners orient their learning toward reproduction as they try to cram factual information without much processing and integration. They hardly incorporate fresh information into a wider body of knowledge.

Demonstrating an extrinsic desire to learn, they regurgitate information merely to pass examinations.

Deep learners, in contrast, try to understand material for their own benefit, interacting with the content critically and relating newideas with previous knowledge.

They apply principles to integrate ideas, relate evidence to conclusions, and examine the logic of arguments. They adopt the surface approach to internalize fundamental information for further understanding.

More interested in the meaningfulness and utility of new information, they exhibit an intrinsic desire to integrate it into their lives.

Achieving learners are only interested in fulfilling course requirements, adopting both surface and deep approaches to achieve optimal learning. Achievement oriented, they do whatever is necessary to obtain good grades.

They only engage in deep learning when asked to synthesize or evaluate information but will learn superficially if they are tested on facts and comprehension.

Most schools in Malaysia place heavy emphasis on formal evaluation, requiring students to take tests and government examinations; this encourages superficial learning.

Subject mastery at the foundation level requires students to engage in deep learning; they have to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information most of the time.

Surface learning is no longer effective as foundation lecturers rarely give knowledge and comprehension questions.

While secondary school students are often tested for factual knowledge, comprehension, and basic application skills, foundation students have to analyze complex problems, produce new knowledge, and evaluate situations and outcomes.

Since most secondary school graduates are surface learners, they may encounter academic difficulties when they first become foundation students.

Foundation students have to actively engage in the subject matter, identify and define problems, and brainstorm solutions in every course they take. They have to be didactic to successfully complete their term papers, projects and theses which require deep learning.

To cope with the new and rigorous demands of their areas of specialization, foundation students should be proficient in deep learning before enrolling in more advanced courses.

Foundation students with little exposure on independent study would find it hard to study for meaning. They have to link new ideas to previous knowledge and experience, synthesize to produce new knowledge, and integrate subject matter into the overall goal of every course. They have to analyze the purpose behind every task and critically interact with new information.

The writer conducted a study on the learning approaches of 90 randomly selected Malaysian students at Form Four, Form Five, Form Six, and Diploma levels using Revised Study Process Questionnaire.

Results imply that Malaysian students not only prefer tests and examinations to assignments, but also accept their teachers’ or lecturers’ ideas with little questioning.

They use mostly textbooks and teacher notes, rarely engaging in problem-solving or voicing their opinions. As extrinsically motivated surface achievers, most of them want good grades for the sake of getting a job.

Further, many students in the study rarely summarize suggested readings and thoroughly check their notes, indicating that they seldom engage in deep learning; in brief, most of them are rote learners.

In addition, they are not interested in gaining extra knowledge or examining current topics for knowledge’s sake. As predicted, they r egurgitate and concentrate only on examination topics.

Students in the study prefer notes from their teachers/lecturers and accept their ideas and directions without evaluating them, again \ implying that they are surface learners.

Dependent on authority figures, they show preference for a structured and closely supervised learning environment.
With the growth of transnational education in Malaysia, for example branch campuses, local students should modify their learning approaches to be at par with their counterparts overseas.

Exposed to a didactic and authority-centered educational system, they often lack initiative and autonomy.
To ensure that foundation students at local campuses get the same type of education as their counterparts overseas, lecturers should emphasize independence of thought and creative problem-solving which promote proactive and intrinsic learning.

To achieve in a knowledge-based society, foundation students need to adopt more innovative, realistic, and interactive learning approaches. To become creative independent problem-solvers in the global workplace, they should develop explorative, multi-sensory approaches that involve analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The use of multimedia technologies requires foundation students to demonstrate greater self-direction and creativity. Technologically mediated learning and multimedia delivery emphasize student-centered learning rather than traditional face-to-face delivery; lecturers are no longer knowledge transmitters but facilitators.

Foundation students can no longer expect lecturers to equip them with facts solely to pass examinations. This spoon-feeding attitude should be replaced with deep learning so that they can deal with controversial or contradictory information.

While colleges or universities may adapt to students’ learning approaches, they should also encourage flexible learning and problem-based learning. Flexible learning allows more flexibility on how, where, and when students 1earn, but it requires a more active, responsible learning approach.

To become more participative and motivated knowledge-seekers, foundation students should engage in deep learning by incorporating their visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic modalities.

Problem-based learning, which emphasizes critical thinking, creative problem solving, and lifelong learning, is essential to prepare them for entrepreneurship.

Ability to use deep learning can enhance foundation students’ use of new technologies and acquisition of global knowledge. However, it requires the elimination of entrenched expectations bred by obsolete practices.

While global education is effective in fostering creativity, communication skills, and higher order thinking skills, it also requires foundation students to adopt deep learning.

While instilling foundation students with a global entrepreneurial spirit, lecturers need to understand how local dynamics affect their learning.

Although cultural differences do exist between local and offshore campuses, deep learning is transcendental; it enables foundation students to get similar exposure and training undeterred by physical boundaries.

Finally, global knowledge and deep learning can be inculcated by incorporating Bloom’s Taxonomy and multimedia technologies in the curriculum. While Bloom’s Taxonomy can be used to develop higher-order thinking skills, multimedia technologies are effective in developing open-ended, thematic, and constructivist activities that promote deep learning.

Overall, Bloom’s Taxonomy and multimedia foster critical aspects of deep learning among foundation students, improving self-esteem, self-direction, critical thinking, practical problem-solving, and decision-making.

Dr Yong Fung Lan is a lecturer with the School of Language and Foundation. She can be contacted atfyong@swinburne.edu.my .