Deep and Surface Learning: How can we get them to engage with the material?

Nurturing Small Groups

I teach small classes of 8-10 students. I love being able to give them individual attention. If I ever have 30 students sign up for my class, I will definitely have to change the assignments so they are not so intensive to grade. But for now, I am happy to be able to lavish attention on my students.

I require my students to answer questions about the readings. Before each question, I indicate which pages in the book they should look to for the answer. They submit their answers on Saturday morning. I read their answers, and from what they have written, I try to determine what they have and have not learned from the readings. If everyone gets a particular question correct, I assume they understand the concept that I was trying to teach them by asking that particular question.

Discussion Boards

Initially, I had them post all of their answers to a discussion board so that they could share their answers with each other. I would then make comments on their answers and ask follow up questions if I felt that they missed key points. They hated it. It made them feel like they had gotten the answer wrong. It made them feel defensive, and they hated being critiqued in front of their peers. So I stopped critiquing them publicly. They still posted their answers publicly, but I would read their answers and send them private responses.

Then another problem cropped up. The people who posted their answers first influenced the ones who posted after. So if one person posted an incorrect answer or an answer that interpreted the question in a particular way, the subsequent answers from the other students almost always interpreted the question in the same way and gave some variation of the same answer albeit in different words. Also, their answers were so very long and at times repetitious, that it took me forever to read them. So I asked the students to write more concise answers.

The result was that some answers were so brief and general as to be meaningless. I began singling out the best answers that students gave, and when a student got an answer wrong, I would privately suggest that he or she examine their classmate’s “model” answer on the discussion board. This way, the students knew which answers to look at to find out what a strong answer to the question looked like. I hoped that this would encourage the students to learn from each other, to foster a shared group experience of learning together.

Pop Quiz on the Concepts

In class, we would review any questions that the students did not seem to understand. Students answered the questions orally and gave great answers in class. However, when I gave them a pop quiz based on the most recent set of questions, they did not do well.

As we near the middle of the semester, my students are required to schedule an office visit with me. This is so they can spend some time thinking about and discussing with me what they have or have not learned in the class, what else they might want to learn, and what problems or challenges they may be facing.

During these sessions, I am also learning what teaching technologies have and have not been working for each student. One of the students did really well on every set of discussion questions but bombed the quiz. The student indicated that she thought she had done poorly because she did not memorize the answers. As an example, she thought she was required to memorize the database identifiers for cases. In fact, the question on the Westlaw database identifiers was cued to a section of Legal Research Methods, by Michael D. Murray and Christy H. DeSanctis, that talked about the pattern of database identifiers for state cases and how for each different state, the identifiers were the abbreviation for the state followed by the letters CS. The question, asked for the Westlaw database identifier for California cases. She had given the correct answer.

Less than five days later, she took the quiz, and she not only could not give the database identifiers for state cases for California or any other state, but she did not even know what a database identifier was. She consistently works hard in my class and her answers are always well written. She is doing her best, so the error must be mine. My goal for her with the questions is for her to understand the text. Her goal is to get the correct answer.

Rewarding Deeper Learning

My conversation with her made me realize that I need to make more explicit the purpose of the questions, and I need to find a way to reward them for the kind of deep learning that enables someone to remember the concepts and patterns inherent in legal research. I am not sure if it is possible to do this, but I aim to try. So the next incarnation of the discussion questions will be like this:

  • Students will answer the questions and email them to me privately.
  • I will anonymize them and post them to the discussion board
  • Students will select the best answers, will discuss whether the responses are related to the text and will articulate why the question was posed.
  • In class, we will discuss the learning objectives related to the questions, and review anything related to the learning objectives that students did not seem to understand.
  • At the end of class each week, they will have a quiz on that week’s readings.

In this way, I hope to get the students to achieve a deeper level of learning and to avoid inadvertently encouraging them to read, regurgitate and forget.

Do you have any advice for how I can help my students to engage in deeper learning?


About Catherine "Deane" Deane

Catherine Deane is the full-time Reference Librarian at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library. She performs in depth research for the faculty in support of their scholarship, and assists students with their legal research. She will be teaching the Advanced Legal Research course beginning in Fall 2011. She is also responsible for developing topical legal research guides for the TJSL community. She has created eight research guides since arriving at TJSL in November 2010, and has updated several more. She is also a regular contributor to ThomChat, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library Blog. Catherine Deane spent two years working closely with Vincent Moyer, Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the University of California, Hastings School of Law, where she created and curated ten research guides on varying topics in U.S., foreign, and international law. With Mr. Moyer, she published two book reviews and a foreign law research guide on the Laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (her home country). Prior to working at UC Hastings, she spent a year and a half doing contract work at an international law firm in downtown Los Angeles and she spent a year teaching academic writing at the University of California, San Diego. She has a J.D. with a Certificate in comparative and international law, which she acquired while studying abroad in Ireland, England and Belgium. She also has an M.L.I.S., an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology, and a B.A. from Princeton University in Cultural Anthropology with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Her research interests include Native American Legal Issues, Domestic Violence, and Legal Information Literacy.
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