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My students, even the ones who do well on the exams, don't seem to understand central course concepts. What can I do in my classes to correct this problem?
Bruce Strang, Department of History

The underlying issue is that of deep and surface learning. With large class sizes and emphasis in students' first years on lectures and testing for knowledge-based outcomes on exams, we tend to convince students that good note taking and cramming for exams is the best route to earning high marks. In effect, our teaching and examination techniques reward students for adopting marginal learning strategies.

There are solutions both in the setting of examinations and in classroom tactics. In the course outline and repeatedly throughout the year, I insist to students that their understanding of certain course concepts is the most important learning goal for the class.

I clearly define which concepts I mean. I explain the concepts in detail in class and try to ensure that students can discuss these points rather than simply taking notes. Of course, when setting assignments, tests or examinations, I need to pose questions to evaluate whether or not students have mastered these concepts rather than merely memorizing them. Most students prefer to learn in this deeper manner, and if I can persuade them to abandon their surface learning strategies, then most students will do so. Since other teachers have the same goal, but sometimes fail to follow through in the design of their tests, it may require considerable repetition and effort to show that you really intend to work in this manner.

Another approach to encourage deeper learning is to get students actively learning during the lecture. Most students can't concentrate for more than ten to fifteen minutes when listening, so I use small groups to refocus their attention. After each roughly fifteen minute block of lecture time, I break the class into groups of five or six. I pose a question or questions for them to answer or a topic to discuss. Doing so helps us both to ensure that students pay attention when listening and helps them to remember what they have talked about. If students discuss the central course concepts in these groups, then they will tend to have much better recall and understanding. Application of these not too difficult strategies should help to resolve the problem of superficial student learning.

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