What the Best College Students Do

Getting the most out of your education

Getting the Most Out of College—and Life

Students who have the right intentions get more out of their college experience.

Millions of college students are heading back to the classroom this fall and to hours of study and hard work. Many, however, will benefit little from their experience. Whether they do or not will depend largely on something quite simple and largely within their control: their intentions. Yet surprisingly few students—or their teachers—realize the power of those intentions.

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Do all students have the right intentions when they study?

Research on these matters began nearly forty years ago with a single experiment at a Swedish university. In that and subsequent studies, psychologists have discovered that college students will take—usually without even realizing it—one of three basic approaches to their studies that will determine much of what they get out of school.

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In that original investigation at Göteborg University, psychologists gave a group of students an article and asked them to read it. The collegiate volunteers scurried through the composition, some more quickly than others. Yet the speed with which they devoured the piece mattered far less than did another factor that began to emerge. As the researchers interviewed each of the students, they heard some of them say that they had simply tried to remember as much of the reading as possible. These “surface learners,” as the psychologists called them, looked for facts and words they could memorize, attempting to anticipate any questions someone might ask them. As we now know, they intended simply to pass the exam, not to benefit from anything they read.

Meanwhile, other students expressed much different purposes. They wanted to understand the meaning behind the text and to think about its implications and applications, to search for arguments, to distinguish between supporting evidence and conclusions, and to evaluate what they read. These students tried to comprehend what difference an idea, line of reasoning, or fact made, and how it related to something they had already learned. In short, these “deep learners” approached the piece with all of the enthusiasm of a five-year-old on a treasure hunt but with the added skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and theorizing.

In the years following that first study, social scientists have identified a third style of learning that students often take. “Strategic” learners primarily intend simply to make good grades. These people will usually shine in the classroom and make their parents proud of their high marks. In many ways, they look like deep learners, but their fundamental intention is different. They focus almost exclusively on how to find out what the professor wants and how to ace the exam. If they learn something along the way that changes the way they think, act, or feel, that’s largely an accident. They never set out to do that. They simply want the recognition that comes from graduating with honors.

Although making the Dean’s List sounds like a worthy goal, the problem arises when that becomes the all-consuming goal of life rather than pursuit of the understanding and ability that might lead to those high honors.  For one, strategic learners seldom become risk-takers because they fear something new or extra might mess up their grade point average. Thus, they rarely go off on an intellectual journey through those unexplored woods of life, riding their curiosity into a wonderland of intellectual adventure and imagination. They approach college with a checklist rather than with any sense of awe and fascination. As a result, these students often learn procedurally rather than conceptually, following the steps to a calculus problem but understanding little of the ideas behind it because they never intend to do so.

Back in the 1980's some Japanese theorists suggested one other possible outcome from learning procedures without learning concepts.  They pointed out that experts come in at least two flavors.  Routine experts know all the routines of their field (when you have this problem, this is what you do).  "Adaptive experts" also know those conventional routines, but in addition they possess the ability and attitude both to recognize and even relish the opportunity and necessity for invention. Such experts love to take on the unknown, to tackle those really difficult and unusual problems. They enjoy and know how to improvise, invent, and overcome unexpected obstacles. By their very nature, deep learners practice adaptive expertise while strategic learners don't. 

To take a deep approach means to take control of your own education, to decide that you want to understand, to create something new, to search for the meaning that lies behind the text, to realize that words on a page are mere symbols, and that behind those symbols lies a meaning that has a connection with a thousand other aspects of life and with your own personal development. Such intentions are intertwined with motivation, growing out of an internal drive but also feeding it with an important fuel and direction.

None of this means that surface learners never go deep, that deep learners don’t occasionally become strategic and even settle for shallow knowledge, or that strategic learners never understand anything. The research over the last forty years simply indicates that students will develop a style of learning that is predominantly deep, surface, or strategic, and it is this overriding intention that primarily shapes their lives. Many students never learn deeply simply because they never intend anything more than just to survive or shine in the academic world.  They intend to pass the course or make an A in it, but that isn't the same as intending to understand and grow their minds.

Where do such powerful intentions arise?  Can they be changed?  In subsequent posts, we’ll explore some possible explanations for their origins, look at one powerful influence they have on study habits, and consider ways that some students have changed their intentions and their lives.  Can you change your life with just good intentions?  Ah, if only life were that simple!

Ken Bain is a historian and educator, and author of two award-winning and best selling books on university learning.

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