Building Students’ Capacity for Rigorous Coursework

ThinkingWhen entering college, students need a greater capacity for deep learning than they possessed as high school students. Without it they’ll struggle from day one. Even previously high-performing students will eventually hit an impenetrable performance ceiling. However, if we can increase students’ capacity for deep learning, we’ll produce undergraduates capable of rewarding educational outcomes.

Educators have little control over who enrolls in their classes. Maybe they have deep thinking skills; maybe they don’t. The good news is that there’s help for the have nots. By making some strategic changes and using the proper resources, we can create an environment where students can survive — even thrive — in rigorous academic courses.

Below are a few ideas that will help educators build their students’ capacity for deeper thinking and learning.

1) Help Students Switch from a Surface Approach to a Deep Approach to Learning

Students enter college with varied conceptions about what learning looks like. They often have difficulty delineating their roles and the roles of their professors. They have trouble figuring out who’s responsible for which parts of learning. Researchers classify such experiences under a vital educational construct called approach to learning. There are two types of approaches to learning: surface and deep. If students operate within a shallow approach, studying means memorizing. A deep approach produces knowledge that is connected, meaningful and usable.


2) Measure Interaction, Not Engagement

In this era of supposedly disinterested students, simply getting them engaged in learning has emerged as a key success metric for educators. This has led to educators feeling pressured to keep students entertained. The engagement movement is based on the flawed assumption that getting students invested in their learning will improve their performance.

In my years of working with students, I’ve seen many who were deeply engaged in their learning. However, when their investments of time and effort did not produce results, they, like all humans, became disinterested and sought rewards in other areas such as work, social activities or athletics. We need to change how students interact with content. We must help them know, and more importantly feel, what it’s like to work with content using varied thinking skills. They must experience how various types of interactions lead to different outcomes.

3) Develop Students’ Metacognitive Skills 

Students may hold the capacity for excelling in rigorous courses, but they may be unable to successfully manage their thinking. This metacognitive regulatory problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a deficit of cognitive skill or a lack of content knowledge. Researchers have noted that students with the same cognitive abilities may have different metacognitive skills (Young & D.J., 2008). For today’s students, metacognition is the linchpin for educational achievement; it is “a strong predictor of academic success” (Coutinho, 2007, p. 40).

Unfortunately, too few educators know how to activate students’ metacognitive abilities. Even worse, many confuse other cognitive strategies with metacognitive tactics. Metacognition creates the conditions for how students will interact throughout their learning routine. Educators can position students for success in rigorous courses by helping them align their metacognitive functioning and their cognitive activity with the course and task outcomes. (I will expound on these topics in forthcoming articles and with supporting video segments.) When this union occurs, students quickly become self-directed, high-performing learners.

The image below features some research-based metacognitive tactics. These can be incorporated into any discipline, used with all content, and seamlessly integrated into any instructional preference.

Metacognitive Tactics

The ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram (TLD) and Learning Sufficiency Diagram (LSD) were created to help students shift from shallow to deep learning. Used by more than 2,000 colleges and universities, the TLD is a highly effective tool for activating deep thinking skills. These tools can be downloaded for free at the following link:

Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate , 1, 39-47.
Young, A., & D.J., F. (2008, May). Metacognitive awareness and academic achievement in college students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning , 1-10.

Below is a brief video showcasing the impact of ideas expressed above on student learning and performance.


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