What Type Of Learning Experiences—Shallow, Advancement Or Deep–Are You Serving Customers?


The world has drastically changed in the past several decades.

But most conference experiences have changed very little, if at all. They compete with the Internet to distribute content and deliver information.

So what type of conference education are you serving your customers—shallow learning, advancement learning or deep learning? Do you even know the difference between the three? Do you know which would lead to authentic, transformative learning experiences?

The Initial Research On Surface, Advancement and Deep Learning

This story starts in 1976 when a group of Swedish university researchers gave students a text to read. They told the students they would ask them questions after they read the text.

The researchers realized that the students had taken different approaches to reading the assigned text. Some students had tried to memorize as many details as possible from the text.

Other students thought about the arguments in the text, which were based on facts and conclusions and which were not. Those students identified key concepts, big ideas, and assumptions. They even considered the consequences of those assumptions.

Researchers identified the first group of students as surface learners. The second set of students was labeled deep learners.

In repeat investigations, the researchers found a third group of students, those concerned with making good grades, advancement for degrees or certifications. These students were not concerned with understanding or applying the concepts—just on getting high marks and passing requirements. They labeled these learners strategic learners—which I’m calling advancement learners.

(Source: Understanding Great Teaching by Ken Bain and James Zimmerman.)

The Three Types Of Learning Experiences

Bain and Zimmerman further clarified these three types of learning. They explored the various learning experiences offered by experts, presenters, professors and teachers. And they encouraged offering a deep approach to learning.

So what percentage of your conference education falls into each of the following three categories?

  • Shallow Learning
  • Advancement Learning
  • Deep Learning

Shallow or Surface Learning

Surface Learning is shallow with little understanding of the topic or issue. Surface learners fear failure and are just trying to survive their jobs. They are the ones that complain on evaluations “…that speaker didn’t tell me exactly how to do this.” Or they write that they didn’t get it and need step by step application.

These participants seek to replicate what they encounter. These learners want the shortcuts, the high points, the handouts, the tips. They often say, “Just tell me what and how to do it.”

Surface or shallow learning is driven by a fear of failure, need to survive and a quick short-term fix.

So presenters acquiesce to these types of learners. They just give them the tips, their steps to success, their PowerPoint, and handouts.

So what’s wrong with that? When learners never understand the real issue and try to put band aids on symptoms, they will fail. They are not addressing the root problem or applying it to their context. They eventually fail at customizing another person’s tips to their situation. Surface learning rarely helps anyone advance.

Advancement Learning

Advancement Learning, called strategic learning by the authors, is memorizing facts, procedures and information to pass a test. Or it’s taking classes to obtain CEs to maintain a certification. These learners are not focused on understanding or application, they just want their designation.

They are generally not risk takers. They will often choose the easiest way out rather than the one that will help them grow intellectually says Bain and Zimmerman.

Advancement learners spend time trying to find out what’s on the test. They may memorize formulas and master procedures, but, they often fail to understand conceptually. So their learning has little sustained or substantial influence on the way they think, act, or feel.

Presenters using advancement learning techniques focus on covering content to meet industry or profession CE requirements. They put the burden on learning back on the learner. They just want to meet the expectations of governing boards as approved speaker.

Deep Learning

Deep Learning engages understanding and synthesizing of the content into one’s own mental model. These learners want to apply the new information to their problems and context.

Deep Learners connect the new information with their past experiences and knowledge. They wrestle with changing their current mental models considering the new information.

Deep Learning involves formulating how to adapt the information to one’s challenges and consider the subsequent consequences.

Deep Learners break from traditional approaches and invent new ones. They recognize and relish the need to be different. They welcome new opportunities to use the content.

Presenters using deep learning methods ask audiences to solve problems or answer questions that are important, intriguing, or relevant to their jobs and success. They give attendees the chance to try, fail and receive feedback through written and discussion exercises. Deep learning will often not have clear black and white answers.

Deep learning leads to authentic, transformative learning as participants change attitudes, behaviors and skills.

Which approach do you primarily promote at your events? What will it take to plan and provide deep learning approaches at your events?

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