How Do We Define and Measure “Deeper Learning”?

| September 13, 2012 | 29 Comments
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In preparing students for the world outside school, what skills are important to learn? This goes to the heart of the research addressed in the Deeper Learning Report released by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science in Washington.

Simply defined, “deeper learning” is the “process of learning for transfer,” meaning it allows a student to take what’s learned in one situation and apply it to another, explained James Pellegrino, one of the authors of the report. “You can use knowledge in ways that make it useful in new situations,” he said in a recent webinar. “You have procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply it to answer questions and solve problems.”

To deconstruct the definition of deeper learning further, the researchers came up with what they call three domains of competence: cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal. Cognitive refers to reasoning and problem solving; intrapersonal refers to self-management, self-directedness, and conscientiousness; and interpersonal refers to expressing ideas and communicating and working with others.

“The kinds of tasks we need to assess take kids more time to enact and more time to score.”

These three broad competencies are related to each other, Pellegrino said, and there’s good evidence that shows they can lead to success in not only education, but also in career and health. In fact, conscientiousness is most highly correlated with successful outcomes.

If deeper learning is the ultimate goal, can it be taught? To a certain degree. But for educators to engage in deeper learning with students, researchers say they must begin with clear goals and let students know what’s expected of them. They must provide multiple and different kinds of ideas and tasks. They must encourage questioning and discussion, challenge them and offer support and guidance. They must use carefully selected curriculum and use formative assessments to measure and support students’ progress.

“Students can’t learn in an absence of feedback,” Pellegrino said. “It’s not just assessing, but providing feedback that’s actionable on the part of students.”


In order for deeper learning to become the norm rather than the exception, it has to be a priority for local, state, and national policymakers, said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at the Stanford and advocate for education reform. Common Core State Standards, which begin to push towards critical reasoning and problem solving and application of knowledge, are only being applied to math and literacy, she said. “What about other subjects?”

What’s more, social-emotional skills have to be taken into account anytime we address deeper learning, she said. Some states have developed standards for social emotional skills, and it could be good strategy for others to follow as well.

The way to achieve deeper learning is through curriculum and instruction, in assessments, and teachers’ professional development, she said.

The curriculum schools use now was created by a 10-member committee of men in 1893, Darling-Hammond said.”We need a new committee,” she said. “Maybe with women and with people color, and maybe even with 20 people.”

Curriculum should go deeper into application of skills, cover fewer topics that are more carefully selected and more deeply taught, and she said Common Core tries to do this. She repeated the mantra of many progressive educators: “Teach less, learn more.”

As for assessment, Darling-Hammond said our goals must be far more ambitious than they are now. Policymakers should follow the lead of schools that have been using digital portfolios and projects as assessments, rather than relying on standardized tests. “Students are able to take feedback and revise their work,” she said. “Their conscientiousness is tested. We know that in contexts like that, we have evidence that students are making it through college in higher numbers.”

Our current standardized tests focus on recall of facts and procedures, the lowest levels of types of learning, Pellegrino added. “They’re easily scored and quantified for accountability procedures. They’re not optimal in measuring the kinds of competencies that represent deeper learning,” he said.

But in order to use assessments that are valuable to students, we need to invest more money and time. “The kinds of tasks we need to assess take kids more time to enact and more time to score,” she said. Currently, the U.S. spends $10 to $20 per child on assessments, but in other countries where kids are doing deep inquiries and investigations, assessments cost about $200 per student.

“We need to rethink the way we make those investments, as part of our policy agendas,” she said, because, as Pellegrino put it, what gets tested governs what gets taught.

Another big component of deeper learning involves collaboration, she said, and “collaboration is not cheating… it’s part of problem-solving. Collaboration is a skill not a deficit.”

“Collaboration is a skill, not a deficit.”

Professional development is another key part of bringing deeper learning to students. School principals, who play a big role in curriculum adoption, as well as educators, must learn about problem-solving, child development, and content pedagogy in order to understand how to set up collaborative and project-based learning.

But in order to do their jobs well, educators must be given enough time to create thoughtful curriculum. In other countries, Darling-Hammond said, educators are allotted 15 to 20 hours a week just dedicated to curriculum creation.

For those interested in pursuing deeper learning strategies in class, she suggested pulling out the key ideas from current standards and going deep into those subjects, such as ratio and proportion in math. She also suggested reading books and learning more about complex instruction and how to develop collaborative group work, even in classes where there’s a wide range of student skills.


From an Edweek article that reported on findings from the same study:

The committee pointed to one 2008 five-year longitudinal study of 700 California students in three high schools: one urban and one rural school, each with large proportions of minority and English-language learner students, and another overwhelmingly wealthy, white school. While at the start of the study, incoming 9th graders in the diverse urban school performed significantly below the students in the other schools in mathematics, the school designed its algebra and geometry courses to highlight multiple dimensions of math concepts and approaches to problem-solving, self- and group-assessment and developing good questions. When tested at the end of the first year, the students exposed to the “deeper learning” math had caught up with their peers in algebra, and they performed significantly better than students in the other schools in the following year. By the 4th year of the study, 41 percent of students at the urban diverse school were taking calculus, in comparison to only 27 percent at the other two schools.

The study was partially funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.



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  • Dave

    Wish standardized tests would just go away so we could do teaching like this.

  • Anna

    A proof read would have been good on this article!

  • Loren

    Thank you so much for
    your post! It made me think of another blog I read recently about flipped
    classrooms. From my own classroom experiences, deeper learning seems to take
    place when there is time for students to work together, rather than just
    listening to a lecture. However, there also has to be time for the teacher to
    provide that knowledge too. I love the idea of making the lecture the homework,
    because opens up classroom time for the students to practice their cognitive
    knowledge and work on those interpersonal and intrapersonal skills you talk
    about in this post. Here is a great link if you want to check it out:

  • FlaTeach

    “Common Core State Standards, which begin to push towards critical reasoning and problem solving and application of knowledge, are only being applied to math and literacy, she said. ‘What about other subjects?’”
    Actually, Common Core asks ALL subject areas to read, learn, and write more deeply by engaging more complex texts.

  • Eric O’B

    I would like to provide a concrete example of “deeper learning.” My hope is that we can think beyond the “assessment” and get to the heart of the common core standard – teaching and learning.

    I have begun the school year by working with students on the uses of factor trees. Although my fifth graders were familiar with factor trees and had used them last year, they could provide no applications for factor trees nor could they devise a reason that this tool could be used in their lives. We began to explore factor trees for the numbers 32, 81, 125, 49 and 45. They found the following information:

    *Each factor tree produced a set of prime factors.
    *There are several ways to produce a factor tree for a given number, but eventually the set of numbers are similar, regardless of the initial and intermediate steps.
    *The number, “1”, proves less than productive in the process of factoring.
    *The set of numbers can be resequenced to form a prime factor string.
    *The prime factor strings for the first four numbers yielded the same prime number, or base.
    *45 produced two bases, the prime numbers 3 (twice) and 5 (once).
    *The students listed the factors for each number, using guess-and-check methods.
    *The prime factor strings could be “compressed” into prime factor notation, using bases and exponents.
    *For the numbers that produced single bases in the the prime factor notation, the number of factors was always one more than the exponent shown in the notation.
    *After playing with the number 45, they found 45 has six factors.
    *By expressing 45 in prime factor notation (3^2 x 5^1), they found that if they again increased each exponent by 1 and multiplied these resulting numbers, they could compute the number of factors for 45 and any other given number.

    We will have to continue playing with this process to allow all students to internalize the process. As a teacher, my responsibility is not only to internalize this process, but to see what other excursions I can take my class on to nurture their understanding of number theory. I also want to take them to other topics and see if there exist connections between this process and the new topics. Other places I plan to investigate:

    * The Locker Problem – a classic in problem solving.
    * For numbers with, say, 12 factors, do we have sub-classifications? Do numbers with 12 factors all have 12 factors for the same reason? Or are there different ways to create numbers with 12 factors?
    * The Factor Game – Not just a wonderful game to play to find the factors for given numbers, but a beautiful way to initiate the exploration of primes and composites, perfect, deficient and abundant numbers.
    * The Sieve of Eratosthenes – do we simply present this gem or can we use it in small increments to get students to see how many tests for divisibility must be performed on any given number?
    * If the set of primes (set P) is multiplied by the set of numbers with exactly six factors (set Q) to produce set R, how many factors can any number in set R have?
    * Can we use the prior problem to create a general rule?
    * How many numbers from 1 to 1000 have exactly 14 factors? How can we prove this?

    I understand that we teachers have been asked to complete a monumental task. Rather than wishing away the assessments or asking why social studies or science teachers don’t have to worry about standards and assessments, I hope we can begin to show government officials and state administrators that we truly do reach for greatness in all we do. Perhaps then they will see how fruitless their singularly dimensional their assessments truly are and let us go about the business of teaching children.

  • sean lancaster

    I am leery of articles that refer to these “other countries” that seem to be doing this or that better than the USA in education. I suspect American schools are the best in the world when you control for factors like poverty and recent immigrants. With this being the case, the need to change to catch up to other countries is not urgent. But, the need to constantly try and improve is critical for any country . . . I just don’t think we should use other countries as proof of the kinds of improvements we should make. That being said, I could list a number of ways to improve American schools starting with how we prepare administrators and the people who hire and evaluate teachers!

    • Liz

      I am leery of people who think that America is always the best (or at least almost the best) at everything. I am also leery of people who refer to other countries as “other countries” in quotes. These are actual places where people are innovating and exhibiting best practices in education.

      We should absolutely be using other countries’ curricula and practices as something to aspire to because there are a lot of places that have realized that standardized testing is not the best form of assessment and that students learn more effectively in a environment that is student-centered and inquiry-based.

      The US could be really fantastic at a lot of things if Americans stopped acting like we’re already the best and started actually trying to be the best.

  • Julee

    Not sure where teachers get 20 hours for curriculum creation but it would be great!

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  • Fritz123

    This is the only thing that is called learning here. The other thing is called drill.

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