What is deep learning?

Our mission at The Learning Code is to help you make your learning meaningful, achievable, and purposeful. We focus our energy on supporting students who want to earn a college degree in the United States. We do so by using three powerful tactics. First, we share with you research-based principles of learning. These principles are founded on cutting-edge cognitive science results to explain how learning works. Second, we feature student stories and battle-tested learning practices that show how to implement these learning principles in your college classes. The learning practices we share with you are designed to inspire you engage in deep learning and also to help you strategically navigate a college education system that is severely flawed. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we work to support you in developing effective help-seeking behaviors so that you can create your own learning teams to facilitate your success in each of your college classes. In this post, we define what it means to engage in deep learning. This post sets a foundation for a later work we will do to explore barriers to deep learning in the US higher education system. All of this will help us develop targeted strategies that you can use to thrive in your college classes. In other words, we are focused on empowering you to become a strategic deep learner and to successfully complete your college degree in spite of institutional barriers that get in the way of your learning.

The phrase deep learning includes exactly two words: deep and learning. To understand what it means to engage in deep learning, let’s break down each of these individually. Then we’ll build a shared vision for what it means to be a deep learner. A great place to start this journey is to define what learning is.

What is learning?


Let’s define learning as a growth process that happens inside your body and leads to changes in your knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. These transformations occur based on your experiences and increase your potential for improved performance and future learning (adapted from How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Ambrose et al.).

Some features of this definition are worth exploring:

  1. Learning is a growth process that takes place in your mind and in your body. Learning literally involves activating brain cells, growing new connections between brain cells, or strengthening existing neural pathways so that the neural networks that you’ve already formed become more robust, durable, and lightening-fast.

  2. Learning involves change in your knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. When you engage in the process of learning, you create new capacities within your body and mind. This creative process includes two fundamental activities. First, you can adapt new functional properties of neurons and develop new neural pathways. Second, you can build stronger connections within an existing neural network.

  3. As you learn, your body and your brain physically change. These changes are designed to capture, hardwire, and biologically encode your learning inside a vast network of cells that run throughout your brain and your entire body.

  4. Learning is a process, not an isolated event. In other words, the changes that occur as you learn unfold over time and cannot occur in an instant. To learn and change, you must repeatedly engage in practice over many days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

  5. Learning happens based on your experiences and results directly from what you do and what you think. The learning process is something that you do for yourself. Learning is not something that others can do for you or to you. The only way a teacher can advance your learning is by influencing what you do to learn. This is very similar to building athletic skills. An experienced coach can help you decide on which workouts and training activities are most appropriate for your development. However, to grow your athletic skills, you are the one who has to workout, train, and practice. The same is true for growing your intellectual skills.

  6. You can improve your capacity to learn and you can grow your learning abilities. To do so, focus on building your learning strategies. Seek out accurate information about how learning works. Look for efficient and effective learning practices to acquire new information and construct new knowledge. Also be on the hunt for practices that leverage active and attentive repetition to strengthen your ability to recall ideas that matter to you. Finally design reflective learning habits that empower you to identify your strengths and weaknesses, correct mistakes, and think flexibly about the way you perform tasks you are trying to master.

This definition of learning highlights some of the most important features of learning. However, not all learning is created equal. Our goal at The Learning Code is to help you develop habits of strategic deep learning. Now that we know a little about what learning is, let’s explore what it means to learn deeply.

What is deep learning?


Let’s define deep learning to be learning that involves an intense, distraction-free focus on growing your abilities by pushing beyond the limits of your current capacity. When you engage in deep learning, you actively reach for and repeat skills that you want to build by paying extra special attention to your performance during each repetition. (adapted from The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born, it’s Grown and The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills, both by author Daniel Coyle).

Notice that in this definition, we focus on two distinct features of deep learning:

  1. Deep learning requires that you seek out a feeling of heightened struggle as you reach towards a goal that is on the outer edge of your current abilities. To learn deeply, you must exert conscious effort to push yourself into a space where you make frequent mistakes. Deep learning also requires that you actively reflect on each attempt, correct your mistakes, and work to improve your performance. Thus, when you learn deeply, you want to be careful not to push yourself too far beyond your current level of mastery. You want to maintain your ability to identify, recognize, and reflect on your mistakes as they happen.

    When we look back to our definition of learning as a growth process that happens inside your body, we can say that the first feature of deep learning involves creating neural networks in your brain to encode the knowledge or skills you want to build. Your brain is designed to capture this effort by making new interconnected pathways between neurons or by altering and adapting the function for neurons not previously used for this purpose.

  2. Deep learning also focuses on active and observant repetition. Not only are your trying to develop new knowledge or learn a new skill, but you’re also working to build mastery so that you can leverage this knowledge with progressively less effort. The first stage of deep learning involves successfully mastering your target ability for the first time. This second part involves repeating the process of reaching and performing so that you can leverage your new ability more quickly. Each time you repeat, you give yourself another chance to make mistakes, identify and correct your errors, and to refine or expand your capacity with respect to your new ability. This vigilant, repetitive practice solidifies your learning and gives you faster access to your new skills in your future.

    The second feature of deep learning is designed to strengthen a nascent neural network that exists in your brain. This process involves reinforcing recently-created neural pathways by building myelin sheaths throughout the network. These myelin sheaths speed up signal propagation and thus allow you to activate your new ability more quickly with less effort.

Now that we have introduced a definition for deep learning, let’s expand on our understanding of what it means to learn deeply. Specifically, let’s define the opposite of deep learning, which we will call shallow learning.

What is shallow learning?


Shallow learning is the opposite of deep learning. Shallow learning involves a modest level of focus or lacks the intensity and duration required for deep learning. When you learn in a shallow way, you probably do not have a clear vision for how or why this learning is important to you. You may also be unwilling or unable to leave your current comfort zone or to reach for goals on the outer edge of your ability. Shallow learning involves a distaste for mistakes and a desire to avoid making or identifying errors.

The special features of this definition include:

  1. Shallow learning is marked by the absence of a conscious effort to engross yourself in intense focus on hard tasks. When you perform shallow learning, you may be agnostic about or disinterested in protecting yourself from distraction. You may even be exposed to environments that require lots of multitasking as you try to learn. For example, think about trying to read while watching TV or trying to listen to a lecture while texting with a friend. This lack of deep focus makes it very hard to engage in skill development beyond the frontiers of your current levels of mastery. While you may be able to complete the task you are working on, you invest limited conscious effort on your learning. Thus, the skills you build using shallow learning are encoded in a sparse neural network and are quickly forgotten once you end your learning session.

  2. Shallow learning involves completing tasks that you do not feel strongly about. When learning in a shallow way, you probably have weak, unconscious, or even negative feelings about the learning activity you are working on. You likely do not have a strong internal desire to learn and you are probably not excited about or deeply engaged in your learning. You might not see this learning as linked to your identity nor can you articulate how this learning contributes to your long-term vision for your future. You might even be motivated by fear rather than desire if you perceive that you are required to do this learning by an authority figure who does not know you and with whom you do not share an authentic, trusting relationship. In any case, you are not excited by the learning, you are not struggling, and do not feel that putting in the extra effort to challenge yourself is worth your energy.

  3. Shallow learning involves using strategies that do not support deep learning and thus slow the speed at which you develop new skills or create new knowledge. As we discussed in point 6 under our definition of learning above, not all learning practices inspire learning equally. When engaged in shallow learning, it may be the case that the practices you are using to learn do not sufficiently challenge you to learn deeply.

We’ve now defined learning, deep learning, and shallow learning. Throughout this discussion, we’ve deferred a meaningful analysis of how your level of motivation relates to the energy you dedicate towards deep learning. We’ll also put off analyzing how systems of oppression and socioeconomic factors effect a student’s ability to learn deeply within the US higher education system. We will address these topics in later posts on The Learning Code. Let’s end with some useful reflection questions on the terminology we’ve developed in this work.

Community Challenge:

  1. Rewrite the definition of learning in your own words. Be sure to identify the different components of learning. Do your best to create working draft of what learning is so that you can judge your work in every college class on your own definition of what learning is (rather than on the arbitrary and harmful grades that your teacher assigns).

  2. Rewrite the definition of deep learning in your own words. Be sure to identify the different components of deep learning. Put focused energy into developing your ideas of what deep learning is, what it feels like, and how you know when you are engaged in deep learning. My hope is that you can use this work to spend more time in deep learning in every class and to start to identify when your teachers implement policies that are harmful to deep learning.  

  3. Describe what it feels like when you engage in deep learning. What type of subjects and topics do you already do learn deeply about? When are you most excited about engaging in deep learning?

  4. Rewrite the definition of shallow learning in your own words. Be sure to identify the different components of deep learning. Do your best to figure out what shallow learning means to you, what it feels like, and how you know when you are engaged in shallow learning. If you can identify when your teachers implement policies that are force you to learn in shallow ways, then you can develop strategies to counter-act these policies so that you can maximize the amount of time you spend learning deeply.  

  5. Describe what it feels like when you learn in a shallow way. When do you tend to engage in shallow learning? What factors in your life and what type of classroom policies tend to make you focus on shallow learning rather than deep learning?

  6. How is your learning connected to your motivation? If you think about when you are engaged in deep learning versus shallow learning, how much of this has to do with the level and types of motivation you bring into your learning? As you respond, think about the differences extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

32 thoughts on “What is deep learning?

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