Gaining a broader understanding and appreciation of intellectual/cultural activity

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Authors: Pamela E. Barnett, Princeton University; Jodi Cressman, DePaul University


From cave painting to Rafael; from the cell to the neurosystem. Whatever our discipline, there is a familiar introductory or survey course that intends to give students a broader understanding and appreciation of various intellectual or cultural activities. The genre of the survey course seems to suggest that this aim is met by covering a broad swath of course material: for example, “American Literature to 1865.” But the survey course is only one element of a program for educating “intellectually well-balanced” adults (1).

If the aim then is to broaden our students, we must first ask ourselves what exactly we want our students to learn or be able to do after an introduction to the major concepts and methods of our disciplines. Understanding that a survey course may be the first, and perhaps final, exposure to our disciplines must influence how we answer that question. What would it mean for our students to have a “broader understanding and appreciation” of our subjects? Each teacher must answer these questions. But, for example, if we want students to know key concepts and be able to apply them in other situations; if we want them to understand the methodologies of our field and ascertain their use for answering relevant questions; if we want them to appreciate unfamiliar ideas in a way that stimulates their intellectual curiosity for further study, then we must structure, teach, and assess these classes in such a way as to promote deep rather than surface learning (2).

Helpful Hints

David Perkins (3) has defined understanding as “the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows.” Others also define understanding as necessarily active (4). If the goal is not only retention, but the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts, students must use deep rather than surface approaches to learning. While it is tempting to treat these approaches as if they were part of a common set of strategies innate to the student, ample research suggests otherwise. Students adopt learning approaches according to their perceptions of their learning environment. For instance, students are more likely to use a surface approach if they perceive that the assessment will reward them for simply recalling information (2). The surface approach is also used by students who perceive the workload as too heavy, thus communicating a teacher’s valuing of coverage, rather than depth. On the other hand, students who perceive a teacher’s expectations for higher orders of understanding and capacity will utilize a deep approach. This is also true for students who perceive they are expected to learn independently and make choices about how and what they will learn (5).

If students are to take a deep approach to their learning, they must have the intention of learning at a deep level and a congruent motivation to learn at a deep level (6). Yet if your class is out of students’ field of primary interest, they are especially likely to need help developing both. If you are teaching an introductory or non-majors class, it is helpful to know something about cultivating student motivation so that it can be called on for an intentional learning task. Research tells us that students are most motivated when 1) they value what they are learning and 2) when they believe they can be successful at learning (7). To help students value or appreciate what they are learning in a new field, you might communicate how this learning is relevant to learning in other courses, their understanding of their world, potential careers, or particularly, to their prior experience To build students’ confidence in their ability to learn in a new discipline, you might give them frequent, low-stakes feedback and opportunities for self-assessment. Assuming that many of our introductory students will not major or become scholars in these fields, we must enlist student motivation to encourage deep learning. Only if students approach the material in a deep way can we meet the general education goals of expanding their understanding and appreciation. The importance of student motivation to this objective is also supported by IDEA research. The following teaching methods, related to stimulating student interest and motivation, have been found to be related to this objective.

  • #13 Introduced stimulating ideas
  • #15 Inspired students to set and achieve challenging goals, and
  • #8 Stimulate intellectual effort.

As teachers, our course design must reflect these expectations and inspire such approaches. We cannot teach these general education courses with a coverage model that communicates that learning is about a “quantitative increase in knowledge.” As Craig Nelson (8) persuasively argues, “If the goal is to maximize student learning, then covering as much as possible is a seriously flawed approach.” Perhaps we design broad survey courses with the expectation not simply that students will accumulate more knowledge, but that students will develop from learning an array of topics and texts in context with others. We may expect our students to be intellectually broadened by working with the material, drawing connections between and building on what they’ve learned. Given that the simple provision of materials does not affect those more ambitious learning goals, the next section offers some suggestions for more intentionally teaching students to manipulate, apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate the course material we assign. Recalling the relationship of IDEA items described above, it is perhaps more obvious now, that “broadening” means more than exposure: it means engagement and intellectual effort.

Here are some specific suggestions, many of which are supported by IDEA research showing the relationship of specific teaching methods to this objective (in addition to those previously noted, consider #7 Explained the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance, #16 Asked students to share ideas, and #19 Gave projects, tests or assignments that required original thinking).

  • Design your course with the intent of broadening the student rather than covering a broad swath of course material.
  • Design your course and plan your classes with this question in mind: “What do I want my students to learn or be able to do as a result of taking this class?”
  • Think ahead to how student learning in your course can benefit future learning in other courses.
  • Motivate your students by helping them 1) value what they learn, and 2) believe in their capacity to learn it.
  • Ask your students to do more than recall information.
  • Give them opportunities to learn deeply by manipulating, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating course material, both in class and in their assignments.
  • Offer frequent, low-stakes opportunities for student self-assessment and feedback through Classroom Assessment Techniques (9) like the minute-paper, concept map, or directed paraphrasing.
  • Create assignments that ask students explicitly to connect key concepts and ideas from the course to everyday problems or experiences.
  • Help students to make connections between specific course content, ideas, and content from other disciplines, and their own experiences so they can continuously build on their knowledge base and construct new knowledge.

Assessment Issues

There are two ways to go about assessing deep learning in the classroom: assessing to see whether it has happened (that is, whether our students really “got” what we were after) and assessing so that deep learning can happen at all. The first kind of assessment assumes that there is a certain threshold or breakthrough in understanding – we know, for example, that a student really understands an idea when he or she can do something with it – extend, adapt, critique, or apply it. But, on the other hand, an important part of deep learning is the realization that there is always more to learn – even experts in a field will continue to question and revisit their current understanding of a problem or idea. In order to foster habits of questioning, self-knowledge, and curiosity, we need to give our students regular, low-stakes feedback and opportunities for self-assessment.

If, as Perkins (3) suggests, we know our students have understood something only when they have acted on it, then our assessment prompts need to ask students to dosomething with the ideas they have encountered. For example, instead of asking your students to explain how electrical circuits work, give them a bulb, some wires, and a battery and see if they can produce light. Instead of asking students to identify features of Romantic poetry, give them a poem they’ve never seen before and ask them to argue for the work’s inclusion or exclusion from an anthology of Romantic verse. You might also try oral exams, which require your students to deviate from standardized scripts.

In between these more formal, evaluative assessments, you might want to draw on any number of Classroom Assessment Techniques (CAT, 9) that can give you (and your students) a sense of where they are in their understanding of your subject. The “minute-paper,” in which you ask students to write in one minute the most salient idea they learned in a class period and/or the single greatest question that still remains for them, will give you a quick picture of what the students identify as especially significant or confusing. Asking students to produce concept maps (drawings or diagrams showing the mental connections that students make between a major concept they have just learned and other concepts encountered in the course, or elsewhere) will also give you a sense of how well students understand an idea. Another relevant CAT for assessing whether students can actually use a concept is directed paraphrasing, which asks students to summarize and restate important information in their own words.

The assessment of student learning across a program (as opposed to within a specific classroom) offers new challenges, especially given the conflicting demands of establishing objective criteria and recognizing that deep learning requires students to act on knowledge in flexible, possibly quite creative ways. One way to mitigate this seeming trade-off is to develop a rubric or scoring guide (10) that evaluates learning on a naïve-novice-apprentice-expert continuum that classifies students’ abilities. The rubric would contain a list of specific, desired skills, each accompanied by a set of brief descriptions of the gradually more complex levels of the skill. Students would use the rubric to self-assess their skills and to connect what they learn to themselves and the world around them, to apply disciplinary concepts, and to otherwise demonstrate flexible use of knowledge. In a general education course, you will likely be most concerned to see if students can move from the naïve to novice stage, which means that they can identify the relevance of course concepts and tools to concrete problems or issues in their everyday lives. As students progress into upper level courses, you will want them to develop more sophisticated skills in terms of understanding the epistemology and practices of the discipline as well as the relationships of this understanding to broader academic and real-world contexts. In these courses, student engagement (11) in academic and applied projects (12, 13) bridge theoretical and applied knowledge and also incorporate a need to be sensitive to cultural and other contextual differences that determine the success or failure of any project.

Ultimately, achievement of objectives that address appreciation of cultural matters and intellectual activity is best evidenced by behavior. Do students seek out opportunities to engage in affairs of the mind and do they demonstrate sensitivity to and curiosity about cultural matters? Do they read widely, attend cultural events, take part in civic activities, and continue to seek opportunities for lifelong learning? These behaviors are hallmarks of the influence of a strong liberal education.

References and Resources

  1. Some thoughts on selecting IDEA objectives.  (2002). Manhattan, KS: The IDEA Center
  2. Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning how to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.
  3. Perkins, D. (1998). What is understanding? In M. S. Wiske (Ed.) Teaching for understanding: Linking research with practice, Chapter 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Mansilla, V. B., & Gardner, H. (1998). What are the qualities of understanding? In M. S. Wiske (Ed.) Teaching for understanding: Linking research with practice, Chapter 6. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  6. Dart, B., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (1998). Teaching and learning in higher education. Melbourne: Acer Press.
  7. Svinicki, M. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
  8. Nelson, C. (1989). Skewered on the unicorn’s horn: The illusion of a tragic trade-off between content and critical thinking in the teaching of science. InL. W. Crowe (Ed.)Enhancing critical -thinking in the sciences (pp. 17-27). Washington D. C.: Society of College Science Teachers.
  9. Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  10. To see a rubric for constructing rubrics, go to: Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  11. Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., et al. (2005). Student success in college. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  12. For resources on service learning, see: Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  13. For resources on the scholarship of engagement, see: Retrieved September 20, 2006.

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

IDEA Item #7 “Explained the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance,” Barbara E. Walvoord

IDEA Item #8 “Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses,” Nancy McClure

IDEA Item #13 “Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject,” Michael Theall

IDEA Item #15 “Inspired students to set and achieve goals which really challenged them,” Todd Zakrajsek

IDEA Item #16 “Asked students to share ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds and viewpoints differ from their own,” Jeff King

IDEA Item #19 “Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original or creative thinking,” Cynthia Desrochers

Additional Resources

IDEA Paper No. 1: Motivating Students, Cashin

IDEA Paper No. 34: Focusing On Active, Meaningful Learning, Stalheim-Smith

IDEA Paper No. 39: Establishing Rapport: Personal Interaction and Learning, Fleming

IDEA Paper No. 41: Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning, Svinicki

IDEA Paper No. 42: Integrated Course Design, Fink


©2006 The IDEA Center

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