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Talk About Teaching And Learning

Deep Learning:
Problem Solving Learning and
Intellectual Development During the College Years

Christine Massey

From within and outside of academia, professors are being exhorted to change how learning takes place in undergraduate courses. Learning should be more ... active, collaborative, interdisciplinary, problem-based, learner-centered, inquiry-based, virtually enabled, real-world focused, constructivist, multicultural, case-based, hands-on, multi-modal, connected to research, and preferably posted ahead of time to the class website as a PowerPoint file. How is a well-meaning professor to sort out all these possibilities? How does one discriminate the fads and fancies from the recommendations that would warrant serious investments of time and effort?

In this article, I make the case for making a systematic effort to include in a Penn education opportunities for a particular strategy that I will characterize here as complex, open-ended, problem solving learning (PSL).  The idea itself is not a new one, with roots reaching back to John Dewey in the early 1900s.1 Dewey promoted open-ended problems that present genuine uncertainty and perplexity as the means to develop “reflective thinking,” contrasting them with well-structured problems whose solutions can be anticipated with a high degree of certainty, based on known procedures or techniques. For support, I draw on two substantial lines of contemporary research, one focused on intellectual development beyond adolescence and the other on cognitive research on problem solving and reasoning.

In 1968 William G. Perry published a book titled Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development During the College Years,2 based on a longitudinal study begun in the late 1950s with Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates (admittedly not a diverse population at that time). Prompted by the variety Perry had noticed among undergraduates’ responses “to the relativism which permeates the intellectual and social atmosphere of a pluralistic university,” the study—which he  had originally conceived of as a study of personality differences—ended up mapping a developmental trajectory in young adults. The perhaps surprising central focus in Perry’s developmental model was on observed variations and systematic changes in the beliefs and assumptions that individuals hold about knowledge.

In the ensuing years, other researchers using a variety of methods and working with more varied populations have contributed converging evidence3 supporting a developmental sequence through a series of qualitatively different positions or orientations related to beliefs about the nature and justification of knowledge, particularly for young adults involved in Western higher education. Broadly speaking, the various models depict a gradual progression through something like the following positions:

(1) an absolutist perspective, which treats knowledge as fixed; frames right and wrong answers in a dualistic, black and white way; and conceives of learning as receiving knowledge from experts;

(2) a multiplist perspective, which recognizes varying degrees of uncertainty about knowledge and focuses on knowledge as either temporarily uncertain (until the experts figure it out), or inherently uncertain, with even experts disagreeing, and thus a matter of subjective opinions, all of which are equally valid;

(3) a relativist perspective, which conceives of knowledge and standards for evaluating knowledge as relative and contextual, requiring reflective judgment. One must develop standards based on evaluation of available evidence, logical coherence, and critical reasoning to determine whether to commit to a set of beliefs or a course of action.

Students’ epistemological orientations affect their decisions and behavior as learners, their relationships with faculty and peers, and the outcomes of their efforts. At the same time, higher education generally promotes sequentially more complex perspectives on learning. Progress is slow, though, with changes tracked over years rather than weeks or months. One large-scale longitudinal study4 found that the typical graduating senior did not progress beyond a subjective-multiplist position, remaining unable to coordinate critical inquiry and probabilistic justification in arguments. Only advanced doctoral students consistently scored at the highest levels.

Why complex, open-ended, PSL to promote intellectual and cognitive development? PSL incorporates the critical features of uncertainty and complexity, which can serve as powerful mechanisms in two ways. First, uncertainty shakes up ideas about knowledge as unchanging, absolute, unambiguous, concrete, and received from authority. Leading students in the direction of more sophisticated thinking about the nature and sources of knowledge, it is linked with epistemological development.

Second, grappling with the uncertainty of how to  approach a complex problem also drives the development of higher-order cognition—sometimes referred to as metacognition. If first-order cognition has to do with such things as perceiving, learning, and remembering, higher-order cognition involves evaluative and strategic processes that operate on first-order cognition.5 Posed with problems that engage only first-order learning processes, the student might think, “This is the stuff I have to learn; now I have to memorize and/or practice it.” Faced with a complex, open-ended problem to solve, the learner may be forced to ask questions such as “What am I trying to figure out or do? What do I already know? How well do I know it? What don’t I know?” Instead of engaging in generic strategies or study skills, the student is prompted to think at a meta-strategic level:  “How am I going to frame this problem? What are the essential constraints? What might a solution look like? What strategies might work? How will I know if they are working?”

When undergraduates start to recognize and grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of knowledge, some of the most important work of a college education can begin in earnest. The focus of learning shifts toward such matters as theory and argument, critical consideration of ideas from multiple perspectives, development of standards of evidence, logical reasoning, and the ability to take systems of thought as objects of study and to compare them rather than only being able to operate within a given one. Even for talented, serious students this may be a rocky transition, particularly if they have previously been academically successful learning in the mode of receiving knowledge, which may have served them well on the standardized tests used for college admissions.

Many kinds of courses and experiences in the undergraduate curriculum already feature some aspects of PSL, such as studio courses, research methods courses, senior design projects, independent study, thesis research, and, perhaps uniquely, Penn’s rich variety of Academically Based Community Service Courses.  However, the role these courses play in students’ undergraduate careers has often been viewed from a departmental or credentialing perspective, with less consideration paid to the unique role these experiences might play in students’ larger intellectual development.

I would not be one to argue for a wholesale transformation of undergraduate curriculum to PSL. Powerful thinking and learning are not just about developing metacognitive skills and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. They also require deep, rich, flexible knowledge bases and fluency in the procedures and practices of a discipline. Learning to think within a discipline and using complex problem solving learning are complementary components in an undergraduate education. Each component makes the other more purposeful and effective. As students begin to take on original scholarship of significant scope, these may naturally merge. Often this only happens reliably in post-graduate education, but there is no a priori reason to believe that undergraduates could not be achieving these levels more routinely. With a dynamic student population, first-rate faculty, the resources of a major research university, strong ties to the surrounding urban community, and leadership committed to the University’s educational mission, the University of Pennsylvania is an ideal place to try.

 1 Dewey, J. (1997). How we think. Mineola, NY:  Dover Publications, Inc.

 2 Perry, W. G. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years:  A scheme. New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. (p. 4).

 3 For a review of research in this area, see Hofer, B. K. & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories:  Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research,67(1), 88-140.

 4 King, P. M. & Kitchener, K. S. (1994).  Developing reflective judgment:  Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

 5Kuhn, D. (1999). A developmental model of critical thinking. Educational Researcher, 28 (2), 16-26.

Christine Massey, a cognitive development psychologist, is the director of PENNlincs in the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science.  She will lead a discussion on problem-based and problem-solving learning at the Third Annual SAS Dean’s Forum on Teaching and Learning, to be held Wednesday, April 26, from 1–4 p.m. in 401 Fisher Bennett Hall.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 31, April 25, 2006


April 25, 2006
Volume 52 Number 31


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