Monday, August 15, 2016

Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) and Deep Learning

One of the most difficult tasks for instructors is to fully engage their students with classroom material. Encouraging a deep and lasting understanding of the underlying structure of material - also known as "deep" learning - has been shown to lead to higher quality learning outcomes than rote memorization of concepts - "surface" learning (Chin & Brown, 2000). Deep learning, however, is difficult to encourage in practice.

In order to assist teachers with this, Alan Schoenfeld, an education researcher at UCLA-Berkeley, has developed a tool called the Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) framework. Although initially designed specifically for teaching math, Dr. Schoenfeld has broadened its applicability to other fields. The TRU framework lays out five characteristics of classrooms that promote deep engagement with class material. The five dimensions of powerful classrooms are:
  1. The Content
    • The content of classrooms should be clear and concise and reflect the most current understanding of the subject matter at hand
  2. Cognitive Demand
    • The material should be difficult enough to encourage critical thinking and problem-solving, but not so difficult as to overwhelm students
  3. Equitable Access to Content
    • The classroom should allow for and encourage all students to engage with the material by expressing their opinions and asking questions about the content
  4. Agency, Identity, and Authority
    • The students themselves, rather than the teacher should be the source of the ideas being discussed
  5. Use of Assessment
    •  The instructor should be aware of the students' level of understanding of content and adapt the lessons to meet the students where they are as opposed to where they should be based on a set timeline
According to Schoenfeld, these dimensions are not new, but rather a condensed version of the current state of the literature on teaching. The idea behind the framework is to focus on "how students experience [the lesson], not on what the teacher is doing." This is an important distinction in that the students themselves are given the space to generate ideas and discuss their problem-solving strategies with each other rather than strictly following the teacher's lead.

The research team has provided a number of publications and presentations on the project and their findings. The main recommendation from these findings is for teachers to look carefully at the learning experiences provided for students, whether these experiences encourage "deep" learning as opposed to surface skill-based practice and whether student-level assessment can support targeted support for student misconceptions. With the right framework, teachers can find the right balance between academic challenge and enriching, engaging student learning experiences.

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