The Benefits of Deeper Learning: Retention, Transfer and Motivation

Natalie Saaris
June 30, 2017

Deeper learning is largely positioned as a “nice-to-have” in terms of curricular priorities; while most educators would agree that deeper learning is important and a worthwhile goal, the pedagogical choices of what to teach and how to teach it speak otherwise. By and large, the questions that teachers ask their students, the assessments that drive the focus of instruction, the content that comprises curricula, and the learning activities that students engage in do not reflect an emphasis on deeper learning (Mehta & Fine, 2015).

For some educators, depth seems like a hard-won goal: it requires pedagogical expertise, a willingness to slow down, convincing stakeholders to shift instructional focus, and the investment of effort and time in supporting students. Is this goal ultimately worth it, given how much it takes to achieve?

What may well underlie the tendency to brush aside deeper learning is a lack of knowledge about how integral it is to the long-term student outcomes that educators strive for. Depth is not just a bonus on top of the learning that students are already doing; it’s the essential ingredient for enduring, meaningful learning. We spend too much time talking about low-impact instructional trends and not enough time focusing on the substantive, research-based practices that transform learning for students.

So let’s break down the benefits of depth as well as the costs to those who miss out.

Students retain what they learn

When deciding what to commit to long-term memory, the brain asks itself two basic questions: does the information make sense, and does it have meaning? (Sousa 2017). If what students have heard or read does not make sense to them, they will quickly forget it. Imagine reading a complex manual on aeronautical engineering.  Assuming that you are not an expert in this field, you will encounter lots of technical jargon that makes little sense to you. Even though what you’re reading about has a great deal of relevance in the real world, the fact that you are unable to understand it means that your brain likely won’t hold onto the information for very long.

“We have all had students memorize phrases from class or a textbook more or less word-for-word, and although what the student says is accurate, we can’t help but wonder whether he or she really understands the ideas those words represent.”

— Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham 

When assessing whether information has meaning, the brain tries to figure out if what it has learned is actually relevant and worth remembering. If the information is likely to be referred to again or it holds currency within a social context, the brain will put forth the effort to store the learning in long-term memory. If it’s unlikely that new information will ever be used again, the brain won’t waste its resources.

What this tells us is that retaining knowledge requires students to fully understand the material and to believe that it matters. Instruction that emphasizes discussion, extensive writing, application of concepts, and building on ideas over time achieves this objective because it asks students to actively construct knowledge and to draw on that knowledge to generate something new. Instruction that emphasizes surface-level recall of content and a curriculum comprised of disconnected supplemental texts fails on both counts.

“Many approaches to curriculum design make it difficult for students to organize knowledge meaningfully. Often there is only superficial coverage of facts before moving on to the next topic; there is little time to develop important, organizing ideas.”

— National Research Council, How People Learn

Students transfer their learning

When students encounter a concept for the first time, their understanding of it is fairly rigid. For example, if a teacher introduces the idea of rhetoric in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, the student will likely only understand authorial bias as it applies to that specific speech. In fact, if you ask that student what rhetoric is, he or she might likely explain it as “when Martin Luther King Jr. repeats himself throughout his speech.” It will take several more examples of rhetoric before the student can move from a concrete, specific example to an understanding of the deeper structure of what rhetoric is and how it functions across texts. This is because transfer, or the ability to use knowledge flexibly in various contexts, takes a while to build up. Students need to see how the concept applies in various scenarios before the underlying structure becomes clear to them.

Transfer matters because we want students to use their knowledge in various ways. For example, when a teacher asks students to memorize the definition of the word candid, it’s not because recalling the exact definition is all that important; what’s important is seeing the word candid in a new context and understanding its meaning, or being able to use that word to articulate ideas. The same goes for terms and concepts in any subject: we want students to apply their learning in new ways.

“A teacher who emphasizes (and assesses) surface learning will cultivate surface-level learners. On the other hand, teachers who encourage learners to plan, investigate, and elaborate on their learning will nurture deep learners. [...] Whatever you pay attention to is what your students will pay attention to.”

— Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, Visible Learning for Literacy

Deeper learning has transfer as its ultimate goal. Teachers who emphasize deeper learning ask higher-order questions that get students to manipulate knowledge and thereby make it more pliable. They ask students to make connections across ideas and construct knowledge rather than merely absorb it. Deeper learning acknowledges that students are not empty vessels whose minds can be filled with information; learning is an active process whereby students draw on their prior knowledge and develop their own mental representations to make sense of ideas. Teachers who emphasize deeper learning also ask students to demonstrate what they’ve learned by applying the material to solve problems, develop hypotheses, and recognize patterns. Students who arrive at this stage of learning have gained the ability to think critically about the material.

What we often find is that learning ends before students achieve transfer. Students who have memorized the formula for Newton’s Second Law but can’t figure out why their sled moves slower down the hill with two riders as opposed to one have probably stopped short of deeper understanding. While surface-level learning is an important first step toward depth, the goal of learning is not to memorize information in order to ace the test; it’s to use knowledge to understand the world and be able to make sense of information found outside the classroom.

Motivation, Joy, and Purpose

It’s no secret that students want to learn material that is relevant and purposeful. Students who are disengaged from their learning either feel that there is no point to putting in the effort to do their schoolwork or feel that they lack support and thus are bound to fail. In either case, what’s missing is the sense that their hard work is going to pay off in something meaningful. Many of these disengaged students go through cycles of rote, surface-level learning that never offers them the opportunity to think on their own or apply their knowledge to construct something new.

“By all accounts, the cognitive tasks posed to students are, on average, neither cognitively challenging nor personally engaging.”

— Jay Mehta & Sarah Fine, The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools

There is a misconception that deeper learning is only for students who are already experiencing success in school, because it seems implausible that students who have not shown a great deal of interest in school would suddenly want to engage in rigorous, challenging coursework. This view ignores the fact that cognitive engagement, collaboration, and choice are critical drivers of motivation. Thinking through intriguing and difficult problems, working with others to develop a project, and having the freedom to make decisions about one’s own learning are not just rewards for good performance; they are the hallmarks of engaging learning and should be regular occurrences in every classroom.

“70 percent of high-school students report they are bored at school every day.”

— Paige Cornwell in Seattle Times 

Deeper learning draws on these key motivators and ensures that students’ learning is purposeful. The goal is to build knowledge and engage students in actively constructing meaning from the material. Students understand that what they’re learning today will influence what they learn in the future, and that they will have the opportunity to not just repeat what’s been taught but develop their own insights from the material. This is what makes learning exciting and drives increased engagement in schoolwork.


What we’ve hoped to convey here are not only the benefits of depth but also the costs of missing out. Putting depth at the bottom of the priorities list means that understanding concepts well enough to turn them into flexible knowledge, applying one’s learning to meaningful projects, and developing the expertise to see oneself as a scholar are not worthy pursuits. Depth does entail an investment of resources: it requires a significant revision of traditional structures that support a now irrelevant way of learning. The classic model, manifest in most classrooms even today, of a teacher lecturing to a group of students and then asking them recall questions about the material, does not support deeper learning.  Neither does a focus on covering a vast body of disciplinary content. In order to promote depth, teachers will likely need to unlearn the models they themselves had during their schooling and reorient their practices toward student-centered learning that gets students to make sense of material on their own. They will need administrative support and ongoing resources for professional growth. However, gaining the opportunity to make students’ learning lasting and meaningful is more than worth the effort.



Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy, grades K-12: implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin/A SAGE Company.

Mehta, Jal & Sarah Fine. 2015. The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.

Get the latest posts in
your inbox
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
We respect your privacy