How We Learn and How to Think like an Expert

Personally, I believe the most important thing I’ve read during my college career that changed my study habits most significantly was an excerpt from What the Best College Students Do by Ken Bain.  In chapter 2, “What Makes an Expert?”, Bain suggests that all students tend to fall into one of three styles of learning.

The first he designates as “surface learning”.  In this style of learning, students will typically skim the surface of a topic, looking for key words or facts they could memorize in order to anticipate questions that someone might ask them.  These types of learners are usually just focusing on passing the exam, not planning on revisiting any of the information they are taking in. 

The second style of learning he dubs “deep learning”.  Here students seek deeper understanding of the meaning behind the topics they research, thinking about implications and applications, much of their enthusiasm for learning based in a true interest in the topic. 

He labels the third style of learning as “strategic learning”.  It is a fitting label as students using this style of learning are strategically moving through the material in a way they know will get them a good grade on the exam.  Many high schoolers tend to fall into this category, appearing to shine in the classroom for their high scores, yet they do not retain or apply the material past the exam.  They focus specifically on what the professor wants to see in order to get a good grade, never really showing true interest in the subject. 

While strategic learning will earn students good grades, Bain argues that students attempting to learn this way are going about it backwards.  He states that “they rarely go off on an intellectual journey through those unexplored woods of life” (Bain, 37), too focused on their GPA to approach learning from an interest-based perspective, as the deep learners do.  In terms of recognizing this style of learning in class he states that strategic learners can plug the right number into the correct formula on a chemistry or physics exam or put the right words in a properly constructed essay, but they do not fully understand why they are doing what they are doing; they are “routine experts”, Bain states, “learning all the procedures of their work but seldom becoming inventive” (Bain, 37). 

Bain later suggests that while we may not intend to become strategic learners, many fall into this style of learning due to factors out of their control, such as a large class load or an emphasis of coverage over content by a professor which pushes students to take short cuts.  He mentions that all students should strive to become deep learners, as many of the best students and experts are, seeking answers to the “whys” and “hows” and learning based on genuine interest in a topic.  By taking this interest-based approach, students are taking the first step into thinking and learning like experts in the field do.  

Interest in a subject is not the only thing that makes someone an expert, however.  It takes years to train a student’s brain to work similarly to that of an expert; in his book Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham explores the inner workings of experts’ brains, stating that it’s not just about having knowledge in a field, but rather how a person thinks that makes them an expert. 

While experts have a lot of background knowledge, their attitudes towards failure and ability to transfer knowledge from past experiences are what really push them to be great.  He mentions that, as experts have a large level of background knowledge and experience, they can think more abstractly about concepts, whereas abstract ideas are much more difficult to grasp for novices, as they do not have a strong base structure of knowledge just yet.  He suggests that students should start small, building a strong foundation of knowledge using an interest based approach so that they can eventually build up to thinking in the way experts do, allowing themselves to utilize that strong foundation to reach even higher levels of thinking.  



Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2021). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how The mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass.