Expanding Depth and Breadth

Expanding the depth and breadth of learning has to do with enhancing students’ conceptualizations of the basic course material.  Instructors are very familiar with the pressure to cover material (Garland & Kolkmeyer, 2011), but often we want to do more than just cover it—we want to change the way students think about the material in our courses and, on days when we’re feeling particularly ambitious, we may even hope that our course makes a lasting impression on the way students engage with the world.  Yet, the semester is only so long, and there is only so much time in class, so we often end up feeling like we’ve come up short.  In spite of limited resources and demands on our time, which are unlikely to go away, there are, nevertheless, several ways in which instructors can work to create opportunities to expand depth and breadth: by piquing students’ curiosity, getting them involved in the learning process, and giving them choices.

To get off to a good start, when planning your syllabus or course, think about your topic in terms of problems and puzzles that will pique students’ curiosity.  In his seminal book on teaching in higher education, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes successful teachers as those who can put their finger on the captivating problems of their discipline.  Bain quotes a professor who said, “It’s sort of Socratic… you begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up” (Bain, 2004, p. 40).  The instructor’s role is to then guide students through the process of untangling the knots using the methods of their discipline. 

Instructors may want to assign student presentations as a way of expanding the depth and breadth of learning (Shaw, 1999), as research has shown that students learn better when they are required to actively assimilate and process information (De Grez, Valcke, & Roozen, 2009).  As teachers, we know from experience how much better we seem to know a topic after we have prepared to teach it.  Bain points out that, even when the task is to convey the basic facts about a topic, the best teachers seem to do this from an inquiry-minded stance.  He cites another professor who reported, “I have to think about why anyone would want to remember particular pieces of information.  What does this fact help you understand?  What problems does it help you address?” (p. 30).  When students are responsible for conveying some of the course content to their peers through presentations, they actively engage with the puzzles and problems of the discipline.

A second strategy for increasing depth and breadth is to get students involved in their own learning.  Research shows that students feel more engaged in class, perform better on assessments, and retain knowledge for longer when they are active participants in the learning process (Beghetto, 2004; Liu, Bridgeman & Adler, 2012).  Active learning takes many shapes (check out our activity database for more examples and ideas), but one popular classroom activity is the case study method.  In case-based instruction, students are presented with a real or fictitious (but realistic) narrative centering on a problem.  Case-based instruction originated at Harvard Law School (McManus, 1986) and continues to be a very popular method of teaching, particularly at professional schools where the goal is to train students to be decision-makers and leaders in high-stakes scenarios (Mayo, 2002; Ronstadt, 1977).  The existing literature documents the use of the case study method in fields as diverse as nursing (Cronin, 2014), psychology (Mayo, 2002; McManus, 1986), business (Ronstadt, 1977), and science (Zeakes, 1989).  Case-studies are useful instructional tools for several reasons: 1) because they relate to real-world problems, students are more engaged and motivated to participate; 2) they activate students’ prior experiences and knowledge; and 3) they are often taught alongside more traditional supplementary materials (such as book chapters and articles) that provide useful conceptual background on the case. When cases are taught as in-class exercises, students are often asked to begin by listing the key tenets of the case.  The instructor’s role is to guide them in using the lens and tools of the discipline to analyze the case (Mayo, 2002).  

Thirdly, instructors aiming to increase depth and breadth should add freedom of choice to their pedagogical toolkit. Learning is more likely to happen if students feel as if they are electing to learn, or at least electing something about the manner in which they learn (Bain, 2004; Wolters, 1998).  Having set up a fascinating question for study, the instructor should step back and give students control over how they display evidence of their learning whenever possible.  For example, if you have chosen the topic of study, perhaps give your students the choice of writing a policy memo, a research brief, or creating a short Youtube video that disseminates the main concepts they’ve learned. Additionally, if you’ve decided it’s important to assign homework so that students continue to engage with concepts outside of class, maybe they can have the choice of working individually or in a team.

 Increasing depth and breadth may sound like a tall order, but it is eminently doable when an instructor is armed with the right resources and pedagogical stance.  Presenting topics and crafting assignments in ways that appeal to students’ natural curiosity, implementing activity-based learning during class-time, and giving students choices when possible are three smart strategies to make a lasting impression in your class.


Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education 




Bain, K. (2004).  What the best college teachers do.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press. 

Beghetto, R. A. (2004).  Toward a more complete picture of student learning:  Assessing students’ motivational beliefs.  Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 9(15), retrieved July 28, 2014 from: http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=9&n=15

Cronin, C. (2014).  Using case study research as a rigorous form of inquiry.  Nurse Researcher, 21(5), 19-27.

De Grez, L., Valcke, M., & Roozen, I. (2009). The impact of goal orientation, self-reflection and personal characteristics on the acquisition of oral presentation skills. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 24(3), 293-306.

Garland , L. & Kolkmeyer, K. (2011). A culture of conversation: Faculty talk as meaningful assessment of learning communities. TETYC, 231-243. 

Liu, O. L., Bridgeman, B., & Adler, R. M.  (2012).  Measuring learning outcomes in higher education:  Motivation matters.  Educational Researcher, 41(9), 352-362.

Mayo, J. A. (2002).  Case-based instruction: A technique for increasing conceptual application in introductory psychology.  Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 15, 65-74.

McManus, J. L. (1986).  “Live” case study/journal record in adolescent psychology.  Teaching of Psychology, 13(2), 70-74.

Ronstadt, R. (1977).  The art of case analysis: A guide to the diagnosis of business situations.  Dover, MA: Lord Publishing.

Shaw, V.N. (1999). Reading, presentation, and writing skills in content courses. College Teaching, 47(4), 153-157. 

Wolters, C. A. (1998).  Self-regulated learning and college students’ regulation of motivation.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 224-235. 

Zeakes, S. J. (1989).  Case studies in biology.  College Teaching, 37, 33-35.


Further Resources:

  • Ausubel, D. P. (1977).  The facilitation of meaningful verbal learning in the classroom.  Educational Psychology, 12(2), 162-178.
  • Bruner, J. S. (1960).  The process of education.  New York: Vintage Books.
  • Mitra, B., Lewin-Jones, J., Barrett, H., & Williamson, S. (2010).  The use of video to enable deep learning.  Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 15(4), 405-414. 
  • Tempelaar, D., Wosnitza, M., Volet, S., Rienties, B., Giesbers, B. & Gijselears, W. (2013).  The role of self- and social directed goals in a problem-based, collaborative learning context. Higher Education, 66(2), 253-267.