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Research on student learning at university can be very useful for improving university teaching and learning. The distinction between deep approaches and surface approaches to learning is particularly useful for teachers who want to understand their students' learning and create learning environments which encourage students to achieve desired learning outcomes.
What's the difference between a deep approach, a surface approach and an achieving approach to learning?
When students are taking a deep approach they:
- develop understanding and make sense of what they're learning;
- create meaning and make ideas their own.
In their learning strategies they:
- focus on the meaning of what they're learning;
- try to develop their own understanding;
- relate ideas together and make connections with previous experiences;
- ask themselves questions about what they're learning, discuss their ideas with others and enjoy comparing different perspectives;
- are likely to explore the subject beyond the immediate requirements;
- are likely to have positive emotions about learning.
When students are taking a surface approach they:
- aim to reproduce information to meet external (assessment) demands;
- may aim to meet requirements minimally, and appear to be focused on passing the assessment instead of (rather than as well as) learning.
In their learning strategies they:
- focus on pieces of information in an atomistic way, rather than making connections between them and seeing the structure of what is being learned;
- limit their study to the bare essentials;
- may rote learn information for the purpose of reproducing it;
- are likely to have negative emotions about learning.
A key distinction is that a deep approach involves the intention to understand and create meaning from what is being learned, whereas a surface approach involves an intention to reproduce. Strategies such as memorising can be part of either a deep approach or a surface approach, depending on the intention.
There is also a third approach, called an achieving approach. When students adopt an achieving approach they:
- enhance their ego and self esteem through competition;
- obtain high grades and other rewards.
In their learning strategies they:
- identify the assessment criteria and estimate the learning effort required to achieve a particular grade;
- follow up all suggested readings and/or exercises;
- schedule their time and organise their working space,
- behave as a model student;
- operate strategically in their selection of peers.
Most university teachers say they prefer their students to take a deep approach along with an achieving approach, but students often take surface approaches. How students approach a learning task will strongly influence the quality of their learning outcomes. As surface approaches lead generally to low retention and an inability to use information in new contexts, and deep and achieving approaches (together) to a better understanding, the implication is clear. Good teaching should encourage a deep approach (together with an achieving approach) at the expense of a surface approach. An achieving approach can be adopted alongside either a deep approach or a surface approach. When used with a deep approach, it can result in very good learning outcomes. When used with a surface approach, it simply makes the surface approach more efficient.
The positive news for teachers is that there are things we can do to influence the approaches that students take - to discourage surface approaches and encourage deep approaches. This is because students' approaches are not fixed characteristics. People often believe that an approach is characteristic of a student and there are 'deep' students and 'surface' students. But student learning research shows that students' approaches can vary according to students' perceptions of their learning environment. A student who takes a deep approach to one subject, or even part of a subject, may take a surface approach in relation to something else. We can influence students' approaches by the way we design subjects and courses, particularly the assessment. Inquiring into the approaches that your students are taking and the reasons they give for taking these approaches can be very enlightening, and an excellent way of informing changes to teaching and subjects.
Here are some common reasons (Biggs 1999; Prosser & Trigwell 1999; Ramsden 1992):
- Assessment rewards students for taking a surface approach - eg. exams can be passed through the rote learning of facts or lists of information;
- Students don't receive adequate feedback on their progress;
- The subject is taught in a way which doesn't make clear its overall structure or the connections between topics, so it's harder for students to make these connections;
- The subject doesn't take students' prior knowledge into account, so students are not able to engage meaningfully;
- The subject contains too much content for the time available - lots of topics are covered but there is little time to engage with new material more deeply;
- Teaching is teacher-focused and emphasises transmission of information;
- Teaching encourages cynicism, anxiety or other negative feelings about the subject;
- Students don't see any intrinsic value in learning the subject and teaching doesn't help them to see the value;
- Students have been successful by using surface approaches in the past;
- Students have multiple other commitments and are trying to do the bare minimum necessary to pass the subject.
Teachers and subject designers can influence these factors to varying degrees. For example, we can discourage cynicism and encourage intrinsic interest by sharing our own passion and enthusiasm for the subject, emphasising its relevance, devising interesting assessments which help students to make connections between the subject and the 'real world' of work or the profession.
You can discourage a surface approach by:
- matching the level of the subject and the pace at which it is presented with students' prior knowledge. Because of the uses of surface approaches to learning in previous subjects, many students will not have the expected prior knowledge at the start of a subject;
- ensuring that assessment tasks are aligned with the desired learning response (eg. reduce success for rote recall of theories and facts and the chance for question spotting). If students believe assessments are just machinery for deriving grades, they will jump the hoops and in return they will get their qualifications. A deep approach is excluded;
- keeping the workload to a level that allows students the wider exploration of ideas and the development of interest that characterises deep approaches to learning;
- matching actual and desired administrative requirements (eg. does the system punish late submission more than it punishes error?).
You can encourage a deep approach by:
- designing assessment which rewards students for understanding, making connections, etc.;
- encouraging active engagement with learning tasks, eg. students are engaged in inquiry or creative production, explore complex issues, problems or case studies of practice;
- bringing out the structure of the subject explicitly and encouraging students to make connections with (or challenge) what they already know;
- giving students opportunities to discuss, debate and compare their understandings with each other and with the teaching staff;
- giving students opportunities to gain qualitative feedback, especially but not only on their assessed work, rather than just giving marks or grades;
- giving students reasonable opportunities to make reasonable choices about what and how they will learn;
- aligning learning objectives, teaching and learning approaches and assessment to assist students to achieve the learning goals;
- helping students to perceive clear goals and standards for learning;
- designing the subject in a way which matches students' prior knowledge and learning skills and helps students to develop further;
- using student-focused teaching approaches which emphasise changes in student understanding, and help students to become aware of critical differences between their prior understandings about the subject matter and new understandings or ideas which the subject is seeking to develop;
- teaching in ways which encourage students' intrinsic interest - showing your enthusiasm.
If you are tutoring or are only responsible for part of a subject, there are still things that you can do. You'll find some practical suggestions in:
- The Planning and Preparing for Teaching and the Managing and Enhancing Teaching sections of this site;
- Survival Guide for New Academics;
- Teaching Matters videos on lectures or tutorials.
If you'd like to participate in some face-to-face and online discussions and explore students' approaches to learning in one of your subjects, you could do the student learning module in the GCHETL.
If you'd like to read more about approaches to learning and the factors which encourage deep or surface approaches, the books listed above are all very useful. Ramsden (1992) and Biggs (1999) are good starting points.
There are many web sites which include papers or case studies of subjects which try to encourage deep approaches to learning. Try a Google advanced search, looking for the phase 'deep approach to learning' and using other keywords - like the name of your discipline area.
The ideas on this page come from the following sources:
Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for quality learning at university. SRHE & Open University Press.
Marton, F., Hounsell, D. & Entwistle, N. (1997) The Experience of Learning: Implications for Teaching and Studying in Higher Education. Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press.
Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.
Prosser, M, & Trigwell, K. (1999) Understanding learning and teaching: the experience in Higher Education. SRHE & Open University Press.