May 26th, 2011

Deep and Surface Learning: Revisiting What Educational Research Tells Us


Deep and surface learning are terms familiar to most faculty. What is known by most is that these terms describe two different approaches to learning. Beyond that, most faculty knowledge is sketchy, although there has been quite a bit of educational research on the topic. I’ve been reviewing this seminal research—it is interesting and worth a revisit so that we might “deepen” our knowledge of what’s involved.

In a 1976 study by Marton and Saljo students read material from an academic text and then described what they had been reading. I like how Ramsden summarizes what Marton and Saljo discovered. “They found evidence of qualitative differences in the outcome of students’ reading. The differences were not about how much the students could remember, but about the meaning the author had tried to convey. Some students fully understood the argument being advanced and could relate it to the evidence being used to support it; others partly understood the author’s message; others could only mention some of the remembered details.”

When students concentrated on memorizing the facts, focused on the discrete elements of the reading, failed to differentiate between evidence and information, were unreflective and saw the task as an external imposition, Marton and Saljo characterized their approach as “surface” learning. When students focused on what the author meant, related new information to what they already knew and had experienced, worked to organize and structure the content and saw the reading as an important source of learning, Marton and Saljo characterized the approach as “deep.”

Entwistle observes that since this study, the distinction between deep and surface approaches has been “widely confirmed” across many different subject areas. I think the essence of this research is well known because the deep and surface approaches are so easily observed in our classrooms. We have all had students who can recite answers but can’t explain them.

The question for teachers is how do we encourage the development and use of deep learning approaches. And here’s a case where the research contains some very useful resources, most of which are not known to faculty. For example, there are a couple of instruments that quite accurately identify which of these two approaches students are tending to use. The Study Process Questionnaire, originally developed by Biggs and subsequently revised by Biggs, Kember and Leung (reference at the end) uses a Likert-type scale and asks students to rate items like: “I see no point in learning material which is not likely to be in the examination.” “I find the best way to pass examinations is to try to remember answers to likely questions.” “I test myself on important topics until I understand them completely.”

Tait, Entwistle and McCune’s 18-item Approaches and Study Skills Inventory also uses a Likert-type scale and asks for ratings on items like “I work steadily through the term or semester, rather than leave it all until the last minute.” “When I’m working on a new topic, I try to see in my own mind how all the ideas fit together.” “I’m not really sure what’s important in lectures, so I try to get down all I can.”

Students who don’t use deep approaches can’t do so unless they know about these alternatives. These instruments do a great job of developing that awareness and giving students specific feedback about their approaches to learning.

Note: I don’t have space to list all the research references mentioned in this post, but these researchers are all well known, widely published on these topics and easy to track down. The two instruments and instructions on scoring them are contained in the sources listed below. You can’t use the instruments to conduct research you plan to publish without permission, but you can use them to provide students feedback.

Biggs, J., Kember, D., and Leung, D. Y. P. (2001). The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71 (1), 133-147.

The Tait, Entwistle, McCune instrument is most easily found in: Entwistle, N., Taking stock: An overview of key research findings. In Hughes, J. C. and Mighty, J., eds., Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Kingston, Ontario: School of Policy Studies, Queens University, 2010.

  • I think that good educators have always been trying to get their students to "dive deep". Bloom's taxonomy's "blooming" within education and teacher training is one instance of that.

    However school is set up and prioritizes immediate and "focal" knowledge. Polyani's work/research is fascinating and Martin and Saljo are really talking about his concept of "tacit" knowledge – personal knowledge that isn't easily quantified or transfered.

    School has to change and acknowledge the big pink elephant in the room – motivation. Until students want to be there and are learning through their own problems and concerns, tacit knowledge won't develop. School has gotten away from its purpose of creating a citizen / a person and we do that at our peril (for too many reasons to elaborate here).

    thanks for the reminder about "going deep".


  • hamlynart

    Interesting article. I have some issues though with the implication that some students are surface learners and some are not. As James Atherton points out:

    “Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface”, they are not attributes of individuals: one person may use both approaches at different times, although she or he may have a preference for one or the other.”

    If this is so, and I certainly recognise it in my own case, then perhaps the notion that these approaches can be accurately identified through something as blunt as a questionnaire becomes doubtful.

    You also write: “Students who don’t use deep approaches can’t do so unless they know about these alternatives.”
    As Atherton also points out, Ramsden, Beswick and Bowden (1986) have also identified “that efforts by teachers to convey that what they want is Deep learning only succeeds in getting Surface learners to engage in ever more complex contextualising exercises, trying to use Surface strategies to reproduce the features of the Deep approach.”

    Perhaps the issue is somewhat more complicated than your article suggests. Rather than labeling individuals, might it not be more fruitful to establish what elements of learning most readily elicit surface approaches and to redesign them in such a way that they become engrossing?

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