November 19th, 2012

Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning: Getting Students to Understand the Difference


Sometimes our understanding of deep learning isn’t all that deep. Typically, it’s defined by what it is not. It’s not memorizing only to forget and it’s not reciting or regurgitating what really isn’t understood and can’t be applied. The essence of deep learning is understanding—true knowing. That’s a good start but it doesn’t do much to help students see the difference between deep and surface learning or to help persuade them that one is preferable to the other.

Those differences are further obscured and rendered unimportant when teachers use superficial measures (e.g. multiple-choice questions that test recall) to assess understanding. Why do students memorize isolated facts that they don’t really understand? Because, in many courses, that approach has rewarded them with good or at least decent grades. Until teachers stop relying on questions that can be answered with details plucked from short-term memory, there isn’t much chance that students will opt for the deep learning approaches.

Most teachers (especially those who read a blog like this) recognize that test formats directly affect the choice of study strategies. We are committed to preparing questions that require higher level thinking skills. Our students discover they can’t answer those questions with the easy information bits they’ve memorized and so they start studying differently. The problem is that without teacher guidance, students end up selecting deep learning strategies more by accident and less by design. That challenge is answered by knowing what constitutes a deep learning strategy.

In an article reporting on the success of certain test question formats to promote higher-level thinking skills, faculty researcher Kathrin Stanger-Hall includes a list of study strategies characteristic of surface and deep learning. Because students can be physically active (doing things) but without much cognitive involvement, her list differentiates between cognitively passive learning behaviors and cognitively active ones. She includes references to the literature justifying this distinction. Below are some samples from each list. The full list can be accessed via this article:

Cognitively passive learning behaviors (surface learning approaches)
I came to class.
I reviewed my class notes.
I made index cards.
I highlighted the text.

Cognitively active learning behaviors (deep learning approaches)
I wrote my own study questions.
I tried to figure out the answer before looking it up.
I closed my notes and tested how much I remembered.
I broke down complex processes step-by-step.

Lists that are this behaviorally focused do oversimplify complex processes like deep learning, but they are still enormously helpful at making clear what deep learning might look like when you try to do it. Researcher Stanger-Hall included both kinds of behaviors on a survey that she had students complete at the beginning, during and at the end of the course. Her students identified which of the behaviors they were using as they prepared for course exams. It’s a creative assessment technique she used to document whether having to answer some test questions not formatted as multiple-choice questions changed the approaches students said they were using to study. Her data show that it did. (Look for highlights from this study in an article in the December issue of The Teaching Professor.) Not only did students in the experimental group use more of the deep learning approaches, but their exam scores were significantly better than those in the control group. When you can show students that certain approaches to studying improve exam scores, you’ve given them a compelling reason to try them out.

A final thought
Maybe I’ve been writing this blog for too long. I’m starting to repeat points made in previous posts. But it is terribly important that in explicit and concerted ways we make students aware of themselves as learners. We must regularly ask, not only “What are you learning?” but “How are you learning?” We must confront them with the effectiveness (more often ineffectiveness) of their approaches. We must offer alternatives and then challenge students to test the efficacy of those approaches. We can tell them the alternatives work better but they will be convinced if they discover that for themselves.

Reference: Stanger-Hall, K. F. (2012). Multiple-choice exams: An obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 11 (3), 294-306.