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.

  • Dave Mount

    Re your last paragraph, don't worry about repetition. While I've been doing LCT for a few years now, I just subscribed to the blog recently. There will always be an audience (ever-growing, I hope) of people who need to hear this!

  • Romy Klessen

    I thank you — both for validating the existence of the problem, and for links to further reading. Students regularly ask for such "learning aids" as study guides and even word banks, from which to choose terms.
    I teach in a two-year Media Design program. In four semesters of study, our students must learn the common lingo of the industry, get a solid foundation in many types of media, use well the basics of about 13 kinds of software, understand fundamentals of visual design and marketing strategies, keep their laptops running efficiently, communicate with peers and clients effectively, and discern which among all of these applies in any given situation.
    Many come from high school without relevant experience in applied learning, creative thinking, nor problem-solving.

    • Georgina Julious

      I agree with you that many students come from high school without relevant applieed learning and creative thinking. After our exams, we have a discussion on the content the students missed and I always here, "well that is not the way it was stated in the book." I smile and continue with the review and I remind the students that they need to apply the knowledge they have learned to the exam questions. Comprehension and knowledge questions will not help them pass the final evaluation exam which is the RN-NCLEX exam. Teaching this generation of students to think deeply has been very challenging. This is a great topic for discussion.

      • Craig Leslie

        Will you be kind enough to refresh my memory as to the acronym RN-NCLEX? I also agree that we must find ways to engage students to own the course. When one owns something, he or she invests time, money and devotion to the care of that which is owned.

  • jmpangborn

    I also am moved to write by your "Maybe Ive been writing this blog for too long": I feel I can count on you to set me thinking critically about what I do on a regular basis, so please keep on. Some things just bear repeating, and the fact that so many of us perpetuate the very things we complain about is surely one of them.

  • Greg

    Good discussion topic!

    I have learned many assessment lessons the hard way, and even invented a few "how-not-to's" of my own. Some of the courses I taught were the computer technology certification exam preparation type courses (e.g. windows o/s administration, server setups and admin, machine virtualization, etc.) so the use of online testing was common.

    There are many ways to "stretch” the basic M/C, T/F, & fill-in question formats such as complex multiple choice, or correctly ordering a sequence of steps using matching, or using diagrams, or audio or video clips in the test question.

    My students would really gripe about these types of questions because “they were way too hard.”, or “they make me think about the material.” When we took up the test in a review class, upon reflection, most students agreed that those particular questions tested for much more than simple recall, and required a deeper understanding and application of the knowledge.

    One way to “stretch” the online testing format is to use the MC question type with the following adjustments:

    1.Use more than the “standard-four” choices – ten might not be uncommon for a complex question, with multiple correct answers
    2.Adjust the scoring to prevent guessing, or to allow for “more correct than other” choices
    3.Adding an audio or video clip, or link to a resource to clarify the question can help students understand the question better – this would work if the test was an open book type test.
    4.Providing feedback or “hints” for incorrect responses and allowing a second attempt, but not for full marks for that question

    And this is assuming that this format is appropriate for learning outcome assessment – it's not a magic bullet. Even a complex multiple choice question in a case study context is still very limited. Better assessment tools are the case studies or practical tests, where the foundation knowledge has to be applied in a new situation.

    As far as your concern for repeating yourself goes – DON’T WORRY! As a previous reader noted, for many of us, this is a new article. And as a retired colleague pointed out to me about my own teaching, repetition can be a good thing for students. “First, you tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them. Then you tell ‘em. Then you tell them what you told ‘em!”

    Thanks for the article!

  • Laura S

    Hi, I tried to find "The full list [of study strategies that] can be accessed via this article:" but could not find any such list (I did find the article). I would like to pur together a survey for my students to help them review the way they study and give them more ideas for the more active study strategies. I'd like to include more than just the 8 strategies noted above. Where else might we find this list of strategies?

    • Maggie C.

      Hi Laura,
      The list is contained in Table 1 of the article:

      • Debra F.

        Thanks, Maggie. I was looking for this as well while skimming through the article.

        • dara kamal

          can get your info ?

  • Lisa noble

    As a grade 8 second language teacher, I struggle with this. I strive to produce students who can effectively communicate in their second language, both in speaking and writing. My high school counterparts are still largely focused on drill and kill memorization skills. My students are often frustrated at the switch in approaches when they reach high school. Meta cognition is hugely important for me and my learners.

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  • Denis Finnegan

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece. Transfer of learning is what comes to mind for me when I think deep learning. We must offer students ways to one, learn the content, apply it to near term problems and two, have them experiment with using the new content to far transfer problems. Ones that are not so oblivious. Research is clear that we focus too much on near transfer, probably because of time limitations. However, the critique of business is the inability of works to think and apply what they have learned. We have caused this in our regurgitation model of education.

    Baldwin and Ford (1988) did a great job on a Meta-evaluation and are often cited as the 10% guys. Meaning they suggested as little as 10% may transfer from the classroom to the job. While this is an older study, it is often cited in current research. I think practically speaking we all could agree that much of what we teach does not transfer, sadly.
    As an instructional designer, I can see the challenge. As we guide folks in the development of courses we look for the learning objectives that are primary and focus the course on them. Seldom do we have macro objectives, which are threaded through the degree program that can foster the deep learning.

    Another body of literature that is fascinating and supports deep learning is Situate Cognition. There is a great series of video problems that young children use to identify and solve problems. In these vignettes there are numerous real world problems to be solved that “situate” the learning in a different fashion from the traditional classroom sterile approach. Bottom line is they allow for real world application if multiple learning concepts and foster deep learning.

    So having a far transfer focus and situating the learning are keys to deep learning in my opinion.

  • kg

    It is nice to be in the company of all of you, and to know that so many of us "fight the good fight" to continue trying to maintain a high bar and teach to it. I try to err on the side of less "declarative" knowledge tasks and questions (or stuff living at the bottom of Bloom's), vs. way more pushing toward higher critical thinking skills. Since many of my courses are online, this becomes even more challenging, I think. Another challenge is that students don't know what they don't know (a la Yogi Berra), and – even at the college level – it is often up to us to help them decode this with them. Thanks for listening… K. Gradel

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  • Aaron D. Franklin

    I like hearing teachers babble, especially when it comes to the question of how a human being learns a skill, any skill. I've come to realize that most teachers don't actually know how to do anything–after all, if they could make money doing anything else, they would. Since they can't, they teach. And then they wonder why their students aren't getting anything out of their classes. Face facts, people–it's because you don't have anything to provide. Crappy people produce crappy products. It's true in any industry, including teaching. No–especially teaching.

    Go learn a marketable skill yourself before you teach somebody else how to do anything for a living. My life improved exponentially when I finally dropped out of school and learned how to do things. I never even bothered to get an associate's degree. I spend a great deal of my time and effort working with young people and demonstrating how overrated "grades" are and how unnecessary "education" is–not to mention how useless teachers are. You classroom people are making this much harder than it needs to be. People learn by doing. They don't learn by sitting in a classroom and hearing some out-of-touch ninny read from a textbook and babble about theories. For a young person to develop a skill, all they need to do is…do it. Over and over, again and again. Until they get good enough at it to make money from it.

    You do realize that the point of education is to prepare a young person to make money, right? I hear so many teachers babble idealistic nonsense about "learning" that it becomes obvious that the overwhelming number of you have no clue how to actually make money. After all, you don't make money by teaching… Just shows you how little your so-called "education" is worth…and in the end, it shows how little you're worth.

    I come from a family of teachers, by the way. I have an inside look behind enemy lines. I know how you people think. It's all we ever talk about at family get-togethers. My mother, my father, my sister, my sister-in-law. Everywhere I look, I see a teacher. They range from kindergarten to community college. And they all talk about is…teaching. And yes, I've expressed my displeasure with them before. And no, they've never had an adequate response to any of my challenges. Will you? I'm waiting….

    • Kathleen Wolf

      Just curious what exactly it is you do and why exactly you are so insistent on knocking an entire profession. People learn in various ways. Some actually do better with classroom instruction. And money does not tell the whole story of a person's worth, I'm sure that's also something you can learn out in the real world.

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  • Jeane

    Historically, our patterns of thinking have changed over time. Teachers seeking deeper learning are highly commended as our learning and thinking patterns have changed. The best non-textbook book I’ve read on the subject is Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit by Thomas J. Elpel.

    This book dicusses mental processes as layers of consciousness as we become sentient beings. These mental processes are similar to various patterns of thinking. After reading the book, I could evaluate my own thinking and that of others, a skill that remains helpful in communicating ideas, and in understanding various perspectives and learning processes.

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