Conceptions of learning

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Roger Säljö, in his (1976) research, asked adult learners what they understood by learning. As a result, he identified five conceptions of learning, describing learning as:

  • a quantitiative increase in knowledge
  • memorising
  • acquiring facts, skills and methods
  • making sense or abstract meaning
  • interpreting and understanding reality in a different way.

These conceptions of learning have led further to the development of the concepts of surface learning and deep learning by Ramsden (1992), Biggs (1987, 1993) and Entwistle (1981) and others. These terms refer to the difference in how learners approach learning and develop their level of understanding. A table showing the differences between these two approaches to learning can be found on the Approaches to Study Deep and Surface webpage.

Read on for a brief overview of surface and deep learning as well as strategic learning.

Surface Learning

Photo by Tanya Puntti

The surface approach to learning comes from “the intention to get the task out of the way with minimum trouble while appearing to meet course requirements” (Biggs, 2003, p. 14). This often includes rote learning content, filling an essay with detail rather than discussion and listing points rather than providing background or context to the work. In brief, surface learning can include:

  • learning to specifically meet course requirements;
  • studying only information relevant to a topic;
  • memorising facts and figures to repeat in a test or exam; and
  • no linking or connection of learning.

Deep Learning

Photo by Luz A. Villa

In contrast, using a deep approach comes “from a felt need to engage the task appropriately and meaningfully, so the student tries to use the most appropriate cognitive activities for handling it” (Biggs, 2003, p. 16). When using this approach, students make a real effort to connect with and understand what they are learning. This requires a strong base knowledge for students to build on as they seek both detailed information and try to understand the bigger picture. In brief, deep learning occurs when a learner:

  • seeks to understand and connect concepts;
  • relates ideas to previous knowledge and experience;
  • explores links between evidence and conclusions; and
  • critiques arguments and examines rationale.

Strategic Learning

Strategic learning, can be considered to be a balance between deep and surface learning. It includes:

  • learning that is targeted to achieve highest possible grades in a course;
  • a focus on assessment requirements and criteria;
  • an effort to understand knowledge to demonstrate learning; and
  • focusing on the perceived preferences of lecturers.

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Some may place a negative connotation on surface learning whilst viewing deep learning in a more positive light.

  • Do you believe there is a place for surface learning? For example, to lay a base knowledge or facts for deep learning later on.
  • How do you view these three approaches, surface, deep and strategic to learning in your specific context?
Can you think of examples of these?


Extra resources

  • Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at University (2nd ed.). London: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
This resource provides more detail and includes four different aspects (workload, assessment and learning objectives, teaching, and choice) that research has shown can influence how students approach learning.