Deep and Surface Learning

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Learning and teaching theories focused on approaches to learning consider the link between the way learners approach learning and their level of understanding. Developed from research originally undertaken by Marton and Saljo (mid 70's), and further developed by Entwistle (early 80's), Biggs (later 80's) and Ramsden (early 90's).

Surface Learning

Photo by Tanya Puntti
  • Learning to specifically meet course requirements
  • Studying unrelated bits of knowledge
  • Memorising facts and figures to repeat
  • No linking or connection of learning

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, p14). This often includes rote learning content, filling an essay with detail rather than discussion and list points rather than providing background or context to the work.

Deep Learning

  • Learning that seeks to understand and connect the concepts
  • Relates ideas to previous knowledge and experience
  • Explores links between evidence and conclusions
  • Critiques arguments and examines rationale

Photo by Luz A. Villa

The 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, p16). 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 then build on seeking both detailed information and trying to understand the bigger picture.

Strategic Learning

  • Learning to achieve highest possible grades in a course
  • Focused on assessment requirements and criteria
  • Effort to understand knowledge to demonstrate learning
  • Focused on perceived preferences of lecturer

Strategic learning, can be considered to be a balance between the two approaches.

To ponder...

Some may place a negative connotation on surface learning whilst viewing deep learning in a more positive light but there is a place for surface learning to lay a base knowledge or terminology for deep learning to build on.

How do you view the approaches to learning in your own context?

Can you think of examples of where surface, deep and strategic learning occurs in your own context ?

Further Reading and Links

Approaches to Study “Deep” and “Surface” - an easy to read site described by the author, James Atherton as a "quick and dirty" overview exploring deep and surface approaches to learning

Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning - a page from within The Higher Education Academy's UK website that provides another perspective and more information although it does take the crude viewpoint that "deep is good, surface is bad, and we should teach in a way that encourages students to adopt a deep approach; although achieving this is not so easy".


Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at University (2nd ed.). London: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.