Summary of Learning Approaches

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In exploring adult learning there are several key factors to consider when thinking about how people learn and the ways in which they make meaning of information and experience. The first is the approach to learning. This can occur on different levels. The most significant being a deep learning approach compared to a surface learning approach.

Surface Learning

  • 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

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 other 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

This is for those seeking more information, it is not core course material. 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.


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