Blog 7

Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning: A False Dichotomy?

Jon Sufrin

Jon Sufrin, LA & PS

It’s been more than thirty years since one of the dominant paradigms of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) emerged: the dichotomy between Deep Approaches to Learning and Surface Approaches to Learning. Type either or both terms into any search engine—academic or general—and it will quickly return many thousands of results explaining the two terms. I’d argue that the concepts and their use reveal a fundamental way teachers think about the practice of teaching itself. They represent extremes; but resonant ones. Moreover, it is clear which is privileged—the deep approach. What teaching philosophy would proclaim an intention to develop a surface approach to learning?

The concepts of Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning were defined first in Ference Marton’s The Experience of Learning (1984), and again later in Noel Entwistle’s oft-quoted Understanding Classroom Learning (1987). Entwistle, also a co-author of the 1984 project, characterized them as follows:

Deep Approach:

  • Intention to Understand
  • Vigorous interaction with content
  • Relate new ideas to previous knowledge
  • Relate concepts to everyday experience
  • Relate evidence to conclusions
  • Examine the logic of the argument.

Surface Approach:

  • Intention to complete task requirements
  • Memorize information needed for assessments
  • Treat task as an external imposition
  • Unreflectiveness about purpose or strategies
  • Focus on discrete elements without integration
  • Failure to distinguish principles from examples (60)

This list has been widely adopted and repeated by other educational researchers. Entwistle was particularly keen to underline that “It is the approach that is categorized, not the student” (61). That is why the dichotomy is characterized as a difference in approach; these are choices students make, not descriptions of the students themselves.

But Marton and Entwistle also noted a third approach to learning, one that combined the two precepts. They called it the Strategic Approach, and described it as one where “deep and surface approaches were both used.” This approach is consciously chosen based on a specific motivation: “to obtain the highest possible marks” Entwistle (1987) argued that this approach would be highly successful if performed at a “moderate level” but would resemble a surface approach if taken too far (69), and described it as follows:

Strategic Approach:

  • Intention to obtain the highest possible grades
  • Use previous exam papers to predict questions
  • Be alert to cues about marking schemes
  • Organize time and distribute effort to greatest effect
  • Ensure conditions and materials for studying appropriate (60)

This approach is one university teachers should recognize, perhaps in both its moderate and extreme forms.

But what I want to argue here is that a strategic approach is more than a sub-category of Deep/Surface approaches, it has actually become the default model. In fact, it is so much a part of our students lived experience that it ought to be consciously considered every time we reflect on our teaching and on our course design. The longer I teach, the more I find that strategic approaches to learning dominate my students’ approach. A deep approach may represent idealized learning (Entwistle noted that “very few students seem to use that full range” [60]) but a strategic approach is nearly always part of student’s calculations, whether we are talking a deep or surface methodology.

Recently, Gail Frost and Maureen Connolly explored just how much strategic approaches to learning have become internalized in our students. In their article “The Road Less Travelled? Pathways from Passivity to Agency in Student Learning,” Frost and Connolly outline how they used practices of reflective learning to understand more about how students approached the material and the assignments on their 4th Year service-based learning course. Students were asked to keep a reflective journal on their experiences in the course, a practice the authors have found conducive to a deep approach to learning. About 100 students also took an in-depth questionnaire designed by Entwistle to help identify learning approaches. The authors write that the questionnaire in particular revealed “the majority of our students are ‘strategic’ learners: they are motivated to achieve the highest grade possible and are very alert to assessment practices” (49).

This fits with what I’ve seen in the classroom myself. Students see assignments—formative or summative—as a series of hoops to jump through, and are, as Frost and Connolly put it, “invested in a mastery relationship with subject matter that makes grade procurement the evidence of this mastery” (53). The two found a percentage of students who were open to a deep approach; in my own admittedly anecdotal experience, even the most advanced students are usually invested in strategy first; they may be capable of deep learning, but are rarely motivated solely by it. I do not say the deep approach to learning taken purely for its own sake has disappeared, but it is endangered and becoming rarer. The few examples I can call to mind from recent classes were all mature students, coming back to school after retirement.

It’s important to note that I don’t blame our students at all for making these calculations. As Enwistle noted, students truly committed to deep approaches for their own sake are rare. The ideals, in fact, can be traced back to Rousseau and Émile (1762) but Rousseau was a Romantic (and of course even he acknowledged his own idealism), whereas our students, can, increasingly, no longer afford that kind of sentiment. They have to make strategic decisions in how they spend their time, and they are right to do so.

So that returns me to my point. Connolly and Frost argue that they “remain committed to the processes of deep learning” and believe that with effective course and assignment design we can wean an increasing (they do not claim all) number of students from strategic approaches. And as they explicitly note, they are aware of the “reality” of strategic learners (53). But they also position the strategic approaches as a fundamentally problematic (“a strange and internally reproductive tautology”) and hope to include a love of deep approaches for their own sake (53). To me, this makes the title of the article partly ironic; I imagine “The Road Less Travelled” is intended to refer to the students and deep approaches to learning, but when it comes to the dominant narrative within the teaching profession, their conclusions reflect accepted practice. The ideals of the Deep Approach are privileged and encoded into our syllabi, our teaching reflections and our research, and strategic approaches are relegated to the private sector.

I think this comes from viewing strategic approaches to learning as a kind of game, a subversion of what is really essential about the process. It remains, in this view, “a very well-organised form of Surface approach” something which places it in the undesirable part of the Deep/Surface dichotomy. And yet, the world our students live in is one of debt, of education as an end and not as a means, and of different motivations and priorities than ours as educators. One might argue that, rather than being passive learners, students are actually demonstrating agency in making decisions about how to maximize their university experience so it is integrated with the rest of their lives. Moreover, successfully applied, a strategic approach also demonstrates a lot of the skills I want to teach: conscious awareness of course requirements, time management, and the ability to follow instructions — to name a few.

So where I end up, after reflection on this is about how Sydney’s University of Technology website puts it: that our ideal really ought to be “to take a deep approach along with an achieving approach.” (My emphasis). Our courses and philosophies should always address both. As tuition continues to rise and as credentialism creep increases pressure on students to attend graduate or professional school, a strategic approach to decision making will continue be a central approach for many, even most of our students. Thinking deliberately about tying key elements of course work to summative evaluation (such as course reading, or essay drafts) and explaining clearly all the stages in assessment and evaluation and what they are intended to accomplish are just a few of the strategies to this end. And careful consideration of the strategic approach will enable us to work on some best practices that address the more negative aspects of a strategic approach to learning, such as course shopping. The extremes (as per Entwistle) should be discouraged, but not the moderate practice.

Works Cited

Atherton J S. Learning and Teaching; Deep and Surface learning. 2013. Retrieved 9 October       2015. Online.

Entwistle, Noel. Understanding Classroom Learning. London: Hodder and Staughton, 1987.


Frost, Gail and Connolly, Maureen. “The Road Less Travelled? Pathways from Passivity to

Agency in Student Learning.” Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching Vol. 8 (2015).

47-53. Online.

Marton, F., Hounsell, D. & Entwistle, N. The Experience of Learning: Implications for

            Teaching and Studying in Higher Education. Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1984.


Students’ approaches to learning. 11 December 2012. University of Technology in Sydney.

Online. Retrieved 5 October   2015.

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4 comments on “Blog 7

  1. This is a timely topic, Jon and one that opens up possibilities for teaching approaches that may speak to both concerns about how our students are learning as well as the concerns that students have about what they are learning.

    There are certain practical elements that our students are facing, as you point out here, which we cannot ignore. Debt. Precarious employment. All of these issues need to be dealt with. Strategic learning is important to some extent in facing these problems. However, there are also other realities as well that only “deep thinking” can address. One of the goals that I always strive for in my own classroom is to demonstrate how that “deep thinking” will help them down the road. In doing so, I hope to show how fruitful that less traveled road can be. The key is in what you have intimated here: transparency in teaching practices and in course design.

  2. You give a good account of the approaches, Jon. My own way of addressing the strategic approach is to design as many elements of the learning environment as possible in a way that suggests that a student’s best strategy is to “go deep”.

    I try to back that up with a lot of support for those who do make the effort to go deep. Many students don’t know how to go deep, but various kinds of assignments, evaluations, and tools (like SPARK) can help with that.

  3. Thank you Jon for this most excellent post.

    Your post made me think about the complicit role the education system plays in generating strategic learners. Often we educators are, too, driven by our assessment plan, and I see this to some extent as counterproductive to learning. I have always felt a bit uneasy about the need for observable and measurable learning outcomes. Don’t get me wrong; I get the reasons why that is important for the context we operate in. Yet it is a systemic need, in my view, that diminishes learning to behavioural outcomes when learning is in fact a demanding, non-linear cognitive endeavour that takes shape in ways that are not always readily observable.

    Of course, weaving our assessments as part of the learning activities, i.e., aligning them closely with what goes on in class, can help ease that tension, as well as building lots of formative assessment and feedback along the way. The irony is that the amount of formatives we can sustain often depends on how strategic we are with our own time (hint: remember the 40/40/20)?

    1. Hi Genevieve, thanks for commenting.

      Yes, a fair point about our own time constraints. It’s especially relevant to think about this in context of the 50 students/3-hour seminar model that has made a recent appearance.

      The “best practices” part is what I hope results in more efficient use of our own time. Let’s combine our own deep/strategic approaches to teaching and see what we can come up with.

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