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Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre

Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning

Approaches to learning describe what students do when they go about learning and why they do it. The basic distinction is between a deep approach to learning, where students are aiming towards understanding, and a surface approach to learning, where they are aiming to reproduce material in a test or exam rather than actually understand it.

This theory is explored further in Tool 3 of education theories on learning by Jenni Case (2008).


The concept of preferences to different individual learning styles was introduced in an accompanying document. (See learning styles). In this document we look at the associated concept of approaches to learning. The original work on approaches to learning was carried out by Marton and Saljo (1976). Their study explored students' approaches to learning a particular task. Students were given an academic text to read, and were told that they would subsequently be asked questions on that text. The students adopted two differing approaches to learning. The first group adopted an approach where they tried to understand the whole picture and tried to comprehend and understand the academic work. These students were identified with adopting a deep approach to learning. The second group tried to remember facts contained within the text, identifying and focusing on what they thought they would be asked later. They demonstrated an approach that we would recognise as rote learning, or a superficial, surface approach.

Deep and Surface Approaches

Deep and surface approaches to learning are words that most academics will have heard. In fact the idea that students can and do take a deep or surface approach to their learning is probably one of the most used bits of educational research in higher education. It is a very powerful and useful principle that we should apply most of the time to the way we teach. It is particularly applicable in engineering, and failure to apply it and apply it properly explains how an awful lot goes wrong with the learning processes.

Simply stated, deep learning involves the critical analysis of new ideas, linking them to already known concepts and principles, and leads to understanding and long-term retention of concepts so that they can be used for problem solving in unfamiliar contexts. Deep learning promotes understanding and application for life. In contrast, surface learning is the tacit acceptance of information and memorization as isolated and unlinked facts. It leads to superficial retention of material for examinations and does not promote understanding or long-term retention of knowledge and information.

Critical to our understanding of this principle is that we should not identify the student with a fixed approach to learning, but it is the design of learning opportunity that encourages students to adopt a particular approach.

Designing for Deep Learning

Very crudely: 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.

Perhaps the major influence on the students' approach to learning is the assessment methods. It is often argued that the explicit setting of “straightforward” assessments involving short questions testing separate ideas will encourage surface learning. However, again this is not necessarily the case as even the most apparently simple assessment questions can require students to demonstrate that their knowledge can be applied. For example, students can be asked to apply the laws of Ohm, Kirchhoff etc. albeit in simple cases rather than merely to quote them. (For further information on the importance of application see Laurillard (1993)).

Basic Principles and the Approaches to Learning

The evaluation of process is very valuable in determining the depth of learning, but if we concentrate on process alone we risk losing sight of the structure of the material being learnt. Engineering, like mathematics and science, is a hierarchical subject. As argued above, there is little point in trying to comprehend Kirchhoff's 2nd Law without first developing at least a working comprehension of potential, potential difference, emf., current, etc. and the ability to apply Ohm's Law reliably. This is not to say that understanding of the subject proceeds in a simple linear fashion (the naive bricks in the wall model of learning). Working with the laws of Kirchhoff, Thévenin, Norton etc. will undoubtedly lead to a deeper understanding of earlier principles, but learning cannot start there. Attempting to work with more complex principles without a good grasp of the more basic principles from which they are built can only lead to frustration and a surface learning approach in which students attempt to memorise solutions to complex problems they cannot understand. Encouraging students to practice the application of basic principles will not force them adopt a deep approach to learning, but it at least makes it possible.

Putting theory into practice

The following table (Table 1) compiled from the work of Biggs (1999), Entwistle (1988) and Ramsden (1992) provides some very valuable characteristics of the approaches and illustrates the importance of how we manage the curriculum impacts on the learning process. For example, clearly stated academic aims, opportunities to exercise some choice and well aligned assessment strategies that help students to build confidence can be found among the factors identified as encouraging a deep approach.

Table 1 Compares the characteristics and factors that encourage Deep and Surface Approaches to learning. (Compiled from Biggs (1999), Entwistle (1988) and Ramsden (1992))
  Deep Learning Surface Learning
Definition: Examining new facts and ideas critically, and tying them into existing cognitive structures and making numerous links between ideas. Accepting new facts and ideas uncritically and attempting to store them as isolated, unconnected, items.
Characteristics Looking for meaning.

Focussing on the central argument or concepts needed to solve a problem.

Interacting actively.
Distinguishing between argument and evidence.

Making connections between different modules.

Relating new and previous knowledge.

Linking course content to real life.

Relying on rote learning.

Focussing on outwards signs and the formulae needed to solve a problem.

Receiving information passively.Failing to distinguish principles from examples.

Treating parts of modules and programmes as separate.

Not recognising new material as building on previous work.

Seeing course content simply as material to be learnt for the exam.

Encouraged by Students' Having an intrinsic curiosity in the subject.

Being determined to do well and mentally engaging when doing academic work.

Having the appropriate background knowledge for a sound foundation.

Having time to pursue interests, through good time management.

Positive experience of education leading to confidence in ability to understand and succeed.

Studying a degree for the qualification and not being interested in the subject.

Not focussing on academic areas, but emphasising others (e.g. social, sport).

Lacking background knowledge and understanding necessary to understand material.

Not enough time / too high a workload.

Cynical view of education, believing that factual recall is what is required.

High anxiety.

Encouraged by Teachers' Showing personal interest in the subject.

Bringing out the structure of the subject.

Concentrating on and ensuring plenty of time for key concepts.

Confronting students' misconceptions.Engaging students in active learning.

Using assessments that require thought, and requires ideas to be used together.

Relating new material to what students already know and understand.

Allowing students to make mistakes without penalty and rewarding effort.

Being consistent and fair in assessing declared intended learning outcomes, and hence establishing trust (see constructive alignment).

Conveying disinterest or even a negative attitude to the material.

Presenting material so that it can be perceived as a series of unrelated facts and ideas.

Allowing students to be passive.

Assessing for independent facts (short answer questions).

Rushing to cover too much material.

Emphasizing coverage at the expense of depth.

Creating undue anxiety or low expectations of success by discouraging statements or excessive workload.

Having a short assessment cycle.

The last row of the table provides us with some simple guidelines as the "do's" and "don'ts" in teaching.

A particular example is to use problem based learning. Rather than producing assessments that require rote application of Kirchhoff's 2nd Law, such as working out the current in an abstract network, we need to provide assessments where students need to link multiple ideas and concepts together, such as using Kirchhoff's Laws, Ohm's Law and their understanding of electrical principals, to design an amplifier for a particular purpose.

Therefore, in order to encourage active learning we need to be positive about the study of engineering. We need to concentrate on the key concepts, not just in isolation, but also by demonstrating the way that the components link together. We can also see that over reliance on traditional lectures, where students are passively taking notes and not being required to engage actively with material, will not encourage a deep approach. Similarly, over assessment, through repeated testing, while seen to regularly focus the learners on the material, is likely to have the opposite effect to that desired by just encouraging memorising of facts. Fewer assessments in general, and assessments that encourage and require students to engage with problems, will also encourage the students to use and apply their learning, facilitating the deep approaches that we require.

We need to think carefully about the assessment and assessment processes, as it is this part of the curriculum that affects the students' approaches to learning most. We need to construct assessment that gives students opportunity to receive feedback, but also must make the assessment relevant to the real world of engineering.


Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, SHRE and Open University Press.

Entwistle , N. (1988). Styles of Learning and Teaching, David Fulton.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching, a framework for the effective use of educational technology, Routledge.

Marton, F. and Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness, Lawrence Erblaum Associates, chapter 2

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding Learning and Teaching, on Deep and Surface Learning, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, chapter 4.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Routledge.


The chapter above was taken from Houghton, Warren (2004) Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Learning and Teaching Theory for Engineering Academics. Loughborough: HEA Engineering Subject Centre.

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