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Deep and Surface Learning

Posted on the 22 February 2011 by Combi31 @combi31

Deep and Surface LearningTake anything that you have learnt in the past or that you are learning at present.

Now take a step back and think about the way that you are or have gone about the learning – now read on.

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.

Surface learning leads to superficial retention of material for examinations or tests and does not promote understanding or long-term retention of knowledge and information.


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.


  • Looking for meaning.
  • Focusing 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 learning by heart.
  • Focusing 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 / test / evaluation.



  • Having an intrinsic curiosity in the subject.
  • Being determined to do well and mentally engaging when doing work.
  • Having the appropriate background knowledge for a sound foundation.
  • Having time to pursue interests, through good time management.
  • Positive experience of learning leading to confidence in ability to understand and succeed.
  • Studying for the qualification and not being interested in the subject.
  • Not focusing on learning 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 learning, believing that factual recall is what is required.
  • High anxiety.

There is no right and wrong way to learn

It all depends on what suits your own style and what you are learning.

The following questions have been carefully selected to cover the more important aspects of learning.It is therefore important that you answer each question as honestly as you can.

If you think that your answer to a question would depend on the subject being learnt, give the answer that would apply to learning a particular subject.

The surface approach to learning takes place when learners focus on key words or memorisation, and do not distinguish principles and form learning strategies well.

The deep approach to learning works much better for long term retention, this approach works better because an idea is understood as part of a conceptual framework instead of an isolated factoid to be merely memorised.

Learners get the feel for the principles and concepts, not the facts and the answers.

A deep learner has a better organisation of ideas, and is able to recall them and apply them more easily.

A deep learner takes an overview of what is to be and what will be learned.

Of course we don’t agree with the statement Deep is good / surface is bad !

A surface learner covers so many facts by memorisation that it becomes difficult to see underlying relationships, and makes no effort to define them.

Deep learning is much more permanent that the more ephemeral Surface Learning, which is lost fairly rapidly.

Deep learning actually triggers learning as it opens up a whole set of questions that can, in themselves become the catalyst for further learning or consolidation of the learning undertaken.

Of course, there is a strong influence on, and by, motivations to learn – low motivation can easily lead to surface learning, whilst high motivation to learn is not always a precursor for deep learning, it really depends on the objectives for learning, as we have seen above.

How to Answer the questions on the next page

For each item there is a row of boxes for a five-point scale on the Answer Sheet:

The numbers stand for the following responses:

5 — this item is always or almost always true of me

4 — this item is frequently true of me

3 — this item is true of me about half the time

2 — this item is sometimes true of me

1 — this item is never or only rarely true of me.

Please answer all of the questions (we will put this online if there are enough comments on the post)

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