50 Shades of Learning

One of the things that emerges from colleagues working on teaching certificate programmes (Grad Cert; PGCAP or PGCTLHE) is the view that learning occurs as either deep or surface approaches. This clear cut oppositional binary resurfaces over and over again in assignments. And it is not surprising when one considers the literature they are consulting. This black & white view of learning is implicit in many of the standard texts on teaching at university, along with the underlying message that deep=good and surface=bad. But this black and white view of learning is rather simplistic – it needs to be conceptualised as various shades of grey:

 Shades of grey

PDF of Figure:  shades of grey

Whilst the simplicity of a binary opposite provides a useful shorthand to consider the range of learning approaches that students may adopt, it is quite evident that this simplification rather masks the variation in learning approaches that a teacher will encounter, and indeed the variation that may be exhibited by a single student in varying contexts.

To describe an individual as a deep or surface learner is probably quite unhelpful. In certain situations I would certainly classify my approach to learning as deep. This requires motivation to learn. However, there would be situations where my motivation to learn would not be so high . Just start talking to me about pensions and see my eyes glaze over. Even though the material may be relevant, and I should be interested, I am not. So my approach to anything about pensions is certainly a very surface approach.

So too, students oscillate between deep and surface. Not only that, sometimes we are VERY deep learners, sometimes not so deep.  Or we may be deep with a bit of surface sprinkled in. In other words, learning is not homogenous – to take the peanut butter analogy, it is chunky, not smooth! This is evident when students are asked to draw a concept map of what they are learning. This reveals areas where deep learning has taken place (where new understanding has been integrated with prior knowledge to construct new meanings) and where rote memorisation has occurred so that the student is only able to list components of the content, but not explain how they are linked.

Our approach varies with content and with context. We may adopt a more surface approach at 5:00pm on a Friday than we do at 11:00am on a Wednesday. We may have other distractions in our lives that also impact upon our approach to our studies.

So learning is a fluid and dynamic thing. It is difficult to predict and control. That’s what makes it interesting and why teachers have to be responsive to their students. Slavishly following the plan doesn’t always yield the best results. So are your students learning, or just following the curriculum? Likewise, are you teaching, or just following the syllabus?

Further reading:

Hay, D. (2007) Using concept maps to measure deep, surface and non-learning outcomes. Studies in Higher Education, 32(1): 39 – 58.

Howie, P. and Bagnall, R. (2013) A critique of the deep and surface approaches to learning model. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(4): 389 – 400.


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