Sunday, May 18, 2014

Deep, strategic and surface learning

the #ocTEL course this week has been thinking about approaches to learning, and the differences between deep, strategic and surface learning , which have been defined as:

Defining features of approaches to learning

Deep Approach
Intention — to understand ideas for yourself
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience
Looking for patterns and underlying principles
Checking evidence and relating it to conclusions
Examining logic and argument cautiously and critically
Becoming actively interested in the course content
Surface Approach
Intention — to cope with course requirements
Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy
Treating the course as unrelated bits of knowledge
Memorising facts and procedures routinely
Finding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presented
Feeling undue pressure and worry about work

Strategic Approach
Intention — to achieve the highest possible grades
Putting consistent effort into studying
Finding the right conditions and materials for studying
Managing time and effort effectively
Being alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Gearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers


Source: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

There has been much discussion as to whether these are a continuum, and which forms are better than others (better for what one might well ask).  I want to start at the other end, and ask why someone might choose to learn something, and in that case what is the appropriate approach, as it at least helped to clarify my thinking; so in no particular order:
  • To solve an immediate problem - where the learner is trying to achieve something, anything, and they have a particular problem that they need to solve they may take a purely surface approach and say I want to solve this problem, what do I need to do? I can go back and look at this in more detail later if I want to.  Others may take a deeper approach and look at the issue in a more generic way and use it as an opportunity not just to address the immediate problem but to learn something that will be generally applicable in other situations.  I know people who do each of these, and people who will do both depending on their interest in the problem and the urgency of producing a solution.  I cannot see how a strategic approach might be relevant here, but would love some examples.
  • To pass an exam - The focus here is similar to that of solving an immediate problem, in that it is getting a short term problem fixed.  However, the immediacy is not as great (and the stakes may be high).  People do use all three approaches depending on all sorts of things.  For instance, are they interested in the subject, or is this and exam that they "just" need to pass and can then forget all about; if that is the case they may well take a surface or strategic approach.  Is this a subject where the learner knows that they will continue to use what they have learnt after the exam? In that case strategic or deep learning might be appropriate.  Is this a subject in which they have a real interest?  In that case deep learning might be appropriate for some of it, whilst strategic or surface learning may be appropriate for other parts.  I studied Zoology as my undergraduate degree topic, and took a deep approach to much of the course, but there were some parts that frankly bored me (anatomy and taxonomy in particular), so I studied the principles but took a very surface approach to the actual details (my taxonomy is little better than dem dry bones, and I used to invent beetles when I needed examples in taxonomy).
  • To learn something out of curiosity / for fun - One might think that here people would always chose deep learning, but that would not be true. People may learn songs without worrying too much (or even at all) about either the deeper meanings of the lyrics or anything beyond the tune of the song, or learn a recipe without thinking about the culinary principles that might be involved (although maybe Heston Blumenthal has changed that for some people?).  Other people will take a deep approach and actively engage with the topic and consider the principles etc.  I am not sure how relevant strategic learning can be here, as there is no external driver to  be strategic about.
  • personal or professional development - I guess here I am not thinking of courses on which one is sent (which  would be similar to pass an exam) so much as things one may chose to do in order to enhance ones career, but are self-motivated and (probably) not examined.  I would suggest that this is somewhere between passing an exam and learning for fun, and that therefore the approaches might be similar.
What other motivations are there for learning? what might be the approaches used? and what research has there been into this way of looking at the issue?

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