Approaches to Study
“Deep” and “Surface”
Deep and Surface are two approaches to study,
derived from original empirical research by
and Säljö (1976) and since elaborated by
Biggs (1987, 1993)
Entwistle (1981), among
It is important to clarify what they are not
- Although learners may be classified as “deep” or
“surface”, they are not attributes of individuals:
one person may use both approaches at different times,
although she or he may have a preference for one or
- They correlate fairly closely with motivation: “deep”
with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic,
but they are not necessarily the same thing. Either
approach can be adopted by a person with either motivation.
There is a third form, known as the “Achieving”
or strategic approach, which can be summarised as a very
well-organised form of Surface approach, and in which the
motivation is to get good marks. The exercise of learning
is construed as a game, so that acquisition of technique
improves performance. It works as well as the analogy: insofar
as learning is not a game, it breaks down.
Time to 'fess
up: I was that strategic learner. Before I ever knew of this
material, I used the terminology of the "academic game"
in talking to fellow students, and even my own students, later
on. (Oh! the shame of it!) But in reality it did not apply to
all my course, just the bits which I wasn't really interested
The features of Deep and Surface approaches can be summarised
Focus is on “what
Focus is on the
“signs” (or on the learning
as a signifier of something else)
knowledge to new knowledge
Focus on unrelated
parts of the task
from different courses
assessment is simply memorised
ideas to everyday experience
Facts and concepts
are associated unreflectively
Relates and distinguishes
evidence and argument
not distinguished from examples
structures content into coherent
Task is treated
as an external imposition
Emphasis is internal,
from within the student
Emphasis is external,
from demands of assessment
(based on Ramsden, 1988)
The Surface learner is trying to “suss out” what the teacher
wants and to provide it, and is likely to be motivated primarily
by fear of failure. One interesting study has suggested
that efforts by teachers to convey that what they want is Deep
learning only succeeds in getting Surface learners to engage
in ever more complex contextualising exercises, trying to reproduce
the features of the Deep approach, from a Surface basis.
Beswick and Bowden, 1986)
Surface learning tends to be experienced as an uphill
struggle, characterised by fighting against boredom and
depressive feelings. Deep learning is experienced as exciting
and a gratifying challenge.
There is some evidence that assessment methods can “reach
back” into courses in such a way as to make Surface approaches
more likely: it has not so far been demonstrated that appropriate
assessment methods can of themselves encourage Deep learning.
The Deep and Surface distinction is a very popular
one, much researched, using two main instruments; the Study
1987) and Entwistle's AST. Although the original ideas
were derived from the “phenomenographic”
approach of open-ended measures factor-analysed to yield
the basic Deep and Surface dimensions, later work has concentrated
on refining scales to produce the dimensions (thus explicating
the “symptoms” of each approach), and thereby regarded the
approaches themselves as given.
One characteristic of the Surface approach is its
tendency to “miss the point” of the learning. My reading
of the evidence is that this may be a generalisation which
is not completely supported by the evidence, particularly
bearing in mind the non-subject-specific questionnaire instruments
used which may not be able to get at this feature very easily.
* When I did a presentation
on this to a group of doctors, they couldn't see what the problem
was: Surface learning was clearly the only way to get through
the medical school curriculum—you made the connections and learned
the point of it all later. This accords exactly with
early work on the topic.
What does not appear to have been researched is the
problem of the structure of the knowledge being taught.
While it is clear that either approach can be applied to
practically anything, some subjects call forth a Surface
approach more readily than others — law and medicine are perhaps examples*.
While there is a correlation between Deep approaches and
better results in summative assessments, nothing seems to
have been done on outcomes in professional practice beyond
Two other points:
- Many current university students have been "coached"
by their teachers to get the grades they need for admission:
they have been trained to be surface learners, and their
experience is that it "works". Why should
they take the risk of working in a different way?
- Surface learning seems to be more likely when
learning is isolated from practice. Practice has its
own problems, in terms of "survival" practice,
but surface learning is perhaps a function of the isolation
of academic life from the real world where knowledge
and ignorance have real consequences, rather than merely
affecting assessment grades.
“Learning” means different things to different
(1979) classified the conceptions held by respondents
in his interview-based study into five categories:
- Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning
is acquiring information or “knowing a lot”
- Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information
that can be reproduced.
- Learning as acquiring facts, skills and methods that
can be retained and used as necessary.
- Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning
involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other
and to the real world.
- Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in
a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world
by re-interpreting knowledge
There is a clear qualitative shift between conceptions
3 and 4. It has been argued that 1, 2 and 3 are views which
underpin surface learning strategies, while 4 and 5 relate
to deep learning.
See also the
Original content updated and hosted at