The degree to which a student absorbs material has traditionally been categorized as deep learning or surface learning. Deep learning involves thinking strategies that allow students to understand concepts and ideas. Deep learners can make connections between topic areas because they comprehend them on theoretical levels.

Surface learning, on the other hand, is just the rote memorization of what the student perceives to be relevant facts and figures. Surface learners memorize certain points with the intention of being able to reproduce them on tests and other assessments.

Deep learning is the goal of educational strategies as it results in a more valuable kind of understanding. However, research has indicated that students are predisposed to deep or surface learning prior to instruction. Teachers can motivate their students to adapt a deep learning approach to their studies by implementing certain assessment strategies.

Differentiating Deep and Surface Learning

Research by the Higher Education Academy has revealed some of the most important differences between deep and surface learning in students. Deep learning is characterized by a critical understanding of the material. In this way, deep learners are able to discern the main ideas of material and apply them to their own prior knowledge. This leads to a constructive model of learning where new concepts build on what the student already knows to form an integrated knowledge base.

Surface learning, however, is much more superficial. Surface learners accumulate facts and figures uncritically without understanding them enough to be able to form connections between them. Surface learning results in a cumulative model of learning where students are simply accumulating isolated ideas into a storage bin to be reproduced on command.

Characteristics of Deep Learners

Deep learning is the goal of classroom instruction because of the way in which it enables students to apply their knowledge across topic areas. The understanding of abstract ideas and concepts that underlie the superficial facts and figures provides a foundation students can build upon as they advance through their academic careers. However, whether or not students acquire deep learning is dependent on how they approach a subject and not necessarily how it is taught.

Research by Noel Entwistle at the University of Edinburgh outlines the difference between a deep and surface approach to learning. Entwistle’s findings show that students have different conceptions of what constitutes learning before they are even presented with material. Through interviews and observation, Entwistle found that students approach learning from a predisposition for either deep or surface learning. This predisposition is the result of many factors, including their preparedness for the subject, the time they have to learn it, and their interest in the topic area. While many of these factors may seem outside of the teacher’s control, through effective assessment strategies, teachers can influence how students approach learning.

Encouraging Deep Learning Through Assessment

The most effective assessments for inspiring a deep-learning approach in students are those that ask students to apply what they have learned rather than recite it. In the grade-motivated environment of the classroom, students adapt their learning to fit the assessment. Therefore, if students expect to be assessed in ways that require mere recitation of facts and figures, or even ideas and concepts, then they will learn the material in the manner most suited to this end, i.e., they will take a surface-learning approach. However, the only way students will be able to apply their knowledge is if they have a deep understanding of its theoretical implications. Deep learning requires students to relate ideas in ways that surface learning does not, and therefore assessment items or tasks should center on asking students to form relationships and make connections.