Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 5 - Styles of learning

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Surface, deep and strategic learning

One of the most basic characteristics of any learning process is the depth of study that it involves, the two extremes in the spectrum being surface learning, deep learning, and strategic learning.

Surface learning (as its name implies) involves simply 'scraping the surface' of the material being studied, without carrying out any deep processing of the material. Students who adopt such a surface approach tend to work according to the following general pattern:

  • concentrating purely on assessment requirements
  • accepting information and ideas passively
  • memorising facts and procedures routinely
  • ignoring guiding principles or patterns
  • failing to reflect on underlying purpose or strategy.

Students who adopt a deep approach, on the other hand, make a serious attempt to turn other people's ideas into their own personalised structure of knowledge. They tend to work according to the following general pattern:

  • endeavouring to understand material for themselves
  • interacting vigorously and critically with content
  • relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience
  • using organising principles to integrate ideas
  • relating evidence to conclusions
  • examining the logic of arguments.

Students who adopt a strategic approach to learning consciously set out to achieve the highest possible grades. They tend to work according to the following general pattern:

  • putting steady effort into study
  • seeking out the right conditions and materials
  • contriving  to put time and effort to maximum effect
  • knowing the requirements and criteria of assessment
  • relating work to the preferences of lecturers

Clearly, all good teachers should try to give their students the opportunity to become deep rather than surface learners. Effective teachers also encourage students to be strategic when the occasion warrants


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