Surface and deep learning

In response to the thought-provoking thread at, here’s my understanding of surface and deep approaches to learning, using Activity 1.3 from the ocTEL course as an example.

Feedback very welcome on whether you agree with my way of describing this.

A surface learner might say…

This activity involved learning about B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine and several key educational thinkers and educational approaches.

I didn’t get the point of looking at the video – it was just weird – or of looking at other people’s posts about what they thought about the different theories. I just read the articles that were linked and made my own notes.

If we were to sit an exam at the end of this course, I would use flashcards to memorise the names, dates and theories of the different people and approaches.

I don’t really see how any of this relates to online learning, and I’m not sure which of the theories described is the correct one.

A deep learner might say…

This activity involved thinking about B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine and how this method of teaching relates to different educational approaches and the views of several key educational thinkers.

It was very interesting to explore the different theories and to think about how the advocates of these approaches would view the teaching machines. This gave a context in which to think about their theories.

I liked reading a range of views from other learners who had different experiences and viewpoints; it made me think more widely about the subject.

This also led me to think about how online courses are structured and, for example, the importance of self-pacing, peer interaction, questioning, who is the teacher?, etc.

As Rose mentioned, the ‘assessment’ – i.e. what we were asked to do in this activity – is very important. It was structured to make us look at the question deeply. This is a lot more interesting and meaningful than just reading/learning a set of descriptions of educational theories.

An online environment can help with a task of this nature by making it easy to view and comment on other people’s contributions.


5 thoughts on “Surface and deep learning

  1. Yes indeed, the nature of the assessment is crucial; it can be seen by students as indicative of what ‘we’ think is important.

    I notice our distance learners (MSc and CPD) look at the assessment (on the VLE) very early in a new unit. It’s sensible, of course (we do encourage them to plan their time) but shows how much this is on all of their minds.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tracy.

      I suppose we must craft the assessment carefully to maximise the benefits of “learning to the test”.

      I like your learning analytics approach – finding out what the learners are viewing on the VLE. I think it is one of the most powerful of VLE features, giving us very useful data about how the students are using the materials we provide.

  2. Pingback: Approaches to Learning – deep, surface or strategic? | TEL @ UEL

  3. I like your interpretation of the task in these two different ways as it explores the depth of knowledge, and reflection and not just (if at all) motivation

    • Thanks for the comment, Guy. I’ve found this task – and many of the other ocTEL tasks – very interesting. Reading other people’s thoughts really does result in deep engagement.

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