Diving under the surface


Photo by Craig Bennett, Flickr

When I was young, I spent hours looking at the stars and studying charts of the night sky. I collected snails after a rainstorm and put them in box with leaves for a few days (I could hear them munching at night). I looked in every rock pool. I loved growing things in the veggie patch. I loved books and TV shows on nature and wanted to grow up to be David Attenborough. I was deeply immersed in learning about the world around me.

Yet I took a superficial approach to learning through many of my school and university years. Why? The workload, the pressures of balancing study with work and life, the way subjects were taught, and the way exams seemed to require and reward memorisation and regurgitation of facts. I’d usually forget the details of each subject soon after each exam and now, years later, I struggle to recall the basics of many of the subjects I studied (organic chemistry, anyone?).

Those teaching in higher education have probably come across the idea of deep and surface approaches to learning. It’s a key concept that we teach in our short program for new academics at the University of Sydney, and expand upon in our year-long Graduate Certificate.

And we’re not alone; Peter Kandlbinder and Tai Peseta’s survey of 46 institutions found that it was one of five key concepts about higher education learning and teaching taught in such programs. Known as the student approaches to learning theory, the concept was introduced by Ference Marton and Roger Säljö in 1976.

Marton and Säljö investigated how students read a particular text, and found two different approaches to learning. Students taking a deep approach wanted to understand the meaning of the text, while students taking a surface approach focussed on memorising the text in order to reproduce it later.

Many researchers have since explored students’ approaches to learning. Paul Ramsden, John Biggs and Catherine Tang, among others, have argued that students adopt different approaches to learning in different subjects and tasks, depending on many factors including past experiences, motivation, and perceptions of the learning environment (such as workload).

Mike Prosser and Keith Trigwell found a relationship between students’ perceptions of their learning environment, the approach they took as a result (deep or surface) and their subsequent results. That is, students who took a deep approach achieved better results than students who took a surface approach – but noted that the relationship only holds if the assessment measures and rewards deep approaches.

So what are the critiques of the student approaches to learning theory? Apart from the fact that this signature concept was developed by ‘old men’, Tamsin Haggis has argued that:

  1. Student approaches to learning have become reified such that some people label students as either deep or surface learners (see for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMZA80XpP6Y).
  2. Surface approaches to learning can lead to successful results.
  3. The student approaches to learning theory doesn’t work in all disciplinary or cultural contexts.
  4. There has been limited developed of the theory.

Delia Marshall and Jennifer Case responded to these concerns, saying don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ (p258). They explain how the student approaches to learning theory has been developed and critiqued, though they agree with Haggis that there needs to be more critical engagement with the theory. Marshall and Case contend that student approaches to learning is a:

‘powerful framework with which to make sense of aspects of student learning situations….Rather than discarding the theory altogether, we would argue that other perspectives have the potential to enrich and extend it…’ (p263)

These other perspectives include academic literacies, sociocultural theories, discourse analysis and network theories…see Catherine Manathunga’s paper for more ideas or add your own ideas below.

3 thoughts on “Diving under the surface

  1. Great and very concise summary Amani,
    I agree that it is not helpful to label students as either deep or surface learners – they need to be able to be both at different stages of their research projects, andnthe levek of their engagement will also be somewhat pre-detmined by their interest in the subject.
    But I do think it is useful to explain to them the difference between skimming something on the surface and ‘going deep’, especially when they start to encounter academic texts, a genre they might not be familiar with.
    I use the ‘academic ocean’ as an analogy with the different sources different kind of sea creatures living at different depths, and have had some success with that. (Also doing some evaluative research on that, check http://tactileacademia.wordpress.com searching for ‘fishscale’ if you are interested in this approach).
    Also I have just come across a technique Nick Monk from the University of Warwick uses with his students: The long short walk. He send students out to walk a journey that woud usually take five minutes but they have to take twenty and really notice their environment while they do it. And that is the difference between skimming a text and close reading. I really like that idea and will test it out with my students for sure.

  2. Thanks Alke. I like your ‘academic ocean’ analogy and the long short walk. It’s great to hear about creative, fresh approaches that are breathing life into a concept that’s been around for almost 40 years. (PS sorry about my sideways gravatar…still trying to fix it!)

  3. Pingback: Exams, what are they good for? | They call me Dr Bell

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