Surface or Deep learning?

There are some really useful thoughts here in a discussion forum on Deep Learning. It evolves into a discussion about assessment but all very relevant.

This post from Diana L is very interesting –

C.Collis’s post reflects the problem of the way the deep/surface/strategic categories are seen. This has always been problematic because deep/surface was an evidence-derived category from a combination of student interviews and performance, and defined two mutually exclusive approaches to a text. Of those two, academic learning aims for deep, for the obvious reason that it leads the student to the intended understanding of a text (in the broad sense), whereas a surface approach leads to a misunderstanding or misconception. There is no question that any teacher in any context would aim to help students use a deep approach.

The strategic approach was introduced by Noel Entwistle to make the perfectly reasonable point that in some circumstances, students are more concerned with extrinsic issues, and worry more about, for example, passing the exam than understanding the concept. This was an issue that my chapter on approaches to problem-solving (in the Marton et al book) focused on, because I’d found that students studied not just in relation to the task, but its context as well:

“Thus the deep/surface dichotomy does not characterise a stable characteristic of the student, but rather describes a relation between the student’s perception of a task and his approach to it. The student’s perception of a learning task encompasses a multitude of things: it depends on its form and content, on its relation to other tasks, on the student’s previous experience, on the student’s perception of the teacher who marked it and of how it will be assessed. But the operational outcome of this combination of judgements and perceptions is an intention either to understand or to memorise, and thereby to use either a deep or surface approach.” (p136).

So it showed that we could not necessarily identify a deep approach as a characteristic of the student, but of the student-in-context. Introducing the strategic approach muddies the original clarity of the deep/surface dichotomy because a student can be strategic and either deep or surface in relation to a particular learning task.

While I agree that C.Collis’s post is certainly thought-provoking, and agree with everything else you argue, I think this bit overstates the case:

“Thus, I don’t think “we” should focus on “encouraging deep learning in online contexts.” I’d prefer to encourage a combination of strategic and deep learning because both are equally valid types and outcomes of education.”

It’s important for students to be strategic, and it was certainly not considered a bad thing by Entwistle, which is why he argued for that category. But it’s our responsibility as teachers to encourage deep learning. That’s how understanding and the ability learn and think for yourself develops.  We must help students develop that capacity if they are not doing it.

The oddest thing, for me though, is the task we are given here – why online contexts should be any different from conventional learning in this respect is a mystery. Why would it be?

Keith Smith voices my thoughts very well ….
“I’m personally not sure they would be different at a fundamental level, but I do wonder whether we know enough about how different approaches to learning might represent themselves in online learning contexts, i.e. what a surface or deep approach might look like online, and what the implications might be for designing online activities and supporting online learning. I wonder if there might be important differences in how learners interact with online multimedia for example – does a ‘surface’ learner simply ‘play’ a video clip and passively watch it, while a ‘deep’ learner studies the content of the clip, and repeatedly plays it until they feel they’ve got the point? And if that’s the case, what can we draw from this in helping learners in general ‘learn how to learn’ online?

In relation to one of the questions for this discussion, I also wonder if students who might lean towards a surface approach would have a more or a less effective experience online. It seems to me that a campus-based, lecture-based course with regular timetabled classes might potentially provide a more effective learning experience for ‘surface’ learners than an online course with more asynchronous activity, and more flexibility in when they might do things (the danger here perhaps being that they come into discussion activities at the very last minute, with no time to read and reflect on what others are saying or what they themselves want to say).”


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