9.7 Deep and Surface Learning

Author: Rayya Ghul

As university educators we should encourage the type of learning that allows the student to gain a deep engagement with their subject, discipline or profession.  We want our students to be critical thinkers, able to navigate the key ideas within their field and to be able to link ideas together and use their cognitive skills to apply their learning.

We can recognise the students to whom this kind of learning comes naturally or who have learned it through previous studies. They are the ones who ask questions that focus on understanding central arguments and they seem genuinely curious to know more about connections between the subject, other knowledge and real life.  Then there are students who seem disengaged and ask questions which can appear irrelevant or overly focused on finding what’s important for the assignment.  They don’t seem to recall what they learned in previous courses and how it might fit with what they are learning now.

These two types of learning are often referred to as ‘surface’ or ‘deep’.  It’s tempting to think about the students described above as ‘surface learners’ or ‘deep learners’ but while it is true that some students are somewhat predisposed to one or other style of learning, it is more accurate and useful to think about what characterises deep and surface learning and what the teacher can do to promote deep learning (and what to avoid because it promotes surface learning!).  Also, students are not consistent.  In some subjects, they might adopt deep learning approaches, in others, often those which are more challenging, they might revert to surface learning.

So what is the difference between deep and surface learning?  This table outlines the main characteristics of both:

Deep Learning Surface Learning
Looking for meaning Relying on rote learning
Focusing on the central argument, principles or concepts to analyse or problem-solve Focusing on individual elements and looking for formulaic ways to analyse and problem-solve
Active interaction with the course content Preferring to receive information passively, low participation
Working from principles.  Distinguishing between argument and evidence Not distinguishing principles from examples or argument from evidence
Making connections between different modules/course Treating different learning units (class/module/programme) as separate
Relating new and previous knowledge Not attempting to make links between new and previous knowledge so not able to build on previous learning
Linking learning to real life or future applications Seeing course content as material to be learned for an assessment


We cannot assume that all our students are approaching higher education predisposed to deep learning.  Deep learning habits are behaviours that have been encouraged or discouraged by parents, educators and assessment regimes.  The practice of ‘teaching to the test’ can give schoolchildren the impression that passing an exam indicates learning.  There are cultural differences in education practice around the world and some countries value rote and passive learning more than others.  Students' expectations of their abilities may affect learning.  For example, a student who has found school-based learning quite easy, may disengage with the more demanding challenge of higher education.

This table shows the different student learning habits which can promote deep and surface learning:

Deep Learning Surface Learning
Being intrinsically curious about the subject Seeing the subject as purely a means to an end, such as a qualification or job
Being determined to do well and engaging mentally with the challenge of academic work Avoiding academic study and/or focusing on extra-curricular activities such as leisure or paid work
Ensuring they have understood and retained appropriate background knowledge to create a sound foundation Discarding or disregarding background knowledge and seeing it as irrelevant or unimportant
Good work/leisure balance through good organisation and time management Poor organisation and time management leading to lack of time and feelings of being overwhelmed
Positive beliefs about the value of education Cynical views about the value of education, thinking that factual recall is what is important
Confidence in ability to understand and succeed with appropriate effort High anxiety or complacency leading to disengagement with study or unwillingness to put in hard work


Many students simply do not know how to study and succeed so helping them to develop a positive focus and healthy study habits can enable them to develop deep learning habits. This is why it is important for the teacher not to see these habits as intrinsic characteristics of a student, such as laziness or arrogance.  As Biggs (1999) reminds us, it is not what the student does, or is that is important, but what the teacher does.

Research by Trigwell and Prosser into the relationship between the way teachers taught and the way students learn (1999) found that teacher-focused approaches to teaching, such as lectures and other more didactic approaches promoted surface learning, whereas student-centred approaches to teaching, such as active learning, promoted and taught deep learning.  Many other researchers have found similar evidence for how to promote deep learning and this is one of the reasons why higher education pedagogy now focuses so much on encouraging student-centred, active learning approaches.

This table shows what teachers can do to promote deep learning and avoid surface learning:

Deep Learning Surface Learning
Showing personal interest in and enthusiasm  for the subject Conveying disinterest or a casual or negative attitude to the material
Bringing out underlying structures, using time to focus on threshold concepts and how knowledge relates to them in the discipline Overloading course with knowledge and presenting it so it can be perceived as a series of unrelated facts and ideas
Engaging students in active learning, trying out disciplinary approaches with opportunities to make mistakes and allow for correction of misconceptions Allowing student to be passive.  Assuming student’s presence indicates participation and learning.  Not creating opportunities for formative feedback
Using assessments that require the type of higher knowledge skills (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) characteristic of the field and/or which relate to real life applications of knowledge. Assessing for independent facts or rewarding rote learning (short answers and exams)
Time spent on relating new material to what students already know and understand Rushing to cover too much material and leaving no time for questions or examples
Allowing students to make mistakes and helping them to develop self-regulation through rewarding appropriate effort Creating anxiety through harsh criticism or excessive workload that is not designed to develop skills and confidence.
Teaching students academic and disciplinary skills alongside and integrated into the knowledge. Over reliance on transmission of knowledge and assumption of existing academic and disciplinary skills
Utilising constructive alignment to design courses to ensure consistent and transparent expectations of learning, teaching and assessment. Lack of pedagogical design to ensure the student journey is clear and well-signposted and the outcomes are aligned with teaching and assessment.


Some university teachers express the view that students today expect to be ‘spoon fed’, suggesting that they are not prepared to put in the study time or effort into learning.  The tables above (and the research they draw upon) strongly suggest that getting the students to be more actively engaged, i.e. taking more responsibility for their learning and doing more to learn, encourages the development of deep learning habits.  If you design your courses this way, you ensure that you never work harder than your students.



For John Biggs, one of the first people to think about student approaches to learning, the idea of 'deep' and 'surface' learning is intrinsically linked to the entire teaching, learning and assessment process and his theory of 'constructive alignment'.  This series of videos helps to contextualise deep and surface learning and provides examples of how this is applied to teaching and assessment.

Teaching teaching and understanding understanding 1/3

Teaching teaching and understanding understanding 2/3

Teaching teaching and understanding understanding 3/3


Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. SHRE and Open University Press.

Entwistle , N. (1988). Styles of Learning and Teaching, David Fulton.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Routledge.

Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., and Waterhouse, F. (1999). Relations between teachers' approaches to teaching and students' approaches to learning. Higher Education 37: 57 70.


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