Deep and Surface Learning

Over the years we have heard of cognitive scientists talk about the distinction between deep and surface learning. Deep learning has been associated with understanding, meaning, and intrinsic motivation. Surface learning is identified by shallow memorization, the use of episodic memory to get through exams and generally, passive learning.

Since the goal of the vast majority of students (86% of the intake for 2016) is simply to gain a qualification, learning is not really a part of the reason they have entered higher education. The part of the college or university experience that is important to most students is the part that needs to be done to gain a qualification. In other words, students focus on the tasks that really matter to meet their goals. This is no different from any of us. We will focus our energy on those aspects of our lives that allow us to get closer to or meet the goals that we value.

For students trying to obtain a qualification, the aspects that matter to them are passing exams and getting the grades that are important to them in reaching their goal of gaining their individual qualification. For the vast majority of students in the vast majority of their classes, this means surface learning in order to pass exams or complete assignments.

For assignments that require research and serious consideration, there is more deep learning that takes place. However, even when our students engage in deep learning, the learning overlays the understanding that they already have. The students who simply want a qualification will engage in deep learning when it is necessary, but they will do so as shallowly as possible. This was highlighted for me when a student recently spoke to me about the need for high grades in order to receive a distinction on the qualification that the student was working toward. After a few minutes of conversation, and knowing that the writing ability of a student is one of the most important aspects of achieving a good grade on a written piece of work (if it is easy to read the grades are higher), I asked how many drafts of the work that the student went through while writing. I said that I already knew the answer, so be honest about it. After looking a little sheepish for a moment the reply was “one”, meaning that there was never a draft, only the final product with a quick read-over to make sure there were no glaring mistakes. Pretty shallow for any written piece of work and almost universal in the shallow focused requirements in today’s higher education.

Even when students strive for deep learning experiences, they almost always tend to be focused on achieving their personal goals. A quote from one of Lindblom-Ylänne’s students, from a highly selective university, that she interviewed illustrates this:

“There is a conflict between study habits and exams. The goal is to pass the exam. It should rather be to do your work as well as you can and understand. Earlier I learned more by heart, now I study more for my future occupation, for my own sake, and my motivation has been aroused (fifth-year medical student).”

Even when trying to engage in deeper learning, the aim is to achieve a goal and not to learn to think. Although I think that this is a better strategy than taking a shallow strategy to simply pass an exam for passing an exam’s sake.

However, the opportunity to learn higher order thinking skills is rarely there, even if that is what a student wants to do. Higher order thinking skills are almost never a part of a higher educational experience. Another of Lindblom-Ylänne’s student’s quotes illustrates this point.

“I’m enormously disappointed with this organization; this has not suited me in any way. The way we learn and study has been very difficult for me, really. I could even say that the faculty hinders studying; this is the simple truth…. We learn by heart, studying is very school-like. There aren’t any discussions about interesting subjects after lectures …we do not go anywhere to talk about unclear things. There isn’t any sense in the way they teach us… The content is not difficult, only the way we study. There is this conflict… if I had my own goals, I couldn’t achieve them in this system, because the conflict is huge…. You’re better to adapt to the system’s goals, i.e., pass the exams and other things…. At least I haven’t got the strength to wonder if I will become a good physician after learning this and this… I buried my own goals a long time ago (fifth-year medical student).”

The sad thing in today’s world of mass higher education is the question “…where does anyone go if he or she want to learn to engage in higher order thinking skills or really learn to think?” Even if there are individuals in an institution who try to teach higher order thinking skills in their classes, a student can’t get anything but a taster in a single class. Where is there an institution dedicated to teaching people to really learn to think?

As far as deep and shallow processing or learning goes, the bottom line is that deep learning is not really related to learning to think, although in order to learn to think you would have to engage in deep learning.

Today’s world: No thinking – only passing.


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