#ocTEL activity week 2 : approaches to learning

Deep, Surface, and Strategic approaches to learning

  • Have you seen any evidence of these different approaches in online contexts, e.g. in technology-enhanced courses you teach? How did these differences manifest themselves in terms of online learning behaviour?
  • Are you leaning towards one approach in particular on ocTEL, and if so why might that be? Perhaps you are employing strategies from more than one approach?
  • Are learners who tend to take a ‘surface’ approach likely to learn more or less effectively online versus face-to-face?
  • How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts

While it is “generally accepted” that “deep learning is the ideal,” I think that this ideal needs to be considered before we all tailor all of our teaching efforts towards achieving this type of learning and learner.

The differentiation between deep and surface learning highlights a subjective perspective on the purpose of academic education itself. I’ll look at Biggs and Tang’s (2007) influential discussion of the concepts here as an example. For Biggs and Tang, tertiary education should be about the acquisition of knowledges, skills, and competencies in themselves: in learning for learning’s sake. This is a subjective value proposition. Biggs and Tang are scornful of the idea that tertiary education might focus on equipping students to work as industry professionals. They dismiss “extrinsic motivation,” in which students are motivated to learn based on strategic outcomes such as employability, arguing that this encourages “surface learning” (2007, 35).

Biggs & Tang’s perspective aligns with a deeper ontological divide over the purpose of tertiary education. On one side of this divide are those who see tertiary education as focussed on graduate employability and the application of learning to problems and situations beyond the university; on the other side are those who see tertiary education as focussed on learning for learning’s sake. Leinhardt et al (1995) refer to this distinction as the difference between “university” and “professional” approaches. The former often characterise their approach as “applied,” while the latter often use the value-laden term “pure” to describe their approach (for example see McCalman 2000; Klein 2000). The same can be seen in the semantics of “deep” versus “strategic” as definitional terms. Writing assessment criteria and then condemning students who work hard to address them as somehow less than “ideal” is a contradictory approach, and one that is frustratingly opaque to students.

In my experience, “strategic” learners don’t just want to please the lecturer and earn high marks just for the sake of high marks: they want to earn high marks in order to boost their employability; they want to follow assessment requirements because they have often been told that these requirements and criteria align closely to key professional attributes. “Deep” learners are great in their in-class enthusiasm, but they can miss the broader point of their learning beyond the classroom: its applications.

In one of this week’s readings, Siemens observes that in an information-saturated environment, knowing exactly what one wants and where to find it are key learning skills: these skills align more with a “strategic” learning style.

In asking students to give online comments on each others’ YouTube oral presentations, all three of these learning styles are evident. Thre are students who do the bare minimum, adding nothing of real value to other students’ videos; students who do just enough to ensure they meet the highest assessment criteria, ofering comments that demonstrate their understanding of the unit material; and students who post lengthy responses full of references to things they’ve learned or read in other units, their own thoughts, and their questioning of the terms of the assignment itself (which is precisely what I’m doing now!). In my experience, the students on the receiving end of this feedback find the strategic material most valuable. In peer learning online, strategic learners can be of high value. I know that in group work contexts, students would much rather work with a strategic learner than with a deep one.

In my own ocTEL approach, I’m taking a combination of deep and strategic approaches, which I think is the ideal combination. If I just took a deep approach, I could bog down, trying to read everything and somehow assimilate it all, make connections, follow up references. This is definitely a temptation, and one against which we were rightly warned in week 0. Without a key outcome or strategic application in mind, I could happily drift around in ocTEL for hours, learning all sorts of things. But I’m also taking a strategic approach: I see the value of the assigned activities, and how they structure my learning twoards useful intended outcomes. I have professional purposes for doing ocTEL–improving my department’s teaching performance, and my own–I use this strategic professional application as a way to manage and structure my ocTEL engagement. I find the badges a very productive way of guiding and rewarding focussed, strategic learning.

In terms of surface learners, in my experience they’re surface learners regardless of teaching medium. There are strategies to assist them with their learning, but these don’t usually boil down to “come to class” or “go online.”

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.

Biggs, J., and C. Tang. (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.


Klein, T. (2000) The value of fundamental inquiry: The view from physics. In Coady, T. (Ed.). Why Universities Matter: A Conversation about Values, Means, and Directions, pp. 99-109. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


Leinhardt, G., et al. (1995) Integrating professional knowledge: The theory of practice and the practice of theory. Learning and Instruction, 5: 401-8.


McCalman, J. (2000) Blurred visions. . In Coady, T. (Ed.). Why Universities Matter: A Conversation about Values, Means, and Directions, pp. 132-43. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.



6 thoughts on “#ocTEL activity week 2 : approaches to learning

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, I thought them very useful. I am considering this myself (also as part of the #ocTEL), but see the three approaches as a potential continuum, whereby one might “graduate” from one to the next.
    Of particular interest to me were your points on Strategic Learning, and that it should be embraced (rather than seen as “doing just enough”). I think this reflects a lot of thinking in online learning for professional development, whereby courses provide “Just in time” and “Key Skills” learning content, allowing for learners to go further if they want to.
    However, now I am starting to write a blogpost here in your comments, so I’ll move this over to my own blog later tonight or tomorrow.
    Thanks again, thoroughly interesting and thought provoking.

  2. Many thanks indeed for getting our discussions on approaches to learning underway with a number of very important points, and it’s good to see your thoughts have already prompted a couple of responses including a detailed consideration from Diana.

    There’s certainly a tension between viewing ‘deep learning’ as the ideal to strive for in education, and the reality our students face including the decisions they have to make. At my own institution we run a workshop exploring approaches to learning for educators who are taking their Pg Cert in Learning and Teaching. We often hear from them that while they like to think they would lean towards a deep approach, in undertaking their Pg Cert they have to be at least partially strategic to fit their formal studies around their teaching roles. That makes me think about the fact that many of undergraduate students are effectively part-time when taking into account part-time work and other outside commitments, and will by necessity need to be making decisions about where the trade-offs and priorities in their studies need to be (regardless of whether their driving motivation is around understanding, achieving, or simply getting through their course).

    I do personally think that as educators we need to strive to encourage deep learning, and think this supports a qualitatively richer learning experience, but wonder about how we do this against a range of competing demands and contextual factors – many of which you describe. How can we ensure that those who might be taking a strategic approach still have as rich a learning experience as possible, and how can we ensure those who may be leaning towards a surface approach in a particular context can be supported to go even a little deeper?

    Diana has raised the question of why online contexts should be any different from ‘conventional’ learning with respect to students’ approaches to learning. I’ll pick up on that separately.

    Very best


    • HI Keith, thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with your approach: “How can we ensure that those who might be taking a strategic approach still have as rich a learning experience as possible, and how can we ensure those who may be leaning towards a surface approach in a particular context can be supported to go even a little deeper?” Designing curricula that strategically align with professional contexts while at the same time promoting and scaffolding rich thought and learning is, in my opinion, at the core of my work as a university lecturer. It’s harder work than just supporting ‘deep learning’ as it’s conventionally defined: it’d be a lot easier to just have students read theoretical academic articles and then ponder and discuss them (the way my undergraduate education worked). It takes more effort to remain aware of professional contexts and knowledges and to articulate them with more academic approaches. Thanks again for your comment: I’m really enjoying and benefiting from ocTEL dialogue.

  3. In my response to this question (http://octel14.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/week-2.html) I “confessed” that I was often “tempted” to opt for the strategic approach when tackling the ocTEL activities. Your comments help me appreciate the value of what I was doing and realise that I should actually encourage my students to balance deep and strategic learning. And like you I find the ocTEL dialogue is very enjoyable and beneficial.

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