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.