Critical Notes on  ‘Deep’ and ‘Surface’ Approaches

 This handout considers some additional aspects of the famous work on deep and surface approaches, and is intended as a guide to further reflection.  I want to focus on what might be called the methodological issues.I do not intend to get too technical here, but the main strands in the approach are based quite clearly in some extensive research, and it is this that gives them particular credibility. It is therefore worth looking at one or two problems with the research itself.

 The phenomenographic approach

This is associated with the Gothenburg School (Marton, Saljo, Dahlgren etc), and the classic work pursued an intensive qualitative study of students and how they approached their learning tasks. Typically, students would be asked an open-ended question to get them going, such as  'What do you mean by ‘learning’?'

  ;This work produced some very insightful descriptions of student approaches, and of typical problems students faced, problems which were unknown to their teachers. I think the work of the OU Study Methods Group (OUSMG) (eg. Taylor et al 1981, Morgan 1993) indicates the insights quite clearly.

Taylor et al (1981) interviewed 29 students before, during and after taking the OU’s Social Science Foundation Course ( D101), asking about  key concepts.

·        The course defined ‘opportunity costs’  one way, but there was a pervasive ‘common-sense’ definition too. These two meanings were often confused, and only 10 out of 19 were able to ‘get it right’ at the end of the course (although 15 passed the exam!).

·        For psychology, the team found lots of intuitive understandings of key terms, which left out the more ‘scientific’ dimensions (such as establishing relations between variables).

·         While studying ‘power’, the team decided to ask students to ‘apply’ the Course’s perspective to hypothetical situations (asking why the Government  do not want to control prices , for example): they found four types of answer among students initially, and although the later interviews did show some use of concepts from the  Course, ‘3 moved [towards these concepts], 3 moved away and 12 stayed the same’ (p.11) – NB no students had failed the course or  the specific assignment that tested  understanding of that item.

·        Other concepts (such as ‘oligopoly’) did show more of a shift in students’ understandings towards the Course.

·        The concept of ‘power’ revealed one change towards the Course’s preferred definition, and more evidence of a shift towards a near-miss, but generally, 4 moved towards, and 4 away as well ‘not a very heartening result’ ( p.18).

However, this phenomenographic approach somehow got merged with action research, probably at Gothenburg, and certainly at the OUSMG. This made it nice and practical -- the researcher would not only try to understand the student's approach, but would also assist them in developing a deeper one. In this case, however, the practical focus also offered a limit to understanding: researchers were also teachers and it became difficult for students to disclose various unofficial ways in which they approached their studies. As a direct consequence, I believe, the 'strategic' approach was rather slow to emerge and be recognised. Teachers still feel rather ambivalent about this approach and try to discourage it on ethical and professional grounds, and it must have been rather hard for students to feel they could confide in the action researchers on this matter.

It is hard to illustrate the effects of this sort of commitment, but reading through one of the transcripts of the OUSMG (in Morgan 1993) I came across a response from a student which seemed to indicate her intention to bluff her way through a philosophy assignment, strategically, rather than engaging in the difficult task of coming to terms with philosophy. The researchers chose to interpret this instead as a much more desirable move toward 'syllabus independence'. I am not suggesting that I was right, and they were wrong -- but the team had a nice 'educational' perspective which affected their perceptions every bit as much as my more cynical perspective affected mine. With all qualitative research, interpretation is a real problem, of course, and one is very much in hands of the researcher.

The Lancaster School

 I used this term to refer to that group of educational researchers who pioneered a much more quantitative approach, and whose members include Entwistle and Ramsden  (and also Bennett and Desforges who are now at Exeter University). 

Entwistle and Ramsden set out to synthesise a whole lot of work on learning styles, beginning with the Gothenburg approach and also the work of Pask (who was interested in developing categories such as 'holists' and 'serialists' -- see Harris 1987). Many other distinctions and categories were added to the project as it developed – syllabus dependence/independence, attitudes towards academic work, convergence/divergence, versatility, maturity, conventionality (of thinking), intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. 

The Lancaster approach set out to establish if there were connections and relationships between these different pieces of work, using statistical analysis as well as developing instruments of their own. After a long process, their categories of 'deep',  'surface', and, at quite a late stage, 'strategic' emerged as the variables with the most explanatory power.  It is worth noting that the usual lists of characteristics are a further simplification, though – the original research contains several important sub-types in each main division, such as 'passive' and 'active' 'deep' learners ( see Entwistle and Ramsden  1983). 

This sort of technique has also been criticised. Apart from technical problems of avoiding circularity, the technique can only establish relationships between variables that the researchers know about, of course. Over a number of years, a large amount of work was indeed incorporated -- but it took a long time again to look beyond the immediate tradition of official work on learning styles and discover the far less official material on student cheating, student instrumentalism, student strategies to cope with the 'hidden curriculum'. 

This work had been around since the early 1960s, but because of one of those strange divisions of labour in academic life, it had not been seen as having anything to do with the topic of learning styles as conventionally defined. It had arisen from sociological studies of university students, like those of Becker (1964), for example. For a while, Entwistle and Ramsden seemed rather reluctant to discuss the full range of student strategies for coping with assessment  (including cheating, selective neglect, sophisticated plagiarism, psyching out that tutor, and deliberately chatting up assessors to establish clues), and the term 'strategic approach' is still a rather euphemistic one. The ambiguities haunt the work later too – sometimes a ‘strategic’ approach involves an ability to select the best approach for the task in hand, a kind of ‘versatility’; sometimes a ‘strategic’ approach is rather like a ‘deep’ one since it involves some analysis of the task rather than a simple ‘reproducing’ orientation. 

There is still a marked reluctance to consider student instrumentalism, ‘playing the game’ as Becker puts it. Nevertheless, Entwistle and Ramsden were committed enough researchers to make it clear that a 'strategic approach' is only slightly less effective than a  'deep' one when it comes to getting good grades (see Entwistle and Ramsden (1983: 177) (although this finding is often missed). 

I still think that something is still missing from the Lancaster discussion. To be brief, what is missed out is any discussion of the value basis of the work. I don't mean the ethical issues arising, but more are the origins and effects of the obvious value judgments in the work. Many examples of value judgements can be found in the actual coding procedures used in the empirical research, (turning on matters such as ‘inappropriate relations between concepts’, or 'vacuous analogies'  for example -- see Entwistle and Ramsden 1983: 80). However, if you look at any of the main lists of the characteristics you will see clearly that the difference between deep and surface approaches is a matter of values as much as technical descriptions. We just do not approve of students who adopt a surface approach, do we? We actually punish them if they 'focus on unrelated parts of the task', rely on simple memorising, fail to distinguish principles from examples, and have the temerity to treat the tasks we give them as 'an external imposition'. ( I have developed this argument further in Evans and Murphy 1996)

 It is impossible to avoid value judgments which clearly inform the whole account, and also offer an essential explanation of further marked preference for 'deep' approaches over the almost equally effective  'strategic' ones. There is a naivety about the Lancaster research which tries to explain that the success of 'deep' learners in university assessment terms is simply a technical one. That assumes that university assessment is also merely a technical matter, which happens to test the most effective cognitive style on every occasion. There is a far more parsimonious explanation available -- University assessors share the same value systems as 'deep' learners, and reward them in assessment.

 Apart from anything else, an enquiry into these value systems might raise the whole question of origins. At its most technical, this might help us answer the important question of whether people are born as 'deep' learners, or whether they can acquire a deep approach. The Lancaster School is optimistic about this issue (after some ambiguity), the Gothenburg School arguably less so -- but optimism should also make us cautious about claims that these approaches are somehow technical cognitive matters. For me, it is a matter of teaching learners about the peculiar values and conventions of academic life, rather than persuading them to adopt some new cognitive stance from skilled diagnosis and demonstration.

 We can proceed still further. Where do these peculiar values and conventions that haunt and structure academic life actually come from? No answers here from Lancaster (or, these days, Edinburgh and Melbourne, where Entwistle and Ramsden are currently based). Instead, I think we have to turn to sociological or cultural analysis again. To cut a long story short, I think the work of Bourdieu offers a promising answer. In his general work, Bourdieu (1986) analyses what he calls the 'popular' and the 'high' aesthetics, which affect general predispositions toward cultural matters such as the kinds of films or television programmes you like).

 To be very brief about this, the 'popular aesthetic' values qualities such as immediate identification, emotional involvement, and similarities with real life. The 'high aesthetic', by contrast, stresses more abstract matters such as form, detachment, cool and unemotional forms of involvement, and a distance from real life. The descriptive similarities in this schema and the deep surface division are deepened by Bourdieu's subsequent analysis of French academic life (1988) and the largely unconscious values that it enshrines. These values serve to provide both the academic division of labour that we've criticised before and a 'structure of judgment' that informs matters such the actual assessment of students.

 Putting it back in an academic context helps us see some of the full critical implications which follow when we  'add' Bourdieu to the Lancaster material:

  •  Those who have developed the 'high' aesthetic have often done so in deliberate contrast to the 'popular' one -- we are talking about using culture to maintain social boundaries and social distance between groups

  • Once these aesthetical dispositions have been developed they become naturalised in subsequent generations, rendered as unconscious 'second nature'. They are no longer open for critical scrutiny or reflection -- they just seem to be 'the way we do things around here'.

  • The conscious transmission of these values, in programmes of 'study skills', for example, is necessarily limited -- people learning these values can never reproduce them as effortlessly and as naturally as those who are born into families where they are fully naturalised.

 We can use this work to classify a whole range of approaches to academic work. To those born into families sharing the the 'high aesthetic', there is an effortless transition to university life which values the same kind of 'aristocratic' detachment, coolness, and ability to focus on form. To those born into families at the other end of the social spectrum, there is a tendency to rely upon 'popular cultural capital', a kind of native wit and cunning that leads to behaviour such as 'poaching' or 'tricking', or 'cheating', for that matter. Then there is the option for those respectable middle-class groups lacking aristocratic detachment or proletarian cunning -- these are the main clients for the Lancaster approach, who need to be told the rules before they can begin to play by them.


 Becker H, Geer B and Hughes E (1964) Making the Grade: the academic side of college life, New York: Wiley and Sons ( NB new edition with a new Introduction, 1995 Transaction Press: London)

Bourdieu P ( 1986) Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, London: Routledge

Bourdieu P (1988) Homo Academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press

Entwistle N and Ramsden P (1983) Understanding Student Learning, London and Canberra: Croom Helm

Evans T and Murphy D (eds) Research in Distance Education 3, Deakin University Press: Geelong

Harris D ( 19987) Openness and Closure in Distance Education, Lewes: Falmer Press.

Morgan A (1993) Improving Your Students’ Learning: reflections on the experience of study, London: Kogan Page

Ramsden P ( ed) (1988)  Improving Learning: new perspectives, London: Kogan Page

Taylor E, Gibbs G and Morgan A (1981) The Outcomes of Learning From the Social Science Foundation Course: student’s understandings of price, control ,power, oligopoly, Study Methods Group Report no.9, available from the Institute of Educational Technology, Open University

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