Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning and the Strategic Approach to Study in Higher Education; Based on Phenomenographic Research.

Karen Bradford

This essay shall begin with an introduction to research related to approaches to learning and study in higher education and will include any debate or implication arising from them.  Secondly, there shall be a record of some of the critical incidents which originated from the learning experience of writing this piece.  Finally there shall be a report of critical reflections of these incidents, which will include the connections (or lack of them) between the findings of research and the learning experience.

During the past twenty-five years educational researchers have predominantly used the phenomenographic approach to investigate the relationship between the learners' approach to studying and their level of understanding.  The principles of this conceptual framework are that an understanding of the phenomenon of learning should be sought through examining the learners' experiences and should involve the actual context and situation that people learn with, that is a 'naturalistic' setting (Marton and Entwistle accessed 2001).

The results of these studies have suggested several descriptions of the deep and surface approaches.  Ramsden (1988 cited by Morgan 1993) has summarised the aspects evident in the learner, according to each approach.  Firstly, the deep approach correlates with an intention to understand.  Specifically there is a focus on what is signified, for example the author's arguments; there is the occurrence of relation and distinction between new ideas and previous knowledge; the relation of concepts to everyday experience; the organisation and structuring of content and an internal emphasis on learning, including the idea that learning helps the learner construct their view of reality.  These aspects suggest a subject focused approach with learning having an intrinsic value for the learner.

Whereas the surface approach is related to aspects marked by an intention to complete the task (or learning) requirements.  Specifically there is a focus on the 'signs' such as the text itself and on discrete elements, along with the memorisation of information and procedures for assessment.  Also evident is the unreflective association of concepts and facts; a failure to distinguish principles from evidence or new from old; the treatment of the task as an external imposition and finally external emphasis, such as the demands of the assessment and knowledge remaining separate to everyday reality (Ramsden 1988 cited by Morgan 1993).  The aspects related to the surface approach suggest a learning which is task focused and more commonly having extrinsic value, for example the value associated to the grade achieved through a particular instance of learning.  However, these approaches are analytic categories derived from research and thus only describe the relative prominence of each approach to studying in a student (Entwistle 2000).  This suggests that there may be difficulty in classifying some students, where neither approach is strictly prominent.

The importance of the learners' approach becomes apparent in Entwistle's conclusion that it is a crucial factor in the level of understanding attained (1998).  This is supported by research conducted by Marton and Säljö (1976 cited by Gibbs 1981).  In the subjects' summaries of an article concerned with curriculum reform they found a relationship between the approach and four hierarchical categories of understanding.  That is, of those classified as adopting the surface approach five students responded in relation to the lowest level of understanding, eight responded to the next stage of understanding, one student responded in the second highest level but none could be categorised with the highest level of understanding.  Whereas of those who displayed a deep approach, five responses were categorised at the highest level, four at the second highest but there were none in the lowest two categories of understanding.  This research suggests that a deeper approach to learning is linked to a higher level of understanding in learning.

Entwistle (1998) proposes that there are two influential factors that determine which approach is adopted by the learner.  He cites early quantitative research which demonstrates evidence of a development in the nature of thinking during higher education, whereby students gradually shifted from a belief in dualism to a recognition of relativism.  That is, from a belief in correct answers which are transmitted by the lecturers to be reproduced in assessments, to the recognition that conclusions are based on evidence which a learner must interpret for themselves (Perry 1970 cited by Entwistle 1998).  However the research that Entwistle bases this conclusion on used a sample of American middle class male students, therefore caution must be taken before applying conclusions to the diverse general population.  More specifically, Belenky et al (1986 cited by Morgan 1993) conclude that the work has overlooked specific issues relating to female intellectual development, yet Morgan (1993) argues that it nevertheless provides a sound basis for reflection on education.  Despite the criticisms of Perry's research, the significant concepts within the theory have been justified by later research.

The second influential factor was identified by Säljö (1979a cited by Entwistle 1998) when he described a similar development in the students' conception of learning.  There is an evident contrast between students who perceived that learning involved storing and reproducing information and others who attempted to grasp the meaning for themselves with the aim of transforming the material provided.  There are three proposed stages to this development, firstly the student becomes 'aware of the influence of the context in learning about what you should learn and how you should set about it' (Säljö 1978, 1979b cited by Gibbs 1981: 80); but this awareness is not necessarily applied to the students' own learning.  The second stage in this development is related to a distinction between 'learning 'for life' versus learning in school' (Säljö 1978, 1979b cited by Gibbs 1981: 80), this indicates some recognition that the nature of the learning context is artificial and possibly unrelated to situations outside of it.  The final stage of development is a distinction made by some participants between 'learning and real learning, or even more commonly, as that between learning and understanding' (Säljö 1978, 1979b cited by Gibbs 1981: 81).  The existence of stages in the conceptualisation of learning suggest that it is neither static nor consistent over time.  According to Entwistle (1998), the development of the conception of learning (from reproducing to transforming) and the intellectual development (from dualism to relativism) are factors that influence which approach is adopted, therefore supporting the argument that the same approach is not consistently adopted by the learner.

Phenomenographic studies have also focused on the context of the learning, as a third influential factor.  For example, Säljö (1979c cited by Gibbs 1981: 76-7) asked seventy-two subjects to read a paper concerned with surface and deep approaches.  He concluded that,

'a clear majority of subjects participating in this study recognise the dichotomy between a deep and surface approach and they can furthermore relate their own methods and procedures of learning to this perspective.  A surprising result, however, is the finding that very few describe themselves as belonging exclusively to either of these categories.  Rather, the general attitude among 61 of the 72 subjects, who described their own learning in the perspective outlined in the text used as learning material, is that they consider both of these approaches to be applicable to their own learning...the subjects perceive their approach to learning as being contextually dependent.'

With reference to the consistency of the approach adopted by the student, in the above extract, not all of the students were influenced by context.  Säljö explains that for this minority 'There may not be any room for such contextual influences simply because learning is held to have one fairly obvious meaning which does not differ from one situation to another.' (1979c cited by Gibbs 1981: 77).  Furthermore, in a previous study, Svensson (1977 cited by Gibbs 1981) found that twenty-three of the thirty students took the same approach in his experiments as in their usual studies; suggesting that in some situations the proportion who are consistent in their approach may increase.  Along with other research, this led to the elaboration of questionnaires to identify 'deep processors' and 'surface processors' (Gibbs 1981), which opposes Entwistle's argument that a student can not be classified into a single category and raises the question of whether the type of processing is fixed or may be altered through course design and teaching methods.

Säljö and other researchers (such as Entwistle and Ramsden 1983 cited by Marton 1993) suggested the need to term a third approach, that is the 'strategic' approach.  This term describes students with an intention to achieve the highest grade possible through effective time management and organised study methods and an alertness of the assessment process (Entwistle and Ramsden 1983 cited by Entwistle 2000).  According to Entwistle, 'Interviews with students suggest that strategic students have two distinct focuses of concern - the academic content and the demands of the assessment system' (2000: 3).  Furthermore, whereas the identification of 'deep' and 'surface' approaches originate from research which analysed the meaning gained from reading text, the 'strategic' approach' originates from research with reference to everyday situations; therefore it more appropriately describes an approach to studying (Morgan 1993).

Most importantly, the crucial question of whether the desired approach can be encouraged through course design and challenging teaching methods must be addressed.  Bowden (1990 cited by Bowden and Marton 1998) suggests that by changing the students' learning environment the majority of them would adopt the required approach.  In addition Bowden identified several common characteristics in higher education courses which tend to encourage the surface approach.  For example many short units, immediate assessment, assessment for recall, grades being the only feedback, students never assessed again on topics and few links to other units.  This suggests that it is important to adjust course design so that practice reflects and supports the importance of meaning which can be communicated verbally.  An example of a curriculum plan that was found to have a powerful influence on students' learning was designed by Project Zero at Harvard.  The researchers have developed a framework titled Teaching for Understanding to encourage teachers to set overall goals in terms of understanding, to select generative topics which encourage thinking and to design assignments that require students to reach an understanding (Wiske 1998 cited by Entwistle 2000).  Along with providing evidence of understanding, the 'understanding performances' aim to develop it through requiring high level thinking.

'Performances of understanding require students to show their understanding in  an observable way.  They make students' thinking visible.  It is not enough for students' to reshape, expand, extrapolate from, and apply their knowledge in the privacy of their own thoughts...Such an understanding would be untried, possibly fragile, and virtually impossible to assess.' (Blythe et al. 1998: 63 cited by Entwistle 2000).

 This evidence supports the argument that suitably challenging course design can encourage a deeper approach to learning.

However, researchers studying the influence of activities also experimented by introducing 'in-text' questions (Marton and Säljö 1984; Dahlgren 1975; cited by Morgan 1993).  The conditions of the experiments included 'loosely controlled' settings with instructions for the learners to scan or review the text in any way they preferred.  They concluded that the in-text questions served to interrupt the readers' interaction and engagement with the text and thus tended to stimulate a surface approach, 'Thus the task is transformed into a rather trivial and mechanistic kind of learning, lacking the reflective elements found to signify a deep approach.' (Marton and Säljö 1984: 84 cited by Morgan 1993).  Although the result may be a consequence of the type of questions asked, it nevertheless demonstrates that a surface approach may result where encouragement of a deep approach was intended.  This evidence suggests that caution must be taken when attempting to manipulate learners towards a deep approach.

To summarise all of the above, phenomenographic research suggests identifiable learning approaches which can be termed as either 'deep' and 'surface', as well as an approach to study that can be termed as 'strategic'.  The approach adopted by the learner is significantly related to a student's intellectual development and conception of learning, along with the learning context.  Furthermore the approaches correlate with the outcome of the learning.  Entwistle concluded that the overall picture is still emerging from research findings, for example the exact nature of the relationship between the concepts, and that

'The process of transforming research findings into workable and effective practice is both extremely difficult and enormously important: without progress towards this end, research will still have little impact on practice.' (2000: 9)

Therefore, students may be encouraged to adopt the deep approach to facilitate a higher level of understanding.  Finally, caution must be taken not to exclude the importance of the surface approach in relation to some tasks, since the research appears imbued with the value judgement that the deep approach is in some way more desirable.

In order to assess the relevance of my own learning to the above theories, it is necessary to first describe some critical incidents.  The focus will be on my approach to this assignment since it is the most recent and therefore can be related more accurately; in addition it relates to the context of learning in higher education.

The first critical incident arose from the choice of topic; there are approximately ten topics covered in weekly lectures and seminars and assessed through this piece of coursework and a future examination.  Firstly I selected approaches to learning, but found it difficult to locate sufficient relevant and available sources and so I opted for the alternative topic of distance education.  However, after a weekend was spent reading around the second choice, I decided that I found the first more interesting.  Therefore I approached my lecturer for guidance on locating further sources to support selected material from the Internet.  After a second search for material at the library, I had successfully located a sufficient amount for this assignment.

A second critical incident was indirectly related to this topic but directly related to the research for this assignment.  During the period of background reading I came across a theory concerning the skills and developments required to become an effective 'lifelong' learner (McCune 1998).  Although I felt I met the other criteria fully, I identified the need to further develop skills relating to evaluating and assessing my own work, since I have a lack of certainty here.  I aim to continue studying independently after leaving educational institutions, mostly because I take pleasure from the activity but also to examine new evidence and adjust my perspective accordingly.  This critical incident is important because it has highlighted an area of my learning which requires development to equip me for future situations.

The third critical incident occurred whilst reading about conceptions of learning (above).  A spontaneous thought came to mind, that there were similarities to an argument put forward in relation to a recent essay connected with a module entitled 'Contemporary Philosophy of Education'.  According to Barrow and Woods (1988) philosophy and theories of education are closely linked to teaching practice, especially since the theory must be altered as necessary in accordance with the findings of practice.  They also argue that philosophy is central to the education process because certainty of concepts will clarify the aims of a teacher, therefore facilitating more focus in their practice when trying to achieve them.  Although a 'teacher's philosophy' implies a more consistent and explicit body of knowledge than a 'learner's conception', the two ideas both refer to the relationship between an individual's perception of a concept and their practice.  Although the link between the spontaneous thought and the topic in hand is not significant, the incident was nevertheless critical because the previous study of the relationship between theory and practice accelerated the process of interpretation of the meaning of the text related to conceptions of learning.  Furthermore, Barrow and Woods' (1988) suggestion that a teacher's practice can be developed through theorising about concepts generates the question of whether students could be encouraged to adopt a specific approach to learning by theorising about it in order to develop their concept.  Particularly for the minority identified by Säljö who appear consistent in their approach because learning has 'one fairly obvious meaning' (above), conceptualising could illustrate various meanings of the term; this highlights an area for future research.

The final critical incident to be discussed here is the selection of material to be included in this essay.  This was heavily influenced by the marking criteria of college assessments, these are stated on 'coursework report forms' and were emphasised by the lecturer on the 'module handbook'; the criteria are 'understanding, coverage of topic, academic presentation, expression, idea generation, synthesis and critical analysis' (College of St Mark and St John 2001).  The influence on content arises from the need to meet the criteria in order to achieve a good grade.  In this case, the structure of the essay had been stipulated by the lecturer in the 'module handbook', because there were three clear objectives to be addressed, it was appropriate to inform the reader of them through stating the intentions in the first paragraph.  Another example, that is 'coverage of topic' implies that an essay concerning deep and surface approaches could include a background of the perspective on which research is based (that is phenomenographical), along with a comprehensive description of these approaches (that is Ramsden's definitions).  In addition, to demonstrate 'critical analysis' the evaluation of evidence provided by the researchers is necessary, such as the criticisms of Perry's study (1970).  Therefore the structure and content of the essay was affected by the stipulated criteria.

In an analysis of the first critical incident, that is choice of topic, the level of interest was the decisive factor, but I would only reverse my decision once I had located sufficient sources to meet the criteria of the assignment.  This would indicate two focuses of concern, that is the academic content and the demands of the assessment system; Entwistle identified this as characteristic of the strategic approach.  Some would argue that any reference to criteria can be evidence of a surface approach, but the task remained intrinsically meaningful, especially since it relates to analysing my experience.  In addition to the influential factors of a belief in dualism or relativism, conception of learning and context, a personal narrative indicates that a students' history is also significant to the approach adopted.  The tendency to study what I am interested in arose after reflecting on my A-level studies, prior to returning to education.  My personal narrative of events can be summarised as

'Chose A-level subjects, without any real interest in one case.  There was little extrinsic motivation since I had been accepted for a Retail Management Course when I was sixteen years old which could not begin until I was eighteen, and did not require this level of qualification; thus A-level study had become an exercise to fill the time and under a guise of providing another option should I not like Retail Management. .Also my social life took a higher priority than studying.  These factors contributed to an aim in assignments to achieve enough to stay out of trouble with teachers or parents, but with no significance attached to understanding the material dealt with.  I achieved very low grades - far below my actual capabilities.'

This led me to conclude, at a later date, that interest in the subject and personal motivation are supremely important to my performance as a learner.  This narrative demonstrates how my attitude has developed towards a strategic approach through reflection on experience; but the result of poor grades could equally deter a student from ever returning to education and thus cannot be recommended for practice.  In addition it supports the evidence that the approach of the learner is not fixed.

In analysis of the second critical incident, involving the qualities of the lifelong learner, this does demonstrate reading beyond what is required for the assignment.  Gibbs (1981) states that this is one of the qualities displayed by a learner with a deep approach.  With reference to the third critical incident, that is the spontaneous thought concerning links between the perception of a concept and practice, it is a clear instance of the relation and distinction between new ideas (connected with approaches to learning) and previous knowledge (connected with philosophy of education).  This is a characteristic in Ramsden's summary of the deep approach to learning.  These critical incidents therefore suggest that I have used a deep approach to the learning for this assignment.

In an analysis of the final critical incident, that is the selection of material to include, the decisive factor was the focus on meeting the demands of the criteria for assessment.  This is evidence of a task focus which could indicate the adoption of a surface or strategic approach, and it illustrates of how the nature of the assessment affects the approach adopted by the learner.  However, I also aim to understand and have an ability to relate the relevant concepts before beginning to write an assignment, thus reflecting the dual focus and the outcome being determined by the assignment, which defines a strategic approach to study (Entwistle 2000; Entwistle and Ramsden 1983 cited by Marton 1993).

To summarise the analysis of the critical incidents, it is clear that deep and strategic approaches have been adopted for this assignment, dependent on which stage of the process is analysed.  In the earlier processes of selecting a topic and reading I was driven by interest in the subject and gaining the ability to transform the material prior to writing.  However, once I began to plan and write I adopted the strategic approach to ensure I fulfilled the stated criteria so that I could achieve a good grade.  This process crystallised my thoughts and thus raised more questions which I wanted to answer, thus I read further and amended the first draft, increasing my understanding as I did this.  The critical incidents and varying approaches partially illustrate the multiple processes involved but it also reflects the dual aims I hope to achieve.  Firstly these include furthering my interest in History and in Education Studies and the personal development gained from relating understanding to my own experience in order to make sense of my world; which indicate a deep approach is adopted.  But I also attach importance to achieving the highest grade possible, so I take care to check the final draft meets the criteria; an indicator of a strategic approach.

In a final conclusion, the research and personal experience suggests the existence of distinguishable learning styles; termed as deep or surface approaches to learning, along with the strategic approach to study.  The research has identified several significant factors which influence which approach is adopted by the learner; this essay has cited evidence to support the development in the nature of thinking from dualism to relativism, the conception of learning, contextual influence and personal history.  Some courses have had success in applying this theory to teaching practice, yet further research is still required to increase the impact of theory.  The critical incidents appear consistent with aspects of this theory; particularly for the identification of an adopted approach, which has proved variable and dependent on multiple factors.


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ASSIST.  Questionnaire available from University of Ulster, County Londonderry.

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