Deep Learning vs Surface Learning

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Accompanying podcast episode:

I’m currently working through an excellent online course offered by the University of Queensland via EdX. The course is entitled ‘Deep Learning through Transformative Pedagogy‘. It’s absolutely fascinating and I would highly recommend the course for any teacher who is serious about helping students prepare for examinations, catch-up on missed work or understand complex content.

In today’s blog post I aim to share:

  • What I have learned about deep and surface learning from the course so far
  • Some practical ways in which deep learning can be encouraged in the classroom

So, get ready for a deep dive into this compelling topic!

A brief history behind the development of deep learning practices (and why surface learning is no longer enough)

The course began with brief history of schooling, and how technology has been a key driver for the need to educate children. The point was made that surface learning (e.g. memorization of facts) may have been sufficient in the past. However, for our learners today, facts can change very quickly. Skills need to be upgraded regularly and throughout one’s life. As a result, teaching has seen a massive shift from teacher-centred approaches to those which are learner-centred. Contemporary pedagogical approaches, such as constructivism (where students are active participants in their own learning and construct new knowledge based on links to current understandings and prior fundamentals) have an important role to play in this new, digital age.

It’s important to remember throughout today’s blog post that effective and active learning are two sides of the same coin: to be effective, learning must be active. Research shows that learner-centred approaches to teaching that change and develop student thinking get better results in terms of student learning outcomes than traditional information transmission methods.

What is deep learning, and how is it different to surface learning?

Deep learning means asking big questions. When students have the opportunity to explore a topic: asking the why, what, where, when and how behind some concept, idea or process, they learn a plethora of different things and extend their knowledge and understanding.

Surface learning involves rote memorization, and I saw a lot of this happening when I worked in China. Examples included colleagues who had very high-level credentials from top universities in Asia, but who were unwilling to perform classroom practical tasks/experiments with students because either ‘the students didn’t need to do that to pass their exams’, or the teachers themselves felt nervous due to inexperience. This seemed to really show itself in one subject in particular, however: mathematics. Students would be trained to learn lots of formulae, and would be given an astronomical number of drill questions to do for homework. However, when it came to applying the mathematics to an unusual or real-life problem, many students struggled.

Since taking the online course with the University of Queensland, I’ve learnt a number of interesting facts about deep learning:

  • Deep learning often involves revisiting and reviewing a topic, and can be achieved through tasks in which students are involved in active problem-solving.
  • Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is plastic, and that chemical changes actually occur during deep learning. Deep learning involves consolidation of knowledge, and is driven by protein synthesis in the brain. Animal studies have shown that when protein synthesis in the brain is blocked, only surface learning occurs.
  • Deep learning is a process of integrating new facts we learn about the world into our existing semantic framework.
  • Deep learning can be achieved when students are given the opportunity to discover content, knowledge and skills for themselves.
  • Deep learning Involves an analysis of the information being collected, allowing a more complete understanding than surface learning can provide.

In contrast to deep learning, surface learning concerns itself only with the knowledge, ideas and content present in a curriculum. Deep learning is all about relating or extending all of that. This surprised me to some extent, as I thought that learning high-demand content (e.g. redox equations in IB Chemistry) would be considered deep learning, when actually it’s just surface learning (even though the content may be considered ‘advanced’). Deep learning would occur when the student is able to apply their knowledge of, say, redox equations, to unfamiliar or extended contexts  – such as when the student is tackling sub-sections of an IB HL exam paper in Chemistry, or designing and implementing an experimental investigation into the topic. 

It’s important to note that there isn’t a clear-cut distinction between surface and deep learning: rather, there exists a gradation between one and the other. A progression is made from having an idea to having many ideas (surface learning), to relating and extending those ideas (deep learning).

Whilst the progression from surface learning to deep learning follows a continuum, it is also cyclical – as students begin to relate and extend ideas, they come up with new ideas which brings them back to the surface learning part of the cycle.

What kinds of activities can teachers do in the classroom to encourage deep learning to take place?

  • The Flipped Classroom: This was something completely new to me which I discovered on this course, and it was really enjoyable to learn about this novel approach to teaching and learning. The basic idea is that pre-reading is done at home and homework is completed in class! The students come to class already prepared with some fundamental knowledge, and then complete activities based upon what they have read. Collaborative activities (e.g. using Padlet) are really good for getting students to reflect on their learning. In terms of the pre-reading to be done at home – this doesn’t actually have to be reading. Short, 5 minute videos that the students have to watch may be enough.
  • Give students some prompt material (e.g. a website to use, an information sheet, etc.) and ask students to CREATE something from it. Good things to create include a Google Slides presentation, a Google Site, a Google Doc summary, an infographic, a stop-motion animation, a quiz (e.g. a Kahoot!) and so on. Please note: If you ask students to create something, then make sure they present it to the class in some way (e.g. a short talk). Students can work in groups for activities like this. I’ve written a separate blog post about encouraging creativity in the classroom here.
  • Since deep learning can be achieved through revisiting and reviewing content and skills regularly, journaling and past-paper practice can meet the necessary requirements. With past-paper practice, however, make sure that the students make full corrections, and can somehow articulate why they made made mistakes. The process of completing, correcting and reflecting on past-exam paper questions (or exam-style questions) is a problem-solving sequence in and of itself – hence a deep learning activity.
  • Practical work that allows students to explore an unusual context, or an extended part of a topic, can definitely encourage deep learning to take place – especially if the students have been involved in the creative design of the task themselves in some way. Think about opportunities you can create for students to design and implement their own experiments, presentations, model-building and practical/hands-on work (e.g. welding together an iron gate, making an item of clothing, building the circuitry for a small radio – it will depend on the subject you teach, of course).

Recommended further reading

Constructivism: Creating experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge. The University of Buffalo. Accessed: 23rd May 2022.

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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