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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5 Awesome Live Quiz Apps You Can Use in The Classroom

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). This blog post is illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Accompanying podcast episode:

Children love competition – be that through sports, online gaming, traditional learning games, puzzles or even the drive to acquire more house points/plus points than their peers. Quiz-based apps, however, are unique in that they have finally allowed teachers to bring a healthy level of technology-driven rivalry into the remote, hybrid and traditional classrooms.

One big positive that we can attribute to these apps is that they have become very easy to use, and quick to set up – often requiring the students to simply type in a code on a website to begin the game. For the teacher, there’s the added benefit that games created by other teachers from around the world are often freely available to use on these platforms – saving you tons of preparation time.

What follows next is a list of the top five apps that I use on a regular basis with my students in my high school science classes. They are fun, easy to use and are great for reviewing prior knowledge.

#1: Blooket

I’ve only recently discovered Blooket but, I have to tell you: I’m already hooked!

Blooket distinguishes itself from other quiz-based apps in that there are actually ten types of game that you can play with the students (at the time of writing), all based on the much-loved multiple-choice quiz format. My personal favorites are:

  • Crypto Hack: With a dark theme and Bitcoin-centric atmosphere, Crypto Hack is one of the students’ favorites. After answering a series of questions correctly the students are then able to guess fellow students’ passwords (passwords are chosen from a pre-determined list that the game provides). A correct guess allows the player to hack the other player and steal imaginary crypto currency from them.
  • Fishing Frenzy: This one’s a bit crazy – hilariously so! Students, again, answer multiple choice questions but this time they cast a virtual fishing line into the water after answering correctly. What they pull out are usually different types of fish, but they can pull out junk and other crazy objects too. Players are ranked by the weight of fish they pull out of the water. Players can also ‘plunder’ other players’ fish and steal their poundage. It gets very competitive and you can expect to hear a lot of laughter in the classroom as this gets going!
  • Tower Defense: According to Blooket themselves, this is their most popular game. In this mode, the students answer multiple choice questions and are then presented with a map. On this map, the students must place towers in strategic positions to shoot enemies that appear on-screen. In this sense, Tower Defense is more similar to the kind of computer games that children are playing in their free time than all of the other game modes provided.

The main reason why Blooket is number one on my list is that you can replay the same multiple choice questions with the students but in different game modes. This can cause excellent knowledge recall and understanding to take place, especially after three or four attempts. This could be done in quick succession within a lesson (most of the game modes are exactly seven minutes long) or you could even play the same questions but in different game modes over a series of lessons. As with most quiz-based systems, there’s a searchable database of quizzes that other teachers have made – saving you tons of preparation time.

To summarise: I love Blooket.

#2: Quizlet Live

Hidden within Quizlet‘s excellent flash card system is a little-known activity called Quizlet Live. When the teacher selects this, the students in your classroom join the game (by entering a code on their devices) and are then placed into random teams. Once the game begins, all of the players in each team are given different questions to answer, so they MUST help each other (usually) if they want to win. The first team to pass twelve rounds of questions is the winner, and the teacher’s screen shows the real-time position of each team (1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place and so on).

Quizlet Live has two features which I believe make it a very unique learning tool:

  1. Students can read through the flash cards for the game as they’re waiting for other students to join. This, I believe, gives Quizlet Live a big advantage over many other quiz-based systems as students are not sitting around doing nothing as they’re waiting.
  2. Quizlet Live provides each team member with a different question, making the game more thorough/rigorous than some other quiz-based systems. Every member of the team has to answer their question correctly before the team can move to the next round.

The only disadvantage I’ve found with Quizlet Live is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to hybrid/remote teaching, as the students have to physically be next to each other in teams in order to interact quickly. I guess it could be feasible to put students into Google Meet Breakout rooms, or even hangout groups, to do the Quizlet Lives. However, I’ve tried this and have found it to be quite problematic and difficult to execute in real time (not least because you, the teacher, has to manually put the Quizlet Live teams (chosen at random) into Hangout/Breakout Rooms, and even then interaction between team members tends to be poor.

Quizlet has an immense database of flash cards created by other educators from all over the world, so it’s highly likely that you’ll find a question set that is suitable for your topic. If not, then you can make a set yourself.

#3: Quizziz

Quizizz is a simple but very effective multiple choice question system. Students log in with a code and answer questions – that’s it really. However, there are a few bells and whistles, such as excellent graphics, good music, power-up tools available for students on winning-streaks and a real-time leaderboard display that the teacher can present to the class.

One unique feature of Quizizz, which could be seen as either a disadvantage or an advantage, is that the game only ends when every person has answered every question (the teacher can set time limits for each question of between 30s and 5 mins). I quite like this feature of Quizizz, because as soon as one student is finished I ask him or her to go and help a student who isn’t finished. This can be a great way to build a sense of community within the classroom, and reinforce any work you’ve been doing on sympathy/empathy with your students.

Quizizz has many cool integration options with Google Classroom and even MS Excel. Read this excellent overview by TeachersFirst for a more in-depth analysis of how Quizizz could be utilised in your classroom. Of course, Quizizz has a large, searchable database of ready-made games that will allow you to set up a suitable quiz in seconds.

#4: Mentimeter

This is another simple and effective system that is somewhat similar to Kahoot! (number 5 on my list) but with a higher-quality user-interface, in my opinion. One interesting feature of Mentimeter is that it supports multiple question types (not just standard MCQs) such as ranking, scales, grids and open-ended questions.

Mentimeter is well-worth a try if you’re looking for something different.

#5: Kahoot!

Kahoot! is the original behemoth in the EdTech Hall of Fame, and we cannot ignore the influence it has had on the classroom app-development landscape. Kahoot! is simple, but very effective, and took the teaching world by storm when it first came out in 2013. Almost all modern live quiz-based systems have been inspired by Kahoot‘s innovative approach to game-based learning, and that’s why I wrote about Kahoot! in my award-winning book for teachers: The Quick Guide to Classroom Management. Kahoot‘s can be set as homework, or self-paced tasks too, which is handy if you want to help individual students in real-time.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to put Kahoot! at number five on my list as the system hasn’t really evolved much since 2013. Let me be clear: it’s awesome, but the other apps I’ve described today have additional features that make them somewhat more special than Kahoot! (in my humble opinion).

Conclusion

Use these game-based systems: it’s that simple! Students love them, and can gain a lot from their implementation when we plan their use carefully. They act as great starters, plenaries or even ‘chunks’ of lessons.

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