Our Students as Learners

Approach to Learning

Students’ approach to learning describes what they do when they learn and why. The basic distinction is between a deep approach to learning, where students are aiming towards understanding, and a surface approach to learning, where they are aiming to reproduce material in a test or exam, rather than actually understanding it.

The same learner can adopt a deep approach in one context, and a surface approach in another. The difference in approach depends on the characteristics of the context, and the learners’ interpretation of it. In other words, the learner’s approach is not fixed. For example, students’ perception of a time-pressured environment can cause them to rush and adopt a surface approach for this particular course.

Figure 6. Approach to learning.
Adapted from “Scuba diving Indonesia - Bali - Komodo - Bunaken 2008” by Ilse Reijs and Jan-Noud Hutten. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/39891373@N07/3665458233/

The chart below describes student factors that can encourage a Deep or Surface Approach to learning (from Biggs, 1999; Entwistle, 1998; and Ramsden, 1992).

Deep Approach

  • Interest in the subject
  • Determined to succeed
  • Equipped with the appropriate background knowledge
  • Having time to pursue interests due to good time management
  • Positive prior learning experiences, leading to confidence in one’s ability to learn and succeed

Surface Approach

  • Taking the course for the qualification and not being interested in the subject
  • Putting greater emphasis on other aspects of their life (e.g., sports, social)
  • Lacking background knowledge
  • Not enough time/ too high workload
  • Cynical view of education, believing that factual recall is what is necessary
  • High anxiety

Activity: Applying Learning Approaches Model to Your Experiences

How does the deep/surface model of approaches to learning resonate with your experiences as a learner and your observations of student learning in your role as a TA/instructor? What can you do to help your students decrease their focus on memorization and to encourage them to take a deeper approach to learning?