Approaches to Study
“Deep” and “Surface”

Conceptions of learning


Deep and Surface are two approaches to study, derived from original empirical research by Marton and Säljö (1976) and since elaborated by Ramsden (1992), Biggs (1987, 1993) and Entwistle (1981), among others.

It is important to clarify what they are not.

  • Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface”, they are not attributes of individuals: one person may use both approaches at different times, although she or he may have a preference for one or the other.
  • They correlate fairly closely with motivation: “deep” with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic, but they are not necessarily the same thing. Either approach can be adopted by a person with either motivation.

There is a third form, known as the “Achieving” or strategic approach, which can be summarised as a very well-organised form of Surface approach, and in which the motivation is to get good marks. The exercise of learning is construed as a game, so that acquisition of technique improves performance. It works as well as the analogy: insofar as learning is not a game, it breaks down.

Time to 'fess up: I was that strategic learner. Before I ever knew of this material, I used the terminology of the "academic game" in talking to fellow students, and even my own students, later on. (Oh! the shame of it!) But in reality it did not apply to all my course, just the bits I wasn't really interested in.

I suspect that one unintended consequence of efforts to retain "academic respectability" on some professional courses—most clearly through an obsession with correct referencing—is to turn the course experience into a game, and promote strategic learning to the detriment of effective learning for practice. More on this here.

The features of Deep and Surface approaches can be summarised thus:



Focus is on “what is signified” 

Focus is on the “signs” (or on the learning as a signifier of something else)

Relates previous knowledge to new knowledge 

Focus on unrelated parts of the task 

Relates knowledge from different courses 

Information for assessment is simply memorised 

Relates theoretical ideas to everyday experience 

Facts and concepts are associated unreflectively 

Relates and distinguishes evidence and argument 

Principles are not distinguished from examples 

Organises and structures content into coherent whole 

Task is treated as an external imposition 

Emphasis is internal, from within the student 

Emphasis is external, from demands of assessment 

(based on Ramsden, 1988)  

The Surface learner is trying to “suss out” what the teacher wants and to provide it, and is likely to be motivated primarily by fear of failure. One interesting study has suggested that efforts by teachers to convey that what they want is Deep learning only succeeds in getting Surface learners to engage in ever more complex contextualising exercises, trying to use Surface strategies to reproduce the features of the Deep approach. (Ramsden, Beswick and Bowden, 1986)

Surface learning tends to be experienced as an uphill struggle, characterised by fighting against boredom and depressive feelings. Deep learning is experienced as exciting and a gratifying challenge (more often, at least!)

There is some evidence that assessment methods can “reach See, inter al. this excellent paper from the Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe) at Oxford Brookes University.back” into courses in such a way as to make Surface approaches more likely: it has not so far been demonstrated that appropriate assessment methods can of themselves encourage Deep learning, although the "Assessment for Learning" movement is working along those lines.

The Deep and Surface distinction is a very popular one, much researched, using two main instruments; the Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs, 1987) and Entwistle's Approaches to Study Inventory. Although the original ideas were derived from the “phenomenographic” approach of open-ended measures factor-analysed to yield the basic Deep and Surface dimensions, later work has concentrated on refining scales to produce the dimensions (thus explicating the “symptoms” of each approach), and thereby regarded the approaches themselves as given.

One characteristic of the Surface approach is its tendency to “miss the point” of the learning. My reading of the evidence is that this may be a generalisation which is not completely supported by the evidence, particularly bearing in mind the non-subject-specific questionnaire instruments used which may not be able to get at this feature very easily.

What does not appear to have been researched is the problem of the structure of the knowledge being taught. While it is clear that either approach can be applied to practically anything, some subjects call forth a Surface approach more readily than others — law and medicine are perhaps examples. (That is why the adoption of problem-based learning in medical training was such an important innovation.) While there is a correlation between Deep approaches and better results in summative assessments, nothing seems to have been done on outcomes in professional practice beyond the institution.

Two other points:

  • Many current university students have been "coached" by their teachers to get the grades they need for admission: they have been trained to be surface learners, and their experience is that it "works". Why should they take the risk of working in a different way? 
  • Surface learning seems to be more likely when learning is isolated from practice. Practice has its own problems, in terms of "survival" practice, but surface learning is perhaps a function of the isolation of academic life from the real world where knowledge and ignorance have real consequences, rather than merely affecting assessment grades. (See the discussion of "communities of practice")

Conceptions of Learning

“Learning” means different things to different people. Säljö (1979) classified the conceptions held by respondents in his interview-based study into five categories:  

  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or “knowing a lot” 
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by re-interpreting knowledge.

There is a clear qualitative shift between conceptions 3 and 4. It has been argued that 1, 2 and 3 are views which underpin surface learning strategies, while 4 and 5 relate to deep learning.

More on Marton

See also the SOLO taxonomy

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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