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Surface, deep and strategic approaches to learning

Good teachers understand learning, what it takes to learn, and how to encourage and support deep approaches to learning. Understanding the qualitatively different ways students interpret and undertake tasks has implications for the way we go about designing tasks and assessment.

Surface and deep learners

You may have observed students who complete the minimum tasks, memorise what is needed for an exam and nothing more. This is referred to as a surface approach (Marton and Saljö, 1976a, 1976b) where students see learning tasks as enforced work. These students tend to be passive learners, working in isolation, and see learning as coping with tasks so they can pass assessment. By contrast a student who adopts a deep approach to learning will seek to understand meaning. They have an intrinsic interest and enjoyment in carrying out the learning tasks, and have a genuine curiosity in the subject and connections with other subjects and with building on their current learning. These students may enjoy social learning, including discussing different points of view.

Strategic learners

Some students may use both deep and surface approaches to achieve their goals depending on what is required and the conditions under which they are learning such as how much time they have to prepare for an assessment. This is referred to as strategic (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1982), or achieving (Biggs,1987) learning. Strategic learners use ‘cues and clues’ (Ramsden, 1979) about assessment and are motivated by learning that results in positive outcomes such as the achievement of high grades.

Other factors

There are other factors which influence student learning including motivation, background, prior knowledge and experience, educational context and assessment to name a few (Biggs, 1996). You can probably think of many others.

Optional activity: To learn more about how students approach their learning take a look at section 1 Learning in the Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding video (0:35 - 5:00 minutes).

You will need to think further about the shallow, deep and strategic approaches to learning in the next step.


Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (3rd ed.). Berkshire: Open University Press.

Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Berkshire: Open University Press.

Entwistle, N. and Ramsden, P. (2015). Understanding Student Learning (Routledge Revivals). Routledge.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning I - outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4–11.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

UNSW Sydney