Deep Learning

19 Aug

Are your students engaging in deep or shallow learning?

I believe “learning loss” is a made up concept. Think about it: you still remember many things and concepts  you learned as a kid, right? Only those things that had no significance for you have been forgotten. Yet, we still seem to think that what is taught is also learned. That could not possibly be true! Understanding subjectivity and learning ownership is very important for every educator.

Deep Learning and Shallow Learning (which is also called Surface Learning) are fundamentally different. 

The following  short comparison explains the differences:   

The difference between the two types of learning is huge, isn’t it? Each of us utilizes shallow learning sometimes. Usually with subjects or topics that carry little significance to us but that we still need to learn to some extent, or maybe with something that we don’t expect to need after a while.

Shallow learning can be seen as a chosen learning strategy and is a well accepted choice in certain situations. What scares me is that some students use shallow learning as their only strategy to learn or to even approach subjects to be learned. This inevitably leads to underachievement, and of course also losing the memorized bits of information, which we then call “learning loss”. Yet, it is worth noticing that some strategic learners choose to use shallow learning as their main learning strategy, in order to pass their exams and get good grades, while not being interested in really learning the content.

The educational reality revolves around the fact that what is taught is not necessarily learned. And if the assessment is taken immediately after instruction, the facts and concepts are mainly held in our short term memory. When transfer happens, and students are able to use and apply the learned concepts in other situations, it also means they have been deep learned. Getting there requires collaboration between students and teachers: meaningful instruction from teacher’s part, and buy-in from students’ part.

“What’s in it for me?” is the question every learner asks (more or less knowingly) before engaging in any given task. The answer may be an external reward (grade, certificate, badge, sticker, etc) or intrinsic interest (curiosity, need to know more about the subject, general interest), and this is where intrinsic/extrinsic motivation comes into the equation of teaching and learning.

It seems obvious that shallow learning relates to perceiving learning as a product. Supporting student’s individual learning processes also promotes deep learning!

Original research about deep learning:

Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976a). On the qualitative difference in learning I-Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.


10 Responses to “Deep Learning”

  1. basdenleco August 19, 2017 at 1:58 am #

    Highly informative and interesting article reinforcing basic tenants applicable to teaching and or training. Thank you

    • Nina August 19, 2017 at 3:02 am #

      Thank you! Discussing the important concepts related to agency and learning process is always nice! 😃

  2. MV Education Services August 20, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

    Nice article, thank you. If shallow learning can be a learning strategy, is the implication that the teaching facilitates and/or allows it?

    • Nina September 29, 2017 at 8:41 am #

      Thanks! While learning and teaching are two different processes, they are intertwined in the classroom (virtual or physical).

      The simple answer is yes, the chosen curricula and instructional strategies can support students’ interest to employ deep learning approaches, or emphasize shallow/surface learning.

      For example as seen in Foerst, Klug, Jöstl, Spiel & Schober (2017) “quite often students are rewarded for using surface processing learning strategies, since a multiple choice answering format mainly draws on direct recognition” (p. 9). Especially when students perceive the content to be learned having no connections to their lives, or no value in the future studies and/or life, it is easy to choose shallow learning as a strategy.

      Instructional approaches that emphasize choice, learning ownership, knowledge construction, and making connections are more likely to facilitate deep learning and understanding.

      Strategic learning (as coined by Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do focuses on gaming the curriculum and instruction, and getting best grades without engaging deeply in the content.


      Foerst, N. M., Klug, J., Jöstl, G., Spiel, C., & Schober, B. (2017). Knowledge vs. action: discrepancies in university students’ knowledge about and self-reported use of self-regulated learning strategies. Frontiers in psychology, 8.


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