The problem with strategic learning approach

20 Sep

In any given situation where we need to learn something new – whether formal (at school) or informal (anywhere) – we have a choice to make about our own approach to learning it. This approach can be either engaging in deep learning (immersing ourselves to learning for life) or surface learning (memorizing disconnected pieces of information). When we are in formal education (school, college, university) there is also a third approach: strategic learning, which means that we are aiming for a good grade without caring about the content, and forgetting the information as soon as we pass the assessment.

Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiring transferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term “deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenograhpic research where researchers found out students having different approaches to learning [1]. These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected pieces of information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), or as knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings (deep learning).

Deeper learning has been defined by American Institutes for Research as “a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job” [2]

We all use the deep and surface learning approaches in different situations. When presented with a learning task, we appraise the value of it, and then decide about our approach. This usually happens very quickly and automatically. What worries me, is that I have met students whose only learning approach seems to be the strategic learning – meaning that they want high grades, but don’t want to really learn the content. These can be very “good” students – always submitting their assignments and assessments in time, often doing extra work to ensure a good grade. But what about the quality of their learning?

Most grading systems appear to reward the strategic approach, which is very problematic because it focuses on extrinsic motivation and external rewards. Students are taught to complete their worksheets and other tasks and pass their tests so that they can get good grades. But why don’t we talk about learning? And being able to use what they learned?

After moving overseas from Finland, I was so surprised to see that my children had homework that was graded. That made no sense to me! As a teacher, how would I know who actually completed that homework assignment, or how much help the student received in completing it? While teaching in Finland the rule for homework was that it must be something that allows students to revisit what they learned at school. Because the idea of homework is to support students’ learning. Not to have them demonstrate their competency.

Making learning more meaningful for students and decreasing the obsession with grading is more important in 2020 than ever before.

Learner-centered instructional strategies will help. Providing choices for students – they can learn same competencies with different tasks, and getting to choose increases intrinsic motivation (game builders know this, btw, and have mastered the ACR – autonomy, competence, and relatedness). TeachThought also has a collection of more learning-centered strategies for instruction.

To make a leap further into learner-centered practices, ask students’ input for planning their learning experiences. Express positive regard. Try competency-based education. Change the assessment to be student-centered and non-punitive!



[1] Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and
process. British journal of educational psychology, 46(1), 4-11.

[2] Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from:

[3] Bain, K. (2013). Introduction: Growing Deep Learning. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education1(8), 1.

4 Responses to “The problem with strategic learning approach”

  1. Ken Powell September 21, 2020 at 11:31 pm #

    I think the problem is, in many ways, because so-called ‘surface learning’ is, for many, so very difficult and so few teachers know how to prepare students for it without resorting to some form of rote learning (i.e. Lots of homework performing the same tasks repeatedly). The result is that the overwhelming occupation is to force the remembering of facts into student heads. This leaves very little teaching time to really allow deep learning and in the UK, at A level stage, this is an immense struggle. This is why I’ve worked with and developed a full memory technique to allow students to memorise facts relatively easily, taking away the fear of memorising and the stress of ‘cramming’. When trained well, my students memorise all important information well in advance and with ease and a sense of fun, so they understand the subject framework well enough to go deeper and really delve into ‘deep learning’. The fact is, it is usually impossible to go beyond surface learning if you don’t have that secure first. Hence, many students never get any further. Those that just want to pass exams and don’t care about content are probably long since feeling a form of burn out.

    • Dr. Nina September 22, 2020 at 7:46 am #

      Hi Ken,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response! I agree that surface learning can be very taxing and stressful. Yet, there appears to be students who have mastered the strategic learning, and it saddens me that they may never feel the thrill of exploring new ideas and frameworks – learning CAN be so much more than just a chore! This is why I wish all teachers to strengthen their skills in all areas of Teachers’ Pedagogical Knowlede: instructional process, learning process and assessment.

      It sounds that you have found a way to teach with a holistic strategy to build the initial competence that allows students to tie their learning into the theoretical framework of the topic. I would be interested in learning more about your memory technique.


      • Ken Powell September 24, 2020 at 5:28 am #

        Keep your eye out on Twitter or Facebook or my webpage – when it publishes I shall announce it there! To an extent it is a more extended version of well-known mnemonic techniques but put together into a system which is practical and holistic.


  1. Using SEL to support learner agency | NotesFromNina - January 22, 2021

    […] Detachment can happen more easily when students perceive that their learning has no real-life connections, or when they are just going through the motions to earn a grade. There is very little or no learning going on, and students may engage in surface learning strategies. […]

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