The Importance of Deep Learning

Though many students take a surface approach to learning, applying the power of a deep-learning perspective can foster true success.

Image: LightningVolt_Deep_Blue_Sea.jpg Courtesy Lars Lentz (on Wikipedia)


The college experience can seem like a series of hoops: you jump through one, only to encounter another just ahead. Researchers have studied the impact of this perspective and found that it often results in superficial retention of material rather than long-term learning (Warren, 2004). If you have been taking a short-term, “hoops” approach to your studies, now is the time to explore the power of the deep!

Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning

The terms “deep learning” and “surface learning” have evolved as scholars study student and teacher attitudes in education. According to experts at the University of Oxford, for example, the general characteristics of deep learning are aligned with developing a Growth Mentality and Learning for the Right Reason. Further, deep learning can profoundly influence other aspects of your life.

Lublin (2003) contrasts the differences between the surface and deep approaches to learning:  

 Students Who Take a Deep Approach--   Students Who Take a Surface Approach--
  • Attempt to understand material for themselves
  • Seek rigorous and critical interaction with knowledge content
  • Relate ideas to previous knowledge and experience
  • Discover and use organizing principles to integrate ideas
  • Relate evidence to conclusions
  • Examine the logic of arguments
  • Try to learn in order to repeat what they have learned
  • Memorize information needed for assessments
  • Make use of rote learning
  • Take a narrow view and concentrate on detail
  • Fail to distinguish principles from examples
  • Tend to stick closely to the course requirements
  • Are motivated by fear of failure


So What?

Although most students apply both deep- and surface-learning paradigms, clearly the deep-learning route is prerequisite to serious progress. Students who approach education from a deep-learning perspective make significant improvements, remember what they learn, and feel empowered to make a difference. Those who take a surface approach to learning may get good grades, but they rarely benefit much in the long term.

Now that you are better acquainted with these two learning approaches, consider which one you use more often. In what ways can you cultivate deep learning this semester? How can you limit the areas in which you generally take a surface approach? Please write your comments in the box below.