Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning

Deep vs. Shallow Learning

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. 

There are basically just two different types of learning, when we are discussing about learning of certain concepts: Deep Learning and Shallow Learning (which is also called Surface Learning).  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 that carry little significance to us but that we still need to some extent or 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 revolver 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.

We also need to think of the teachers' view about students, because it contributes both to the instructional decisions and teachers' expectations for students. Most teachers have in mind 

"the concept of “teachability,” which reflects the teacher's view of the attributes of a model student, and is affected by three primary factors consisting of temperamental dimensions."

The three factors researchers are talking about are task orientation (activity, persistence and distractability), personal-social flexibility and reactivity. Well combined these personality traits create an ideal student: motivated, well-mannered and focused on studies - and these students often use deep learning strategies quite automatically, as it seems. But, the reality of good education is, that we must help all other students become successful in deep learning as well, and that can sometimes be a challenge. 

Awareness improves performance. Knowing how you learn is the first step for students, and we can easily talk about task orientation in the class - which includes the realization that tasks are not performed to please the teacher, but to make learning easier. Schools must help their students not only with learning information, but also with learning about their own lives and learning, because learning is always contextual and situational, and thus it cannot be separated from the learning environment, nor from out personality. Students make many cognitive and emotional choices every day, either knowingly or totally unaware of even being in the situation of choosing.

If students are not taught about these choices they have, if they are not given tools to understand how to regulate their own learning, if there is nobody helping them to find meaning in what we want them to learn, how can we expect them to thrive? 

Dropouts do not leave school, because they did not learn enough facts. They leave because they do not find any meaning in the facts they learn. 


Please let me help you help your students! 




[1] Mullola, S., Ravaja, N., Lipsanen, J., Hirstiö-Snellman, P., Alatupa, S., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2010).Teacher-perceived temperament and educational competence as predictors of school grades. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 209-214.

 More about deep learning in the book: