Teaching and Learning Resources

Learning Approaches

An approach to learning has two components- how students approach a task (strategy) depends on why they want to approach it in the first place (motive). Student approaches to learning refers to the idea that students will take a different approach to how they study and learn depending on their perceived objectives of the course they are studying. For example, students can use different learning approaches for different tasks. These are not inherent personality traits and they are produced by the interaction of the student with the learning tasks. The most commonly discussed approaches to learning include deep, surface and strategic or achieving.

Learning approaches can be differentiated from learning styles which are various approaches or ways of learning. These involve learning methods particular to the individual such as an auditory learner or a visual learner. Please go to learning styles for a detailed explanation and useful resources.

Surface, Deep and Strategic (achieving) Approaches to Learning

  1. Surface learners typically focus on memorization of details and facts without drawing connections to prior knowledge.  It is then difficult to apply that knowledge beyond memorization and is often forgotten quickly after it is needed, such as for test or exam.
  2. Deep learners engage in an active search for meaning and have a more thorough understanding of the knowledge.  It involves the integration of new knowledge into the student’s understanding of the world, making it much more concrete and long lasting. 
  3. Strategic or achieving learners focus on a goal or product. They use surface learning in an attempt to learn only what is required to maximize the chances of obtaining high grades. This may result in good grades but not necessarily in a concrete understanding of the material.

For information and tips on how to encourage deeper learning in your classroom, please the links below.

Related Resources

John Biggs argues that the important focus in improving teaching is not on what teachers do, but on what and how students learn. He has developed questionnaires to assess student’s approaches to learning. He has also created a Revised Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F) which is meant for instructors to assess their own teaching. It can be found at the link below.

This link describes in detail the differences between deep and surface approaches to learning. It very briefly discusses the strategic or achieving approach.

An introduction and discussion of the approaches to learning