The concepts of surface and in-depth learning emerged some 40 years ago, when two Swedish psychology researchers, Ference Marton and Roger Säljö, were trying to understand how a group of university students approached reading. Marton and Säljö found that the adoption of in-depth learning strategies was associated with higher levels of success among learners. These findings have since then been confirmed in other studies, and the use of these concepts has become common in learning research. Here is an overview of what makes them different and some nuances to better understand them.
(Synthesis inspired by Marton and Säljö, 1976; Rhem, 1995; Wolfs, 1998; Cossette and Larue 2005; Biggs, 2007; Larue and Hrimech, 2009)
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Achieving “quality” learning. Effective and quality learning can be defined in various ways, but it is not wrong to say that in-depth and self-regulated learning leads to it (Marton and Säljö, 1976; Watkons and Biggs, 1996; Larue and Hrimech, 2009).
Do not confuse “in-depth” with “deep” learning! We could (almost) say that the former is to human intelligence what the latter is to artificial intelligence (AI)… Deep learning, this branch of AI considered to be the most promising, is a technique that consists in developing in a computer the ability to “learn by itself” through artificial neural networks (see Artificial Intelligence: From Manual Programming to Deep Learning).
The relevance of surface learning. Despite this comparative presentation, which is strongly in favour of in-depth learning, surface learning is not to be completely rejected. This is because, depending on the type of knowledge to be acquired, the preferred form of learning may vary. In a learning journey, it is indeed frequent that one must learn certain information by heart, without having to give it meaning or to push the reflection further.
Beware of myths. Following the questionable learning styles approach which we have addressed in our article 3 myths that prevent you from learning, let us emphasize that it is wrong to believe that some learners are “programmed” to be better able to work either with an in-depth approach or with a surface approach. In fact, the same learner uses different learning approaches depending on the context, more precisely according to the different requirements they perceive as being imposed by the diversity of tasks to be performed (Laurillard, 1998).
The “Asian learner paradox.” To continue on the same note, we cannot ignore the “Asian learner paradox” which, as the authors of Comparative Research in Education explain, is embodied in the syllogism: “1. Chinese students use rote learning more than Western students; 2. Rote learning leads to poor learning outcomes; 3. So, Asian students must have poorer learning outcomes than Western students.” However, based on comparisons of international academic results, this syllogism is not valid.
The most plausible explanation for this paradox comes, as these authors report, from the cultural differences in the way Western and Asian people perceive the relationship between memorization and understanding: “In fact, Chinese students often learn by repeating, both to anchor knowledge and to increase understanding. […] Many Chinese students really develop their understanding through a process of memorization and can thus achieve good academic results.”
In-depth learning and technology. Digital teaching platforms and immersive simulations of “authentic situations” (see Virtual Reality in Learning as Seen by a Ubisoft Expert) could be very promising tools for in-depth learning, especially for evaluating learners. This is what Harvard researcher Chris Dede, a leading authority in research on the development of emerging technologies for learning, said in the second publication of a series of reports on in-depth learning. According to him, “the development of more sophisticated assessment is essential to the evolution of deeper learning, and technology offers a powerful vehicle by which to accomplish this.” Dede adds that “while it is possible to teach for deeper learning without technology, it is hard to imagine how our schools will scale up such instruction without support from digital tools and media.”