Last changed 10 Feb 2005 ............... Length about 2,000 words (15,000 bytes).
This is a WWW document by Steve Draper, installed at You may copy it. How to refer to it.

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [courses] [lecture section] [this page]

The relationship of the Perry, deep&shallow learning, and Laurillard models

Stephen W. Draper
Department of Psychology


Triggered by students' questions in a class in November 1997.

The question

Three of the theories of the LTP (learning and teaching process) that I view as important are the notion of deep and shallow learning (Marton et al. 1984), Laurillard's (1993) model, and Perry's (1968/70) model. In particular, Marton and others contrast deep and shallow learning, or offer the idea of a dimension of learning approaches; Perry argues for an ordered set of stages (that some have simplified to 3 main stages); and Laurillard's model includes a contrast between the level of public, formal descriptions and private, personal experience, with a third set of "reflective" activities relating them. The suggestion was: do these 3 layers in Laurillard's model correspond with the 3 main Perry stages; and Perry's stage A with shallow learning?

My proposed answer

These links are probably significant associations in practice, but not necessary or universal.

Laurillard's levels are to do with the kind of knowledge: public and personal, expressed in formal language or in personal direct experiences. Someone who learned only in the top level (of public, formal descriptions) would fail to link it to personal experience; but might learn rival theories of one domain and their relationships at that level (and so have a high Perry score), and might think deeply about what those theories implied rather than how to repeat key words (and so do deep rather than shallow learning). Conversely someone could cover all the Laurillard levels to produce rounded knowledge of one topic (e.g. Newton's laws), yet still think there is just one true theory in this domain.

Deep and shallow learning is about the aim of the learner and the narrowness of the aspect of what is learned: with shallow learning being about learning only what is needed for some particular test task, rather than grounding it more richly with relationships to other aspects. Thus shallow learning often is about rote learning of technical terms without thinking about their meaning (if the test task is multiple choice questions), it but could be about learning procedures without learning the reason for them (if the test is a practical one), or about learning to churn out a standard essay about pros and cons without thinking about the connection of the topic to any new situation or experience (e.g. to pass a history exam consisting of essays). A research psychiatrist who never thought about how he could be mentally ill or what that would feel like would be a deep learner with a high Perry score, but with at best a limited connection to Laurillard's level of personal experience (he might know what mentally ill people looked like externally).

Perry is about a naive faith in simple truth versus the ability to learn concepts that might not be true, to learn and reason about supporting and disconfirming evidence for them, and to come to a reasoned though provisional view on which theory is best (so far). (In fact, this is an old aim of education, particularly university education. It is obviously a general intellectual skill, that should be valuable to the learner even when the subject matter of their degree is not. Since Perry, people who argue essentially this often cluster under a banner called "critical thinking" (e.g. Kuhn; 1991), which seems to me essentially the same idea, except that it stresses a general cognitive skill and de-emphasises how it interacts with every piece of teaching in every subject.) Adopting a high (position C) Perry approach means dealing with concepts and theories that are not definitely true or false, holding them simultaneously in mind, and reasoning about their relationship a) with each other i.e. with rival theories, b) with the evidence in the literature, c) with one's personal experience. Full coverage of the 12 Laurillard activities only guarantees (c), not the other two. Thus you could possibly have a high Perry score but not cover the Laurillard levels; and conversely you might cover the Laurillard levels but meet only a good fit between experience and theory so that a low Perry score was not challenged.

Thus in my view these three theories are addressing separate and independent ideas about learning. However I would expect quite a strong association in practice. For instance, integrating relevant personal experience with the concepts you learn is likely to challenge the theory to some extent and push for a high Perry score; and it is likely to make you wonder more about the meaning of the theory in a wider sense, and so move you more towards an attempt to understand, not merely do tests well i.e. to deep learning.

Going further: types of "depth"

The deep and shallow work is founded on learners' differing "approaches to learning", basically whether their goal is to understand (associated with deep learning) or to perform well on some specific anticipated test task (shallow learning). As such, it is an independent idea from Perry's and Laurillard's levels. However it is possible to see it in another way as embracing those among others.

This is because when we try to unpack what is meant by "understanding" or deep learning, we must recognise that there is no end to (deep) learning or understanding: there is always more that could be done, because there are always more connections to make, more applications of a concept to work out. We could list some of the different types of connection any learner can seek out: different types of connection, and so in a sense different kinds of "depth". (All are good, more is better, but none still leaves you with something.)

  1. Concept to example(s). You read a concept and may feel you understand it, but can you immediately give examples of it? Given a suggested example, can you decide whether or not it is a valid example? [These are deductive connections.]
  2. Concept to personal experience. a) applied to own feelings b) how it looks when you witness it in others. How does the concept relate to your personal experience i.e. can you think of examples you have experienced? [These are connections between the two parts of the Laurillard model: top and bottom, public/private, conceptual/experiential.]
  3. Concept to alternative theories of this topic. What are the rival theories/models? (For this topic, the topic is "theories of the learning and teaching process". The 3 theories discussed here are independently offered, but as this essay discusses, it seems they are not really rivals but alternative partial truths that could probably be synthesised into a single consistent whole. That is not accepted in the literature, but seems to be a tenable position.) [Pure Perry/critical thinking type links between alternative views of a topic.]
  4. Status of the concept: Who else thinks this? what groups of people? how certain is the theory? what use is it? Is this an accepted theory, a hypothesis, a useful commonsense classification, or what? What evidence is there or could there be? If you don't know the status, where would you go in the literature to establish its status i.e. find the published evidence or arguments? [This is associated with Perry, but is the "meta-information": not which is right, but what the state of the debate is in others' opinion.]
  5. Deductive consequences: what implications does a theory have? especially when combined with other facts and theories you know. Maths is essentially formal deduction, and in sciences many non-obvious conclusions can eventually be established.
  6. Working out what a new concept or fact means in multiple perspectives or representations. This may only be obviously important in some disciplines not others. But examples might include: coordinate geometry (relating algebraic equations with their graphs); in chemistry linking the formula to the molecule and its motions; in considering abnormal psychology, linking for every case or condition, the "medical" view of an organic disturbance drug therapy and behaviour viewed as the patient being "not themselves" and a social view of this being part of the human experience like sleep or flu or being angry with feelings that mean something.
  7. Concept to contradictions or inconsistencies, real or apparent, with any other facts and theories (in other areas). I.e. this is not about explicit rival theories (as Perry stresses), but thinking about hidden contradictions or implications of the idea being studied. In some ways this is similar to the previous point about working out the deductive consequences, but with more emphasis here on searching one's memory for possibly related items, and less on calculation (deduction). What other cases, laws, commonsense can you think of that seem in conflict with the concept? (For instance, when learning the Laurillard model, a good first reaction of this type would be to think of something you learned by a one-off exposure e.g. someone tells you in a pub. Surely you didn't need the other 11 activities to learn it? Or is there a reconciliation e.g. it wasn't education, perhaps you DID do activity 2: you immediately discussed it with friends, perhaps you did learn it but didn't fully understand it as you would if you did practical activities involving it, ....)
  8. Understanding, insight, enlightenment (relevance, validity): what pre-existing basic questions does this concept address? Why might it be interesting or useful? Is this a neat academic game limited to one experimental paradigm, or does it explain a feature of everyday life, or solve a real problem e.g. make sick people better? To put it crudely: so what? who cares? this is about judging a theory, not in its own terms, not for whether it is true, but by outside standards.

In the end, "understanding" and deep learning probably mean making all the connections you could to other things you know or experience, as opposed to simply being able to reproduce the idea in the way it was given you. There are numerous kinds of such connection, and the more links you make, the longer you are likely to retain this knowledge, and the more ways you may be able to use it. But making these connections takes time: time to think, and perhaps time to discuss it with others to prompt your thinking.

Applying this to yourself as a study technique, you could apply the above list to every concept and topic you learn: ask yourself for examples and comments of each type (and write down as an aid to memory). You would benefit yourself, according to this theory, in every case: you would remember it longer, understand it better, feel greater interest, and be able to discuss it in more ways, more originally, with more original examples in exams. In the end, how do we judge whether someone else has understood something? Basically, first by whether they can restate it in their own words; secondly we are most struck if they repeat it with an example of their own that is valid, but which we ourselves had not thought of much less mentioned to them. (This works in counselling; it works in exams. It's a universal truth (or confidence trick).) Of course it takes some investment of time, which is another reason why shallow learning is widely adopted, and still more widely adopted when teachers overload students.

The issue of different types of deep learning links appears in several places in my web pages:

Examples of independence

If the three theories (Perry, Laurillard (particularly the two levels of concepts vs. personal experience), deep and shallow learning) are independent ideas (as I believe they are) we should be able to think of cases of all possible combinations of them. Here are some examples:


For more references see this link

See also a diagram on Perry's view.

Kuhn, D. (1991) The skills of argument (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology (Routledge: London).

Marton,F., D.Hounsell & N.Entwistle (1984) (eds.) The experience of learning (Edinburgh: Scottish academic press)

Perry, W.G. (1968/70) Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston)