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Different meanings of deep and shallow learning

This page presents materials associated with a talk given on 12 Feb 2003 at the Centre for Science Education.

Plan of talk

  1. Steve: Introduce ourselves Steve Draper, Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow, and Gregor Kennedy University of Melbourne.
  2. Gregor: the concepts in the literature from a Social Psychology perspective
  3. Both: Dimensions forming a framework for organising the work and the issues
  4. Steve: Extending the issue with concepts from Snyder, Gunn, Byers


Retrospective Abstract

N.B. The literature writes of deep vs. surface learning, while in this talk we often spoke of deep vs. shallow learning. Is this a slip, or a more candid expression of the implicit meaning?

Gregor outlined four research traditions in this area and initially highlighted historical differences in the way they conceptualise "deep" and "shallow" learning. He pointed out that these traditions sometimes not only articulate the area using very different terms, but also imply their approach or philosophy is the most appropriate. His main critical point was that despite these differences, contrasting philosophies and research traditions (such as a phenomonographic and a social cognitive approach) often end up, in effect, talking about the same thing when it comes to "deep" and "shallow" learning. While the literature would sometimes lead you to believe there are more differences than similarities, differences are more usually associated with research methodology rather than underlying conceptions. But even then, there are clear similarities in the method of "different" traditions as exemplified by Biggs and Pintrich, who both conceive and measure approaches to learning in very similar ways. By introducing a number of critical dimensions Gregor made an initial, and probably inadequate, attempt at showing that traditions in the area were often not so different.

Steve offered four points, which again concern the relationships between observable elements of the learning activity. Firstly he suggested that the best way to define D&S was in terms of the numbers of types of links formed between the new material and other things the learner knows: this is defining it in terms of the structure of the internal (mental) learning outcome (rather than in terms of intention or learning actions). Secondly he related it to Snyder's work, and the idea of a predicate or feedback criteria by which a learner regulates their own learning. Thirdly he extended that to the internal criteria learners apply such as effort or feeling of insight, as opposed to the judgements from teachers. Fourthly he linked that to other regulatory criteria learners use in "learning" situations, such as following a lecture (as opposed to trying to learn material in it).

Advance Abstract

We will discuss some of the different meanings attached in the literature to "deep and shallow" learning. Some of the kinds of contrast or tension between different pieces of work in this area are:

In addition, we hope to mention the issue of students' expectations and methods of judging their own learning progress. This is probably best viewed as an aspect of their study methods or strategy. However it links to issues such as that raised by Bill Byers in the previous seminar, with how students often complain if material is left out and are happy if it seems complete, yet this has no effect, or a negative one, on their actual learning. That is, students' idea on monitoring progress by "Can I follow that?" is a poor indicator of other (exam) measures of their learning (such as "can you apply that to this problem?"). In fact, we could try out the idea that there is a shallow-to-deep sequence here too: Following what is said, reproducing it, applying it to new cases, ... understanding what its limits and the problems with it might be.

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