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As mentioned previously, Susan and Robert take different approaches to their learning. Susan takes a deep approach, while Robert takes a surface approach. It will be important to understand exactly what those terms mean, so please familiarize yourself with the definitions below.

Deep Approach

A deep approach to learning is characterized by the appropriate use of high-level cognitive skills for tasks which require them.

Surface Approach

A surface approach is characterized by the use of low-level cognitive skills for tasks which require high-level cognitive skills.

There are several key ideas embedded in these definitions.

First is the idea of cognitive skills. A cognitive skill is a mental activity that is undertaken to meet a particular outcome, in this case, a learning outcome. Low-level skills are activities like memorizing, remembering, sorting, describing, or identifying. High-level skills are activities like synthesizing, analyzing, creating, building, debating, or evaluating.

Second is the idea that any given task will require specific skills. Learning tasks which require low-level skills are not necessarily out of place in higher education (memorizing physics formulae will be important for budding physicists), but if the goal of higher education is to produce graduates with the ability to think and reason well, then low-level skills should be de-emphasized and high-level skills promoted (knowing which formula to apply to a particular problem and why will be more important than memorizing formulae).

Third is that there must be an alignment between the intended learning outcome and the learning activity. The process and outcome in learning environments are inextricably linked. Often, when students tend to take a surface approach, it is because there is a misalignment between the intended learning outcome and the learning activity.

Fourth, deep and surface approaches to learning are not fixed and they do not describe the characteristics of the students themselves. Consequently, it would be incorrect to assume that Robert is always a surface learner, rather, due to various factors, including his past learning, the structure of the activities and his own preferences, he takes a surface approach. But given different circumstances, he may be motivated to take a deeper approach.

It is important to distinguish between approaches to learning, which are context-dependent and describe activities, and the persistently popular, but fundamentally unsupported idea of ‘learning styles’, which are context-independent and describe students.

Now the question is how we know when a student is using a deep approach, rather than a surface approach.