Surface Learning

Iceberg seen above the water can be likened to surface learning

Iceberg seen above the water can be likened to surface learning

Surface learning deals with factual information or surface knowledge that is a prerequisite for deep learning most of the time.

To be effective, learning must be active. Effective and active learning are interdependent and can be looked upon as two sides of the same coin.

Differences between  Surface and deep learning

From a neuroscience perspective, the learning that takes place in the classroom is essentially about memory formation – its storage and its retrieval.

Neuroscience also tells us that the plasticity of the brain enables a change during learning, and there are changes to both the structure and function of the brain. These changes are different depending on whether the learning is ‘surface’ or deep.

One of the differences between them is to think of surface learning as immediate or short-term learning, and deep learning as a consolidation process that leads to long-term changes.

Deep learning is not about memorizing things, but integrating the facts. Teaching cannot be done in silos.

Surface learning involves recalling and reproducing content and skills. Deep learning involves things like extending ideas, detecting patterns, applying knowledge and skills in new contexts or in creative ways, and being critical of arguments and evidence.

According to John Hattie:

·     Surface learning is very much about the idea, the content, the knowledge and the information.

  • Deep learning is when you relate or extend or transfer that knowledge.

When are Surface and Deep learning strategies appropriate or inappropriate?

As you’re starting to learn something for the first time, the appropriateness of surface learning comes to the fore. If you’ve never played golf, you’ve never driven a car, then I would expect in the first few lessons that 90% plus of the lesson would probably be about surface learning.

When should learning shift from Surface to Deep?

Movement from surface to deep is a continuum. In fact, learning is very much a staccato. At some point we should be telling the students, to stop learning more and start relating them.

Students don’t do what you ask them or tell them to do. They do what they think or you think, is valuable from the point of view of assessments. So, there is a lot that the teachers can do to make the shift.

How can learners be supported to ‘transfer’ their understanding to new contexts?

Our Short term memory is short as the name indicates. Very often when the task is done, the brain hits the delete button so to say and the information disappears.  I had explained the Zeigarnik effect in the article on the mind and body connection. To remember for long, one needs to overlearn. This is the very reason, we memorise the tables. Spelling tests in schools deal with similar concepts. Looking at the similarities and differences also aids in the process.

Let’s take for example a student who solves a math problem and the teacher wants him to try another math problem. If the similarities and differences between these two contexts are pointed out, then transfer can happen. If not the student might remain at the surface level.

How to promote Deep learning – a technique to hone facilitation skills in the teacher and help the students to move to higher-order thinking skills. The process involved is more skewed towards the technique than the content.

The teacher shows the video What is the future of work? World Economic Forum by Jamie MacAuliffe.  

The teacher organizes the students into 4 groups. She asks them to watch the video carefully, particularly with reference to: The skills Gap, The information Gap, Encouraging Entrepreneurship and the Expectations Gap. After each stage the group pins up the answers for all to see.

1.   Everyone generates objective questions based on Facts and data available from the video. These will be the objective questions. For example:

a)   Which scene do you recall?

b)   Which ideas, concepts caught your attention? Why?

c)   What is your understanding of…? How would you describe X?

2.   The individuals pool in their ideas in their group. They raise questions that are based on feelings, moods, emotions etc. These will be the reflective questions. For example:

a)   What was the high / low point?

b)   How did the video affect you?

c)   How do you feel about X? What was your reaction when you first learnt about Y?

3.   Interpretive: So What? For example:

a)   What was the most meaningful aspect of this activity?

b)   What can you conclude from this experience?

c)   How can we transfer this learning to develop deep learning?

d)   How would a technique like this, help you develop HOTS?

e)   Given your experience with X, what was the best part about it?

f)     Given your experience with Y, are there things you would consider changing about the process?

 4.   Decision: Now What? For example

Individuals and the group determine future resolutions and/or actions. Each group will look at one of the focus points and discuss.

For example:

a)    How, if at all, has this experience changed your thinking?

b)   What was the significance of this experience to your study/work/life?

c)    What would it take to help you apply what you learned?

d)   Out of those different options we have discussed, what would be the first thing you think should get done? What do you now plan to do?

Closure: The teacher gets the students to go through the learning process of identifying the objective aspects of the decision-making. The students will get to know thoroughly the metacognition process at the end of this technique. An ideal process to think critically and enhance Deep Learning.

Published by Dr. Pramila Kudva

I am a teacher educator currently worrking as a Principal of a reputed school in North Mumbai, have more than 30 years of experience, with several publications to my credit and have authored a book -"From chalk to Talk The Art of Teaching.

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