Surface, Strategic and Deep Learners Ken Bain and James Zimmerman, in Understanding Great Teaching, write about a research study where a group of students read a text to and answer questions about the text. Students took very different approaches to the exercise. At one end students simply tried to remember as many details as possible. At the other end students thought about arguments in the text, and distinguished between evidence and conclusions in those arguments. ”Another group of student just focused on making good grades. They were not focused on understanding or applying what they learn. Researchers identified this approach as “strategic learners. These type of students generally do take risks. They will often choose the easiest way out rather on that will help them grow intellectually.

The three categories of feelings that students have toward their studies, and the strategies they use to learn , are called “surface”, “strategic” and “deep learners”.

Generally, surface learners fear failure and simply try to survive academically. They try to replicate what they encounter. Because they understand little, they complain on the math exam, “You didn’t show us a problem exactly like that one before.”

Strategic learners want high grades, and will typically spend time trying to find out what the teacher will ask them. For that math exam, they may memorize formulas and master algorithmic procedures, but, as we will discover later in more detail, they will often fail to understand conceptually, and their learning will have little sustained or substantial influence on the way they subsequently think, act, or feel.

Only deep learners are primarily concerned with understanding, with how to apply their ideas to consequential problems, with implications, and with ideas and concepts. Only they are likely to theorize and make connections with other ideas and problems. Only they are likely to become adaptive experts who both recognize and even relish the opportunity and necessity for breaking with traditional approaches and inventing new ones.

Here’s a summary of what our great teachers told us: Human beings are most likely to learn deeply when they are trying to solve problems or answer questions that they have come to regard as important, intriguing, or beautiful. This is their description of what we call the Natural Critical Learning Environment (you can see more about that kind of environment at and the links from that page).

Additionally, when learners experience unexpected results, and they fail, they are more likely to ask questions and shift their thinking and perception.  When learners predict an outcome that has unexpected results they typically do one of two things.

Learners choose to take a surface approach by ignoring new information, and by not shifting their perception. Or they take a deep approach by working with new information in ways that change “their mental model, ultimately creating a new and deeper conceptual understanding”.

When learners are given the chance to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again—before anyone makes a judgment of their efforts, they are more likely to learn deeply.

Finally, they way a learner responds to a learning activity is GREATLY influenced by the words, actions, and assessments made by the instructor.  How are you creating a Natural Critical Learning Environment in your online courses?


2 thoughts on “Surface, Strategic and Deep Learners

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