Approaches to learning

Within pedagogical research, three different approaches to student learning are defined: deep approach, surface approach and strategic approach. An individual student may use several of the approaches, and may use them in different contexts (courses, assignments...). Here is a description of the three approaches, from Centre for Teaching and Learning: Good Practice in Teaching and Learning, 2003.

Characteristics of a deep approach to learning

Students who take a deep approach have the intention of understanding, engaging with, operating in and valuing the subject. Such students:

  • Actively seek to understand the material / the subject
  • Interact vigorously with the content
  • Make use of evidence, inquiry and evaluation
  • Take a broad view and relate ideas to one another
  • Are motivated by interest
  • Relate new ideas to previous knowledge
  • Relate concepts to everyday experience
  • Tend to read and; study beyond the course requirements

Characteristics of a surface approach to learning

Students who take a surface approach tend not to have the primary intention of becoming interested in and of understanding the subject, but rather their motivation tends to be that of jumping through the necessary hoops in order to acquire the mark, or the grade, or the qualification. When asked, staff deplore this approach but they frequently acknowledge that the majority of their students tend to take this approach. Students who take a surface approach:

  • Try to learn in order to repeat what they have learned
  • Memorise information needed for assessments
  • Make use of rote learning
  • Take a narrow view and concentrate on detail
  • Fail to distinguish principles from examples
  • Tend to stick closely to the course requirements
  • Are motivated by fear of failure

Characteristics of a strategic approach to learning

The strategic or achieving approach is that approach which students are said to take when they wish to achieve positive outcomes in terms of obtaining a pass or better in the subject. Students taking this approach:

  • Intend to obtain high grades
  • Organise their time and distribute their effort to greatest effect
  • Ensure that the conditions and materials for studying are appropriate
  • Use previous exam papers to predict questions
  • Are alert to cues about marking schemes

Measuring approaches to learning

There are several standardized questionnaires for measuring approaches to learning. Two such questionnaires (that exist in both English and Swedish) are ASSIST and R-SPQ.

As a part of the fourth seminar in the Program Integrating Course in the Computer Science and Engineering program and in the Computer Science master program 2014/2015 (in April/May 2015), each student answered these questions. The table below shows the average results for each year for the ASSIST questions.

Students Deep Strategic Surface
Year 1 147 19.8 20.1 16.4
Year 2 155 20.0 20.1 16.4
Year 3 154 19.9 21.0 14.7
Year 4 99 19.8 20.5 15.0
Year 4, only D 78 19.6 20.3 14.7
Year 5 100 19.8 20.2 14.8
Year 5, only D 86 19.5 19.9 14.6
Total 655 19.9 20.3 15.5

In each category, 6 is the smallest possible value and 30 the maximal value. A higher value means a stronger approach.

The results show that all three approaches are used throughout the whole education. The deep approach is almost stable. The strategic approach shows a maximum in year 3. The surface approach is strongest the first two years.

Most likely, all three approaches are needed for studies at KTH. But since knowledge learned using a deep approach will last longer and can be used for building new knowledge on, the new pedagogical program of KTH suggests that the teachers should design the courses in a way such that deep approachers are encouraged:

The forms of education  should stimulate  student  activity  and  the students to  take  responsibility  for  their  learning,  promoting  deep  learning  strategies.

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