Deep vs Surface learning

As we’re now approaching exam season, this week’s post is looking at the best way to learn new information. Hopefully this will be helpful to those of you revising at the moment!

Consider these two scenarios, and have a think about which one describes your learning approach.

1. You need to learn about the theory of intergroup conflict in social psychology, so you get a textbook from the library written by a leading researcher in the field, read and try to memorise the relevant sections.

2. You need to learn about the localisation of memory in the brain. You find as much evidence for each type of memory you can, and try to make links with what you already know, to understand why it would make sense for that function to be in that area of the brain.

According to Marton & Säljö (1976), approach number 1 would be an example of surface learning – which is based on reproducing information in order to answer anticipated questions (a common revision strategy!). In contrast, approach number 2 is focused on understanding, not just memorising. This approach is therefore known as deep learning.

In their experiment, Marton & Säljö asked students to read an academic paper using one of these two approaches. They found that students using the deep learning approach understood more of the paper and were better at answering questions on it later.

The table below shows more examples of deep and surface learning – which approaches do you use in your revision? If you notice the left column applies to you then maybe consider trying some new strategies from the column on the right.


However, this is not to say that students only use one of these approaches when it comes to learning. Students are affected by factors in their learning environment and other influences, such as how much they already know on the topic (Nijhuis et al, 2005). Some students also combine both deep and surface learning to achieve the best outcomes in the time available – this is known as having a strategic approach (Entwistle et al, 2000).

I hope this has helped you when it comes to revising for your next exam or learning something new. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking you just need to memorise the facts – you’ll learn much more effectively if you focus on understanding the topic, evaluating it, and linking new information with what you already know.


Entwistle, N., Tait, H. and McCune, V., 2000. Patterns of response to an approaches to studying inventory across contrasting groups and contexts. European Journal of Psychology of Education15(1), p.33.

Nijhuis, J.F., Segers, M.S. and Gijselaers, W.H., 2005. Influence of redesigning a learning environment on student perceptions and learning strategies. Learning environments research8(1), pp.67-93.

Marton, F. and Säljö, R., 1976. On qualitative differences in learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), pp.4-11.

3 thoughts on “Deep vs Surface learning”

  1. At school and when I retook a lesson as an adult, I was learning as the column on the left. Now and over the last two years, I now learn as in the column on the right.

  2. Thank you for writing this post, found it very interesting and I would add that no matter what topic a person is revising for an exam it is crucial to find meaning and passion within the text- doesn’t matter how big or small- this is the best way to memorise anything. Make the material relevant to the student and learning becomes enjoyable


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