Learning to change
Learning to change

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Learning to change

3.3.7 Entwistle’s theory – students’ approaches to learning

Noel Entwistle’s ideas are much more concerned with the ways in which individuals approach learning. They focus on how people go about learning a body of knowledge. This contrasts with community of practice theory which is more interested in how groups of people together create knowledge or understanding, as the St Kildans did about ‘high-rise’ egg collecting.

This might suggest that we are going back to where we started on this course. You may recall that this starting point involved thinking about yourself as an individual learner. However, here we are encouraging you to think about how reflecting on a theory can inform your understanding of your learning. We ask you to begin to assess its usefulness and personal relevance.

You may have heard of the term ‘learning styles’. Although learning styles are widely used in both education and at work, some approaches which use them have been criticised. If you want to find out more about this criticism, see the report Should We Be Using Learning Styles? (Coffield, et al., 2004). Reports like these argue that there is little evidence to back up some of the claims that are made for them. We have selected Entwistle’s theory, which has not been criticised in this way, because it is based on evidence that has been gathered over a number of years. We hope you will find it interesting and useful in extending your thinking about how you might use learning to achieve change.

Entwistle’s ideas draw on those of Roger Säljö (1979). In what became known as the Gothenburg study, Säljö interviewed 90 people about their approach to learning. He found that there were important differences in how people saw their own learning. He suggested that some had a ‘taken for granted’ perspective in which learning was seen as a ‘memorising activity where the task of the learner is seen as that of “getting all the facts into your head” (Säljö, 1979, p. 446). This perspective contrasted with one in which people in the study said that they were ‘becoming aware of the influence of the context of learning on what you should learn and how you should set about it … they started to try to adapt their learning to various kinds of demands (teachers, tests …)’ (Säljö, 1979, p. 448). Säljö also points out that learners who use this ‘thematic’ approach to learning also thought that there was a difference between ‘learning for life’ and ‘learning in school’. Many saw learning in school ‘as an activity which to a large extent has become stereotyped and routine … a particular type of learning … that is not perceived of as being … related to anything outside the school situation’ (Säljö, 1979, p. 449). These ‘thematic learners’ also reported that they had started to think about what they learned. As Säljö comments:

As introduced by the people we interviewed, this is a distinction between either learning and real learning or … between learning and understanding … [The] main feature [of ‘real learning’] is that it in some way involves the abstraction of meaning from learning materials rather than a mere reproduction of them. … the nature of what is learned is seen as more complex and more holistic; it is a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation, a general principle … rather than the plain ‘facts’ which people previously report having perceived as what is to be learned.

(Säljö, 1979, p. 449)

Entwistle (Entwistle et al., 2001) has conducted similar research to the Gothenburg study. On the basis of this he modified Säljö’s original ideas and suggested that there are three different approaches:

  • surface learning
  • strategic learning
  • deep learning.

Surface learning is associated with the idea that learning is about acquiring facts. For example, students may try to pass a course by memorising what they are told. When engaged in surface learning, students prefer to be told what to read and what notes to make. The ideal exam for someone who has based their learning on a surface strategy would be one based only on the information that a course has provided. Such students are also liable to feel that they are drowning in information that contains many separate elements, which seem to have few, if any, connections with each other. They struggle to make sense of these ideas.

Strategic learning involves those who are trying to get a good mark on a course by organising their time well, by finding the right conditions for studying and by putting consistent effort into their study.

Deep learning occurs when people are more concerned with their own personal development – they are interested in what the course is about and are excited by and like sharing new ideas. People engaged in deep learning are looking for meaning in what they study rather than trying to memorise it. They are curious and questioning and are constantly examining whether what they are told makes sense in the light of their past experience. In fact, by drawing links between different aspects of their learning, they are better able to make sense of it and therefore more likely to pass the course, as well as developing more fully as human beings.

The three approaches are summarised in the following table:

Approaches to learning

Deep approach: Seeking meaning Surface approach: Reproducing Strategic approach: Reflective organising
Intention – to understand ideas for yourself, by: Intention – to cope with course requirements, by: Intention – to achieve the highest possible grades, by:
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience Treating the course as unrelated bits of knowledge Putting consistent effort into studying
Looking for patterns and underlying principles Memorising facts and carrying out procedures routinely Managing time and effort effectively
Checking evidence and relating it to conclusions Finding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presented Finding the right conditions and materials for studying
Examining logic and argument cautiously and critically Seeing little value or meaning in either course or tasks set Monitoring the effectiveness of ways of studying
Being aware of understanding developing while learning Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy Being alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Becoming actively interested in the course content Feeling undue pressure and worry about work Gearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers
(Adapted from Entwistle et al., 2001)
Described image
Figure 27 A shared interest: Salsa dancing

We can apply Entwistle’s model to this dancing scenario. The learners in the photograph seem to be concentrating hard. Perhaps they are displaying a deep approach through their choice to take lessons. Now, imagine that some have partners who have reluctantly been persuaded to go along and learn to dance – they might be more likely to adopt a surface approach, to cope with their partner’s demands. Finally, if the intention of some dancers is to achieve the highest possible grades in competitions, they might be expected to adopt a strategic approach, to satisfy the expectation of the competition judges.

It is clear that Entwistle’s three categories involve value judgements. The way that some of these approaches are described suggests that some of them are ‘better’ than others. It sounds good to be a ‘deep’ or ‘strategic’ learner; it does not sound so good to be a ‘surface’ learner. However, Entwistle’s ideas should not be taken as meaning that people fall into one category or another. The key suggestion here is that everyone is capable of becoming a strategic, or even a deep, learner. Indeed, we would want you to use these as your approaches to learning. We do think that it is important to use learning for personal change; it is also important to be able to use your learning to pass a course, such as this one. So when you need to pass a course, get a qualification or understand what others are trying to teach you, strategic learning is useful. If you are primarily interested in getting a qualification, deep learning could get in the way. You might get hold of new ideas and be more interested in seeing where they take you. You could get sidetracked by things you are really interested in, rather than concentrating on the job at hand. If, on the other hand, your main interest is personal development, deep learning is very useful. (In this course, we try to achieve a balance and would encourage you to draw on both strategic and deep learning.)

However, the real value of knowing about these different approaches is that it opens up the possibility of using different approaches in different circumstances. Even surface learning may have its uses if you need to learn a lot of new information to pass a test. Entwistle’s research suggests that when students become more aware of their own approaches, they are in a better position to decide what they are trying to achieve from their studying and to understand the implications of adopting deep and surface approaches to learning.

The next activity is a chance to develop your understanding of Entwistle’s theory and to begin to test out its personal relevance.

Activity 37 Deep, surface and strategic approaches to learning

Allow about 20 minutes for this activity

For this activity you can use the some learning episodes that you identified in Activity 34. Or you can select some more examples of your learning, perhaps ones linked to your study on this course. Complete the activity by making a chart similar to the one below:

Described image
Figure 28 Learning approaches chart


We hope that this activity has given you a real ‘feel’ for the ideas that Entwistle puts forward. You may even have some criticisms of this approach. For example, you might find it difficult to differentiate between deep and strategic approaches. If this is the case then you should see this as being very appropriate – taking a critical approach is seen as being a ‘good thing’ in academic study.

It is perhaps also difficult to escape from the idea that the deep and strategic approaches are always the most valued. As we have said, we hope that you will adopt a combination of these two approaches, both as you study this course and as you begin to think about your own development.


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