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4.1 Background to Entwistle's theory

Entwistle’s ideas draw on those of another theorist, Roger Säljö (1979). In what became known as the Gothenburg study, Säljö interviewed 90 people about their approaches to learning and found that there were important differences in how people saw their own learning.

Entwistle (Entwistle et al., 2001) conducted similar research to the Gothenburg study. He modified Säljö’s original ideas and suggested that there are three different approaches taken by learners:

  • Surface learning

    This is associated with the idea that learning is about memorising facts. When engaged in surface learning, students prefer to be told what to read and what notes to take. A disadvantage is that students taking this approach are also liable to feel that they are drowning in information that contains many separate elements, which seem to have few connections with each other — so they may struggle to make sense of these ideas.

  • Strategic learning

    With this approach, students are focused on the outcome of their learning. So are often trying to get a high grade in a course by organising their time well, by finding the right conditions for studying and by putting consistent effort into their studies.

  • Deep learning

    Taking a deep learning approach involves looking for meaning in what you are studying rather than trying to memorise it. With this approach, students are curious and questioning, and are constantly examining whether what they are told makes sense in the light of their past experiences and learning.

Entwistle’s three approaches are summarised in Table 1. Have a look at it now, before doing the next activity. There is quite a bit of information there, so do not feel you have to take it all in. When you start applying it to your own life, like many theories, it will probably start to make more sense.

Table 1 Entwistle’s three approaches to learning
Deep approach Surface approach Strategic approach
Intention – to understand ideas for yourself by: Intention – to cope with requirements by: Intention – to achieve the highest possible grades by:
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience Treating the units 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 Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy Finding the right conditions and materials for studying
Examining logic and arguments cautiously and critically Monitoring the effectiveness of ways of studying
Being aware of understanding developing while learning Being alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Becoming actively interested in the course content Gearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers
(Adapted from Entwistle et al., 2001)

The way that some of these approaches are described suggests that some of them are ‘better’ than others. Do you think it sounds good to be a ‘deep’ or ‘strategic’ learner and less good to be a ‘surface’ learner? Do note however, that Entwistle’s ideas should not be taken as meaning that people always fall into one category or another, nor that any particular approach is inherently good or bad.