Approaches to Learning

The three approaches are summarized in the following table:

Approaches to Learning

Deep approach: seeking meaningSurface approach: reproducingStrategic approach: reflective organizing
Intention—to understand ideas for yourself, by:Intention—to cope with unit requirements, by:Intention—to achieve the highest possible grades, by:
Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experienceTreating the unit as unrelated bits of knowledgePutting consistent effort into studying
Looking for patterns and underlying principlesMemorizing facts and carrying out procedures routinelyManaging time and effort effectively
Checking evidence and relating it to conclusionsFinding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presentedFinding the right conditions and materials for studying
Examining logic and argument cautiously and criticallySeeing little value or meaning in either unit or tasks setMonitoring the effectiveness of ways of studying
Being aware of understanding developing while learningStudying without reflecting on either purpose or strategyBeing alert to assessment requirements and criteria
Becoming actively interested in the course contentFeeling undue pressure and worry about workGearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers
(Adapted from Entwistle et al., 2001)

Activity 3.17: Identifying Approaches to Learning

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

This is a required activity for Challenge 3: The Theory Challenge.

This activity [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   is intended to consolidate your understanding of Entwistle’s approaches to learning models. The activity features an animated film where Alberto and his girlfriend Ellen, who you’ve encountered in previous activities, discuss their catering course with a classmate, Janet.

You should return to this section when you have completed this activity.


Hopefully you now feel more confident about identifying deep, surface, and strategic approaches to learning.

You were asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to learning. It is clear that Entwistle’s three categories involve value judgments. 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, nor that a particular approach is inherently good or bad. Indeed, you may have found both advantages and disadvantages for each learning approach.

The key suggestion 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 think that it is important to use learning for personal change. However, it is sometimes important to be able to use your learning to pass a course. When you need to pass a course, get a certification, or understand what others are trying to teach you, strategic learning is useful. If you are primarily interested in getting a certification, deep learning could get in the way. You might get 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.)

The real value of knowing about these different approaches is that it opens 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 its personal relevance.

Activity 3.18: Deep, Surface, and Strategic Approaches to Your Own Learning

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes for this activity.
  1. Make a table similar to that shown in Figure 3.13.
  2. In the first column, list at least three fairly recent learning experiences you have had. (You could use learning episodes that you have identified for previous Learning to Learn activities, for example Activity 3.13, or you could select some new examples, perhaps linked to your study of this course.)
  3. In the second column, identify the learning approach involved.
  4. Now, think about whether you think you could have used an alternative learning approach. If so, then note this possible approach in the third column.
Figure 3.13 Learning approaches table
Figure 3.13 Learning approaches table


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 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 unit and as you begin to think about your own development. Entwistle’s theory

3.2.9 Further Reflection on the Usefulness of Learning Theories