What's wrong with Surface Learning?

There is only one thing which reliably distinguishes the trained university teacher from the untrained�the ability to discourse on the undesirability of "surface learning".

The whole "problem" stems from a mistake in the formulation of the boundaries of what constitutes "learning", and once again from the overweening arrogance of the educational establishment.

If the literature is to be believed, students who get through their courses by doing only what is required (i.e. assessed) and experience them as a chore or a penance, have not really learned anything and should therefore not be able to perform as competent professionals in their chosen field after graduation. This is manifestly not true.

Most surface learners do become very able practitioners in their fields. Asked to deliver a seminar on the deep and surface learning distinction to a group of doctors, I found that they could not see what the problem was. They explained that the medical school curriculum was such that they could see no other way of managing it, and that the same was true of their subsequent Royal College exams. They had had to "go through the motions" as medical students, in the same way as Snyder (1970) described of his engineers at MIT: it was a strategic survival decision. They had survived, and passed, and then it all "came alive" in bits and pieces as they encountered patients and problems.

The error in the concern about surface learning goes back to the first page in this section � the assumption that learning is what happens in colleges. It isn't. It is about what happens over the whole career of the student and graduate who becomes a practitioner or professional. Education professionals are just reluctant to accept that their role is relatively small.

Sometimes the educational contribution is simply at the level of process: accountancy firms, for example, are the major employers of classics graduates. No-one pretends that an ability to construe a passage of Ovid is a necessary qualification for auditing accounts (although his insight into the venality of men might engender a suitable scepticism): it is the rigour and the analytical mind-set which matters (and perhaps the fact that most classics graduates come from prestigious old universities). For some reason, the study of law is almost a pre-requisite for a political career in the United States � I don't quite understand that, unless it is about winning arguments regardless of their merits.

Sometimes there is a direct connection between the content of a course and the occupation it leads to. In my humble opinion, that is usually a second best, anyway. It leads to some spurious "subjects" being offered in universities, in which any self-respecting student will be a surface learner because the subject has no intellectual coherence.

And sometimes, just sometimes, students love their subjects and could not care less about how they end up earning their living � but that's another story. They probably become the world's best teachers.

However � those concerned with sandwich courses (on which students spend part of the course working for a company) and professional courses requiring practical placements (practicums or internships) testify to the enormous difference they make to the students' learning. They speak of everything "coming together" and "making sense": it is no longer a sequence of discrete items of information or sterile exercises, but the knowledge and skills they need for the real world. Teachers may agonise about the students' position on the SOLO taxonomy, but there is nothing like being faced with real-world problems (with money, livelihoods or even lives hanging on the outcome) to concentrate the mind.

Deep learning is gratifying for the teacher. Surface learning is a chore for the student, but it doesn't really matter very much. 

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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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