Surface-Strategic-Deep is not a continuum of learning styles

Or at least a single dimensional one.  In response to this week’s TEL One task I have been distracted from thinking about what my style of engagement is with ocTEL, or how I might accommodate different learning styles (activity 2.2?) in my design, into what the differences are between surface, deep and strategic learning styles.

My first encounter with these styles was on my PGCert when starting lecturing where the link was clearly made with motivation: deep=intrinsic, surface=extrinsic. Not sure where strategic fell in the mix.  But it is clear from many descriptions, that strategic is more extrinsically driven, whether from the ocTEL official post, participant contributions (e.g. c.collis) or other external sources (e.g. Warwick U). However strategic learning is typically also seen as focussed on a more in depth/higher level of knowledge, even if the goal is only to achieve a better grade.

This could be seen as resulting in a simple continuum from simple surface learning, through strategic to deep learning as follows:

learning styles

While this could be seen as a strawman, with an obvious question of how you quantify or classify knowledge, I think it a reasonable summary of different views.  More importantly there are obvious ways of thinking about a level of knowledge of a subject, for example Bloom’s taxonomy.

My preferred way of thinking about knowledge is to use a definition derived from knowledge management (KM) – a business discipline favoured in the 90s following the 80s down-sizing.   In this approach, it is possible to think about knowledge being information structured to achieve a goal.  This links in nicely with models such a Bloom where the amount of information, and how it is connected, varys tremendously between being able to remember or explain a particular concept compared to evaluating, synthesizing or creating new ones.  It also links nicely with the goals related to the learning types shown above.

However, the continuum above breaks down when one considers that motivation and knowledge acquisition are in fact independent or orthogonal.  This provides a way of clarifying the muddied approach that Diana refers to by the introduction of a strategic style between surface and deep.  So rather than referring to a “student (who) can be strategic and either deep or surface in relation to a particular learning task”, I would suggest that strategic learners would be aiming to acquire and structure information differently, depending on their goal, rather than a particular task.

The result is that we do have strategic learners who may acquire superficial amounts of simply structured information, provided it is enough to get the good grade they are after.  We also have strategic learners, as exemplified by c.collis in another of his contributions, who are extrinsically motivated by a particular goal, rather than being intrinsically motivated by the love of the subject, but who also engage in deep learning.  By considering goals and information structures independently of motivation we can cater for strategic learners who range from consultants who need just need enough information to bluff to clients, to weary lecturers who need a good understanding to teach what they are told to inquisitive students, to motivated professionals who want to successfully implement  change in their working environment.

As a parting thought from reflection which is mainly driven by personal experience over the years, I was interested to skim Bigg’s later paper in which he proposes a two dimensional approach to the classification of learning techniques.  In this, engagement or type of activity mirrors the knowledge level I would propose as one dimension of classification.  I have yet to work out how his second dimension of student activity relates to my second dimension of motivation though there are obvious links.  Given extra time, I would sketch this out in more detailed words and pictures!

Biggs, B. 1999, What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp57-75, DOI:10.1080/0729436990180105

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One Response to “Surface-Strategic-Deep is not a continuum of learning styles”

  1. Other TEL/tech+ learning blog posts | a TELing Story Says:

    […] a discussion of different learning styles – surface-strategic-deep is not a continuum of learning styles […]

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