Introduction to TEL

Day 2: Diving in deep, or skating on the surface?

Before we explore this idea, we need to consider the following questions that were mentioned at the beginning of Day 1:

What is learning?

How do we know when our students have learned something?

How do you know when you have been successful in your teaching approach?

Some possible answers might include:

“I observe my students successfully completing a task using the skills and knowledge I have taught them.”

“My students do well in final assessments or exams.”

“I see changes in my students in terms of their skills, knowledge, motivation and attitude.”

“I see my students graduated as well rounded individuals with the range of skills to enter their chosen profession.”

 question markDiscussion

  1. What do you think of these responses – do any of them ring more true for you in your teaching context than others?
  2. How do you know when you have learned something?
  3. Does simply remembering some information or improving practical skills and application constitute learning? Or is it more? Does motivation come into it? Does learning mean we develop more than just our cognitive skills to become a more well-rounded, developed human?

These questions have been researched and theorised on, within the disciplines of education and psychology. Let’s look at some of the resulting theories. 

Deep versus Surface Learning

Image of iceberg
By MoteOo, image sourced from Pixabay, downloaded 12/11/18

Students can often adopt a “surface”, “achieving”, or “strategic” approach to learning, which means they learn only enough to obtain a pass or the grade they want and do not engage deeply with the learning and the material. Engaging in “deep” learning, by contrast, means the student will try to make sense of the material in their own way, ask many questions, examine the material critically, and often go beyond the required reading and engagement in the course in an effort to understand concepts at a deeper level.

Deeper learning results in real changes to the student’s perceptions and also often their behaviour and attitude. There is no “typical” surface or deep  learner – most people use different strategies depending on their personal motivation, their circumstances, and even the teaching methods they are exposed to.

University of Technology Sydney’s site “Enhancing Teaching and Learning” has an excellent overview of this learning theory, plus good sources listed in the references, if you would like to find out more.

question mark



  1. Does this idea resonate with your experience?  In your teaching context, is it important that students adopt deep, rather than surface/strategic approaches to learning?
  2. Would reliance on recall through tests and exams encourage deep or surface learning?
  3. What teaching and assessment approaches would encourage a deeper approach to learning?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

This concept is from educational psychology, and is very relevant to the idea of “deep vs surface learning.” Logically, deep learning is accompanied by intrinsic motivation in students – the intrinsically motivated student is emotionally engaged with their study, has an inherent interest in the subject matter, and is self-directed, responding well to complex problems and learning materials. The extrinsically motivated student is concerned with external motivators such as grades, achieving qualifications, and status. These external motivators are not sufficiently powerful for them to see study as a desirable activity in itself, but rather they will see it as a means to an end. A useful resource to look in more detail at how extrinsic and extrinsic motivation works in educational settings is Vanderbilt University’s Centre for Teaching, “Motivating students.” 

Teaching Strategies

To create learning experiences based on the idea of the self-directed, intrinsically motivated adult, technology is definitely your friend. Technology enables independent adults who have access to vast amounts resources via the internet, to learn at their own pace. It enables deep engagement with the learning material if self-directed and if group activities are designed well.

Using mobile technology  means learning can be very flexible, and can take place anywhere, anytime, it can facilitate group collaboration and communication, and can allow students to collect their own data or evidence of research and learning.

Using many of the strategies you read about in the links above (e.g., helping students make connections between ideas, using a student-focused approach, givings students opportunities for discussion, debate, creativity and self-directed learning), can engage students more deeply in learning.

question markDiscussion

How can a teacher encourage students to find some “intrinsic motivation” for their study – or is this something that can only be done by the individual student themselves?

In our next session we will explore the notions of different levels of learning, by looking at theories about taxonomies of learning.


24 thoughts on “Day 2: Diving in deep, or skating on the surface?

  1. What do you think of these responses – do any of them ring more true for you in your teaching context than others?
    The third response “I see changes in my students in terms of their skills, knowledge, motivation and attitude.” is probably the closest to what I see in my teaching context. But I would go further than this. For me, I feel that genuine learning has occurred when the students have the ‘ah hah’ moment for themselves and can articulate it in some format. I might not always see the ah hah moment (one of the downsides of teaching in short dispatches where you are developing skills, attributes that are relevant for the context ‘out there’), but when I do see it, the ah hah moment is where they join together pieces of information for themselves to create new information or new understandings of how something works. This information maybe content, but it maybe skills, attitudes, understandings, motivations, or, the real ah hah, when they combine all of them to create a ‘whole’ solution.

    How do you know when you have learned something?

    I know I have learned something when I can (and feel motivated to) pull together the pieces of information with other pieces of information in order to think or take action further on something.

    Does simply remembering some information or improving practical skills and application constitute learning? Or is it more? Does motivation come into it? Does learning mean we develop more than just our cognitive skills to become a more well-rounded, developed human?

    Remembering information is not learning on its own unless it can be applied to something – whether that it is to practice or to the creation of further information. Motivation is a fundamental part of what turns ‘rote learning’ into the desire to pursue more knowledge.

    Does this idea resonate with your experience? In your teaching context, is it important that students adopt deep, rather than surface/strategic approaches to learning?

    In my teaching it is important that students adopt deep approaches to learning – in fact it is what is encouraged in the simulated way that we teach. If a student sticks to surface learning approaches, they may for example know the ‘form’ of a client letter, but not how to join pieces of information together and adapt creatively to actually meet a clients needs.

    Would reliance on recall through tests and exams encourage deep or surface learning?
    This is surface learning. However, this is not to say that for deep learning to occur they may not need to be some basic elements that need to be learned by rote (i.e. times tables in mathematics). These ‘rote learnt’ basics may facilitate the ability to utilise the brain to delve into the deeper part of the learning without getting caught up in the fundamentals. However, I’m not altogether sure there are too many parts of higher education where there are these ‘rote’ requirements that can not be learned in other ways. (I would be very interested in examples from other disciplines)

    What teaching and assessment approaches would encourage a deeper approach to learning?

    Interactive teaching and assessment approaches are more likely to encourage a deeper approach to learning. Interactive could involve dialogue (as long as the teacher isn’t just manipulating the dialogue to ensure their own view is pushed), simulation (messy learning processes where the student is encouraged to piece together pieces of information in order to achieve a non- predetermined outcome), emphasis on formative assessment (usually without numerical grades attached to it – but that must be competent in order to proceed) with quick feedback that needs to responded to; and project and portfolio work can also achieve these outcomes when done well. Essentially both the teaching and the assessment needs to be contextualised so that students actually have a feeling why they learning the piece of knowledge and how it could be applied. I have written on sustainable assessment (based on Boud’s work) here

    How can a teacher encourage students to find some “intrinsic motivation” for their study – or is this something that can only be done by the individual student themselves?

    Self Determination theory (Ryan and Deci) recognises that intrinsic motivation is the ‘gold standard’ for learning but that not all learners will come with this motivation. It seems that if you have a extrinsic learner, the way to encourage them to become more intrinsic is to provide an environment that develops their relatedness – i.e. teamwork is one solution, but obviously you are going to have to design it well so that the extrinsic learner doesn’t just remain motivated to freeload. Another is by creating relationships between teachers/learners, the profession and learners.

    1. Hi Anneka, thanks for all of these great thoughts – this looks like a set of tips for any person new to academic teaching roles! Also thanks for that link to your article, which will also be a great resource for some of us. I particularly like your reference to simulations as “messy learning experiences” which is what simulations are great for, if they simulate the messiness of real life, where the rules do not always work! Also your thoughts about how to further engage extrinsic learners more deeply are very helpful.

  2. Like Anneka, one way I can tell my students have learned something is when they have that ‘ah ha’ moment. This is also true for myself – I’ll find myself explaining something to someone, or getting an analysis to work, and realise that I do actually know stuff!

    I think that the whole question of intrinsic and extrinsic is interesting. In my own evolution as a student, I was very motivated extrinsically to begin with – just really interested in getting good grades and getting finished – but now it’s almost a complete flip, where my learning is predominantly intrinsic. This has come with me knowing more about what I want and need to know.

    Based on my own experiences, I can understand that students have a whole variety of different motivations, and that these may change through time and space. Some surface learning is obviously critical in terms of laying the foundations, but, ultimately, I think deep learning is more fulfilling for both the teacher and the student.

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for contributing your thoughts. The change you mention from an extrinsically motivated learner to a more intrinsically motivated learner it interesting – do you think this supports the idea of the mature adult being more intrinsically motivated than the younger learner? And also you are correct in mentioning the diversity of motivations – context is everything! A frantically busy mother with two young children trying to get through a post-grad qualification online is likely to be very strategic, and mostly extrinsically motivated to do what they need to do to get through the course! Later on when her children are adults and she is doing her doctorate there is a good chance she will be be far more intrinsically interested in the subject and therefore motivated by inner forces such as curiosity and a quest for knowledge.

      1. Hi Jill! At least in my case, the switch from ex to intrinsic was motivated by two main things: more academic autonomy, and the accumulation of base knowledge to allow more opportunities for applying knowledge. Increasing maturity also played a role to a certain extent, I’m sure, but at least the first two (in STEM/my experience) come as your academic age progresses. So, not really due to absolute age, but rather, to the accumulation of enough time to build up enough blocks, although the two are obviously linked.

        1. Hi Angela, yes I see that “base knowledge” is important, so that less effort is expended in understanding at that level, meaning it is possible to then use mental energy to apply and synthesize the knowledge further. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. I very much prefer deep learning, both individually, and in my teaching. My Course Convenor and I have reached an understanding that they (and the materials) provide the surface learning, and I go into the deep learning in tutorials. Interestingly, students often get the surface learning only after engaging in the deep learning. Moving forward, I would probably prioritise deep learning when I get around to designing my own courses. I can see no reason why core concepts cannot be taught through deep learning methods.

    As such, I encourage intrinsic motivation by making the content relevant to my students. This varies for each student, and requires getting to know them individually. For many, it’s about showing the relevance to the “real world” through simulations and current news. Alternatively, it could be a matter of showing alternative applications, such as how this subject matter still applies in non-obvious real-world contexts or even fictional universes inhabited by mythical creatures. For example, one could draw parallels between climate change and the White Walkers from Game of Thrones, illustrating how collective action is needed to address it, despite domestic and “international” problems. More simply, sometimes students just need to see how a topic/theme fits into the wider course and degree. To this end, I avoid addressing each week as stand alone topics, and ensure to cross-reference course materials and concepts in order to help students see the bigger picture.

    I believe that recall lends itself to surface, or perhaps achieving learning. Incidentally, achieving learning is a term I have not come across before, and need to explore more. One of the reasons I love hypotheticals and simulations is that you can manipulate the environment to ensure deep learning. In my undergrad days in Law, lecturers would often provide excerpts of fictional legislation for exams (eg, the Misuse of Ice-cream Act 2018). This way, assessments were completely about students’ understanding of the concepts/cases/etc and their ability to apply them to the given scenario. There was no way that a student could simply memorise or rote learn things in advance.

    1. Hi Bhavani, simulations are great for students to be able to go deeper, as you say – as they offer opportunities to apply concepts to something approximating the real world. I like your idea of drawing parallels with popular culture and the real world, I am sure many students would enjoy that journey! And I agree with you that it make it relevant you do need to know your students to some degree, in order to have some idea of what is relevant.

  4. I believe when ‘learners’ learn when the material resonates with them in a personal way such that it has meaning. When learning occurs this way learners do not have difficulty recalling what they learn as the learning is likely to be deep learning. I think deep learning goes beyond improving practical skills and application and is also cognitive and emotional.

    The discussion on deep versus learning resonates well with me. Deep learning is important in all of the courses I teach, and I actively encourage students to ask questions, to engage in peer discussion, to read more, and to be critical and reflective. However, I often see learners grapple with the motivation to learn and often they will adopt a very superficial approach to studies, one that is more in line with a surface learning than deep learning. I believe there are learners who explore topics with a view to developing their knowledge and their ability to apply what they learn in life. On the other hand, there are many learners who can barely wait to get to the end of the course and get through the exam. The latter learners are extrinsically motivated by grades. Yet, the more successful students are those who demonstrate deep learning through intrinsic motivation and this results in a higher quality in terms of the work they submit. Such learners are also happy to learn and explore. I think recall through tests and exams is important, at least to the extent that students need to know the content of the courses we teach. However, it is the students who really understand the material who are able to go beyond the content and produce insightful and critical analyses and it is these learners who are rewarded with good grades. Based on my experience, reflective work enables learners to apply the ideas and models they learn about to practical areas of their lives, or at least consider how they might apply what they learn in practice. I also believe experiential approaches to learning encourage deep learning. For example in a course I recently taught learners were encouraged to engage in personal change with a view to developing as leaders. They were encouraged to understand the areas where they can improve and then actively work on that development over a period of weeks. The experience of the personal change resonates with them as they learn about themselves as leaders and also about others as leaders. The task requires cognitive understanding, emotional understanding, the ability to learn and to reflect on what they have learned.

    Encouraging students to find some “intrinsic motivation” for their study can be challenging. I don’t think I have the answer to this. The topic or the course has to resonate with the learner and in situations where the student is not really engaged it can be difficult to encourage intrinsic motivation. I have encouraged people to step out of their mind frame and to look at something in a new of different or enlightening way. I have made an effort to discuss the material in more depth with students so as to develop their interest. As I take an apprenticeship approach to learning I also provide examples and explanations of scenarios that I believe will be important to them in their working lives. I also find asking students to challenge their core assumptions is helpful. I don’t believe there is one answer for all students.

    Cheers, Denise.

    1. Hi Denise, thank you for your excellent overview of this topic and how it applies in your situation. I think your point that there has to be some kind of emotional “hook” for students to get more deeply engaged is a very important one. I know from my own experience that if I can relate in some emotional and personal way to the content, learning is so much easier, requires less effort, and is retained in more detail. This emotional connection is part of the relevance issue. If the students can see the relevance to their lives in some way, it is likely to attract a deeper engagement from them. A good example might be in that compulsory area that seems to be in every area of learning now, that of workplace health and safety. For me, this is a boring topic but when it is presented to me with vivid examples of how real people have been affected when it is not observed, my motivation is triggered to get to know how to ensure people are not endangered in the workplace. Knowing the stakes and risks motivates me to work through the detail of rules and regulations that might otherwise be dry and boring. This is just an example. You may be able to think of similar areas that seem dry in your area, and what kind of critical issues that are involved which you could use to get people more interested.

  5. I found Denise’s strategy of having students write what they didn’t understand, as well as what they did interesting. We tend to want to just test the students and assume it is the teachers are the judges. That perhaps removes responsibility fro the students for their learning.

    I know when I have learned something when I can do it. I know when I can do it when some official tester accepts my work, or the client pays me for the work. 😉

    Remembering, practical skills and application all constitute part of learning. It is no use being motived if you don’t have the basic knowledge and skills for a job. As an example there are some basic facts and formula I teach students about ICT sustainability. This is needed before we can get on to the interesting business of saving the planet from climate change. I suggest students need surface learning, on the way to the deep learning.

    Also I suggest a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is needed. In the long term I am training professionals to make the world a better place, and get high status, high paying jobs in the process. But day to day they need nudges to keep them working. I found myself as an online student every week it was a struggle not to just give up, and I needed a deadline with marks attached to keep me working.

    I am not sure if producing rounded individuals is part of learning. But I do teach computer nerds how to relate to clients, which many find challenging. In effect, I am teaching them how to emulate having empathy, as that is a skill they need (and many lack), along with technical ones.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your insights from teaching in ICT. I think you have made the best case yet for learning the basics on the way to a more abstract level of learning. To me, formulas are a curious mixture of “lower” and “higher” levels of learning in one sense because often they are just meant to be remembered, although they represent something far more complex than a set of numbers and letters. And remembering them means you have building blocks to understand and solve complex problems. I can also relate to your experience as an online student, appreciating basic quizzes and exercises to gain points as extrinsic motivators that kept you in the course. Your point on teaching “nerds” to relate to clients is an interesting take on the idea of “nurturing” and “development” perspectives – if we are teaching them to “emulate” empathy, I agree that is not quite the same as encouraging personal development in an authentic sense!

  6. We invited our students to write “what you think you have learned from this ECON course” at the end of this semester. Their submissions turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me. As mentioned in Day 2 material, the students start to make sense of the course materials in their own way. I have a strong sense of accomplishment when I find some non-ECON students really start to think like an economist. They provide many fancy stories how they apply the logic of the course into real life scenarios. One more interesting point is that not all of these students got an HD in the final exam. But I personally feel more excited to hear about their creative examples rather than getting a higher grade.

    1. Hi Sunny, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you, and this comment of yours highlights that teaching and learning is achieved in many ways, not always in the formal classroom and not always evidenced by formal assessments. A thought I have is, how can we capture this wonderful creative thought by students in the actual assessment process?

      1. Hi Jill, sorry for the late reply. The essay in our course is optional, so we did not really consider about how to mark it. Your question is inspiring. Maybe we can borrow some ideas from other subjects like fine arts?

  7. I found the articles on student approaches to learning, and student motivation, very interesting and helpful to consider.
    Having taught similar subjects at different levels (early and later year undergraduate, and post-graduate), I have observed great variability in students drivers (motivators) for learning, and seen how this might effect how deeply they want to learn the subject. Generally the post-graduate students seem to desire a deeper level of knowledge and learning, as they can see the more immediate use of the knowledge in their careers. I think though that this is reenforced in the way I might teach the undergraduate vs. postgraduate material. In the undergraduate courses, people have a variety of backgrounds and reasons for doing the course, and there is also more material to cover in a shorter period of time. I feel that this means I am less likely to try and link it with the “real world” application. However, in the postgraduate course, everyone is part of the same vocational program, and material is spread out and taught alongside other relevant material. This makes it much easier to make links to the application of the knowledge and hopefully helping students develop intrinsic motivation for study and deep learning.

    Another interesting thing that these articles made me consider is that in a subject like anatomy, students have to essentially learn a new language to begin with. I know from my own experiences that it required an initial period of superficial learning (ie. memorising anatomical names) before I could engage at a deeper level. I often remind students that things may seem overwhelming when we start out, but that things get easier with continual exposure and recommend that they do at least a small amount of study before and after each practical session.

    One of the biggest barriers I have noticed that appears to stop students engaging in deep learning is realistically that a large proportion of students appear to be overloaded with the amount of content required to be covered, both in the courses I am teaching, and other course requirements. Again, for many students I reassure them that learning the material should get easier with time, and that they are likely to revisit the key concepts (dependent on the course though).

    1. Thanks Lucy, it is great getting those insights from your experience in teaching anatomy in the medical sciences. I agree with you about it getting easier as students gain further exposure over time to the language and concepts. I have found myself that listening to podcasts and videos on subjects makes it possible to absorb more than I thought I was absorbing, through some kind of subliminal process. The other thing is that having to immediately apply terms and concepts is a great way to impress on my memory. So where it is face to face, having to role play explaining something anatomical to another person would help reinforce the terms they need to remember – but I am sure you are already doing similar stuff 🙂

      1. Thanks Jill, you’ll be hearing a bit more from me over the next little while!
        Yes, I normally try to get students to explain or teach a concept back to the group, but perhaps I should be more thoughtful in coming up with alternative “role plays” or getting students to pair up to explain or discuss concepts (the next Coffee Course I’m going to do is the one on facilitating discussion).

  8. I talked a bit about this yesterday but I think that explaining to students about how what you are teaching is relevant, is important to encourage intrinsic motivation. Also teaching them not just about something, but how they can do, be or make that themselves. Developing this intrinsic motivation is really important. Given the limited amount of time in a 12 week semester, there simply isn’t enough time to cover everything. And students are increasingly balancing study, with working, interning, sports, college activities, as well as friends, family and fun. But I also know from experience that if I can get a student really engaged with a topic, they will stay up all night reading and researching until they know more than I do, simply because they want to know more. Passion acts as scaffolding and you can expand the zones of proximal development far more than you could otherwise. This epitomizes deep vs shallow learning. So in many ways, I find the most effective teaching strategy is not to simply transfer knowledge but to inspire students to become independent learners who will go and teach themselves.

    However the Vanderbilt page actually talks about the pros and cons of intrinsic vs extrinsic learning, and that actually extrinsic learning can “more readily produce behavior changes”. I have noticed in some of my students that often the ones who get really motivated by a topic and who have done intense amounts of reading on it and can engage in incredible conversations in class do not always translate to producing good written work and thus good final marks. I think that’s often because they are only seeking to satisfy their own personal curiosity. So a little bit of extrinsic motivation is also probably important to getting good knowledge and good marks!

  9. In the beginning of my unit, I tend to have an anonymous live poll, asking the students why they are taking the unit after I have presented the learning outcomes/goals to them. Typically the answer is “Because I have to; it is a mandatory unit.” Very rarely do I see that they would have other than extrinsic motivation, or they might say “It would be a bonus if I learnt something useful.” To evoke their intrinsic side, I tend to try to get emotional responses (this is really important in our society) or make them curious to find out more. I know that well-motivated students learn, but establishing this internal appetite for deep learning is easier said than done with so many other compelling activities.

  10. I completely agree with Denise, that ‘learners’ learn “when the material resonates with them in a personal way such that it has meaning”. As a language teacher, I feel that it is my primary job to give my students the tools to talk about the things that matter to them. This is why I would always start my class off with an informal activity where students shared experiences and stories. Some weeks, I would focus on the topic at hand. For example, in the unit on cars and traffic, I asked my international students explain to their local classmates what had surprised them about traffic rules in Belgium (where I taught). Other times, we would talk about what had been in the media, or about events that were going on in the city. Through these informal chats conducted in small groups, I could really see my students engage with the language. They would take notes, look up words, and ask me and other students lots of questions. While this content was not going to be tested, I still made sure to treat these activities as learning opportunities. I would, for example, jot down interesting vocabulary items in a Word document that I then displayed and discussed with the class as a whole.

  11. My approach is about what is being learnt, how does it relate to their own lives and/or workplaces. I want that the students have a connection that makes sense to them and not just in the classroom. The intrinsic belief or disbelief is important to me as a lecturer. I don’t need them to agree with everything that they are learning in class, but if they don’t agree then put forward the case to back up your belief. If I have enabled them to see something from a different perspective and way up the information, then I feel positive about the outcome.

    1. Hi Susy, thanks for sharing your positive approaches to formative assessment. Relating the assessment to their own lives and workplaces certainly makes the tasks more authentic and relevant – always a good motivator for participation.

  12. For me, my approach is nearly always, “How does this relate to you?” I feel you can teach all the theory you like but if the students don’t feel connected to the information or how it relates to them, the benefits just aren’t there for them. I also try and bring real businesses into the class, so that they can also see how what they are learning relates to those businesses. The students are encouraged to ask questions about the business and of each other. Roleplay also comes into part of the process, for example, “If you were a customer of this business what would you say or do?” The more the subject can connect with the student and the more that there is open and supportive communication the more the students appear to get from the course. Encouraging lateral thought instead of the lineal is my approach. If I can help them see that this concept of the idea is not set in concrete but flexible and has the ability to change, develop and grow just like them. It becomes a real lights on moment which is what I aim for. For me I see teaching as multi-directional, they learn from me, I learn from them and we all learn from each other. So having a process and a focus towards that enables an “intrinsic motivation” is certainly the key.

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