What Is Deep Learning? Part II: Critique

As the reading for this session outlines, critiques of the concept of “deep learning” that have emerged since the 1990s have been few and far between, but no less insightful for it. Central to their arguments  is the claim that the principles of deep and surface learning have been so seductive  –  and politically timely given external pressure to reform teaching and learning in Higher Education! – that their wholescale adoption in debates informing approaches  to learning and teaching has failed adequately to address the fundamental conceptual, intellectual and scholarly imprecision of the underlying concepts. Howie and Bagnell write of rhetorical slippages, circular logic, and allude to others who have proposed that the terms have become a reified, paradigmatic metaphor whose assumed validity has been embraced so wholeheartedly that robust, intellectual critique has bypassed them entirely.

The overarching questions to consider reading this paper arguably reframe ones that emerged  at our first meeting (See Meeting Report).

Are you convinced by Bagnel and Howie’s claim that there is no solid supporting evidence testifying to the validity of “deep” and “surface” learning as  concepts?

  • Does Bagnel and Howie’s critique alter your perception of whether these concepts are real and tangible (as opposed to hypothetical) phenomena in the way students approach learning?
  • What evidence would be necessary to prove the validity of these concepts to the satisfaction of the critics? What research (methodology) would be required?

Participants may also wish to refer to the SoTL Network Meeting Report for our last meeting on the 3rd Nov, which summarises some related questions that arose in our discussion – especially if you are joining the group for the first time.

Meeting Report

The group concurred with Howie and Bagnell’s central critique of ideas of deep/surface approaches to learning. But we also that by itself this critique only gets us so far. Indeed, some of us found  the article a bit depressing insofar as it  offered plenty of negatives while not clearly identifying positive alternatives. One member noted a useful comparison with  the more constructive critical investigation by Haggis outlined in a different paper (2003).

The irony was not lost on us that this kind of discussion is just the sort of thing asked for in much of the research we looked at in the previous session. It  was noted that the way in which models of student learning have been taken up in the HE sector, with a lack of definition and without real questioning of terms, has in effect stalled the project begun by Marton and Säljö. Meanwhile, as Howie and Bagnall argue, the strong acceptance in particular of Biggs’ frameworks at national and institutional level has restricted academic debate in favour of models and metrics; it has also, the group felt, tended towards a kind of reductionism in the way that the paradigm has been dealt with. In particular, the intellectual and semantic slippage from ‘learning about learning’, to ‘approaches to learning’, to ‘learning styles’ was something very familiar from our last meeting.

On the other hand, though, there were some similar slippages identified in Howie and Bagnall’s own piece which might affect how we read their work. In our previous session, we had discussed the validity of  strategic approaches to learning and thought that this was undervalued in their critique. Similarly, the description of surface approaches to learning in the article seemed to be re-oriented  around achieving a  pass mark,   which was not what we thought had been meant by the term in the original research. Ramsden and Entwistlein particular had noted that many able students score very good grades when the assessment model encourages strategic and surface approaches to learning. A further noted issue  was  that it aims fire, with not a little delight, at Biggs while spending significantly less time on the other primary research on this topic that we looked at previously. Is this because the authors have a particular to grind with Biggs? Or is the approach a means of raising their profile by attacking a well-known figure?

Moving to consider the paradigm of deep/surface approaches to learning, and the lack of research around it, we discussed what evidence would be needed to confirm things one way or another. Questions were raised concerning the validity of the original research methodology involved, with members of the group noting the phenomenological approach was static and with a tendency to assume the face value of interview data. Moreover, in Marton and Säljö, and in Biggs, the intention had been to focus on learning about the learner, but something seems to keep bringing the discussion, and the interventions proposed, back to teaching. Is this something institutional and strategic: because it’s easier to effect changes to teaching organisation and structures than to learning?

But, if we are to spend time in learning about learning, what’s the alternative approach? In answering this question we discussed whether there might be an empirical method for investigating learning, whether it would be possible – or even worth the attempt. There was agreement that the current deductive approach to learning and teaching doesn’t work because education is about people, and people are all different. As an alternative, inductive and dynamic/longitudinal possibilities were raised – but with the knowledge that this would take time and investment. There were practical suggestions for integrating and testing the learning process in the curriculum in a meaningful way: the possibility of designing the first term of programmes in terms of learning to learn, or the use of small amounts of credit for everything rather than weighting learning towards summative assessment. One concern about this was that students might respond negatively to learning about learning given they had signed up to engage meaningfully with their discipline of choice.

Finally, though, there was the question of whether this would be a worthwhile exercise: if terms such as deep, surface, or strategic do describe things that actually exist, is it possible to effect change to learning approaches through changes in teaching approaches? Are students (is anyone) fixed in their traits or are they fluid, flexible? And if we are capable of changing these traits, to what purpose and with what implicit value systems are we working? The deep approach, for example, had been thought of as producing positive emotions in students, but the real experience of those present suggests the opposite: students asked to do hard things, or where scaffolding is removed, often report negative emotion. So, what do we do differently? As it happens, one answer that picks up on some of these questions is proposed in the reading for next time…

Works Cited

  • J. Biggs (1987) Student Approaches to Learning and Studying. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research
  • N. Entwistle and P. Ramsden (1982) Understanding Student Learning. Beckenham: Croom Helm.
  • T. Haggis (2003) “Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into ‘Approaches to Learning’” Research in Higher Education. Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb).  89-104
  • P. Howie  & R. Bagnell (2013) A Critique of deep and surface approaches to learning. Teaching in Higher Education.18:4, 389-400
  • F. Marton and R. Säljö (1976) “On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I – Outcome and Process.” British Journal of Educational Psychology. 46. pp4-11.

Agreed and suggested texts are available in the Paperpile folders for the Network. All members are automatically given access to these folders.



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