Center for Faculty Development
Faculty Resources

Deep Approaches to Learning

  • What do we mean by deep approaches to learning? Have you ever graded assignments where you've wondered whether your students have really grasped the material or are just good at faking understanding? Can they transfer the skills and knowledge to the next level of your discipline or are they just imitating disciplinary norms well enough to get by without genuinely learning? Many faculty experience this niggling doubt, and it relates to the approach to learning that students use in each course they take.

    For the last 30 years, researchers in Sweden, Australia, the UK, and now the USA have been studying the different approaches students take in their classes to find ways for us to design our curricula to avoid "imitation subjects" and instead foster approaches to learning that help students grasp both the subject matter and the intellectual skills we expect in our various academic disciplines.

    What do we know

    The research tells us

    • That students' approaches to learning are not "fixed" attributes but are responses to the learning environment. (So in the same term, a student may take a deep approach in one course and a surface approach in another, based on the circumstances and requirements of each course.)
    • That students' approaches to learning can therefore be changed.
    • That course design is the key to promoting deep approaches to learning.

    Center for Faculty Development materials to help you (re)design your courses

    On our resources page, you'll find two documents summarizing key findings from the research.

    We also have two documents to help you both diagnose elements in one of your current courses related to either deep or surface approaches to learning, and to plan to reduce surface and enhance deep approaches in your course (re)design.

    If you'd like to discuss this further, please fill in our consultation request form and remember to include the phrase "deep approaches to learning" as the topic. We'll then line you up to meet with a Center for Faculty Development Peer Consultant (from a different discipline than your own, so that you are always the subject expert) to discuss your course design further. You should end up with far fewer concerns that you're reading "imitation" assignments and far greater confidence that your students can progress in your field having internalized ideas and disciplinary ways of thinking.