Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. – Emerson

Approaches to Learning #ocTEL


Amazing Mud Skippers are Surface Mavens

This week’s core activity on #ocTEL is to evaluate Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle’s approaches to learning framework in the light of one of a choice of four questions.

  • Have you seen any evidence of these different approaches in online contexts, e.g. in technology-enhanced courses you teach? How did these differences manifest themselves in terms of online learning behaviour.
  • Are you leaning towards one approach in particular on ocTEL, and if so why might that be? Perhaps you are employing strategies from more than one approach
  • Are learners who tend to take a ‘surface’ approach likely to learn more or less effectively online versus face-to-face.
  • How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts?

This is the framework as stated in the article:


Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle

Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh

How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts?

I started this by reading and responding to Tim Leonard’s post about this activity on his blog. I hadn’t actually realized that this was “homework” so I guess that qualifies this bit of participation as “deep learning.”  In this case, maybe we can encourage ‘deep learning’ by telling people not to read their course materials or assignments – but if they did what they were told to do, wouldn’t they then be “surface” or “compliance” learners?

I actually like this framework, which I’d prefer to call the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly since I see it as value laden as this question is loaded.

The problem I see lies in the issues identified at the “surface” level learning, and with its by-line cope with course requirements — as if the goal of a swimmer were simply not to drown. In my own classes I see all three types of learners, with most of them apparently at surface, and why shouldn’t they be.  Some few are strategists, and there would probably be more of these had they the skills this requires.  If you ask them, most all would say that their primary objective is to get the highest mark possible in the course and what’s wrong with that anyway. Don’t we value them by their marks, after all?

If I knew I was being valued only for a mark I might go in either direction — become a surface learner feigning disinterest, or a deep learner disdaining assessment. So, there’s something about the directive to “encourage deep learning” that I find grating. If we are talking about student-directed learning, they why am I encouraging any type of learning at all?

From a design perspective, the framework is very useful since it helps me to conceptualize these different kind of learners.  Of course, I’ve seen them all and can even put faces to the patterns but having a neat little three part plan is still quite helpful. As a designer I ought to be mindful of the various approaches that I know students will take (at least three) and try to design for that. I should do something to support surface types, and something to support strategists, and something to support deep learners.

I should also be aware that no one will fit neatly into any of these three little boxes but that people will migrate from one to the other as the course progresses, according to what they find, according to what I and other participants provide, and according to their own changing moods, ideals, understandings and ambitions.