Student Success · Texas Tech · Thoughts from Tutors

Pursuing Deep Learning

By Landon Breeding, Master Tutor

Walk through any lecture hall during midterm week and you will see several dozens of students ferociously reading notes, going over flashcards, and highlighting text books. They are trying to squeeze every last drop of information from the material into their heads before they walk into the classroom to take the big exam. As a college student myself, I know this method of studying well. During my first couple semesters of college, I was cramming with the rest of my classmates just minutes before my exam and surprisingly, most of the time it worked pretty well! Despite my success, I felt there had to be a better way of studying. I wanted to do more than pass my exams, I wanted to know the material.

In 1976, two educational psychologists, Marton and Saljo, formed an interesting hypothesis that there may be more than just one style of learning. The pair decided to perform an experiment to test the different levels of processing the student had while he or she was learning. Thirty students were asked to read a newspaper and then asked questions about what they had read. Students were asked questions such as, “Did you find the reading interesting?” or “Was there anything in the reading that struck you as particularly important?” along with basic factual questions. Students who were genuinely interested in what they had read performed much better on answering questions over the text than students who had simply read the text in order to regurgitate information. Marton and Saljo divided these students into two distinct groups, students who took and understanding approach to learning and students who took a reproduction approach to learning. Today we commonly hear these two theories known as deep learning and surface learning.

Surface learning is the common approach taken to memorize facts or information. The material does not have to be clearly understood; it only must be regurgitated to the level where the student can answer the particular question. Surface learning typically takes a very narrow approach the material and does not tie in with material from other classes or previous topics taught during lecture.

Deep learning is the approach taken when a student wants to truly understand the material. Students think critically about the material and try to understand why they need to know the material or how this material is important. They commonly tie this information with information they have learned earlier in the semester or in previous classes to see how it all fits into the big picture.

An experiment done by McCrudden, Schraw, and Hartley does an excellent job of explaining the difference between deep learning and surface learning.

Two groups were asked to recite the number sequence: 5 8 1 2 1 5 1 9 2 2 2 6.

The first group memorized the sequence in sets of three’s: 581, 215, 192, 226.

  • This method allowed the group to repeat the number series later that day.
  • They were not able to repeat the series one week later and thought it was unfair they were being asked to do so.

The second group memorized the number sequence as part of a pattern: 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, 26. Each following number in the sequence followed the same pattern: +3, +4, +3, +4, +3, +4.

  • This method allowed them to repeat the number series later that day.
  • They could repeat the number series one week later.
  • They could repeat the number series four weeks later!

This a great example of the group using deep learning to truly know the number sequence while the other group simply memorized it.

A close up shot of a pen lying on a piece of paper with math equations on itDeep learning is difficult and often the road less travelled in the college classroom. Two years ago, I began trying to apply deep learning to my study habits. I would ask myself difficult questions and try to think deeply with the topics. I would “wrestle” with the material until I felt I truly knew it.

I would encourage all students to try to use deep learning as they pursue their degree at Texas Tech. Outside of the immediate academic success of doing well on an exam or in a course, I believe deep knowledge will benefit them greatly as they tackle challenges in the work force. So next time you see all your classmates cramming last minute, take a deep breath and smile. You don’t need to memorize those flashcards, you know this!


Marton, F., and R. Saljo. “On Qualitative Differences In Learning: I-Outcome And Process*.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 46.1 (1976): 4-11. Web.

Mccrudden, Matthew T., Gregory Schraw, and Kendall Hartley. “The Effect of General Relevance Instructions on Shallow and Deeper Learning and Reading Time.” The Journal of Experimental Education 74.4 (2006): 291-310. Web.


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