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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Deep and Surface Learning

One of the ways in which student approaches to learning can be conceptualised is in terms of Deep and Surface learning (1).

Deep and Surface Learning

One of the ways in which student approaches to learning can be conceptualised is in terms of Deep and Surface learning (1). 

In deep learning, as the name suggests, students engage deeply with their subject. They study for understanding and meaning, reading and thinking more widely and deeply. They engage critically with subject content, have a positive emotional connection to their discipline and be motivated by a desire to know and understand more. Deep learning can lead students to develop their own insights, arguments and creative ideas (1-2).  

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In surface learning, students tend to move over the surface of the subject, focussing on what they need to know for extrinsic purposes. Their focus is much narrower, focussed on regurgitating important knowledge without necessarily understanding its context or application. Each area of study is learned separately and they are less likely to make connections between concepts and ideas. Surface learning can lead students to rote memorisation that does not necessarily remain in their memory beyond the relevant assessment point. 

Deep Learning Surface Learning
Reads and studies widely and deeply Reads and studies narrowly
Aims to understand the meaning behind the material Reads and studies narrowly Aims to regurgitate the material
Connects new material to previous knowledge and beliefs Learns subjects in isolation
Seeks to create new arguments and ideas from what they have learned Seeks to repeat arguments of others accurately
Motivated internally by desire to learn or love of subject Externally motivated by the need to pass assessments or gain grades
Thinks critically about what they have learned Focuses on memorising necessary material without examining it

Most students will combine these approaches across their time at university. However, research suggests that those who predominantly take a deep learning approach are more likely to learn more and perform better academically. More recent work has also suggested that there can be a causal relationship between the learning approach a student adopts and their wellbeing (3-5). While this is not true for all students, in general, students who adopt a deep learning approach are more likely to have good wellbeing than those with a surface learning approach. (There are some students who adopt a surface learning approach who maintain good wellbeing – this is discussed more below). 

There are some plausible mechanisms which can explain this general finding. For students who engage in deep learning, learning itself can become a source of positive wellbeing. Research has clearly shown that engaging in activity that is personally meaningful is beneficial for mental health and wellbeing (6-7). Deep learning can also provide students with positive, emotional experiences such as pleasure and a sense of fulfilment (8-9), which in turn increases cognitive capacity for further learning. By engaging the student’s ongoing interest, it can also lead to personal growth and development. Deep learning builds understanding and disciplinary mastery, providing a more stable platform for future learning across the degree. As a result, students can develop greater self-efficacy and approach future challenges with greater confidence. Deep learning emerges from intrinsic motivation – as the work of Deci and Ryan has shown (7), individuals who have more intrinsic motivation have better wellbeing. 

Alternatively, surface learning is void of these potential benefits, although there may be some sense of satisfaction of meeting a deadline or completing an assessment.. In surface learning focus tends to gravitate to completion of the assessment. Focus on doing what needs to be done, for an assessment, can also carry with it a greater focus on the possibility of not passing the assessment. As a result, students perceive a greater level of threat from engagement with their course of study, leading to greater burn out (5). Surface learning does not develop students’ knowledge, skill and understanding in ways that prepare them for future learning and academic challenge. As a consequence, students are vulnerable to finding their future study outside of their zone of development. Surface learning tends to be extrinsically motivated, which has been shown to be negatively correlated with good wellbeing (7). (Students who are surface learners and maintain good wellbeing, are potentially getting meaning and intrinsic motivation from life outside their studies. For these students, competently completing work in a strategic fashion may be enough to avoid a negative impact on their wellbeing. They may also derive some satisfaction from simply completing work by a deadline and feeling in control of their workload). 

Importantly, students’ approaches to learning are often more a matter of acculturation than active choice. For many students surface learning may be the only approach which they have previously been taught and developed. Others may adopt a surface approach due to time pressure and competing demands, such as paid work or caring responsibilities. Deep learning requires the development of skills and practice, which are less likely to grow without explicit support and direction. Given this is becomes important to consider the active role curriculum can play in influencing and actively encouraging students approaches to learning.

Curriculum design can help to move students towards deep learning, providing a structure and culture to support this move. Meta-learning components can raise students’ awareness of the benefits of deep learning and encourage deeper learning approaches. An internally coherent curriculum, which focusses on developing students’ conceptual understanding, can deepen their learning and engage them more meaningfully. Assessment design and focus can also push students towards deeper learning by focussing more on the assessment of Know How knowledge rather than Know That (10). Finally, curriculum can make space to support students to find meaning in their discipline through content sequencing, learning exercises and assessment choice. 

Key lessons 

  • Deep and surface learning are two important concepts in understanding how students approach learning. 
  • Deep learning can provide students with a source of positive wellbeing, while surface learning can increase anxiety and erode students' ability and confidence to engage with future learning. 
  • The curriculum can support students to move towards deep learning via content, exercise and assessment strategy. 

Top tips 

  • Create space in the curriculum to develop students’ understanding of learning approaches and how deep learning can be benficial. 
  • Use assessments to push students towards deeper learning, focussing on assessing Know How e.g., by using vivas to explore student understanding of concepts, the connections between them and how they can be applied in other contexts. 
  • Use retrieval practice in the classroom (online or in person) to guide students towards studying for deeper understanding 
  • Consider using the first sessions of a module to help students connect to concepts that are meaningful or may have practical application for them and build clear meaningful connections between modules. 
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  1. Haggis, T. Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into ‘Approaches to Learning’ Research in Higher Education. British Educational Research Journal. 2003 29(1), pp. 89-104.
  2. Asikainen H, Gijbels D. Do students develop towards more deep approaches to learning during studies? A systematic review on the development of students’ deep and surface approaches to learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review. 2017 Jun;29(2):205-34. Available from: doi:
  3. Stanton A, Zandvliet D, Dhaliwal R, Black T. Understanding Students' Experiences of Well-Being in Learning Environments. Higher Education Studies. 2016;6(3):90-9.
  4. Postareff L, Mattsson M, Lindblom-Ylänne S, Hailikari T. The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher education. 2017 Mar 1;73(3):441-57.
  5. Asikainen H, Salmela-Aro K, Parpala A, Katajavuori N. Learning profiles and their relation to study-related burnout and academic achievement among university students. Learning and Individual differences. 2020 Feb 1;78:101781. Available from: doi:
  6. Hammond C. Impacts of lifelong learning upon emotional resilience, psychological and mental health: Fieldwork evidence. Oxford Review of Education. 2004 Dec 1;30(4):551-68. Available from: doi:  
  7. Ryan RM, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist. 2000 Jan;55(1):68. Available from: doi:
  8. Li L, Gow ADI, Zhou J. The role of positive emotions in education: A neuroscience perspective. Mind, Brain, and Education 2020;14(3):220–34
  9. Rowe AD, Fitness J, Wood LN. University student and lecturer perceptions of positive emotions in learning. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 2015 Jan 2;28(1):1-20. Available from: doi: 10.1080/09518398.2013.847506
  10. Rata E. A pedagogy of conceptual progression and the case for academic knowledge. British Educational Research Journal. 2016 Feb;42(1):168-84