Deep and Surface Learning

Research in Education has identified two general approaches that students take towards their learning – deep and surface.

In deep learning, students immerse themselves in their subject and are motivated by their internal desire to know and understand more, often going beyond what is required by assessments or the curriculum.

In surface learning, students focus on external goals such as getting a particular grade or award or pleasing or impressing someone else. These students tend to do only what is necessary and focus more on being able to regurgitate what they have learned rather than truly understanding and absorbing the material [1]. 

Students who engage in deep learning have better wellbeing overall and tend to perform better. Students who surface learn tend to be more anxious and perform below their ability [2].

At PGR level, it is easy to see how this might apply. As discussed on other pages, being intrinsically motivated is better for your wellbeing and helps you to maintain energy, desire and interest in your subject [3]. Researching a topic because you want to find the answers and understand more is better for you than simply doing what you think you need to do to be allowed to call yourself Doctor.

Be willing to immerse yourself in your subject, to ask questions that risk making you look stupid or that make things complicated, to take the correct but difficult path and not the easy but unsatisfactory path. This will produce better research and, over the course of your studies, help you to maintain your wellbeing.

However, there is one corollary to that. There is a second axis that applies to approaches to learning that moves between being organised and being disorganised. 

While researching and studying deeply is absolutely better for you and your research, you will still have to meet certain criteria by an agreed set of deadlines. Sometimes students who want to research deeply can feel that this compromises their autonomy and work. If you struggle against the need to be organised, you can become frustrated and this can in turn have a negative impact on your wellbeing.

Instead, it can help to use the structure of your PhD or Masters to organise your research. Identify the times when you can follow your curiosity where it leads you and when you must bring it back into order. Allowing yourself to learn deeply but using the structures around you as a safety net can help you to maintain your wellbeing and motivation and ensure you deliver your work on time.

We discuss this more in Making The Research Process Work For You.



1) Beattie, V., Collins, B., & Mcinnes, B. (2010). Accounting Education Deep and surface learning: a simple or simplistic dichotomy?


2) Owen, S. (2016). Professional learning communities: building skills, reinvigorating the passion, and nurturing teacher wellbeing and “flourishing” within significantly innovative schooling contexts. Educational Review, 68(4), 403–419.


3) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology.