March 4, 2024


How to teach surface learning, deep learning, and transfer learning

By TeachThought Staff

John Hattie is an influential educational researcher known for his research on the effectiveness of teaching methods and strategies.

While there are other educational researchers and thought leaders who have explored these topics, Heidi’s perspectives on surface learning, transfer learning, and deep learning, and the role of direct and explicit instruction and inquiry teaching in facilitating these, can aid educational efforts Author of Planning and Implementing Instruction. His extensive research work coupled with a nuanced and reflective approach over the decades has made him an invaluable resource for teachers wishing to prepare students for the modern world.

What is surface learning?

Definition of deep learning: Hattie believes that surface learning is the foundation of deep learning. Surface learning involves the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills, usually through repetition and memorization. However, Heidi believes that superficial learning alone is not enough to succeed in school or in life. Instead, surface learning should be the starting point for deep learning, which involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“Surface learning does not mean superficial learning. Rather, surface learning is the period during which students are initially exposed to concepts, skills, and strategies. Surface learning is critical because it provides a foundation upon which students can think more deeply.”

– Hattie, Fisher, and Frey (Mathematical Visualization Learning, 2017)

see also 6 Questions About the Hatties Meta-Analysis

What is deep learning?

Definition of Deep Learning: Deep (or deeper) learning is a complex process that involves the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Hattie believes that deeper learning can be facilitated through the teaching of inquiry, which involves asking questions, exploring concepts, and engaging in meaningful discussions. Inquiry-based teaching allows students to develop their own understanding of concepts and connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. Hattie believes that inquiry-based teaching is especially effective when it is combined with direct and explicit instruction that equips students with the fundamental knowledge and skills they need for more in-depth learning.

“We define deep learning as a period in which students solidify their understanding and apply and extend some of their superficial learning in support of a deeper conceptual understanding . . . But it can only be done when students have the necessary knowledge to learn in depth.”

– Hattie, Fisher, and Frey (Mathematical Visualization Learning, 2017)

What is transfer learning?

Definition of transfer learning: Hattie believes that transfer learning is critical to success in the real world. Transfer learning involves the ability to apply knowledge and skills learned in one situation to a new one. Hattie suggests that transfer learning is facilitated when students are taught explicitly and directly. This means that teachers should explicitly teach students how to transfer their knowledge and skills to new situations, rather than assuming that they will do so automatically.

see also Types of Learning Transfer

“Transfer learning (is) when students take their generalized knowledge and skills and apply what they know to new scenarios and different contexts. This is also when students are able to engage in metacognitive thinking and reflect on their own learning and understanding.”

– Hattie, Fisher, and Frey (Mathematical Visualization Learning, 2017)

What is direct and clear guidance?

Direct and explicit instruction involves teachers clearly explaining concepts, modeling strategies, and providing immediate feedback to students. Hattie suggests that direct and explicit instruction is particularly effective for surface learning and facilitating transfer learning. When teachers provide clear and unambiguous instruction, students are more likely to retain information and transfer their knowledge to new contexts.

What is inquiry-based teaching?

Definition of Inquiry-Based Learning: Inquiry-based teaching involves a more student-centered approach that encourages students to explore concepts, ask questions, and engage in meaningful discussions. According to Hattie, inquiry-based instruction is particularly effective at promoting deep learning because it allows students to connect new knowledge to existing knowledge and develop their own understanding of concepts.

While some will cite the low impact size of inquiry-based teaching when advocating for explicit and direct teaching, it is important to note that Hattie argues that inquiry can be a powerful form of Deep learning and/or transfer learning policy learning. As we mentioned before, the 5 phases of robust project-based learning include this combination, and when done well, PBL is an excellent tool for building surface learning, deep learning, and transfer learning.

“However, when students possess appropriate surface knowledge, problem-based learning has been shown to be very effective in consolidating and developing deeper understanding.” – Hattie (Visible Learning: The Sequel, 2023)

John Hattie’s research shows that surface learning is the foundation of deep learning, that transfer learning is the key to success in the real world, and that deep learning is facilitated through inquiry-based teaching. According to Hattie, direct and explicit instruction is particularly effective for surface learning and facilitating transfer learning, while inquiry instruction is especially effective for facilitating deeper learning.

By understanding these different types of learning and the role of teaching in facilitating them, educators can develop more effective instructional strategies that better prepare students for the modern world.