Approaches to Learning

Hi again. This weeks #ocTEL webinar was really good, Panos was a very engaging speaker and clearly has great enthusiasm for TEL. Looking forward to delving into the resources for this week, though there is loads!!!!

Here’s some thoughts on Noel Entwistle’s model Defining Features of Approaches to Learning in relation to online learning.


Entwistle, N. (2005) Contrasting Perspectives on Learning. In: 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, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. p.19. Accessed online at:

I found the model a bit problematic really. Couldn’t somebody approach a learning activity with the intention of a Surface Approach (to cope with the course requirements), but actually engage in the activities of a Deep or Strategic approach, though perhaps not as consistently or with the same level of commitment? It almost seems like a model of two successful approaches to learning (one that embodies an intention of high attainment and one that takes more of a transformative intent), and one approach that is unsuccessful. Couldn’t somebody successfully take a Surface Approach (that didn’t result in undue pressure or difficulty) if coping is their desired intent? Don’t a lot of learners do that?

I don’t think that the characteristics of the approaches are sufficiently unique or well defined. Surely somebody with a Deep Approach would put in consistent effort, plan their time and use of materials, etc – these aren’t characteristics that would be unique to a Strategic intention. It also depends on the type of learning activity the student is engaging in; a learning activity without an element of assessment would mean that students who participate effectively are embodying the Deep Approach by default.

I think most people would find that their approach to a course or learning activity would embody a hybrid of these intentions and approaches, and that it could alter over time dependent on their engagement with the subject area and learning material, and other events and responsibilities within their lives.

If I were to apply this to my participation on #ocTEL, I would say that my intention lies between the Deep and Surface approaches. As podling has noted there isn’t really assessment on #ocTEL , though I suppose getting positive feedback on our contributions is a driving motivation, as well as those (virtually) shiny badges!  I have some understanding of TEL and am relating everything I have learnt so far to my own knowledge and experience. I’m particularly interested in learning about how to design effective learning experiences, and learning more about educational theory and pedagogy, as I’ve never formally studied this. HE Librarians such as myself are increasingly getting involved in projects where an understanding of pedagogy would be of benefit so I do have an active desire to learn about the subject; it will help me in my current job with a number of upcoming projects and can only be of benefit professionally. Due to work and other commitments I have to take a surface approach to an extent. I skim the weekly resources and consider what is most relevant to me and my needs. I think with regard to online learning, and in particularly self-directed learning, this could be a valuable and effective approach. I do look to understand how the information inter-relates and am hopefully building a wider conception of the learning technology landscape. I imagine that on the completion of #ocTEL there will be elements of TEL that I haven’t had the chance to fully explore, but I will hopefully have a better conception of what those elements are. And then that’s something to address in my next foray into lifelong learning 🙂


2 thoughts on “Approaches to Learning

  1. Thanks for this short account of Entwistle’s defining features and approaches to learning. I’ll have to read the article to get a better understanding of what it means but I do recognize these three as major patterns of engagement. Looking at my own students, I can identify individuals that I would put into each of these categories and, looking at myself, I can see how I would vacillate amongst all three following my purpose, or more frequently, my mood.

    I understand what you mean that they appear to present a rough-and-ready triptych with not so well defined boundaries, but why we always have well defined boundaries? From a design perspective, they can give us some guidance on how to build courses that accommodate all three types of learners – isn’t that what a “student-directed” course should be? I direct myself to be a strategic learner (I’m only in this for the mark, what to I care about molecular biology?) Why should I, as an instructor designer really care about which approach a learner takes. Is that any of my business?

    The labels seem value laden to me. I might prefer to say “compliance approach” rather than “surface approach” but that isn’t really much better. Entwistle also stigmatizes this approach with two problems: difficulty in sense-making and difficulty with time management, while his strategic and deep models do not appear to present any such problems.

    Seeing that some of my students do take this “surface approach” I should probably design to accommodate that – as well as the other two – rather than pass moral judgement on it. Indeed, I see many colleagues designing only just this…. .

    So, as an instructional design problem, how would we design to accommodate all three of these approaches and, had we done this, would we have built something that might be nearer to a student-directed ideal?

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