Scratching the Surface


My recent Epic Fail led to lots of reading in some unfamiliar areas of the teaching and learning literature. You may be familiar with the work of John Biggs; I was not. His 1985 article, “The Role of Metalearning in Study Processes” provides a lengthy survey teachers can use to explore how students approach learning. Specifically, the paper considers how motivation, locus of control, and students’ experiences in and out of school affect their attitudes toward learning and use of surface- or deep-learning strategies.

The 43-item questionnaire is a bit unwieldy, fortunately Biggs, Kember & Leung, (2001) developed a more focused instrument in their paper, “The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F.” A list of twenty statistically reliable statements are evaluated by students using a 5-pt Likert scale (“never or rarely like me”=1; “always or almost always true of me”= 5)

In light of my epic fail, five piqued my interest:

  • I only study seriously what’s given out in class or in the course outlines.
  • I find I can get by in most assessments by memorising key sections rather than trying to 
understand them.
  • I generally restrict my study to what is specifically set as I think it is unnecessary to do 
anything extra.
  • I find it is not helpful to study topics in depth. It confuses and wastes time, when all you 
need is a passing acquaintance with topics.
  • I find the best way to pass examinations is to try to remember answers to likely 
questions. (p.148)

My observations of student behavior and recent comments on quiz wrappers reflect agreement with these statements, all or most of the time. Essentially, the feedback suggests students are using a lot of surface learning strategies.

Relief! My students are surface learners!

Maybe I was too hard on myself?

Maybe not.

“Please note that the R-SPQ-2F is designed to reflect students’ approaches in their current teaching context, so it is an instrument to evaluate teaching (my emphasis) rather than one that characterizes students as “surface learners” or “deep learners”. The earlier instrument has been used also to label students (he is a surface learner and she is a deep learner) but I now think that is inappropriate. I have had a lot of correspondence from researchers who want to use the instrument for labeling students, that is as an independent variable, but it should not be so used; it provides a set of independent variables that may be used for assessing teaching (my emphasis); ” [ Accessed: 11/6/17]

If I was looking for a bit of vindication in the literature, it isn’t here.

But wait, there’s more:

“A particularly depressing finding is that most students in most undergraduate courses become increasingly surface and decreasingly deep in their orientation to learning…One might call it the ‘institutionalisation’ of learning, whereby students tend to pick up the tricks that get you by…” (Biggs, Kember, & Leung, p.138).

The takeaway: Teacher and students share responsibility. Surface strategies are used because they work. Students will be forced to change if the expectations, work and deliverables of learning require drilling down instead of scratching the surface.

Here are a few of the authors’ suggestions for appropriate uses of the surveys:

  • Monitoring day-to-day teaching; conducting action research; or structuring long-term pedagogical research.
  • Diagnosing study problems: comparing individuals’ deep and 
surface scores to others in the same cohort.
  • Examining the relationship of approaches to learning with other curriculum 
variables with a view to fine tuning curricula.

Before I gathered data and dug into the literature, I was firmly convinced the assessments in my course require more than surface strategies. Now I’m not so sure. If students are unaccustomed to deeper learning, how can I help them develop or expand their learning strategy repertoire? What can I do to move our expectations and beliefs about learning closer together?

These issues connect closely with previous posts: students’ learning misperceptions, passive study strategies, and the divergent views teachers and students have about what makes a course “hard.” I strive to grow and improve as teacher, but the introductory courses I teach are just one touch point in students’ academic journey. Unless we coordinate across courses and programs, ad hoc efforts merely scratch the surface of students’ learning potential.

Biggs, J.B., Kember, D., Leung, D.Y.P. (2001). The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71: 133-149.

Biggs, J.B. (1985). The Role of Metalearning in Study Processes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 55:185-212.

John Biggs’ website provides the article and survey instrument:

About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on November 16, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Lolita,

    Thank you for all your posts. Many interesting insights and bold and open sharing here. I love dropping by when taking a break after many busy weeks.

    I teach communication skills in a university in Singapore and I have observed a number of common learning and teaching concerns you have discussed on your space. Reading about your comments on Biggs and specifically about students’ surface learning strategies, really struck a chord. Like university educators elsewhere, we hope to develop independent learners among our students, who are rather used to being spoon-fed and exam-smart. It is hard to change mindset and study method. We are also using strategies like blended learning to direct students towards taking greater responsibility for their learning.

    After a few years of adopting the blended approach, this semester, we pushed it further by using seminar time for (almost) purely discussion and application – with very minimal frontal teaching. Students were expected to read the materials (screen cast lectures, articles, etc) ahead and come to classes as if attending hands-on workshops. Tutors went through a series of activities on a worksheet and students worked in small groups or individually to critique materials (e.g. sample emails, proposals, speech attention-grabbers, etc), practice and provide peer feedback. Tutors also provided input and feedback on materials critiqued and students’ practices. Students were strongly encouraged to take the initiative to ask good questions as they approach the materials and participate in seminars.

    A good handful of them still came in without preparation week after week, and this group tended to learn the least from the approach. At the end of the semester, in one of the learning reflection entry prompts, I’d asked students to consider their adaptability to self-directed learning – and highlighted that this approach mimics learning in the workplace in future. From their entries, it is telling that some of them lacked the confidence to apply the learning from the materials by themselves. They wanted tutors to reiterate the materials and verbalise specifically what were considered good practices in class. They described themselves as being ‘lost’. Where tutors felt that a non-technical subject like communication skills is best acquired through continuous practice and application, a percentage of students hoped to learn in a less threatening environment where they took notes and mulled over lectures – before actual task performance.

    There has been so much and such a rich resource to observe and learn about students’ approach to learning, mindset, and prior learning habits. in tandem with all these, I’m also observing changes in dynamics and attitudes in students’ interaction with peers and tutors.

    The classroom, for teachers, will always be a learning space, where exploration on our own practice, finds an avenue to ‘play’.

    Thanks, Lolita!

    All best

  2. Susan,

    Thank you for the kind words. The rich descriptions of your thoughtful and intentional changes in instruction are much appreciated. We share so much common ground, despite teaching different disciplines on opposite sides of the planet! Perhaps our paths will cross one day. I’d very much enjoy continuing the conversation over a cup of tea, or something a bit stronger. 🙂

    Best regards,

    • Yes, indeed so much in common to share on the teaching and learning experiences. There are many universal aspects of learning and motivation in students. Looking forward to meeting up some day too – perhaps in an education conference.


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