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Deep and surface learning: a simple or simplistic dichotomy?

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1997
<mark>Journal</mark>Accounting Education
Issue number1
Number of pages12
Pages (from-to)1-12
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In recent years, broad evaluations of higher education in several countries have called for a greater degree of deep learning (i.e. learning with understanding) relative to surface learning (i.e. rote learning). These concepts, having been developed in the 1970s and 1980s, are now well established in the higher education literature. However, to a large extent, exploration and discussion of these concepts is missing from the accounting education literature. The present paper aims to fill this gap in the accounting education literature by introducing the full complexity of this important education literature on deep and surface learning. We show that the use of this dichotomy, which is often used as a convenient shorthand, generally oversimplifies in two key respects. First, the deep- surface distinction is relevant in analysing the following aspects of learning: student learning intentions, learning styles, learning approaches adopted and learning outcomes. The specific context in which the distinction is being applied must be defined carefully. Moreover, it is unrealistic to assume that a deep approach to learning is universally desirable, since it may be necessary, given the nature of the knowledge to be acquired, to adopt a surface approach. Second, the deep- surface approach to learning has been shown to comprise only one of several components which influence a student's overall learning orientation. As a consequence, the identification of several learning orientations, rather than two approaches, gives richer insights into students learning processes. These orientations, which comprise the learning style and learning approach, are determined partly by the student's personality, motivation and study methods and partly by contextual factors such as the learning task, the attitudes and enthusiasms of the lecturer and the forms of assessment. If intervention strategies designed to improve teaching and learning are to be successful, then a fuller understanding is required of the complex, composite and contingent nature of deep and surface learning and its interrelationship within the teaching-learning environment. This paper calls for a programme of research in accounting education which investigates these issues empirically.