Language Learning 101: In-Depth Learning versus Surface Learning

2012 September 26
by SWIRLsite

In-Depth Learning versus Surface Learning

In this week’s article, we will continue our discussion on how teachers and learners can create a favourable learning environment and benefit from it. The effective learning tip of this week is in-depth learning approach.

In-depth learning is characterised by which learners seek to fully understand the meaning of a concept and relate it to daily life. For example, a language learner is eager to identify the meaning and usage of various grammatical concepts that can represent a past action or event. The learner uses his experience and knowledge as example to seek a clearer understanding from his teacher and fellow classmates. On the contrary, surface learning is confined to rote learning and memorising facts. For example, learners simply absorb the new materials without in depth understanding and application.

How can we promote in-depth learning and prevent surface learning? In a classroom setting, the nature of learning activities can enhance or hamper in-depth learning. Learners must understand the objective of each language activity for it to be effective and meaningful. Let us recall from our language learning experience. Have you ever experienced doing conventional grammar exercises that are mechanical and require little thinking?  Did you easily get through those exercises by repeating the same grammatical structure? A typical instruction of such exercise would be “fill in the blanks by using present perfect tense”. The only advantage of this sort of exercise is that you will get to remember the structure of present perfect tense by writing it repeatedly. The disadvantage is that this sort of exercise does not help you to understand the concept of present prefect tense.

On the contrary, a meaningful exercise must provide the opportunity for you to identify the significance of the task from the beginning, so you are heading towards meeting the objectives and developing the specific language skills. Thus, a meaningful language exercise should consist of both control practice and free practice. The former guides you through the exercise to produce the target language, while the latter allows you to produce the target language based on your own experience.


An example of a control practice exercise:

Please use the 3rd conditional to express the following scenario.

Teacher: May didn’t get up on time. May missed her train.

Learner: If May had gotten up on time, she wouldn’t have missed the train.


An example of a free practice exercise:

Please recall a past experience and express it in a 3rd conditional sentence.

Learner A (Tony): If I had taken a taxi, I would have caught the last train.

Then, the teacher asks the following questions to concept check his/her students based on the scenario given by Learner A (Tony).


Teacher: Did Tony take a taxi?                                               Student: No

Teacher: Was Tony running late?                                           Student: Yes

Teacher: Did Tony manage to catch the last train?                Student: No

Teacher: Did Tony miss the last train?                                   Student: Yes


Concept checking is a technique that promotes deep learning in a language learning environment. It enables learners to gain a better understanding on the concept and usage of the target language. It is also a great way for teachers to break down a complicated concept and find out what needs working on with the students.

To conclude, a meaningful exercise enables you to reflect on the new language concept and connect new knowledge and past experience from inside/ outside classrooms. In-depth learning broadens classroom setting when learners and teachers integrate new information and past experience. What a lively and meaningful way of learning!


Please continue to read on in the Hills Learning website for more tips on effective language learning, and don’t forget when learning or teaching to use an in-depth learning approach.

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