Learning in science: A comparison of deep and surface approaches

Christine Chin, David E. Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The purpose of this study was to explore in greater depth what has been called by previous researchers, a deep versus surface approach to learning science. Six Grade 8 students judged as typically using learning approaches ranging from deep to surface were observed and taped during class group laboratory activities in a chemistry unit. They were also interviewed individually before and after instruction about related science concepts. On analysis of the students' discourse and actions during the activities and their interview responses, several differences in learning approaches seemed apparent. These differences fell into five emergent categories: generative thinking, nature of explanations, asking questions, metacognitive activity, and approach to tasks. When students used a deep approach, they ventured their ideas more spontaneously; gave more elaborate explanations which described mechanisms and cause-effect relationships or referred to personal experiences; asked questions which focused on explanations and causes, predictions, or resolving discrepancies in knowledge; and engaged in "on-line theorizing." Students using a surface approach gave explanations that were reformulations of the questions, a "black box" variety which did not refer to a mechanism, or macroscopic descriptions which referred only to what was visible. Their questions also referred to more basic factual or procedural information. The findings also suggest that to encourage a deep learning approach, teachers could provide prompts and contextualized scaffolding and encourage students to ask questions, predict, and explain during activities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-138
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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