Surface Learning Still Matters

surface learning deep learning memorization problem based learning barbara oakley

“All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — “fun.” Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. It’s why we have them practice moves in dance and soccer, memorize vocabulary while learning a new language and internalize the multiplication tables…Some learning just plain requires effortful practice, especially in the initial stages. Practice and, yes, even some memorization are what allow the neural patterns of learning to take form.” 

Barbara Oakley’s recent OpEd in NYT highlights the importance of memorization and drilling in developing the math fluency that is so critical for confidence in quantitative skills. While her article is aimed at teaching math to young daughters, it brings to mind an attitude we’ve noticed in our own education from high school through medical school:

“If you understand it, you won’t have to memorize it.”

By discouraging memorization and drilling, we’ve been implicitly taught that conceptual understanding of a topic is equivalent to learning. A student who memorizes is, therefore, a subpar learner. But without internalization of surface concepts—acquired through surface techniques such as memorization and drilling—deeper ones will continue to evade the learner.

This trend favoring deep over surface learning is growing in Western education, and it’s not limited to primary school. It’s reflected in the rise of Problem Based Learning (PBL) in medical education, which is often praised for its deep-learning approach.

However, a 2016 meta-meta-analysis* based on 509 studies showed only a small positive effect of PBL. As the study’s authors conclude, this effect seems to be modified by the amount of surface acquisition prior to PBL. For learners early in their education, a paucity of surface knowledge results in more errors and backward reasoning. When PBL is used in later years, the benefits appear to increase. Internalized surface knowledge allows learners to better engage in forward reasoning.

Deep learning is essential for adaptive expertise—no argument there. Additionally, the line between surface and deep learning is fuzzy, and they often happen simultaneously. But the bottom line is that memorization should not be universally discouraged. In many cases, it’s the first step to empowering learners to appreciate the rich complexities of deep learning and, eventually, the joys of expertise. 

*Hattie, J. A. C. & Donoghue, G. M. Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. Npj Sci. Learn. 1, 16013 (2016).