Surface, Deep & Transfer Learning

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"What and when are equally important when it comes to instruction that has an impact on learning.

Approaches that facilitate students' surface-level learning do not work equally well for deep learning, and vice versa.

Matching the right approach with the appropriate phase of learning is the critical lesson to be learned."

- Hattie, Fisher and Frey (Visible Learning for Mathematics, 2017)


Surface learning does not mean superficial learning. Rather, surface learning is a time when students initially are exposed to concepts, skills, and strategies. Surface learning is critical because it provides a foundation on which to build as students are asked to think more deeply.

We define deep learning as a period when students consolidate their understanding and apply and extend some surface learning knowledge to support deeper conceptual understanding . . . We think of this as a 'sweet spot' that will often take up more instructional time, but can be accomplished only when students have the requisite knowledge to go deeper.

Transfer learning [is] the point at which students take their consolidated knowledge and skills and apply what they know to new scenarios and different contexts. It is also a time when students are able to think metacognitively, reflecting on their own learning and understanding.

Source: Hattie, Fisher and Frey (Visible Learning for Mathematics, 2017)

Dig Deeper

Surface Learning Strategies

  • Jigsaw method (1.2)
  • Integrating prior knowledge (0.93)
  • Summarization (0.79)
  • Mnemonics (0.76)
  • Leveraging prior knowledge (0.65)
  • Vocabulary programs (0.62)
  • Direct instruction (0.6)
  • Organizing (0.6)
  • Recordkeeping (0.52)
  • Note-taking (0.5)
  • Imagery (0.45)

Deep Learning Strategies

  • Organizing and transforming notes (0.85)
  • Classroom discussion (0.82)
  • Reciprocal teaching (0.74)
  • Concept mapping (0.64)
  • Metacognitive strategy instruction (0.60)
  • Self-questioning (0.55)
  • Teacher Questioning (0.48)
  • Inquiry-based teaching (0.40)
  • Simulations (0.33)

Transfer Learning Strategies

  • Identifying underlying similarities & differences (1.32)
  • Example 1 to 5 assessment of comparison and contrast
  • Transforming conceptual knowledge (0.85)
  • Organizing conceptual knowledge (0.85)
  • Formal discussions (0.82)
  • Problem-solving teaching (0.68)
  • Synthesizing information across texts (0.63); reading across documents
  • Peer tutoring (0.53)

Core Teaching Factors That Influence Learning

    • Teacher credibility (0.90)
    • Spaced (vs. massed) practice (0.60)
    • Teacher clarity (0.75)
    • Cooperative learning: compared to individual (0.57); compared to competitive (0.55)
    • Feedback (0.70)
    • Teacher-student relationships (0.52)