Learning and teaching approaches in Higher Education: Promoting deep learning through constructive alignment

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In this post, Mattia Zingaretti reviews research on “deep learning” to reflect on different approaches to learning and their impact on sustainable knowledge attainment. Mattia is an AHRC-funded PhD Researcher in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. This post is part of Teaching Matters Leaning & Teaching Enhancement Theme: Books that inspire our teaching.

Despite learning being the subject of much research in the past century, only a small part of said research has resulted in in an improvement of teaching practice (Biggs and Tang, 2011). The aim of this post is therefore not only to present the different ways in which students learn (i.e. ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ approaches to learning, cf. Marton and Säljö, 1976a; 1976b), but also to relate these to our teaching practice in Higher Education (HE), by illustrating how HE instructors could promote deep learning approaches among students through the use of ‘constructive alignment’ (cf. Biggs 2014). Finally, by drawing from my own teaching practice in linguistics and first/second language acquisition, I will exemplify how designing teaching activities that are engaging for students, as well as being aligned with course outcomes, can help stimulate active engagement thus long-term recall of information.

Research on how students learn began in Sweden, where Marton and Säljö (1976a, 1976b) instructed students to read an article. The researchers then asked the students questions to gauge their interest in the article, and how they went about reading it. What Marton and Säljö found was that students mainly engaged in two different types of processing when reading – namely, ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ learning approaches. Students adopting a surface approach to reading were those who, dispassionate with the materials, read the article with the aim of memorising and reproducing the author’s main points; on the contrary, students who opted for a deep learning approach were those who transformed the knowledge they acquired by going beyond the main points, and tried to relate the knowledge they gained to their daily lives.

The main implication from Marton and Säljö’s initial studies is that HE educators should be promoters of deep learning approaches. The reason why deep learning is to be favoured over surface learning is because, to put it in the words of another education expert, “much of what is learnt is forgotten” (Gibbs, 2014). Specifically, Gibbs argues that the reason why students tend to forget is linked to the kind of learning approach they used in the first place. Students who take a surface approach to learning, intending to regurgitate knowledge, may be able to pass a test in the short run, but will likely forget most (if not all) of what they have studied in the long term. A case in point is a study by the Open University cited by Gibbs, which found that not only could Cognitive Psychology students not remember much of what they had learnt at University a few years after graduating, but also their examination marks did not predict how much they would remember. Instead, a predictor for long term recall of concepts was their coursework performance. According to Gibbs, that is because the kind of work that students do for assignments is radically different from the work they undertake for examinations. In order to write about something for an assignment, students try to relate and make sense of ideas actively – and this kind of work leaves a much deeper mark in their memory than merely trying to memorise facts for an exam. In this sense, it is evident that HE teachers should be advocates of deep learning approaches for their students.

Specifically, for students to undertake deep learning, there needs to be a shift in focus from the activity of the teacher to that of the student. As Tyler (1949) puts it, “learning takes place through the active behaviour of the student: it is what he does that he learns, not what the teacher does” (p. 63). A teaching design which encourages this kind of learning, by recognising that knowledge is constructed by learners’ activities, is Biggs’ (2014) ‘constructive alignment’ (CA). The idea behind CA is that intended learning outcomes should be stated clearly up front; teaching is then carried out in a way which seeks to engage students in a way which helps them achieve these outcomes, and assessment tasks are designed to measure attainment of the previously stated outcomes.

The idea of CA can be applied to different kinds of disciplines. In my teaching experience within linguistics – and, more specifically, first and second language acquisition – a constructively aligned approach can be taken by designing learning outcomes which, among other objectives, include students’ familiarisation with language acquisition research techniques, such as behavioural and neural methods. In order to achieve this specific outcome, during class students are presented with different topics/issues in language acquisition research, as well as being trained on (at least some of) the techniques and kinds of experimental design employed in the field to tackle said topics/issues – such as naturalistic/observational methods (e.g. spontaneous speech, or, in the case of child language acquisition, parental reports), different perception/comprehension/production techniques for behavioural methods (think, among others, of the head-turn preference paradigm, picture selection tasks, or elicited imitation, respectively), and brain imaging or electrophysiological signals (e.g. near-infrared spectroscopy or electroencephalogram) for neural methods.

To test the achievement of said outcome (i.e. familiarising with language acquisition research methodologies), assignments will then have to be designed in a way which ensures students’ active engagement with the topic – for instance, by asking students to carry out their own small-scale research on one of the topics/issues presented in class (e.g. how do children acquire past tense in their first language? What is the role of the first language in the acquisition of a second language in later life? etc…), or to come up with their own research topic by making use of one of the research methods presented in class, whilst keeping in mind time and access constraints, hence preferring more accessible research techniques over others (i.e. naturalistic/observational/behavioural methods over neural methods). This ensures active participation on behalf of students, who are stimulated to research something that they are truly interested in, thus undertaking a deep learning approach which, in turn, ensures long-term retention, such as in the case of knowledge relating to the language acquisition research methods illustrated above.

In sum, I have herein given an overview of the different approaches that students take while learning. A deep approach, it is argued, is what ultimately ensures active engagement thus long-term retention of knowledge. Ultimately, HE instructors should encourage deep learning by designing constructively aligned courses in which learning outcomes are clear, and where both teaching and assessment activities engage students and stimulate their will to go beyond mere regurgitation of facts and rather actively create their own knowledge.


  • Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22.
  • Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
  • Gibbs, G. (2014, May 1). Much of what is learnt is forgotten. SEDA: Staff and Educational Development Association. https://www.seda.ac.uk/resources/files/publications_149_5%20Much%20of%20what%20is%20learnt%20is%20forgotten.pdf
  • Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976a). On Qualitative Differences on Learning: I – Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46 (1), 4-11.
  • Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976b). On Qualitative Differences on Learning: II – Outcome as a Function of the Learner’s Conception of the Task. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46 (2), 115-127.
  • Tyler, R.W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mattia Zingaretti

Mattia Zingaretti is an AHRC-funded PhD Researcher in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, investigating the changes that occur in the first language as a result of learning and speaking a second language (i.e. first language ‘attrition’), using psycholinguistic methods. His research interests include first and second language acquisition, linguistic/cognitive effects of bilingualism, and links between bilingualism and other phenomena (such as hate speech and education). As a passionate Higher Education instructor and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, he has been teaching various pre-honours and honours courses in linguistics and language acquisition in the Linguistics and English Language department, and courses in Italian in the Department of European Languages and Cultures. Mattia also volunteers for Bilingualism Matters, collaborating regularly on different events and projects which aim to bridge the gap between research and the wider public.


  1. Thanks, Mattia, this is a really helpful post. Often wondered, vaguely, about what people meant by ‘deep learning’ and how it relates to e.g. ‘active learning’ and ‘student engagement’. Now looking forward to learning more about research on these topics.

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