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How to Move Your Students From the Surface Phase to the Deep Phase of Learning?

In this 3 part series blog, I am going to discuss the three stages of learning and how these are connected to success criteria and feedback.

A few years ago, I came across the Solo Taxonomy. It showed how learning took place in five different stages. This model showed learning as hierarchical, and each stage involved the previous and added something to it.

It looked easy to apply, and the teacher in me wanted to start using it in my practice. However, whatever looks easy doesn't mean it is! I tried, but I needed to figure out where to start or how to move from one stage to another. So I forgot all about it and moved on to my regular practice.


Last year, as I embarked on a feedback journey, I understood the learning stages better. The concept-based curriculum course helped me understand the importance of related concepts and how it is essential for students to grasp facts to develop a deep understanding of concepts. I connected the different concepts and saw the big picture. In other words, I moved from surface learning to deep learning myself.

So what are these stages of learning? I will explain this through my latest unit planning and how we intentionally planned this unit to help students move from surface to transfer stages of learning.

Surface Learning

When we begin a new concept or learning, students may need more experience or prior knowledge about the idea or topic. It is a phase of learning when students may not know much. If we refer to SOLO taxonomy, the first three stages of learning fall under surface learning—students who may have no ideas at all to students who may have some knowledge or several ideas.

Case study: We began our new unit on structures and forces and did the pre-assessment. We discovered that students had a surface-level understanding of materials, forces and shape concepts.

Materials: They knew some properties of materials. Materials are shiny, bendy, transparent, hard, soft, etc., so they were at a uni structural level.

Shapes: Students knew there were two kinds of shapes, 2d and the ones that "jutted out", but they could not explain the properties of 2d and 3D objects and had very shallow knowledge of the shapes.

Forces: Only some students knew about gravity, push and pull. We were aiming for students' knowledge about internal forces such as compression, tension torsion, etc.; they had no idea about these forces. Since some students had no clue about forces, whose typical response was "I don't know", they were in the pre-structural stage. Whereas some students knew about gravity as a force and push and pull, we identified them in the uni-structural stage.

We did many hands-on experiments where students had to sort the materials based on the properties or impact of forces. Our focus was on unpacking the vocabulary we were using in class. We shared what the verbs on the success criteria meant, so students could do the explorations effectively. We did not assume that our students understood the vocabulary; instead, we intentionally used this phase to unpack any vocabulary related to the unit to help our students better understand the concepts.

Effective Teaching strategies at this stage: Teaching strategies at this stage should involve activating and integrating students' prior knowledge. At this phase, students must be able to connect with their prior knowledge and help them make sense of learning using their schemata. The spaced practice of skills is also recommended at this stage. Research has shown that repeating and continuously exposing students to content over time makes them significantly more likely to retain that knowledge and commit it to long-term memory.

Some specific strategies that we used to help our students consolidate at the surface learning phase were:

Regular reflection at the end of each lesson also helps students retain the learning, which is another precursor towards moving students to deep learning.

Success criteria: When students are at the surface level of learning, it is not the time to co-create success criteria. You may give them success criteria for the skills to do tasks effectively, but the co-construction of the content/knowledge criteria should be put on hold at this stage. Since students need more exposure to the content, they need more teaching and learning opportunities related to the content. Success criteria for the content can be co-constructed once students know what is required to do the task effectively.

Verbs on the Success criteria: identify, describe, draw, match, name and recall. There are many verbs in the SOLO list that you can choose from. However, teachers need to be careful with using verbs in the success criteria given to the students.

My suggestion: Stick to 2-3 verbs and repeat their use across the curriculum so students understand what to do when they are present with these verbs. We identified three verbs that connected well with the surface-level phase during team planning. We used these three verbs across all the disciplines( maths, literacy, inquiry) to ensure our students understood what these verbs meant and they can apply these to do the tasks effectively. The verbs we used during the surface learning phase were: Identity, describe and compare.

Feedback: At this stage, teachers give task-based feedback to make sure students have clarity and do not have any misconceptions. This kind of feedback is based on accuracy and is a yes or no kind of feedback.


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