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The team were cautious of introducing the novel terms “adaptive” and “adoptive” but could find no existing terms that precisely expressed the difference described above. There is of course a superficial resemblance between these terms and “deep” and “surface” approaches to learning, on which there is a substantial literature (Marton and Saljo, 1976; Ramsden, 1992). The terms “deep” and “surface” have proved to be immensely useful in analysing learning approaches, and seem to be widely generalisable (Boud, 1988). There are some disadvantages in using them in the context of TELRI, however.

While both of the categories termed adoptive and adaptive exhibit the familiar deep and surface learning aspects, the distinction between deep adoptive and deep adaptive (as shown in Table 1) has proved useful in identifying, supporting and encouraging high level learning across the disciplines. A more detailed exploration of these ideas can be found in Roach, Blackmore & Dempster (2000).

  Deep* Surface*

Generation of form
Open situations
Extending and applying knowledge and techniques to novel situations
Developing understanding, reasoning and insight
Transfer of capabilities

Highly developed reasoning
Deep understanding, insight
and creativity formed
High degree of conceptualisation

Developed general ideas and vague approaches
Developed a narrow focus


Following and recognising form
Bounded situations
Following established knowledge, techniques and strategies

Knowledge and techniques developed to a high degree
Complex strategies followed

Developed a superficial breadth of knowledge
Poor strategies, focused on discrete elements without integration

Identifying commonality in terminology of forms of learning
(* adapted from Ramsden, 1992)

The distinction may be drawn by considering the case of a very high quality training course in, for example, how to produce a drawing with a computer-aided design package. This would not necessarily be surface learning, since the learner might have a self-chosen task in mind or an “internal” motivation, which could lend purpose and depth to the learning. The learner would be highly likely to relate the learning to previous learning, perhaps of other design software, and examine the logic of the package rather than simply to internalise sequences of key presses. None of this sounds like surface learning, yet it would be adoptive learning, since the situation is bounded and the knowledge and techniques required would be well established.