Marton and Säljö: Deep Learning principles for ID9 Intelligent Design


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Learners who complete minimum tasks in their corporate training, memorize what they have learned, and do nothing more tend to take the surface approach. Marton and  Säljö (1976) described surfaced learning as “enforced work.” Learners that take the surface approach tend to be passive learners and work in isolation. They view the training and development sessions as coping with tasks so they can pass the corporate training. However, those who wish for deeper learning tend to seek an understanding of the concepts they have learned.

About Marton and Säljö

Ference Marton is a Swedish educational psychologist who is best known for introducing the distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning, and developing phenomenography as a methodology for educational research.

Roger Säljö is a Swedish educational psychologist whose research presents a socio-cultural perspective on human learning and development.

What is Marton and Säljö’s theory, and why is it important?

Learners who take the deep learning approach tend to have more interest in the training sessions and enjoy them. Furthermore, these learners (organization’s employees) have a certain curiosity in the organizations’ training and development sessions and connect what they have learned to their prior knowledge and experiences.

With deeper learning, the learner is constantly asking him/herself questions such as “How do the various parts of the learning relate to each other?” “Is the meaning of the learning consistent, or are there any logical gaps?” “How does this relate to my prior knowledge?” and much more. Learners who take a surface approach tend to lack the ability to have a reflective attitude towards acquiring new training programs.

Certified trainers believe by designing meaningful learning experiences for the employees, they can instill the want for deeper learning amongst them. The trainers focus on different soft skills in their training and development sessions, such as problem-solving, effective communication, perseverance, and collaboration.

Through instructional design courses, certified trainers can guide employees to adopt a deep learning approach and think critically about concepts and ideas that they can apply to real-world problems and create solutions.

Marton and  Säljö: 7 Deep Learning principles

Following are seven principles of deep learning employees must be aware of:

 1. Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Great training sessions begin with the certified trainers making goals clear for what is expected from the learner and what they need to be able to do. The trainers should let the learners know the goals and the criteria for success. This communication from the certified trainer works as a guide for self-assessment for the learners.

 2. Captivating Content and Products

The trainers must include captivating content in the training sessions that create real-world problems or life-like situations that the learners must solve. A learning experience design that offers learners genuine tasks that are relevant to their past experiences and prior knowledge can help them adopt deeper learning.

 3. Collaborative Culture

Creating a collaborative culture for the learners in their learning and development program can enhance engagement amongst the employees. Certified trainers can make a collaborative culture through many different ways, such as flexible groups, partnering learners up, peer tutoring, Socratic seminars, and online discussion forums.

 4. Learner Empowerment

A deeper learning approach is adopted when learners are given ownership of what they are learning. When employees are provided with the choice over how they wish to showcase their skills and knowledge acquired from the corporate training programs, the trainers are empowering them. By allowing learners to provide input into the learning and development sessions, and how they wish to engage with the content, the trainers essentially will enable them to become co-designers of the learning experience.

 5. Intentional Instruction

Intentional instruction is when evidence-based strategies are used to impact the learning goals. An evidence-based strategy is the gradual release of responsibility (GRR model). It allows the trainer to provide direct instruction and modeling to learners (show them), give guided practice on a task to the learners (help them), and let the learners attempt what they have acquired from the training sessions by themselves (let them).

 6. Authentic Tools and Resources

The organizations should make sure the learners have access to a variety of tools and resources, mainly digital resources. The learners need these tools and resources throughout the learning and development program. Through digital learning, the learners are likely to become more engaged with the corporate training and can lead to a deeper learning approach.

 7. Feedback for Learning

The learning experience designers must ensure the learners are given feedback on their progress throughout the training program. This feedback can be trainer to the learner, learner to learner, learner to trainer, or self-assessment. Through feedback, learners are provided with their progress and made aware of where they succeed in training and where they lack.

The Theory by Marton and  Säljö Linked to ID9

In ID9 Intelligent, participants are allowed to take various approaches to learning at different times. Participants will choose to take both surface and deep approaches to learning at different stages. If the participant is not as interested in one particular phase of the ID9 Intelligent, he/she will take the surface approach to learning. However, those who are motivated and interested in the content of a stage will tend to take the deeper learning approach.

The team at ID9 Intelligent believes effective facilitation can influence the learners to take a deeper approach. In contrast, poor facilitation by the certified trainers can make the learners take a surface approach to learning. According to Biggs (1999), good facilitation is an act of encouragement towards a deeper approach to learning.

For the ID9 process, the deep learning approach is the guiding principle for all of the steps of the learning design system.

Marton and  Säljö: Deep Learning principles and ID9 Intelligent Design

ID9 Intelligent Design is a researched-based learning design system.  Marton and  Säljö: Deep Learning principle constitute a significant influence in ID9 Intelligent Design.

Marton and  Säljö Deep and Surface are two approaches to learning. Surface learning is the simple memorization of facts, for example, learning facts to pass an exam, whereas Deep learning is where learners search for meaning. Deep learning engages in a more active dialogue with the content of the learning. It is as if the learner is constantly asking themselves questions such as “How do the various parts of the learning relate to each other?”; “Is the meaning of the learning consistent or are there any logical gaps?”; “How does this relate to what I already know?” and so on. A surface approach to learning lacks such an active and reflective attitude toward acquiring new learning.  

This theory forms a strong foundation stone throughout the entire ID9 Intelligent Design process. A Deep Learning approach is a guiding principle for all steps of the ID9 Intelligent Design process.


Following the learning theory given by Marton and  Säljö, when embedded into ID9 Intelligent Design, participants can take different approaches to learning at different times. These approaches are not stable traits and depending upon individual motivation and interest in the content, some participants will tend towards taking a deep approach while others will tend towards a surface approach.

Effective facilitation can influence participants to take a deep approach, while poor facilitation can influence participants to take a surface approach. Biggs (1999) defines good facilitation as the encouragement of a deep approach to learning.  Marton and  Säljö’s original work has resurfaced in modern learning and has given rise to “personal learning pathways.”

Next Steps

Marton and  Säljö’s deep learning principles are an inherent part of the ID9 Intelligent Design. If you wish to know more about how these principles are used at every stage of the learning experience design, visit Insights and Resources to get a deeper understanding.

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