Coweta Impact

October 2017

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The quality of teaching makes all the difference.

As we continue to focus on research of high impact educational practices on student learning, this edition of Coweta Impact will highlight levels of learning progression, learning intentions and success criteria.

Surface, Deep and Transfer Learning

Levels of learning is not a new concept. For decades, we have talked about critical thinking, higher order thinking, DOKs or Depths of Knowledge and Bloom's Taxonomy. Surface, deep and transfer learning is really not different - just a different way to view levels of learning.

So what is it?

Think about learning to drive a car. At first, you had to learn basic information about the car and traffic rules. Examples include questions such as which is the gas pedal, which is the brake, how do I crank the car, what do the letters on the gear shift mean, how do I make it go, and how do I make it stop? These are low level types of learning (and what Hattie calls surface learning). Surface learning is very important because without it, we would never learn to drive the car. Simply acquiring this information does not mean that we know how to drive a car.

Next, we might move to actually driving the car slowly on a side road or in a parking lot with an experienced driver in the car helping to guide our progress. This is a deeper level of learning allowing us to practice what we have learned and apply it to the current situation. At this level, we have a chance to organize our thoughts and our skills and use them.

And then comes the transfer level...

Eventually (hopefully), we will progress to a point that not only can we drive our car, but also our learned skills are transferred allowing us to drive at night, in the rain and in heavy traffic - beyond the side street where we have practiced so many times. Our skills will also develop so that we can now drive a different car, if needed, because we can transfer our surface and deep learning and apply it in a completely different situation.

Can you think of what these levels could look like in your classroom?

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Learning Intentions: Surface, deep or transfer

Hattie reported that up to 90% of the instruction that was conducted in classrooms across his studies could be completed by students using only surface level skills. Surface level skills should be valued and a part of the overall learning process. The challenge of preparing our students for the future means that we cannot limit their learning to surface level learning only.

With appropriate instruction, surface learning can become deep understanding as students learn to relate and extend ideas. All of the work that we do as educators can be for naught if students fail to appropriately transfer the learning. At the transfer level, students see the relevancy in what they are learning and can determine when and how to apply the skill to fit the new situation.
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Learning Intentions - What are they?

Learning intentions should drive our student expectations of levels of learning. Learning intentions are brief statements that describe what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of teaching and learning.

Effective educators know and focus on what students will be LEARNING rather than what students will be DOING during class. Teacher clarity about expected learning and what that level of learning looks like is powerful. The effect size of teacher clarity is 0.75 - almost two years growth! Learning intentions are easier to understand than content standards. Learning intentions are typically broken down into specific skills

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Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Hattie, J. (2017) Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom K-5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Hattie, J. (2017) Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom 6-12.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Hattie, J. (2016) Visible Learning for Literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA:


Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.

Hattie, J (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York:


Ivey, M. (Producer). Targeting Learning with Success Criteria. Available from