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JumpStart Your Learning Tutorial: Complete a Study Skills Inventory

Deep/Active & Surface/Passive Learning Behaviours

   At the end of this section, you should be able to assess whether your learning strategies are effective.

There is research1 to suggest that students use learning strategies that are either surface, deep or strategic. Surface learning strategies are less effective than deep or strategic strategies, yet many undergraduate students report engaging in mostly surface learning activities. Completing a study skills inventory will give you a good idea of how effective your learning strategies are and will lead to a better understanding of yourself as a learner.

                             Take a moment to reflect on what the words active and passive, deep and surface mean when associated with learning.

The activity below will help you assess your understanding. Say whether you think the study skills are active or passive, deep or surface.

Dig a Little Deeper

The table below contains a list of cognitively passive and cognitively active learning behaviours (a.k.a. mentally active and mentally passive). Take note of the difference between learning behaviours that can be considered physically active but cognitively passive (like highlighting text, rewriting notes, making index cards) and those considered cognitively active (like thinking about new connections, asking and answering new questions, etc.).

Source: Stanger-Hall K. F. (2012). Multiple-choice exams: an obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. CBE life sciences education, 11(3), 294–306., is licenced from the authors under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

As you would expect, engaging in cognitively active learning behaviours leads to deep learning or a deeper understanding of the materials being learned. Note, however, that even cognitively passive learning behaviours can be fully active if completed strategically or with purpose. As an example, consider active and passive reading. Briefly reviewing your notes before class or previewing the assigned readings are important but are not as purposeful or active as reflecting upon and evaluating what you have read.

Be aware that both surface learning and deep learning are important. In fact, one is the precursor to the other. To be successful at university, you should engage in both but deliberately practice more of the cognitively active or deep learning behaviours.

Dennis Congos' Study Skills Inventory

Dennis Congos' Study Skills Inventory is a comprehensive questionnaire that will highlight the study skills you already use and others that require refinement. It will help you understand the study habits that lead to academic success but more importantly, will help you know yourself better as a learner.

The questionnaire contains skills that can be both cognitively passive and cognitively active. Studying strategically (smarter, not harder) means choosing more cognitively active behaviours when you study. Complete the inventory to assess how effective your study skills or learning strategies are.

Note: The top of the Study Skills page asks you to enter your name and email address. You can skip over this step and go directly to the questionnaire.

Dennis Congos' Study Skills Inventory


1. Brown, Stephen Dr; White, Sue; Wakeling, Lara; and Naiker, Mani, Approaches and Study SkillsInventory for Students (ASSIST) in an Introductory Course in Chemistry.,Journal of UniversityTeaching & Learning Practice, 12(3), 2015.