Student approaches to learning

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Student Approaches to Learning is a theory that students will take a different approach to how they study, depending upon the perceived objectives of the course they are studying.

The theory was developed from the clinical studies of two educational psychologists, Ference Marton and Roger Säljö, who found that students, in relation to any given learning task, can be divided into two distinct groups:

  • those who took an understanding[1] approach to learning,
  • and those who took a reproduction approach to learning.

These are commonly referred to as the "deep" and "surface" approaches.

In a study conducted by Marton and Säljö,[2] students read a 1500-word article, about which they were later questioned by an interviewer. In the interviews, students were asked about what they remembered, how they felt about the task, and how they had approached the task. Analysis of the interviews showed that the students could be divided into two distinct groups:

  • those who adopted a "deep" approach to learning engaged in an active process to reflect and integrate information in order to understand material being taught.
  • "deep" approach recognized by a sub-scale which involves “(1) seeking meaning, (2) relating ideas, (3) using evidence, and having (4) an interest in ideas”[3].
  • those who adopted a "surface" approach to learning focused on trying to cope with the task assigned, and visualizes the course as burden, therefore uses memorization of information which then leads to a limited learning understanding.
  • "surface" approach recognized to have sub-scale which involve “1) unrelated memorizing of information, (2) confining learning of the subject to the syllabus (syllabus-boundless), and (3) a fear of failing” [3].

These findings were corroborated by the laboratory studies of G. Pask and co-workers.[4] Pask referred to the two groups of students as "holists" and "serialists." Holists have a broad focus and see their task in context, using analogies and illustrations. Serialists look at details and at steps in an argument.

Researchers later proposed the “strategic approach or achievement approach” those individuals who try to attain the maximum grade by studying in an organized fashion utilizing time-management skill [5].  

Using the following sub-scale: “(1) organized study, (2) time management, (3) being alert to assessment demands, (4) achieving high grades, and (5) monitoring effectiveness” [3].

Later, Entwistle and McCune (2004) suggest that the strategic approach is an approach to studying rather than an approach to learning but when combined with the deep approach, students seem to show successful academic performance[6].

Learning approaches and phenomenography[edit]

Marton has also been involved in the development of phenomenography, a qualitative research methodology. Phenomenography seeks to create a detailed understanding of people's experiences and thoughts.

Learning approaches vs. learning styles[edit]

Learning approaches are not the same as learning styles. Students will use different learning approaches for different tasks.

Learning approaches are not inherent personality traits; they are produced by the interaction of the student with specific learning tasks.[7][8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also called intellection.
  2. ^ Marton F. and Säljö R. (1976) On qualitative differences in learning. I – Outcome and Process’ British Journal of Educational Psychology 46, pp. 4-11.
  3. ^ a b c Tait, H.; Entwistle, N. (January 1996). "Identifying students at risk through ineffective study strategies". Higher Education. 31 (1): 97–116. doi:10.1007/bf00129109. ISSN 0018-1560.
  4. ^ Pask G.(1976) Styles and Strategies of Learning British Journal of Educational Psychology 46, pp. 128-148.
  5. ^ Entwistle, Noel; Hanley, Maureen; Hounsell, Dai (July 1979). "Identifying distinctive approaches to studying". Higher Education. 8 (4): 365–380. doi:10.1007/bf01680525. ISSN 0018-1560.
  6. ^ Entwistle, Noel; McCune, Velda (December 2004). "The Conceptual Bases of Study Strategy Inventories". Educational Psychology Review. 16 (4): 325–345. doi:10.1007/s10648-004-0003-0. ISSN 1040-726X.
  7. ^ Laurillard D. (1979) The Process of Student Learning Higher Education 8, pp. 395-409.
  8. ^ Laurillard D. (1997) Ch. 11 in F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N. Entwistle, The Experience of Learning: Implications for Teaching and Studying in Higher Education (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press).

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