Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Understanding student learning

Suzette Chapple
Department of Accounting and Finance
The University of Western Australia
The topic of how students learn is, I think, a very important one from an academics viewpoint as this should impact on how we teach. Gibbs and Habeshaw (1989 pp19-44) highlighted how university students learn and thus what should be taken into account when teaching at this level (andragogy), this being very different from how students learn at school (pedagogy).

I am very aware that we need to ask our students how they learn and the effect of our teaching in order to promote their learning. As a result, I have interviewed six students at various stages of their degrees about how they learn, how they study, what they think learning means, how they view the various teaching processes and any things that inhibit their learning. Their responses have then been related back to the research on learning styles. I conclude with comments as to how this research has influenced my teaching style.


Students at university must make the transition from high school surface learning (pedagogy) to learning how to learn and being lifelong learners who take responsibility for their own learning (andragogy). (Knowles 1984) In order to assist students to learn and make this transition, university teachers must understand how students learn and the relationship between teaching procedures, learning activities and learning outcomes. To do this, one must go beyond the content to be learned by students and consider the context in which it is to be learned. That is, consider the different learning styles and approaches of students, their varied prior educational experiences, the assumptions governing communication of material, the physical conditions available to assist student learning and any personal factors which may impact on their ability to learn.

In order to understand student learning from a student perspective, I decided to interview students about how they learn. I interviewed six students, including two international students, from several areas, four from commerce (each of the three undergraduate years and Honours), one first year science student and one second year medical student. Each interview took approximately 35-40 minutes and was taped for later transcribing and analysis. The interviews began with the students completing Entwistle's (1981) short version of the "Approaches to Studying Questionnaire". This was used to get the students thinking about their learning whilst also assisting in my analysis of the verbal interview. The verbal interview encompassed student background, study habits, the learning environment including how they view the various teaching processes, factors affecting their approach to learning and their conception of what is learning.

In doing these interviews, I decided to use the framework originally identified by Marton and Saljo (1976) and refined further by Entwistle (1984) and Biggs (1987) and illustrated in Table 1. This framework considers students to use a surface, achieving or deep meaning approach to learning. Students who use the surface approach attempt to memorise subject matter and keep narrowly to the syllabus as laid down, not following up any interest of their own if they have any, and despite their concern to pass, they tend to do badly. The achieving orientation indicates competitiveness, well organised study methods and the desire for success and these students will adopt whatever strategy necessary and do whatever it takes to achieve so tend to do well. A deep learning approach indicates an intention to make sense of the subject, an interest in the subject itself and a desire to learn such that these students will follow up their own interests even if they are outside the assessed course and as a result they tend to do well.

Table 1: Different approaches to learning

relying on rote learning
syllabus boundness
fear of failure
improvidence - not looking for relationships between ideas
actively seeking information re assessment requirements
extrinsic motivation
competitive and self-confidence, driven by hope for success
looking for meaning
interact actively with content
relating ideas to previous knowledge/real life
examine evidence critically
intrinsic motivation

Results and analysis

On perusing the transcript of the student interviews together with their completed questionnaires, I realised just how difficult it was to categorise the students into the classifications and how complex the conceptions of learning are. However, I did classify one student as a deep learner (Honours commerce), two students as achievers (2nd and 3rd years commerce), two students as surface learners (1st year commerce and 2nd year medicine) and one student as being in transition between surface and deep learning (1st year science), this student speaking about memorisation but seeing effective learning as when she can "remember it and use it" and recognised that she had to understand it for in order to be able to do this. One of the achieving students may possibly be better classified as Pask's 'versatile learner' (in Biggs 1991) as she showed evidence of using all approaches at times depending on the circumstances. The students responses to studying, lectures, small groups in tutorials, exam and assignments, their conception of effective learning and factors affecting their approach to studying follow.


The deep learning student works alone and reads widely "just reading it ... as a flow" as he is interested in concepts and "why things are done and how rather than memorising the silly examples in the book because it usually doesn't help in exams to go with the examples". The achieving students also preferred to work alone but would get together with others "if they have done the work" or for example swap summaries of articles to reduce the workload whilst also discussing the articles. These students work hard and steadily and both commented that they were very organised and "fitted social life around studying". They also like to cover "more than I have to" to make studying for exams easier. Surface learners are much more spasmodic in their approach to studying, one commentating that "some weeks I am inspired and work hard" whilst "other weeks I'm not interested and only do what is needed".


Not unexpectedly I found a big difference between students in the three categories in their approach to lectures. The surface learners rarely pre-read, just furiously wrote everything down they could as were "afraid I'm going to miss something and I'll forget it" and actually got very little out of lectures. The achieving students prepared beforehand even if it was only "skim reading so that I could follow the lecture better and be selective in my lecture notes" and thus "I can concentrate just on what they are saying". These students were also particularly looking for the "hidden emphasis" of the lecturer so that could strategically target their exam studying. These students were also particularly looking for variety and enthusiasm in lectures and were often critical of this aspect. The achieving students also made a point of reading their lecture notes as soon as possible after the lecture as "you retain it better if you do". The transitional student saw the value in preparing for lectures and labs and in working to a schedule but found she did not always achieve this. This student found that rhetorical questions made her "start thinking about things" and "keep awake"! The deep learner did not attend lectures at all as it was "just not my learning style" and, moreover, the found the text more useful as the "lectures just don't have the detail you want". This student preferred to be a completely independent learner.

Small group learning in classes

The deep learner considered small groups to be a "waste of time" as fellow students "have little to offer" and "you cover a lot more ground with the traditional tutorial style". He prefers "the tutor facilitating the exchange and debate of points" and prefers direct discussion with the tutor. The achieving students were very wary of this and saw value only if all students had done the work. Further, "sometimes you end up not knowing what is the final solution" and what they want is the "correct answer" which they consider can only come from the tutor. Surface learners considered they were "ineffectual" particularly if "staff were not monitoring the discussion to keep it on track". The transitional learner could see value in small groups as "we all have different ideas".

Exams and assignments

All students perceived exams as requiring mainly facts and, for the surface learners, this required "cramming". In fact, the deep learner stated the exams were oriented to "memorisation of facts", something he did not have and thus he did not do that well. He was disappointed that he could not demonstrate his overall understanding and ability to use the "skills". For assignments, the achieving students were very aware of the question which they "went back to often" and concentrated on "what the question wants", something I wish more students did. For group assignments, these students also wanted organised, regular meetings with specific work done before each meeting "as there is no point in getting together and having nothing to discuss". Whilst for efficiency purposes, these appreciated the work being split amongst group members, they were very adamant that the had to personally ensure that there were "no overlaps or inconsistencies". These students also appreciated assignments as they make you "do a lot of thinking which is good and go outside the course materials". The deep learning student found some assignments to be "too pedantic and narrow" although some were useful in that "you have to go through a certain amount of stuff and material in order to put it together, arguing issues and stuff". He found working in groups to be very difficult as he found most of his fellow students "did not have a lot to offer". In fact, he finds "working in groups very often impedes my learning as it just slows me down" and "I work better on my own". Surface learning students, not unexpectedly, considered group assignments to reduce the workload with their main complaint being the difficulty in arranging meetings, something they thus tried to avoid. Thus, their assignments would seem to be very much individual efforts rather than a team effort as required by the achieving students.

Students' conception of learning

Table 2 illustrates the relationship indicated by these students between their conception of learning and their approach to studying. Whilst all students talked about learning as being understanding, it was obvious that their use of this term did not always imply a sophisticated conception of learning. The surface learners seemed to see learning as an increase in knowledge and "committing to memory information" and as such used memorisation to a large degree with the medical student considered to be a function of her discipline. The achieving students talked about "knowing what you are talking about with confidence" and "something you can draw on and apply and use". Interestingly, one of these achieving students, an international student, was adamant that memorisation "definitely has a place in learning initially when you are uncertain" and "then it becomes familiar to you and no longer memorising". This confirms Chalmers (1995) view that international students use memorisation as a path to deep learning. Thus, the achieving approach would seem to be associated with a combination of memorisation, the use of facts, procedures or skills in practice and understanding. The deep learner described learning as "the experience" and that it gives you the "skills" to use which "stay with you" and "you know what to do" in practice. I understood this to mean that he associated it with understanding, making sense of reality and the use of facts, procedures or skills in practice.

Table 2: Relationship between conception of learning and approach to studying

Conception of learning Approach to studying
Learning as an increase in knowledge XX

Learning as memorising XXXX
Learning as the acquisition of facts, procedures or skills which are retained and utilised in practice
Learning as understanding
Learning as the process of making sense of reality


Factors affecting students approach to learning

In considering why students take the approach they do, I asked them about factors affecting their approach and these are summarised in Table 3. From this, a surface approach results from assessments requiring only memorisation, a more didactic teaching style and higher teaching hours and this is more stressful for the student. This agrees with the research (Marton) which shows that the more detail covered, the more likely a surface approach is adopted. Further, Gibbs & Habeshaw (1989) state that students memorise if they perceive that it what is required of them and can be easily overburdened. Surface learners want "the solution" whilst achieving learners want this accompanied by feedback. Interestingly, the deep learning student was unconcerned about these issues preferring to be completely independent.

Table 3: Factors affecting approaches to learning

Heavy workload
Stress/anxious about failing
Assessment requiring only
Choices on how/what to study
High level of teaching hours
Teaching mainly didactic
Surface approach
Surface approach
Surface approach

Deep approach
Surface approach
Surface approach
Surface approach - wants the solution
Achieving approach - solution, feedback on what is wrong
Deep approach - unconcerned about feedback/solution


These insights into how students learn, their conception of learning and the factors associated with the approaches they take can assist me in planning my teaching strategies. I see my role is to facilitate deep learning by setting a positive climate for learning, clarifying the purposes of the learners, organising and making available learning resources, balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning and sharing feelings and thoughts with learners. Learning is facilitated when the student participates and directly confronts problems and discover things for themselves with myself only providing guidance and help when mistakes are made. Significant learning can take place when the subject matter is relevant to the personal interests of the student. I must be aware of the differences in learning styles and backgrounds of all students and must ensure I provide variety and enthusiasm. As such, strategies such as case studies, role playing, simulations and self-evaluation are useful. Finally, students need to be less burdened with detail and given the ability to see the overview and linkages. All in all, a positive learning environment needs to be created with some degree of freedom for the students.


Biggs, J. B. (1991). Teaching: Design for Learning. Research and Development in Higher Education (ed. B. Ross), Vol 13, Sydney: HERDSA, pp11-26.

Chalmers, D. & Fuller, R. (1995). Teaching for Learning at University: Theory & Practice. Sydney.

Entwistle, N. (1984). Contrasting perspectives on learning. In Marton, F, Hounsell, D. & Entwistle, N. (eds), The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh, Scottish Universities Press.

Gibbs, G. & Habeshaw, T. (1989). Preparing to Teach: An Introduction to Effective Teaching in Higher Education. Bristol, Technical and Education Services Ltd, pp19-44.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, 3rd Edition. Houston, Gulf Publishing.

Marton, F. & Saljo (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning - 1: Outcomes and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.

Please cite as: Chapple, S. (1999). Understanding student learning. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 67-71. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/chapple.html

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