versión On-line ISSN 0718-0705
Estud. pedagóg. n.25 Valdivia 1999
Estudios Pedagógicos, Nº 25, 1999, pp. 7-20
FINNISH STUDENTS APPROACHES TO LEARNING IN DIFFERENT EDUCATIONAL CONTEXTS
Enfoques de aprendizaje de estudiantes finlandeses en contextos educacionales diferentes
Prof. Gunilla Eklund-Myrskog
The aim of this study was to investigate Finnish students approaches to learning in different educational contexts. The phenomenographic approach, expanded towards grounded theory was taken as the point of departure. Data for the cross-section study were collected through individual interviews with student nurses (n = 60) and car mechanic students (n = 54) both at the beginning and at the end of the educational programs. As a result of the analysis, qualitative similarities and differences in students approaches were found. In comparing groups of students within the programs, similar trends of development could be identified. Students within both programs used more developed approaches at the end than at the beginning of the programs.
El objetivo de este trabajo fue investigar los enfoques de aprendizaje de estudiantes fineses en distintos contextos educacionales y comparar, luego, dichos enfoques. Para eso se basa en el enfoque fenomenográfico de Marton y en la teoría que toca tierra de Glasser y Strauss, dentro del paradigma cualitativo.
In recent years there has been a substantial amount of research focusing on students learning. To promote understanding of student learning, some research has focused on how students in this process interpret learning, i.e. their ways of conceiving learning. The pioneering work in research into students ways of learning was done by Perry (1970). Within a phenomenographic approach studies have then been carried out aiming at describing individuals conceptions of learning (see for example Säljö, 1979; Marton et al., 1993; Eklund-Myrskog, 1996). A conception can be defined as the fundamental way a person understands a phenomenon or an object in the surrounding world. It is not visible but can be seen as a qualitative relationship between an individual and some phenomenon (Marton, 1981, 1988).
Different approaches to learning can in turn be related to qualitatively different outcomes of learning (Van Rossum & Schenk, 1984). According to previous research, students with a surface approach often acquire detailed and superficial knowledge, while students with a deep approach understand fundamental principles, relationships and wholes (Biggs, 1979; Marton & Säljö, 1976; Watkins, 1983).
Research into students approaches to learning has often been characterized by a context-neutral way of thinking. Students learning takes, however, place in a complex environment and many factors influence students conceptions of learning, the ways they tackle a learning task, and what they finally learn. The aim of the present study is to investigate students approaches to learning within nursing education and car mechanic education. Two groups of student nurses and two groups of car mechanic students are chosen as samples and these students are interviewed at the beginning and at the end of their educations. The aim is thus more specifically to investigate the influence of the educational context on student nurses and car mechanic students approaches to learning, i.e. to investigate in what sense and to what extent students approaches are contextually dependent.
APPROACHES TO LEARNING. The initial research into approaches to learning partly originates from qualitative studies carried out at the Institute of Education at the University of Gothenburg in the beginning of the 1970s (see Marton et al., 1997). Marton (1975) identified two levels of processes, later called approaches to learning; a surface and a deep approach. In the case of a surface approach students directed their attention toward the text itself (the sign) and paid attention to separate facts and details. They were passive in the learning process and their only intention was to reproduce the text. In a deep approach students were directed toward the intentional content of the learning material (what was signified) and they tried to understand what the author wanted to say about a certain problem or principle. They were active in the learning process and looked for relations in the text and between the text and the world around (Marton & Säljö 1976, 1984). Svensson (1976) described the variation in students cognitive approaches in terms of an atomistic and a holistic approach and his categorization has similarities with the categorization of Marton.
In research into student approaches to learning, some researchers have used a more quantitative approach, typified by large sample sizes, structured questionnaires, and sophisticated multivariate techniques (Biggs 1987; Entwistle & Ramsden 1983). Within this quantitative approach, Entwistle (1981) has developed the Approaches to Study Inventory (ASI). Based on studies in Great Britain, four orientations to studying have emerged from factor analyses and the result supports the categorization of Marton into a surface and a deep approach. Entwistle also identified an achieving approach, according to which students switched between a surface and a deep approach depending on what was the most advantageous in every situation. Biggs (1987) has developed a Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) for tertiary students and a Learning Process Questionnaire (LPQ) for secondary students, and based on factor analyses he also identified a surface, a deep, and an achieving approach. The result of Entwistles analysis thus fits closely into Biggs framework.
In line with both qualitative and quantitative research, a fundamental difference between a surface and a deep approach can be found in learning in different content domains and in different contexts (Ropo 1993). Although the fundamental difference is the same, it seems that differences in the emphasis within the surface and the deep approach have to be understood in terms of the content in which the approaches are realized (Prosser & Millar, 1989: Trigwell & Prosser 1991).
AIM OF THE STUDY. The aim of this cross-section study is to investigate students approaches to learning in two different educational contexts, nursing education and car mechanic education. Within these contexts, students approaches are investigated at the beginning and at the end of the educational programs. Qualitative similarities and differences between the students are related to the contexts, i.e., the programs. The variation between the contexts means that the programs have different goals, contents, and structures. Within these contexts, student nurses are given a school-text concerning the essence of caring, and car mechanic students a text about angles of wheels. When students are asked to talk about their learning within these different contexts, the contexts thus differ both with respect to the program and the task. Students approaches to learning are thus further described and explained in relation to these surrounding contexts. The specific aims of the cross-section study are to investigate:
In the present study, the phenomenographic approach is taken as the main point of departure. Within the phenomenographic approach the aim is to investigate how individuals conceive different phenomena in the world around them (Marton, 1981, 1988; Marton & Booth, 1997). A fundamental feature of the approach is the distinction between a first-order and a second-order perspective. In a first-order perspective, the intention is to describe the world as it is, while in a second-order perspective, the aim is to describe how individuals conceive phenomena in the world around them, i.e., to describe phenomena as they appear to those individuals (Johansson, Marton, & Svensson 1985, 247; Marton 1978, 2-8). In phenomenography, the term conception is thus of fundamental importance.
Qualitatively different conceptions of a phenomenon are described in terms of different categories of description. By comparing similarities and differences between individuals statements, these are relegated to qualitatively different categories. The categories of description are content-specific and formulated in such a way that they characterize the specific content of the conceptions as well as possible. Each category represents a unique way of understanding the phenomenon in focus, and the categories found together define a category system. A crucial feature is thus the fact that the categories of description and the category system are constructed by the researcher, and are verbal descriptions of the individuals interview answers.
As has been made evident, the aim of this study is to describe and explain students approaches to learning in relation to surrounding contexts. In order to do this, the study will be expanded towards grounded theory (Glaser 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss 1967; Strauss 1987) with the emphasis on the conditional matrix. The conditional matrix can be represented as a set of concentric circles, one inside the other, each level corresponding to a different aspect of the world. In the center of the matrix is the phenomenon, which can be conditionally related to levels above and below it. The conditional matrix thus opens up the analysis to a wide range of possible conditions that bear upon a given phenomenon, and the matrix makes it possible to relate a certain phenomenon specifically to those conditions (Strauss & Corbin 1990, 158-175).
SUBJECTS. Data for the cross-section study were collected through individual interviews with student nurses at a nursing school and car mechanic students at a vocational school. In the nursing school, 27 student nurses were interviewed at the beginning and 33 at the end of the period of education. In the vocational school, 24 car mechanic students were interviewed at the beginning and 30 at the end of the car mechanic educational program. A total number of 55 female and 5 male student nurses and 54 male car mechanic students thus participated in the study.
DATA COLLECTION. In order to estimate the influence of the educational context on students approaches to learning, one context-related text in relation to each educational program was used as the basis of the interviews. The student nurses read a text concerning the essence of caring and the car mechanic students a text about angles of wheels. The choice of context-related texts was based on the assumption that readers always create and construct meaning in response to a text. Individuals prior knowledge and experience play a central role in guiding and shaping the interpretation and understanding of a text, and in this way reading can be seen as a constructive process. By choosing texts representing the core of the educational programs and by discussing with students matters in relation to such texts, students interpretations and understanding of the texts could be seen as influenced by their previous knowledge and experience.
The students were initially asked to read the context-related text and, after they had read it, the researcher asked questions about its content, the way they generally learn new things, and how they know when they have learnt something. These main themes did not vary between the subjects and were, among other things, intended to also reveal students approaches learning in relation to the educational contexts. Within the selected themes, the aim was to carry on the conversation with the students and encourage them to express their thoughts about learning. In addition to the main themes, the interviewer also asked other questions, aiming at clarifying the researchers own understanding of the students thoughts. These questions were, however, adapted to the students discussion with respect to the fact that the students themselves defined the content, i.e., delimited and treated the content from the point of view of their own understanding of the same content. The interviews lasted about 45 minutes and all interviews were tape recorded and transcribed word by word.
A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE DATA. The qualitative analysis of the written interview protocols was carried out in several stages. In the beginning, the researcher perused all interview protocols and marked the parts where students expressed their thoughts about learning. The researcher perused the selected part in every interview protocol, underlined the most essential sentences and wrote down key words characterizing the students view of the item in question. The sentences underlined and the key words in the protocols were then compared with each other in order to find qualitative similarities and differences between the students. No sentence or key word was, however, analyzed as independent of the rest of the interview protocol. The researcher worked all the time with the whole set of interview protocols in order to stay close to the educational contexts as defined by the students statements during the entire interviews.
Content specific similarities and differences between students utterances concerning the phenomenon were noted and then described and categorized in terms of qualitatively different categories of description. Qualitatively different meant different ways of conceiving the phenomenon, not in terms of the amount of detail provided but rather in relation to their structural meaning. Each category thus represented a unique way of understanding the phenomenon in focus. These categories together defined a category system.
The qualitative analyses of the student nurses and the car mechanic students responses were carried out independently of each other. The categories of description and the category systems originated from the empirical data were content-specific by their nature. Since the aim of the study was to investigate student nurses and car mechanic students approaches to learning, the qualitative analysis finally resulted in two different category systems. These will be presented below.
STUDENTS NURSES' APPROACHES TO LEARNING. As a result of the analysis of student nurses ways of learning, five different approaches could be distinguished. The approaches were classified into the categories of description below.
Reading in order to Remember
Reading in order to Understand and be able to apply
Reading and relating to ones own experience in order to Understand and be able to apply
Reading and describing in ones own words in order to Understand and be able to apply
Reading and grasping the whole in order to Understand and be able to apply
In relation to previous research it is obvious that the approach according to which students pick out what they think is important and try to remember it had a close relation to a surface approach. The other approaches had in turn relations to a deep approach. Table 1 displays the distribution of student nurses approaches to learning.
On comparing the total number of student nurses categorized into the two main approaches, it can be seen that 77% of the students were classified as favoring a deep approach and 23% a surface approach. At the beginning of the program, most students (70%) emphasized understanding in their learning processes and were classified as favoring a deep approach. In the same way, most students (82%) at the end of the program mainly tried to understand what they learnt and were thus categorized as favoring a deep approach. At the beginning, eight students (30%) used a surface approach to learning, while six of the students (18%) used this approach at the end of the program. Consequently, students at the end of the program used a deep approach to a greater extent than students at the beginning of it.
CAR MECHANIC STUDENTS' APPROACHES TO LEARNING. As a result of the analysis of car mechanic students ways of learning, six different approaches could be distinguished. The six approaches to learning were classified into the categories of description below.
Reading in order to Remember
Reading in order to Understand
Following someones instruction and Doing in order to be able to Apply
Following someones instruction, Reading, and Doing in order to be able to Apply
Students at the end of the program also read in order to learn to apply something in practice. In contrast to the beginners, they explained that they tried to follow the teachers instruction, and read texts or books mostly for the test. These students thus related reading mainly to test preparation.
Following someones instruction and Doing in order to Understand and be able to apply
Following someones instruction, Reading, and Doing in order to Understand and be able to apply
In relation to previous research it is obvious that the approach according to which students read in order to remember had a close relation to a surface approach. The other approaches had in turn relations to a deep approach. Table 2 displays the distribution of car mechanic students approaches to learning.
On comparing the total number of car mechanic students categorized into the two main approaches, it can be seen that 63% were classified as favoring a surface approach and 37% a deep approach. However, significant differences (chi2=4,864, df=1, p<.0274, with continuity correction, p<.0546) were found between students at the beginning and at the end of the educational program At the beginning of the program, most students (79%) learnt in a quite superficial way and were classified as having a surface approach, while only some beginners (21%) used a deep approach and emphasized understanding in their learning processes. At the end of the program, the relation between the surface and the deep approach was, however, different. The approaches were used by the students to a similar extent (50% and 50%) and, consequently, the deep approach was more common among students at the end than at the beginning of the program.
SOME METHODOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS. The aim of the study was to investigate qualitative similarities and differences in students approaches to learning. The study was descriptive in character and the phenomenographic approach was taken as the main point of departure. Because the aim of the approach is to find new meanings of phenomena, the ambition is to gain heterogeneity and as great variation as possible in relevant aspects of the group studied. The study was based on interviews with 60 students in nursing education and 54 students in car mechanic education. The choice of the different programs was directed by the ambition to find two programs within Finnish vocational education that in some respects were as different as possible. The programs chosen differed from each other both in aim, content, and structure.
When choosing these specific educational programs, one point of departure was the fact that students could be accepted for both programs on similar grounds. Both students who began to study nursing and those who enrolled in car mechanic education had been accepted to the programs on a quota-basis after finishing their compulsory education, and in this respect the students could, theoretically, choose either of the programs. Despite this theoretical possibility there was a selection to the different programs, which means that there were natural differences between the two student groups from the very beginning of the programs.
The two educational programs proved to be highly gender-differentiated. Almost only female students (except for five male students) participated in the nursing education, and only male students participated in the car mechanic education. However, the fact that the student groups in this study are to be considered as natural groups, means that the gender-differences and the high degree of concentration of girls/boys belong to the contextual characteristics. Consequently, the gender-differences are not problematic, as the essential gender-differences between the student groups are a natural characteristic of the contexts, a typical female- and a typical male-dominated education.
Because this was a cross-section study and different groups of students were interviewed at the beginning and at the end of the educational programs, there were differences between the groups within the programs that cannot be related to the educational context. Consequently, it cannot be assumed that the differences between the groups within the programs were only a consequence of the educational contexts. A number of factors influence students approaches to learning which lead to differences between students both within and between the programs. However, while the educational contexts are homogeneous within a group, one can with good reason assume that differences between groups were related to differences in the contexts.
Students approaches were characterized not only by the educational contexts in focus during the interviews, but also by the interview situation. Consequently, the interview is also a context one has to take into consideration. Differences in students utterances were not only due to the different general contexts, nursing education and car mechanic education, but also to the interview situation. Differences between students, within and between the student groups, can thus be ascribed to the educational contexts, at the same time as differences in the interview situations cannot be neglected. The variation in the interview situations was, however, assumed to be of negligible importance in relation to the existing differences between groups, both within and between the educational programs.
CONCLUSIONS AND REFLECTIONS ON THE RESULTS
In most research into approaches to learning, a fundamental difference between a surface and a deep approach has been found. Although students approaches to learning in this study were described in terms of both content and context, it was clear that behind these, the fundamental difference was the same as in previous research. However, the aim of relating individual approaches to surrounding contexts has also shown that the meaning of the terms used has to be understood in relation to the contexts, within which the approaches are realized.
When investigating relations between students approaches to learning at the beginning and at the end of the educational programs, only small differences were found on a category level. Within nursing education, the overlapping was total, in so far as all approaches were similar in both groups of students. Consequently, the students used similar approaches to learning both at the beginning and at the end of the program. Within car mechanic education, four of six approaches could be identified in both groups of students. At the end of the program, all students related learning to practice, and none of them used the approaches reading in order to remember and reading in order to understand.
However, in comparing student nurses and car mechanic students approaches to learning, only one of the approaches could be identified in both student groups. On a category level, big differences were thus found between students approaches to learning in the two programs. The differences among students approaches to learning between the programs were thus bigger than the differences in approaches among students within the programs. The greater the distance between the contexts, the smaller the overlapping.
When investigating relations between students approaches to learning at the beginning and at the end of the educational programs, essential differences were found on an individual level. Within nursing education, most students were classified as favoring a deep approach to learning. A number of 19 students (70%) at the beginning and 27 students (82%) at the end of the program thus emphasized understanding in their ways of tackling different learning tasks. In contrast to the student nurses, most car mechanic students were classified as favoring a surface approach to learning. A number of 19 students (79%) at the beginning and 15 students (50%) at the end of the program mainly tried to read in a superficial way or mechanically apply what they had learnt.
Essential differences were thus found between students approaches to learning at the very beginning of the programs. Most student nurses were classified as favoring a deep approach, while most car mechanic students were classified as favoring a surface approach. The differences found between the student groups at the beginning of the programs were quite similar to the differences identified at the end. Most student nurses also used a deep approach to learning at the end of the program, while half of the car mechanic students still mainly used a surface approach. The difference between the student groups at the beginning of the programs could be assumed to be related to the natural selection to the educations. The fact that almost only female students participated in the nursing education, and only male students in the car mechanic education, means that there are essential gender-differences between the student groups. When discussing similarities and differences in students approaches between the two programs, these gender-differences cannot be neglected. However, while natural contexts, in terms of nursing education and car mechanic education, were chosen for this study, the selection and the gender-differences have to be seen as a part of these natural contexts.
Although the two student groups were initially different, a similar trend of development could be identified within the student groups. When comparing how the approaches to learning were related to the groups of students, more student nurses and car mechanic students were classified as favoring a deep approach at the end than at the beginning of their programs. The trend of development can be characterized as a cognitive jump or a change from a surface to a deep approach. The results of this cross-section study show that during the educational programs, some students seem to abandon a surface approach to learning in favour of a deep approach.
Within nursing education, students at the end of the program emphasized the importance of understanding to a higher degree than students at the beginning. They deliberately used different kinds of strategies with the aim of facilitating their learning and understanding of the matter in focus. Some of the students also pointed out that they wanted to understand what they learnt in order to be able to apply it in practice later. During the program, it seemed that some student nurses had got a better insight into the importance of connecting learning with understanding and using deep approaches. Consequently, a change from a surface to a deep approach had taken place. Within car mechanic education, students at the end of the program also connected learning with understanding to a larger extent than students at the beginning. The ability to apply and mechanically do something in practice was emphasized by students in both groups. However, in contrast to the beginners, the latter group of students realized the importance of connecting the ability to apply with understanding. Understanding for these students was thus the main feature of their approaches and permeated their learning, both in theoretical and practical contexts. During the program, some car mechanic students thus seemed to have realized the importance of understanding and using deep approaches to learning.
The fact that differences were found between students approaches to learning within the programs could be related to the learning environments - nursing education and car mechanic education. In previous research, both personal and situational variables have been shown to influence students approaches to learning. As a result of this study, it was clear that students educational experience was of importance to and influenced their approaches to learning. Students different ways of tackling learning tasks were thus assumed to be contextually colored.
Abo Akademi University
BIGGS, J. B. (1978). Individual and group differences in study process, British Journal of Educational Psychology 48: 266-279. [ Links ]
_____. (1979). Individual differences in study processes and the quality of learning outcomes, Higher Education 8: 381-394. [ Links ]
_____. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Hawthorn: Australian Council for Educational Research. [ Links ]
EKLUND-MYRSKOG, G. (1996). Students ideas of learning. Conceptions, approaches, and outcomes in different educational contexts. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University press. [ Links ]
ENTWISTLE, N. (1981). Styles of learning and teaching. An integrated outline of educational psychology for students, teachers, and lectures. New York: Wiley. [ Links ]
ENTWISTLE, N. & RAMSDEN, P. (1983). Understanding student learning. Croom Helm: Nichols. [ Links ]
GLASER, B. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity. San Francisco: Sociology Press. [ Links ]
_____. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press. [ Links ]
GLASER, B. & STRAUSS, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine Publications. [ Links ]
JOHANSSON, B., MARTON, F. & SVENSSON, L. (1985). An approach to describing learning as a change between qualitatively different conceptions. In West L. & Pines L. (eds.): Cognitive structure and conceptual change, (pp. 233-257). Orlando: Academic Press. [ Links ]
MARTON, F. (1975). On non-verbatim learning I. Level of processing and level of outcome. Report No. 39. University of Göteborg, Institute of Education. [ Links ]
_____. (1978). Describing conceptions of the world around us. Report No. 66. University of Göteborg, Institute of Education. [ Links ]
_____. (1981). Phenomenography - Describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science 10: 177-200. [ Links ]
_____. (1988). Describing and improving learning. In Schmeck R. (ed.): Learning strategies and learning styles, (pp. 53-82). New York: Plenum. [ Links ]
MARTON, F. & BOOTH, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. New Jersey: LEA.. [ Links ]
MARTON, F., DALLALBA, G. & BEATY, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research 19: 277-299. [ Links ]
MARTON, F., HOUNSELL, D. & ENTWISTLE, N. (eds.). (1997). The experience of learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. [ Links ]
MARTON, F. & SÄLJÖ, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning. I. Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology 46: 4-11. [ Links ]
MARTON, F. & SÄLJÖ, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In Marton, F. Hounsell, D. & Entwistle, N. (eds.): The experience of learning (pp. 36-55). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. [ Links ]
PERRY, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years; A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. [ Links ]
PROSSER, M. & MILLAR, R. (1989). The how and why of learning physics. European Journal of the Psychology of Education IV: 513-528. [ Links ]
RAMSDEN, P. (1988). Studying learning: Improving teaching. In Ramsden P. (ed.): Improving learning: New perspectives (pp. 13-31). London: Kogan Page. [ Links ]
ROPO, E. (1993). Studying technology: an investigation of approaches to studying and perceptions of teaching in a Finnish university of technology. Higher Education 25: 111-132. [ Links ]
STRAUSS A. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [ Links ]
STRAUSS, A. & CORBIN, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research. Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park: Sage. [ Links ]
SVENSSON, L. (1976). Study skill and learning , Göteborg Studies in Educational Sciences No. 19. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis. [ Links ]
SÄLJÖ, R. (1979). Learning in the learners perspective I. Some common-sense conceptions. Report No. 76. University of Göteborg, Institute of Education. [ Links ]
TRIGWELL, K. & PROSSER, M. (1991). Improving the quality of student learning: The influence of learning context and student approaches to learning on learning outcomes. Higher Education 22: 251-266. [ Links ]
VAN ROSSUM E. J. & SCHENK, S. M. (1984). The relationship between learning conception, study strategy, and learning outcome. British Journal of Educational Psychology 54: 73-83. [ Links ]
WATKINS, D. (1983). Depth of processing and the quality of learning outcomes. Instructional Science 12: 49-58. [ Links ]