Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

Students’ Approaches to Learning

Category Students
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What does your analysis of the video animations, created using the Xtra-normal website, tell us about the approaches to learning adopted by students at University?


The relative effectiveness of the methods by which students learn and what these methods are comprised of, particularly in the context of higher education, depends on a number of factors which will all be explored in this essay. Through the creation and qualitative analysis of videos about learning and teaching, we were able to gain knowledge on what these factors were, from the point of view of students.

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An emergent coding system was used due to our imperfect foresight of the themes which later became apparent in the wealth of data collected. Each video’s content was analysed, and sentences were grouped into categories which were created if a given theme was found to be present more than twice in one video. Thus, by the end of the analysis a collection of themes had been assembled for further discussion and analysis.

The first of these, the difference and, in some cases, shift between deep and surface learning is very much apparent in the videos created by students in higher education themselves. Biggs (1978) coined these terms as descriptions of different types of learners, and they merit further examination. A surface learner will make little effort to gain a comprehensive understanding of the topic being studied, but rather learn information for the purpose of completing the task successfully. Thus, this information is more likely to be rote learned, the learner employing only the minimum effort required to achieve their desired grades.

Studies have shown that surface learners are rarely willing to ask questions of their teachers and, when they do, they “refer to more basic, factual or procedural information” (Brown & Chin, 2000). Conversely, deep learners display a desire to engage more deeply in their academic task, by establishing links between the work they are doing across all their courses, therefore making it easier for them to understand the larger concepts which the information they are learning might be trying to demonstrate. In the videos, it is clearly demonstrated that they do this by reading widely around their subject and going beyond the simple demands of their course or assignment.

Moreover, it was shown in many of the videos that the deep learners took more time over their work and study, attributing less importance to the social aspects of university, since their main aim in attending university was often to further their knowledge and writing or study skills, as well as to achieve a good degree qualification. Their aims were not limited to doing well in assignments, but rather they wanted to understand more deeply for their own benefit, achieving good grades being almost incidental, but still an important factor.

When assessing this distinction in relation to the videos, however, it is important to note that the learning styles will have been shown in a way that is perhaps exaggerated, given that the videos are not the most accurate representations of real academic settings. For a theory that has already been criticised for being reductively simplistic, it is interesting to examine this further, in order to ascertain how far we can see aspects of the two types of learning overlapping. For example, whilst rote learning was earlier mentioned as one of the characteristics of surface learning, it could be argued that this technique is used by nearly all students to learn facts such as multiplication tables or spellings, and this does not necessarily mean that it is not an effective way of committing this knowledge to long term memory, and understand the topic. The only time where rote learning can be less effective is when “it is used instead of those higher-order learning strategies…aimed at acquiring an understanding of the material” (Lublin, 2003). Consequently, there is an apparent danger in creating a false dichotomy between the two types of learners when, in fact, parts of both strategies can be beneficial.

Upon examination, a marked gender difference was found between the deep and surface learners portrayed in these videos. In most cases the males were shown to be the surface learners, while the females displayed a deeper approach to their acquisition of knowledge. This provides support for research conducted by Marks et al. (2000) who found that, as a general rule, females were more “engaged” than males not only in the pursuit of academic achievement but also in attaining a deeper understanding of their subject and that which surrounded it. Further research by Suitor et al. (2004) concluded that academic success had become an “acceptable route to visibility” amongst their classmates, whereas this was slightly less true of males, whose performance in sports, physical attributes, and capacity to be sociable were more highly regarded by their peers. If this is true, then it makes sense that girls should become deep learners more often than boys. This may go some way to explaining the gender difference in the videos, as it might still be true to some extent in a university environment.

The fact that there exist different types of learners and strategies for learning has obvious implications on both peer support and the role of the teacher, and these may both be other factors influencing learning. The understanding gleaned from deep learning may permit students to be of help to their ‘surface learner’ classmates, as their explanations will be comprised of associations, showing implicit criticism and creative thinking. Peer support of this sort was seen in the videos in the form of group work or tutoring. Harden and Crosby’s article (2000) about the twelve roles of the teacher, and the fact that a teacher should be “more than just a lecturer” helps us understand how teachers can also adapt to different learning styles of their pupils, across age ranges. The third role highlighted in the paper is that of the “facilitator”, or the teacher as the person who initiates learning of a given topic, but then guides and supports the student into furthering their own knowledge of it, so. Thus the student are building upon the basic knowledge that they have been given. In this way, they may continuously add to their knowledge structures, to create more complicated ones, leading to a deeper understanding. They become the “builders” of their own knowledge, with the teacher there to give confidence and to lead them in the correct direction. This concept, known as a constructivist approach to learning, is derived from the early work of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who argued that children possessed the ability to think scientifically, and overwrite or add to existing knowledge as they grew up and discovered more of the world. Though there were few examples of teaching in the videos as it was most often dialogues between students, it can be discerned that this may be a way in which both deep and surface learners could learn material in their courses in higher education. Whilst during lectures, the lecturer most often exhibits a transmission method of teaching (they transmit and impart their own knowledge to their class with little interactivity or input from the students), they can provide reading materials, or make themselves available to students to help them construct their learning and understanding, and gain wider knowledge. Usually, teachers in higher education do both of these things, so that both the constructivism model and the transmission model are seen in effect.

Closely linked with the above theory is the suggestion of metacognition and motivation. Deep learners, who are most often self-regulated (taking a proactive approach to their own learning) need to have an understanding of their own cognition, and the way in which they learn best, known as metacognition (Zimmerman, 1986). Surface learners perhaps take less of an interest in evaluating this. The videos show deep learners taking more of a control of certain factors, which they are aware will influence their completion of the task, such as disturbances from fellow classmates. In this way, they are displaying good metacognitive abilities, self-control and self-regulation.

One could argue that the better a students’ metacognitive abilities and understanding of the task, the higher their motivation, given the fact that they will most probably achieve better grades than another student with a poorer understanding of what is required of them and how to achieve it. Some of the videos showed such learners, who lacked motivation on account of a lack of understanding of both the topic studied, and of their own most effective way of learning. This very lack of motivation could be explained the expectancy theory of motivation, proposed by Wigfield and Eccles. If a student does not understand something, they are likely to have a low expectancy belief about the extent to which they will be successful in completing a task. This, in turn, may value the value of the task, as there will be no valid reason for doing it, in their minds, if they find it too difficult. This was seen in a few of the videos with statements such as ‘I won’t be able to do it…’. Conversely though, if a student has had a positive experience in the completion of a task, in the past, such as positive feedback from a teacher, or a good grade, they may well feel more motivated to keep on working well at other tasks, and maybe also more confident in explaining the topic to a peer. This ties in with the notion of self-efficacy, or self-perception of how successful we will be at certain tasks. Those with high expectancy beliefs will have higher motivation, but also perhaps higher self-efficacy from the outset, as they are confident in their ability. Though this was not often seen in the videos, it is possible to argue that the more control and active participation a teacher encourages a student to take in their own work, the higher their motivation will be, as their expectancy beliefs and judgements of the value of the task will become more positive. If students begin to take this approach, as a result of encouragement, they are also likely to become self-regulated learners.

However, there are issues of contention within the construct of motivation which are worthy of mention, since we saw some demonstration of motivation in the videos. The concept has been theorised about by many different theorists, and all come up with slightly different definitions. It has been argued by behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner that any action which receives positive reinforcement will elicit motivation to repeat a similar action. This is perhaps the theory most applicable to the educational environment, as another theory known as “drive-reduction” theory involve negative reinforcement which is rarely seen in classrooms or higher education. As well as Wigfield and Eccles’ theory, Weiner (1992), suggested that it is our desire to master and understand the world which motivates us to take action. This may also be seen in an educational context, and in the videos, as those students with a desire to learn, understand and have a firm grasp on their course material were motivated to put in the effort needed to do so. It is obvious, therefore, that there are differing explanations of such a complex concept as motivation, so it is difficult to use only one to explain the few instances apparent in the videos, but there are some more appropriate than others.

Conclusively, the videos went some way towards showing the approaches towards and strategies employed in learning in higher education. The data only represented students from one university, so although it was useful in highlighting many concepts, it may be important to see whether these are consistent across other universities. It has been a valuable endeavour to research the methods of learning, and subsequent implications on teaching, and provided support for the work done by the researchers mentioned in the paper.


Biggs, J B (1979). Individual differences in study processes and the quality of learning outcomes. Higher Education, 8: 381-394.

Chin, C. and Brown, D. E. (2000), Learning in Science: A Comparison of Deep and Surface Approaches. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37: 109–138

Lublin, J. (2003) Deep, Surface and Strategic Approaches to Learning, Centre for Teaching and Learning, Good Practice in Teaching and Learning, from:
retrieved 14/03/11

Zimmerman, B. (1986). Becoming a self-regulated learner: Which are the key subprocesses. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 11: 307-313.

Students’ Approaches to Learning essay

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