Student and Teachers Approaches to Learning

Students’ approaches to Learning and Teacher’s Approaches to Teaching in Higher Education, Richardson 2005 Educational Psychology Vol 25


  • Students are a fickle bunch and oscillate between deep, surface and strategic approaches to learning. 
  • Most teachers want them to take a deep approach.
  • Trigwell Prosser and Waterhouse show that students are more likely to adopt a deeper approach to studying when teachers adopt a student focused approach as measured by their Approaches to Teaching Inventory.
  • However, teachers are also subject to change, even thought they may hold student-centred values they drift into teacher orientated patterns.  Many are influenced by the external culture which will beat student orientated perspectives out of them.

There are some efforts to put learning and teaching into 5 or six categories:


  1. Learning as an increase in knowledge
  2. Learning as memorizing
  3. Learning as the acquisition of facts or procedures
  4. Learning as the abstraction of meaning
  5. Learning as an interpretive process aimed at the understanding of reality  (Saijo)
    (Plus a 6th from talking to arts students(?) and then spotted more frequently in older learners:)
  6. A conscious process, fuelled by personal interests and directed at obtaining harmony and happiness or changing society.

And on the teaching side:

  1. Imparting info
  2. Transmitting structured knowledge
  3. Interaction between the teacher and the student
  4. Facilitating understanding on the part of the student
  5. Bringing about conceptual change and intellectual development in the student


It’s interesting that these both fall nicely into 5-6 categories –  (how exactly has this orange been sliced?)

Do students not have the right to engage in a varied way with the course contents, let’s face it some of it is dull, other bits are interesting and relevant?  Similarly on the teaching side, is there not a place where 1&2 are valid as building blocks for 3-5.  There are  implicit value judgments being made about what is good/bad in all of this. 

We can map the teacher and learner perspectives to our much discussed former friends  AM/PM and IC.  In earlier debates we’ve seen how aquisition can be required for participiation and that problem based approaches, whilst engaging may not provide the breadth of knowledge for effective transfer. 

Me as a learner?

I am the fickle learner who swaps between surface, strategic and deep depending on interest levels and relevance.  However, my initial plans to cover some areas at a surface level can be completely thwarted by cunning methods to make me engage with the topic and I find myself obtaining a deeper understanding (which may then challenge my initial judgement of the material …this is of course a variation on “teacher knows best”).  In terms of Saijo I’d place myself mainly in 3-4 (acquisition of facts and procedures, abstraction of meaning) and stray occasionally into 5. 

As for Richardson’s diagrams, nice, but not convinced, it looks just a bit contrived to look the same.  I’m sure it could be just as validly mapped to an activity system.

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One Response to Student and Teachers Approaches to Learning

  1. runtezza says:

    Agree strongly re implicit value judgments! Especially in a distance learning context with time-pressed learners, I find the implication that ‘surface’ or ‘strategic’ learning is ‘undesirable’ impossibly idealistic, and potentially demotivating. Good point too about how all of those conceptions of teaching should be seen as potentially legitimate depending on the context.

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