Differences in approaches to learning: Discipline DOES matter

Students approaches to learning have generally been grouped into three categories:

  • surface learners who rely heavily on rote learning and memorization;
  • deep learners who strive to understand meaning, question premises, challenge assumptions, and further consider the implications and applications of the material; and,
  • strategic learners who take a systematic, organized and goal-oriented approach to study (Entwistle and McCune, 2004; Marton and Saljo, 1976).

Parpala et al (2010) recently published an intriguing study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.  They assessed how 2500 undergraduate students in 10 different faculties  at the University of Helsinki in Finland, approached learning, using a modified version of the Experiences of Teaching and Learning Questionnaire.  Four groups of students were identified.

  • The first group scored highly on items measuring organized study and were classified as Organized Students.  Although systematic in their approach, these learners scored quite low on items measuring a deep approach to learning.
  • The second group scored highest on items measuring a deep approach and an intention to understand – or the deep approach learners.
  • The third group took a surface approach,  scoring highest on the surface approach items and lowest on the items measuring a deep approach, organized study and an intention to understand.
  • The fourth group scored the second highest on items measuring a deep approach, and second lowest on items measuring organized study and were classified as the unorganized students applying a deep approach.  Although both critical and analytical in their approach to learning, these students  were not at all systematic.

When the researchers took a closer look at the disciplinary differences between these four clusters they found that Organized Students were most commonly found in the Law, Pharmacy, Veterinary Medicine,  Science,  and Agriculture/Forestry.  Within these disciplines,  course requirements and weekly timetables can be quite demanding, and “…the students need to be organized and strategic in their studying in order to get through all of the obligatory courses” (p. 279).  Those applying a Deep Approach were most common in the Behavioral Sciences and Social Sciences, where the disciplinary expectations have historically placed emphasis on individual inquiry, critical thinking, and an evaluation of society from a variety of contexts. It was only in the faculty of Science and Pharmacy where the number of  Surface Approach learners exceeded 20%, which is supportive of previous research that suggests that, “students in the sciences and applied sciences are more inclined to adopt a surface approach to learning” (p.270). Finally, the Unorganized/Deep Approach learners were most common in Theology, BioScience and the Arts, where although the curriculum encourages critical thinking and students generally show an intrinsic interest in their discipline, they appear somewhat uncertain about their future and what to expect from their discipline.

These results clearly suggest that disciplinary variations in curriculum can greatly impact how students approach learning.   Clearly more research is needed to further assess how we can best promote student learning and engagement in higher education, but one of the first steps we can take is to learn from the disciplines that have been shown to best support a deep approach to learning .


Entwistle, N. and McCune, V. 2004.  The conceptual bases of study strategy and inventories.  Educational Psychology Review 16:325-345.

Marton, F. and Saljo, R. 1976. Approaches to Learning. In Marton et al. (eds) The Experience of Learning (pg. 36-55).

Parpala, A. 2010.  Students’ approaches to learning and their experiences of the teaching-learning environment in different disciplines.  British Journal of Educational Psychology 80:269-282.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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