Is there a relationship between students’ approaches to learning and their perceptions of learning environments?

Hazel et al. 2002 present a compelling exploration of meaningful/deep (in comparison to rote/surface) learning in terms of the relationship between students’ approaches to learning and their perceptions of the learning environment, within the context of biology.  Data was collected from 272 students from similar first year biology subjects at 2 Australian Universities.  The Presage-Process-Product model was used to guide the research: Presage (Student Characteristics, Course Design/Teaching Methods), Process (Students’ Perceptions of Context/Learning Environment, Students’ Approaches to Learning),  Product (Quantity and Quality of Students’ Learning Outcomes).  They used a pre/post test based upon open-ended questions and a concept mapping exercise to assess key concepts in photosynthesis.   Perceptions of the learning environment were evaluated via a questionnaire designed to evaluate deep/surface learning strategies, “good teaching”, clear goals, workload, assessment and independence.   A hierarchical cluster analysis was used to examine the data. Comprehensive details regarding these methods are provided.

This paper is extraordinarily interesting and well-researched. Three clusters of students were identified: an understanding group, a reproduction group, and an incoherent group (which demonstrated the poorest understanding).  The reproduction group perceived the environment as more supportive of a surface-learning approach, and adopted a surface approach to learning.  The understanding group found that the learning environment was more supportive of a deep approach and hence adopted a deep learning approach.  It was noted that less than one third of the students demonstrated the deep/understanding learning pattern.  The results for the incoherent group were mixed, although they perceived that the learning environment was supportive of deep learning, they adopted more of a surface approach to learning and demonstrated significantly less prior-understanding (although all groups demonstrated a relatively low understanding in the pre-tests).  Perhaps most interesting, the reproduction groups’ understanding of photosynthesis decreased in the post-test, while the understanding group demonstrated an enhanced understanding of the topic, and higher achievement scores in comparison to the two other clusters.  The incoherent group demonstrated the lowest level of achievement and understanding.  The key findings suggest that perceptions of the learning environment and students’ approaches to learning can have a significant effect on their level of understanding of course concepts. The key questions that remains is, “…knowing that students do respond so differently to the same context, and that these differences are associated with differences in the quality of their learning, what can be done?  Our approach is to focus on students’ awareness of the requirements of their course when they start, and on differences between staff expectations and students’ conception of learning of their subject and of key concepts in their subjects.”  This study is well-researched and presented and highlights the importance of developing students’ awareness of both the process and content of subject-matter learning.  The pre/post methodology also provides an interesting research model.


Hazel, E., Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. 2002.  Variation in learning orchestration in university biology courses.  International Journal of Science Education 24(7): 737-751.

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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