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.

Relevance: the secret to motivating student learning

In a 2008 article published in Active Learning in Higher Education Kember et al. (9(3):249-263)  found that one of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance.  The authors interviewed students from 9 undergraduate programmes at 3 different universities in Hong Kong, to charaterize the teaching and learning environments that best motivated student learning.

Establishing relevance was the most prominent and often cited student response. Relevance is a key component to instrinsically motivating student learning.  By establishing both personal and real-world relevance, students are provided with an important opportunity to relate the course subject matter to the world around them, and to assimilate it in accordance with their previously held assumptions and beliefs.  Relevance is a key factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their own understanding of the course material.

Students pointed to four methods for establishing relevance:

1. Discussing how theory can be applied in practice

2. Making a link to local cases

3. Relating subject matter to ‘everyday’ applications

4. Discussing and finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events.

Likewise, Wieman (2007) recommended that students be provided with intentional and explicit opportuntities to discuss, “…for each topic covered, why this topic is worth learning, how it operates in the real world, why it makes sense, and how it connects to things the student already knows.”

Intuitively, I think that we would all agree with these findings, but how many professors actually take the time to reinforce, through their daily teaching practices, the importance of providing students with opportunities to establish both personal and real-world relevance.  Based on my personal learning experiences,  many instructors told me why the material was relevant, but few actually provided the time and resources necessary to assimilate this degree of understanding on my own.  By actively solving relevant problems, exploring current case studies, and discussing local and newsworthy events through peer interaction, debate and dialogue, relevance can bring theory to life, and provide the motivation necessary to inspire deep and sustained learning in higher education.


Kember, D., Ho, A. and Hong, C. 2008. The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning.  Active Learning in Higher Education 9:249-263.

Wieman, 2007. Why not try a scientific approach to science education. Change. Sept/Oct: 9-15.

Eric Muzur

Eric Mazur’s Confessions of a Converted Lecturer is a MUST SEE for everyone with an interest in improving higher education.  Spoken with simple, humble elegance, this Harvard physics Professor offers some poignant advice on how to shift the classroom focus from teaching to student learning.   Mazur has transformed his classroom teaching practices to encourage continuous engagement and peer interaction, such that students are provided with opportunities to assimilate information and construct their own meaning.  “Education is no longer about information, it is about teaching students how to USE information.”

What is your definition of a ‘good’ teacher?

In a recent article published in the journal Active Learning in Higher Education (2009, 10: 172-184) Bantram and Bailey explored the responses of students to this very question at a university in the UK. Four predominant themes were noted (in relative order of importance):

  1. Teaching Skills: Students felt that an effective teacher explained ideas and concepts well; motivated and sustained student interest; used active-learning techniques; and acted as a facilitator to encourage and guide learning.
  2. Personal Qualities: Students valued personal qualities such as, “…being kind, helpful, patient, enthusiastic and having a sense of humor.”
  3. Relationships with Students: Students appreciated instructors who were friendly, approachable, and took the time to “get to know” them.
  4. Teacher Knowledge: Subject-matter expertise and knowledge emerged as the lowest ranked theme.

They summarized that, “…students appear to define good teaching largely on the basis of a range of skills and attributes that emphasize empathy and aspects of interpersonal relationships.” These findings support Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) classic Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, where an effective teacher is described to:

  1. Encourage contact between students and faculty;
  2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students;
  3. Encourage active learning;
  4. Give prompt feedback;
  5. Emphasize time on task;
  6. Communicate high expectations; and,
  7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning.

The reality is that effective teaching goes much beyond developing subject matter expertise. From my experiences in higher education great teachers share two common characteristics: an extraordinary sense of humility; and, a strong commitment to continual improvement, based upon a fundamental motivation to inspire student success.

Collaboration in Higher Education

Although there are many benefits to enabling a community of collaboration, most universities struggle to implement collaborative initiatives due to inherent barriers in organizational structure, and long-held values in the prestige of rewarding and promoting faculty autonomy. Faculty are hired and rewarded for their ability to develop and lead independent research programs. Their teaching practice is inherently dependent on their individual abilities to disseminate and transfer their disciplinary knowledge and expertise. So how can institutions move “from a culture that supports individual work to the ones that facilitate collaborative work” (Kezar, 2005, p. 833)? How do we promote a community of academic excellence where faculty are encouraged to collaborate and to capitalize on their collective intellectual capacities in their role as researchers, teachers and contributors to their institutional, local and global communities?

Kezar (2005) suggests 8 principles for enabling collaboration in academic environments: a strong mission; integrated structures; institutional networks; appropriate recognition and rewards; clear priority from senior administrators; external pressure; values and learning. These principles are implemented through 3 key stages: Building an Institutional Commitment to Collaboration; Establishing a Clear Commitment to Collaboration; and Sustaining Collaboration.It is time for faculty and administrators to advocate for and establish a positive culture of collaboration within our academic communities. We need to focus on hiring a new generation of academics who recognize and actively translate the benefits of collaboration, and who fundamentally challenge and change the existing culture of elitism within our institutional contexts and structures. We need to provide funding and administrative support to interdisciplinary projects which emphasize the benefits of our collective intellectual potential and capacity to inspire positive change. We need to establish a tenure and promotion system that rewards, rather than questions the value of collaborative academic initiatives. We need to set clear institutional missions and to sustain a positive community dialogue which advocates for and communicates the benefits of collaboration. Not only do we need to focus our own efforts on collaboration, but we need to motivate others around us – staff, faculty, and students – to engage in collaborative work.

I hold strongly to a fundamental philosophy that the best leaders possess exceptional collaboration skills. They strive to bring out the best in themselves and others, by sharing knowledge and resources, thus building a reciprocal network of support and mentorship. The best academic leaders acknowledge and accept the limits of their individual potential, and demonstrate an ability to enable, empower, and learn from others. Together, we have the collective capacity and interdisciplinary potential to address society’s most complex challenges, and perhaps most importantly, to inspire positive change in the world around us.


Kezar, A. 2005. Redesigning for collaboration within higher education institutions: an exploration into the developmental process. Research in Higher Education 46(7): 831-860.

Do Faculty Teacher Training Programs Really Result in Improved Teaching Practices?

As accountability for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education garners increased attention from government, students, employers, professional organizations and society in general, many have argued for providing additional opportunities to train university faculty for one of their most important roles in higher education – teaching. Faculty development programs such as teaching scholars programs (e.g. Steinert, Nasmith, McLeod, & Conochie, 2003; Gruppen, Frohna, Anderson, & Lowe, 2003) and faculty certificate programs (e.g. Hubball & Burt, 2006; Hubball & Poole, 2003) have become increasingly popular across North America. Similar to many established programs in the UK, these initiatives are designed to bring together small cohorts of faculty to explore pedagogical theories, principles and practices, and to foster engagement in research on teaching and learning. Although specific program goals and outcomes vary by institution, most depend on providing an opportunity for faculty to meet intentionally and regularly to actively dialogue, and to provide a sense of reciprocal support and mentorship (Blanton & Stylianou, 2009; Hubball & Albon, 2007; Richlin & Cox , 2004).

Do these programs actually result in improved teaching and student learning? In one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, Gibbs and Coffey (2004) would argue, “Most definitely!” They studied the effectiveness of teacher training programs at 22 universities in 8 countries, and found that those who had participated in university teachers’ training programs were more likely to adopt a learner-centred teaching practice, that their teaching skills and global teaching effectiveness scores improved, and that student learning was impacted positively by their engagement in these initiatives. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that faculty who did not engage in the teacher training programs actually reduced the extent to which they adopted a learner-centred teaching focus, and actually became more reliant on instructor-centred teaching practices. As learner-centred practices are suggested to promote a deeper and improved understanding of disciplinary knowledge and expertise, this result is especially substantial in its support for providing faculty teaching development programs.

I am a firm believer that most faculty are deeply committed to their teaching practice and to enhancing student learning. Faculty development initiatives provide important opportunities for instructors to develop confidence in their approach to teaching in higher education. They provide institutions with an important opportunity to promote excellence in teaching. And perhaps most importantly, they promote a positive teaching community which supports a common goal of placing the students at the centre of their university learning experiences.


Gibbs, G. and Coffey, M. (2004) The impact of training of university teachers on their teaching skills, their approach to teaching, and the approach to learning of their students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(1), 87-100.

Gruppen, L.D., Frohna, A. Z., Anderson, R.M., & Lowe, K.D. (2003). Faculty development for educational leadership and scholarship. Academic Medicine, 78(2), 137-141.

Blanton, M.L. & Stylianou, D.A. (2009). Interpreting a community of practice perspective in discipline-specific professional development in higher education. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 79-92.

Hubball, H. & Albon, S. (2007). Faculty learning communities: Enhancing the scholarship of teaching, learning and curriculum practice. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 18(2), 119-141.

Hubball, H.T. & Burt, H. (2006). The scholarship of teaching and learning: Theory-Practice integration in a faculty certificate program. Innovative Higher Education, 30(5), 327-344.

Hubball, H. & Poole, G. (2003). A learning-centred faculty certificate programme on university teaching. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1/2), 11-24.

Richlin, L. & Cox, M.D. (2004). Developing scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning through faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97,127-135.

Steinert, Y., Nasmith, L., McLeod, P.J., & Conochie, L. (2003). A teaching scholars program to develop leaders in medical education. Academic Medicine, 78(2), 142-149.

Great Teaching and Great Questions

In a 2009 article published in Peer Review, Ken Bain and James Zimmerman explored how great instructors inspired a deep approach to learning. In comparison to surface learners, deep learners are said to take a superior approach to learning by relying less on memorization, and more on questioning premises, challenging assumptions and considering the implications and applications of the course subject matter (Marton and Saljo, 1976). It is within this learning realm that students more thoughtfully construct an understanding of course material, and perhaps most importantly, where they are more likely to carry their learning experiences forward.

Bain and Zimmerman summarize that, “Human beings are most likely to learn deeply when they are trying to solve problems or answer great questions that they have come to regard as important, intriguing and beautiful.” Students thrive in learning environments which provide them with an opportunity to explore and reflect upon how the course material has both personal and “real-world” relevance, and fundamentally challenges how they see the world around them. It is under these learning conditions that we, as instructors and fellow learners become wonderfully consumed by an inspired sense of curiosity and inquiry that is driven almost solely by the students.

The authors continue by stating, “…the best teachers–and this may be their most profound ability–find ways to link their own disciplinary concerns and interests with those of the students. [They have] the ability to frame questions in ways that would both capture the students’ imagination and challenge some of their most cherished paradigms.” Great instructors engage in a poetic dance between student and instructor, between comfort and challenge, and between the known and unknown – it is a complex dance that may take years to perfect. Yet, the reward is an educational system based on the very premise of providing students with the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to approach the world’s most complex challenges. If I could change one thing in higher education it would be to change our solution-driven quest for learning, to one that encourages instructors to ask and seek great questions that challenge the very basis on which both the instructors’ and learners’ understanding depends. Ask great questions and inspire a whole new generation of great problem-solvers.

Bain, K. and Zimmerman, J. 2009. Understanding Great Teaching. Peer Review 11(2):9-12.

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

Yes Peer Discussion Works!

In a 2009 article published in Science (2009:323) Smith et al., found that when undergraduate students at the University of Colorado-Boulder were posed with a multiple-choice question during lecture, and then were given an opportunity to actively engaged in small-group peer discussion regarding their individual responses, they increased their conceptual understanding of the course material, and were more likely to answer a similar multiple-choice question correctly. Furthermore, the improvements in learning occurred even if none of the learners in the discussion group actually knew the correct answer to the initial question! So, why does peer discussion work? The authors speculate that, “…justifying an explanation to a fellow student and skeptically examining the explanation of a peer provide valuable opportunities for a student to develop the communicative and metacognitive skills that are crucial components of disciplinary expertise” (pg. 124). This study provides further support for the use of peer discussion as a simple and effective teaching strategy to encourage active learning in the university classroom.


Smith, M.K. et al. 2009. Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 323: 122-124.

Great TED talk

In a truly inspirational presentation, grounded in an extraoridinarly philosophy that extends much beyond the borders of Ghana, Patrick Awuah speaks of addressing challenge through leadership and a liberal education. He reminds us of one of the most important purposes of a university – to serve humanity and,

“…to train leaders of exceptional integrity who have the ability to confont complex problems, to ask the right questions, and to come up with workable solutions.”

Does engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning really improve teaching and student learning?

The scholarship of teaching and learning combines the experience of teaching, the scholarship of research, and the dissemination of this knowledge such that the broader academic community can benefit from this scholarly product.  SoTL has been touted as one of the primary methods to increase the quality and value of teaching in higher education.  But, does engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning really translate into better teaching practices and improved student learning?  Brew and Ginns (2008: 33, 535-545) assessed this very question in a recent article published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. They examined how SoTL initiatives at the University of Sydney impacted teaching and student learning.  The authors measured the association between faculty engagement in SoTL (measured using a Scholarship Index) and the change in undergraduate responses to the Faculties’ Student Course Experience Questionnaire.  The results suggest that engagement in SoTL did in fact improve teaching and student learning, specifically for 5 scales on the questionnaire: Good Teaching, Clear Goals and Standards, Appropriate Assessment, Generic Skills and Overall Satisfaction with Degree Quality.  Although further research is needed to examine which specific SoTL initiatives are most effective in improving teaching and student learning, and how these may vary across disciplines and individuals, these results provide some indication that SoTL may effectively enhance and advance the profession of teaching in higher education.