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Approaches To Learning And Studying Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3280 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The role students’ play in their learning has increasingly drawn attentions of the researchers. One particular focus has been finding out the experiences of how students learn within specific circumstance, and then generalizing these findings to obtain a better understanding of students’ approaches towards learning. Moreover, according to Van Rossum and Schenk (1984), Martin and Ramsden (1987, cited in Purdie, Hattie, & Douglas, 1996), there’s a linkage between students’ conceptions of learning and their learning outcomes.

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In this paper, the first part reviews the conception of learning and different approaches to learning that students adopted; then introduces a systematic model called the 3P model of teaching and learning that explains the students’ approaches to learning from three different stage points – presage, process, and product. The second part establishes a paradox phenomenon by shifting the perspective into Asian context, brings in the notion of “Confucian-heritage” cultures (CHC), and explains it from a cross-cultural perspective, mainly focus on the Chinese CHC students.

The Student Approaches to Learning

The Conception of Learning

The primary impetus of ideas for researchers to look into students’ conceptions of learning came from William Perry (1968, 1970, cited in Purdie et al., 1996), who examined the epistemological beliefs of college undergraduates, later came up with the conclusion that some students found learning difficult due to their different conceptions of knowledge from their teachers’. This conclusion led to a paper done by Marton and saljo (1976) about the student approaches to learning (SAL) theory. The SAL framework is generally regarded as having a student-focused methodology to support its development. The term approaches to learning referred to two aspects: (a) the processes adopted while learning, that directly decide the outcome of learning, and (b) the predisposition of the adoption to the particular processes (Biggs, 2001). The research findings indicate that students’ conceptions of learning are closely related both to their approaches to learning and the quality of their learning outcomes (Van Rossum & Schenk, 1984; Marton, Dall’Alba, & Beaty, 1993).

At this stage of SAL literature, research went into two different perspectives; one is based on the metatheory of constructivism and the other on Phenomenography (Biggs, 2001). In this paper, it will only talk about the studies of students learning from phenomenographic perspective. “Phenomenography” is a qualitative approach to research developed by the Swedish researchers (Marton, 1981). The basic principle of the phenomenographic perspective of learning is that “learning should be seen as a qualitative change in a person’s way of seeing, experiencing, understanding, conceptualizing something in the real world” (Marton & Ramsden, 1988, p. 271, cited in Watkins, 1996). In the later phenomenographic writing, researchers adopted two contrasting conception of learning terminology: surface and deep learning (Marton & Saljo, 1976; Biggs, 1987; Purdie, Hattie, & Douglas, 1996; Watkins, 1996).

Three Learning Approaches

Surface learning approach is based on an intention or a motive that is external to the real purpose of the task. It only investigates minimal time and effort lasted long enough to meet the requirement, by aiming to gain satisfice instead of to satisfy (Biggs, 1996). It described a maladaptive relation between learners and tasks (Biggs, 2001). The purpose of satisfice can well link to rote learning through using routinized procedures, as a result that knowledge will be reproduced without understanding (Biggs, 1996). This approach is relevant to the transmission model of teaching, in which the information is transferred from teachers to students, whose being passive roles and end up with low quality outcomes, such as gaining fragmented knowledge and “missing the point” of the material (Burnett, Pillay, & Dart, 2003).

Deep learning approach is based on a perceived need, such as intrinsic motivation and interest, in order to engage the task meaningfully and appropriately by elaborating and transforming the material been studied (Burnett et al., 2003). This approach described an adaptive relation between learners and tasks (Biggs, 2001), by emphasizing learning processes in order to develop understanding, which is a clear distinction between self-regulation of study strategies that emphasize on effort and concentration (Entwistle & McCune, 2004). Therefore, the focus of deep approach is on underlying meaning, main ideas, themes, and principles (Biggs, 2001).

From the extensive elaborated concept of surface and deep learning, Marton, Dall’Alba, and Beaty (1993) gave out six qualitatively different conceptions about learning after their investigations of first-year students from an open university in Britain. They are: (1) increasing one’s knowledge, (2) memorizing and reproducing, (3) applying, (4) understanding, (5) seeing something in a different way, and (6) changing as a person. The first three conceptions formed a surface or reproductive notion of learning, which really ended up with low level of learning outcome; on the contrast, the last three conceptions relatively represent a deep or constructivist notion and usually associated with more complexity of cognitive processing of learning outcomes (Van Rossum & Schenk, 1984; Martin & Ramsden, 1987, cited in Purdie et al., 1996).

Entwistle and Ramsden (1983, cited in Watkins, 1996) in developing their Approaches to Studying Inventory (ASI) as well as Biggs (1987) in developing his Learning Process Questionnaire (LPQ) and its sub-component, the Student Process Questionnaire (SPQ) added a third learning approach apart from surface/deep learning approach, called achieving approach. The achieving approach is based on the ego enhancement and cue-seeking behavior that gains from visibly obtaining highest grades. This kind of approach is focusing on the recognition came out of top performance (Biggs, 2001). It is less attributed to personality traits and is more closely related to situational factors. However, it has considerable potential for an overlap with deep learning, giving rise to a Deep-achieving hybrid (Biggs, 1987).

According to Biggs (1987), he defined the approaches to learning as “a composite of a motive and an appropriate strategy” (p. 10). Motives are the reasons why students undertake the tasks, and strategies are the methods used by students to obtain their goals or fulfill their motivation for learning. Therefore, the combination of the motives and corresponding strategies forms one of three approaches to learning, as figure1 explains in details. Biggs (1987) also suggested that the identical usage of both students’ motive and strategy is significant to their conceptions of learning and overall attitude towards future learning. For example, a student has achieving motives; however, using the surface strategies, will not have satisfactory learning outcomes.






Surface Motivation is instrumental: main purpose is to meet requirements minimally; a balance between working too hard and failing.

Surface Strategy is reproductive: limit target to bare essentials and reproduce through rote learning.



Deep Motivation is intrinsic: study to actualize interest and competence in particular academic subjects.

Deep Strategy is meaningful: read widely, interrelate with previous relevant knowledge.



Achieving Motivation is based on competition and ego-enhancement: obtain highest grades, whether or not material is interesting.

Achieving Strategy is based on organizing one’s time and working space: behave as “model student”.

Figure1. Motive and strategy in approaches to learning and studying

(Biggs, 1987, p.11)

A System Model of Teaching and Learning

As approaches to learning are one portion of the teaching-learning system, they need to be placed in a key position of the system as a whole. Therefore, Biggs (1993, cited in Biggs, 1996, 2001) attempted to represent an interactive system from students’ perspective by creating a model so-called presage-process-product, or 3P model (see Figure2). This model has undergone many semantic changes in the last several decades, for instance, the presage factors used to referred to as personal and situational, more recently have labeled as student factors and teacher context (Biggs, 1999, cited in Biggs, 2001). The 3P model provides a useful context for understanding the importance and function of approaches to students’ learning; it reflected the evolutions of Biggs’s conceptualization of approach to learning (Biggs, 1987).

Figure2. The 3P model of teaching and learning (Biggs, 1996, p. 51)

Presage, before teaching takes place, are divided into two parts (Biggs, 1996, 2001): student factors are relatively stable and learning-related; teaching context refers to the context that set by teachers or institutions. Details of these two parts can be seen in Figure2 above.

Process, during teaching, refers to the way students actually handle the task (Biggs, 1996). As a result of students’ perceptions of the teaching context, and of their motives and predispositions, attributions, they engage the task by compromise their approach to learning with high or low cognitive level, that may be appropriate/deep or inappropriate/surface, finally end up with different outcomes (Biggs, 2001).

Product, refers to the outcome of teaching achieved, which may be correspondingly be quantitative recall, or complex structures, abstract conceptualizing, self information and so on (Biggs, 1996, 2001).

The variables that constitute the 3P model “do not form a simple linear path from presage to process to product”, because “each component of the system interacts with all the other components until equilibrium is reached” (Watkins, 1996, p. 7). Therefore, Watkins argues that shifting any one factor will not lead to a desired satisfactory outcome.

Considerable research has been carried out to identify the relation between students’ approaches to learning and their learning outcomes. There is no doubt that a reasonably high degree of correlation between them. However, it is not straightforward. Other variables may also at as mediating factors, for instance, the cultural influences, the assessment system, and the teaching methods (Burnett et al., 2003). Hence, researchers began their investigation from a completely different perspective besides western context – The Asian context.

The Paradox of the Chinese Learner

The Confucian-Heritage Cultures

The researchers based on the “emic” approach instead of “etic” approach to demonstrate a satisfactory degree of cross-cultural validity in the research, which uses only concepts that emerge from a specific culture (Watkins, 1996), for example in comparing Eastern and Asian concepts of learning. Asia specifically refers to those Ho (1991, cited in Biggs, 1996) defined as “Confucian-heritage” cultures (CHC): China (some research samples are taken separately from mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan), Singapore, Japan, and Korea all together with their educational systems, and usually the main focus being on Chinese CHC students.

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According to Biggs and Watkins (1996), in the west, polarities such as memorizing versus understanding, intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, achievement motivation as an ego versus a social motivation, collective versus as individual orientation, controllable attributions (effort, skill) versus uncontrollable attributions (ability), are commonly useful, because they were derived in the West. However, these same contrasts appear to create paradoxes when apply to CHC students. Thus, the paradox presented as follows: How is it possible that students directed to memorization demonstrate high achievement (Marton et al., 1996)?

Under the influence of Confucian philosophy, Chinese culture emphasizes effort, hard work and endurance (Yang, 1986, cited in Salili, 1996); also it is marked by collectivism and is centered on obedience and loyalty towards the family and the belonged groups. Cultural differences in pedagogical and educational practices may give rise to differences in learning pattern structures. Typically, CHC classes are large, mostly over 40, and appear to be highly authoritarian: using teacher-centered teaching methods mainly focused on the preparation for variety of examinations, which only address low-level cognitive goals and rote-learning (Biggs, 1996). According to Burnett et al. (2003), the results of their study suggest that in order to enhance desired deep approaches to learning in the classroom, it may not be sufficient by providing students with a supportive classroom environment and a set of study skills, which may in themselves be derived from the need to satisfy an inherently inhibiting examination system.

From a cross-cultural perspective, Asian students learning abroad, particularly in Western countries, are arising problems during their learning processes as well. The most obvious ones are language difficulties and social adaption to the culture shock. More over, CHC students come from an academic culture background that based on a set of values and expectations that are adapted with their general socialization, to a whole new environment where are lacking familiar support and differing from all the usual beliefs and relations (Biggs & Watkins, 1996).

Overseas students are adjusted to be passive recipients of knowledge which is directly delivered during the lectures; interactive methods of learning and teaching are seldom used. Consequently, overseas students have, in general, little experience in participating in the whole range of small group learning. According to research done by Samuelowicz (1987), he gathered 145 academic staffs and 136 oversea students questionnaire, which responded that only 28% were familiar with tutorials and 18% with any form of group discussion before they studied overseas. During the time they studying abroad, they tend to use a reproducing orientation to study and have strong reliance on content that have been learnt rather than on the discussion or argument. Thus learning to participate in group discussion is one of the most difficult adjustment overseas students must make. Participation in small groups reveals weak points of previous education – passive learning.

Social cognitive theory recognizes the importance of the influence of context in student adapting learning approaches. The fact is that some overseas students are aware of the differences between the two completely different educational systems, and they know that different attitudes towards learning and learning approaches are needed; but it does not necessarily mean that they know how to develop new learning approaches (Samuelowicz, 1987). According to the author’s experience of studying abroad, a student has to assume a different role, which of an active participant, develop critical attitudes to the subject matter studied, and formulate complex ideas in a foreign language in a situation where exchange of ideas is strongly required.

Memorizing and Understanding

The results of a study of Marton et al. (1996) on learning conceptions of Chinese teacher-educators, and to what extent does memorization features in those conceptions. Marton et al. (1996) found that these people do not identify memorizing and understanding as opposite poles, which are often found among Western students, but as phenomena that are closely interwoven. One possible explanation is that many Chinese students are able to combine the processes of memorizing and understanding in a way that Western students rarely do (Marton et al., 1996). These Chinese students can distinguish between two types of memorization approach: mechanical, such as rote learning, and memorizing with understanding. Most high achieving Chinese students and teacher-educators promote the latter but reject the former approach. Therefore, such students are able to reproduce the exact answers if that is what is required; also, they are capable of demonstrating their comprehension if it is needed (Dahlin & Watkins, 2000).

According to Marton et al. (1996), memorization with understanding has two categories: the first one, “memorizing what is understood”, a strategy used particularly for examination purpose. It is not specific to CHC students, but widely used among students everywhere. The second category is called “understanding through memorizing”, which is more problematic. It can develop two meanings: on one hand, it can mean that understanding creates during the action of memorizing itself, which is simply saying that only one dimension to learning is memorizing continuously then leading to understanding. On the other hand, it can also mean that memorizing is a route to understanding (Hess & Azuma, 1991, cited in Biggs & Watkins, 1996). The findings among Japanese students indicate that the act of memorizing through repetition does not create understanding directly, but still is a useful precondition for it (Dahlin & Watkins, 2000).

The paradox of the Asian learner is also discussed by Kember (1996, cited in Dahlin & Watkins, 2000). According to Kember the solution to the paradox would be a learning approach described as the intention to both memorize and understand through repetition. This kind of approach seems to be rather common among Hong Kong Chinese students through the study done by Kember. It has not been identified and recognized in the West before. To be more specific, the traditional Asian practice of repetition can have different purposes. On one hand, repetition can be related to create a deep impression on the mind, and therefore with memorization. On the other hand, repetition can be used to deepen or develop understanding by discovering new meaning. If repetition is understood in both these ways, the paradox of the Asian learner is solved (Martion et al., 1996; Dahlin & Watkins, 2000).


The term of approach to learning was considered by Marton and Saljo (1976) as a specific reaction to the context of the task and the content within which it was experienced. However, it also has been used to indicate a more consistent or even typical way of studying across contexts with similar demands. Future research and theory development should be directed at a further integration of the various conceptualizations in the field of student learning in higher education.

This paper focused on the learning approaches in a universal perspective first, and then narrows down to the Asian point of view, especially the Chinese CHC students. The paradox of Asian learners can be understand based on the cultural, psychological, and contextual aspects, which have shaped these students’ approaches to learning worthwhile.


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