Helping Students Learn
Universities have changed over the last thirty years, with many more people now having the opportunity to study a degree course. These changes mean that it has become important to reconsider how people are taught in universities, accommodating a wider range of students without detrimentally affecting the quality of the learning.
When we think about teaching and learning we must consider both the learners and what impacts on their learning, as well as the teachers and what they need to do to create effective learning environments.
How do students learn?
Marton, Dall’Alba and Beaty (1993) asked students to describe the type of learning they were undertaking. Using these data they compiled six categories of learning:
1 increasing own knowledge
2 memorising and reproducing
5 getting perspectives on things
6 changing as a person
Entwistle (1998) provided a complimentary perspective when he described students’ approaches to learning. The concept of approaches to learning examines what students are intending to achieve in learning and the processes by which they acquire information. Three main approaches have been recognised:
• Deep Approach - students using a deep approach want to understand ideas for themselves. Patterns are sought that show underlying principles. Arguments and logic are carefully and critically examined;
• Surface Approach - students adopting this approach simply attempt to reproduce material in order to cope with course requirements. Studying takes place without reflection on either the strategy for achievement or purpose of the work. No links are sought between the various pieces of information; and
• Strategic Approach - the intention of a strategic approach to learning is to achieve the highest possible grades through careful organisation and selective application of approach. Consistent effort is put into studying, using the most appropriate conditions and materials to achieve high marks, and by managing time and effort effectively.
What is the role of a “teacher”?
According to Biggs (1999, p.4), “Good teaching is getting most students to use the higher cognitive level processes that the more academic students use spontaneously”. The teacher is said to have responsibility for setting the learning climate that will affect the students’ understanding of learning and so their approach to learning. As educators it is therefore important to design teaching that fosters the most appropriate level, which at university level should be a deep approach to learning, showing higher order learning through applying, understanding, getting varying perspectives and developing as an individual.
The following table identifies some of the learner and teacher characteristics of these approaches.
A Comparison of the characteristics and factors that encourage Deep and Surface Approaches to learning. (Compiled from Biggs (1999), Entwistle (1988), and Ramsden (1992))
A short video that takes a light hearted look at teaching and learning approaches can be found at: http://www.daimi.au.dk/%7Ebrabrand/short-film/index-gv.html.