What we know: Designing courses for learning: Students learn by intention, which is affected by context

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Students learn by intention, which is affected by context 

What do we know?

Students may adopt different approaches to their learning dependent on their intentions – what outcomes do they want from their learning.  The literature identifies three different possible approaches:

1. Surface or reproducing approach to learning – the student does not seek to understand, merely to do what is required by the course to pass, which often includes a tendency to rely on memorisation.

2. Deep or meaning approach to learning – the student seeks to relate and reinterpret knowledge, with a desire to understand.

3. Achieving or strategic approach to learning – the student’s primary desire is to excel and achieve top grades, which may or may not involve increasing their understanding depending on the nature and validity of the assessment tasks on the course.

A key aspect of this theory is that these approaches are not the same as abilities and the same student may choose to adopt different approaches on different courses, and in different contexts.  Some of the reasons a student might adopt a surface approach may be personal – e.g. other pressures on their time, disinterest in the subject being studied – and might include lack of prerequisite knowledge.  A strong influence on the approach taken is the context and nature of the course itself.

Implications for improving student learning

In some cases, whatever the teacher does may be insufficient to prevent a student from choosing to take a surface approach to their learning because of the pressures from their personal context.  The student’s beliefs about, and conceptions of, learning and teaching, and their stage of cognitive development (see above) may also strongly affect the approach taken.  However, the evidence is that there are certain course characteristics that are more likely to encourage students to take a surface or strategic approach, and others that are more likely to encourage a deep approach.

More students are increasingly likely to take a surface approach the more the following characteristics apply to a course:

● An over heavy workload

● Relatively high class contact hours

● An excessive amount of course material

(the combination of these first three making it increasingly impossible for the student to find enough time for reflection and assimilation)

● A lack of opportunity to pursue subjects in depth

● A lack of choice over subjects and a lack of choice over the method of study

(the combination of these two making it less likely that the student is going to be interested or motivated)

● An over threatening and anxiety provoking assessment system

While the following characteristics are more likely to encourage more of the students to take a deep approach:

● The engendering of intrinsic motivation in the students; students wanting and needing to know

● Learner activity

● Interaction with others

● A well structured knowledge base – i.e. where content is taught in integrated wholes and where knowledge is required to be related to other knowledge


Further reading

Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (Eds.) (1984) The Experience of Learning, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press

(Especially Chapter 3: Marton, F. and Säljö, R. Approaches to Learning) 

2nd Edition (1997) available at: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/institute-academic-development/learning-teaching/staff/advice/researching/publications/experience-of-learning)



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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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One response

  1. Avatar Harry Krane PhD AProf

    Dear Sir, I believe that the direction in which you are going in changing the context of the university lesson is to be congratulated. I thought you mightbe interested that I have worked on devising such a ‘lesson’ through the means of applied design and psychology in a system I call Psychartechnology. I see it as paradigm shift in how university education targets its ‘compass’. Regards Harry