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Student approaches to learning

Student Approaches to Learning is a theory that students will take a different approach to how they study, depending upon the perceived objectives of the course they are studying.

The theory was developed from the clinical studies of two educational psychologists, Ference Marton and Roger Säljö, who found that students, in relation to any given learning task, can be divided into two distinct groups:

  • those who took an understanding[1] approach to learning,
  • and those who took a reproduction approach to learning.

These are commonly referred to as the "deep" and "surface" approaches.

In a study conducted by Marton and Säljö,[2] students read a 1500-word article, about which they were later questioned by an interviewer. In the interviews, students were asked about what they remembered, how they felt about the task, and how they had approached the task. Analysis of the interviews showed that the students could be divided into two distinct groups:

  • those who adopted a "deep" approach to learning engaged in an active search for meaning,
  • those who adopted a "surface" approach to learning focused on memorizing the parts of the article they thought they might be questioned about later.

These findings were corroborated by the laboratory studies of G. Pask and co-workers.[3] Pask referred to the two groups of students as "holists" and "serialists." Holists have a broad focus and see their task in context, using analogies and illustrations. Serialists look at details and at steps in an argument.


Learning approaches and phenomenographyEdit

Marton has also been involved in the development of phenomenography, a qualitative research methodology. Phenomenography seeks to create a detailed understanding of people's experiences and thoughts.

Learning approaches vs. learning stylesEdit

Learning approaches are not the same as learning styles. Students will use different learning approaches for different tasks.

Learning approaches are not inherent personality traits; they are produced by the interaction of the student with specific learning tasks.[4][5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Also called intellection.
  2. ^ Marton F. and Säljö R. (1976) On qualitative differences in learning. I – Outcome and Process’ British Journal of Educational Psychology 46, pp. 4-11.
  3. ^ Pask G.(1976) Styles and Strategies of Learning British Journal of Educational Psychology 46, pp. 128-148.
  4. ^ Laurillard D. (1979) The Process of Student Learning Higher Education 8, pp. 395-409.
  5. ^ Laurillard D. (1997) Ch. 11 in F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N. Entwistle, The Experience of Learning: Implications for Teaching and Studying in Higher Education (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press).

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