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British Educational Research Journal


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Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into 'Approaches to Learning' Research in Higher Education
TAMSIN HAGGIS
a a

Institute of Education, University of Stirling

Available online: 17 Jun 2010

To cite this article: TAMSIN HAGGIS (2003): Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into 'Approaches to Learning' Research in Higher Education, British Educational Research Journal, 29:1, 89-104 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0141192032000057401

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British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2003

Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into Approaches to Learning Research in Higher Education
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TAMSIN HAGGIS, Institute of Education, University of Stirling

ABSTRACT

This article focuses on the surprising lack of critique in the pedagogical literatures of higher education in relation to the use of ideas surrounding deep and surface approaches to learning. The article explores problems with the assumed relationships between conceptions of learning, perceptions of the learning environment, approaches to learning and learning outcomes, and suggests that whilst the model may be successful in creating a generalised description of the elite goals and values of academic culture, it says surprisingly little about the majority of students in a mass system. After exploring research in the area of academic literacies as an alternative approach to understanding student learning, it is suggested that higher education is going to have to nd new ways of conceptualising its core values and activities if it is to become truly accessible to the widest possible range of lifelong learners.

Despite the existence of a diversity of approaches to the conceptualisation of learning in higher education, current policy and funding imperatives seem to be encouraging the development of a strand of theorising in this context that is arguably very narrow. A particularly prominent feature of this strand is the approaches to learning research (see, for example, Higher Education Funding Council [HEFC], 1999, p. 55), developed around the idea of deep and surface approaches. According to Richardson, the basic distinction between deep and surface approaches has been conrmed not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world as well (2000, p. 27). Richardson suggests that this way of understanding student learning is so established that it has become perhaps even a cliche in discussions about teaching and learning in higher education (2000, p. 27). Although there are a few examples of critical engagement with the ideas that underpin this research into student learning in higher education (see Webb, 1996, 1997; Malcolm
Received 19 November 2001; conditionally accepted 31 January 2002; accepted 10 April 2002.
ISSN 0141-1926 (print)/ISSN 1469-3518 (online)/03/010089-16 2003 British Educational Research Association DOI: 10.1080/0141192032000057401

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& Zukas, 2001), there has been a surprising lack of critique in relation to both the concepts and their widespread use. Far from re-drawing the frameworks through which we comprehend the world (Barnett, 2000, p. 149), this article will suggest that the conception of scientic rigour that underlies this research seems mainly to consist of collecting and analysing data (Mitchell, 1994) in an attempt to replicate or extend basic ideas that are seen to have already been established. The article is a response to Mitchells suggestion that science is concept driven, not data driven, and his call for more attention to be paid to conceptual analysis (1994, p. 6). For the purposes of this discussion, the variety of uses of conceptions/perceptions of learning and approaches to learning are referred to as one conceptual model, as the intention is to explore some of the relatively unexamined assumptions and complexities that underlie the conceptual framework within which this range of ideas exists. The article does not focus particularly upon phenomenographic research, but looks more broadly at some of the ways that these ideas are being used today, particularly in journal articles concerned with teaching and learning in higher education. After briey outlining the basic set of ideas, the article rstly examines the nature of the implied relationship between conceptions, perceptions, approaches and learning outcomes. Questions are then raised about the models generic nature, which is examined within the context of the changing nature of higher education in Britain and Australia. After exploring the implications of the ideas in relation to the new mass system, the article focuses on emerging research in academic literacies as an alternative way of looking at higher education learning which might serve a wider range of diverse aims. Conceptions, Approaches and Outcomes: the basic ideas The basic notions of conceptions of learning and approaches to learning are so frequently described in the pedagogical literatures of higher education that they will only briey be summarised here. The original research that gave rise to these ideas was carried out by researchers in Sweden in the early 1970s (reported in Marton & Saljo, [1984] 1997). This work, based on qualitative interviews with students, described ve (later extended to six) conceptions of learning, ordered in a developmental hierarchy, through which it was assumed students would (or should) move during their time at university. The six qualitatively different ways that students were believed to conceptualise the idea of learning were (starting at the lowest level) as a quantitative increase in knowledge; as memorisation; as the acquisition of facts for subsequent use; as the abstraction of meaning; as a process aimed at understanding reality; and nally, as developing as a person (Marton & Saljo, [1984] 1997; Marton et al., 1993). These different ways of understanding learning were seen to underpin two basic approaches to learning: quantitative, memorising and acquisition conceptions underlying a surface approach (in which the students intention is to memorise the text), and abstraction, understanding reality and developing as a person underlying a deep approach (in which the students intention is to understand the meaning of the text). In addition, both conceptions and approaches were seen to be linked to the way in which the student perceived the context of learning; i.e. if a student believed that memorisation was rewarded, then the student would choose a surface approach as appropriate for that context. Finally, the linked phenomena of conception (of learning/knowledge), approach (towards learning) and perception (of learning environment) were seen to be linked to the outcome of learning: surface approaches leading to poor outcomes, and deep approaches to good ones. Work in this area was extended by Ramsden and Entwistle (Marton et al., [1984]

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1997) in Britain, and by Biggs (1978) in Australia, both of whom developed these ideas in the form of diagnostic instruments suitable for administration to large samples of students (Ramsden, [1984] 1997, p. 212). Entwistle and Biggs identied a third approach, strategic or achieving, but both of these seem on the whole to be seen as the ability to switch between deep/surface approaches, rather than as a distinct approach (Volet & Chalmers, 1992). More recently, these ideas have been developed into larger frameworks that attempt to provide overarching and systematic models of teaching and learning in higher education (see Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Biggs, 1999). What, Exactly, is the Model Describing? Key researchers in this area attempt to make it clear that the approaches to learning framework is holistic and relational (Ramsden, 1987), and that it accommodates a multiplicity of elements that can only be understood within a context. Prosser and Trigwell (1999) suggest that perceptions, approaches and outcomes are seen as separate entities for the purposes of analysis but that they should be considered to be simultaneously present in the students awareness, rather than independently constituted (p. 13). Inevitably, however, the naming of these elements as separate items seems to result in a process of gradual reication as the ideas move into wider circulation. Deep approaches to learning becomes deep learning, and ultimately deep processors (Mitchell, 1994), or versions of this such as engagers (Kember & Yan, 2001). In the latter case deep and surface approaches are seen as a form of predisposition or learning style, which moves the concept into the confused area of the differences between xed traits and/or changeable strategies denoted by terms such as cognitive style, learning style and learning strategy (see Biggs, 1993; Watkins & Regmi, 1995, for further discussion of this area). Entwistle (1997) states that the idea of deep and surface approaches is not simply a metaphor, as Webb (1997) has suggested, but that the ideas derive from a coherent body of empirical evidence which has provided a theory that is a valid and useful description of the teaching and learning process in higher education (Entwistle, 1997, p. 217). For a number of researchers now using these ideas (in particular, staff developers, and subject teachers doing pedagogical research), the overall model appears to be seen as describing a kind of truth about how students learn, in which research has identied both the categories and the relationships between them (see Drew, 2001; Johnston, 2001; McLean, 2001). Generally, the model seems to be seen as describing, if not the truth, then at least a highly signicant set of relationships about how students learn. This set of relationships is seen to have strong implications for university educators, particularly with regard to features of the environment that are seen to inuence the different conceptions and approaches. More specically, it outlines desirable and less desirable behaviours and tendencies that are seen to be linked to success and failure at university (see Norton & Crowley, 1995; Meyer & Shanahan, 2001). Much of the literature focuses on the claim that, without exception, deep approaches to learning and ways of understanding which include more complete ways of conceiving something are more likely to result in high quality learning outcomes (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999, p. 4). This interest in the relationship between environment, perceptions, conceptions and outcomes relates at least in part to early experimental attempts to induce deep approaches to learning, which appeared to have the opposite effect of creating an increase in surface approaches (Marton & Saljo, [1984] 1997; Ramsden et al., 1987).

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Further developed by Entwistle ([1984] 1997) and Ramsden (1992), this research has been important for pointing up the potential discrepancies between higher educations espoused aims for students (meaning orientation, deep approach) and what might be seen as its underlying theories is use, as revealed by other elements of context such as teaching and assessment procedures (which often appear to conspire to create surface approaches) (see Norton & Crowley, 1995). The subtle and problematic questions that the original research discrepancies highlighted with regard to cause and effect in this situation, however, seem to have gradually been eclipsed by the more straightforward notion that relationships between conceptions, perceptions and approaches can be changed through teaching and assessment methods (HEFC, 99, p. 55). Though the use of words such as encourage and promote (and expressions such as are more likely to) appear to retain the uncertainty highlighted by the original research, the overall message in much of the current literature is often quite certain: The design of assessment instruments that measure how students understand rather than how well they can reproduce knowledge will encourage a deep approach to learning. (Johnston, 2001, p. 183; italics added) Innovative, self-directed learning curricula, such as problem-based learning, will certainly provide an academic environment that promotes such an approach. (Finucane et al., 1998, in McLean, 2001, p. 401; italics added) A tightly articulated version of this idea is Biggss notion of aligned teaching (1999): The teachers job is to support students by aligning teaching methods, assessment tasks, and classroom climate to acquiring the kinds of skills and kinds of understanding that we want them to acquire. (Biggs, 2001, p. 225) Here, teaching methods and assessment are seen to coordinate with learning outcomes to such an extent that the student will nd him/herself trapped into engaging with appropriate learning activities (Biggs, 2001, p. 226), which are those which involve a deep approach (Biggs, 1999) [1]. Despite the frequency of these claims, questions remain about the possibility of manipulating the relationships between conceptions/perceptions/approaches and outcomes/grades, as many studies continue to report that students are mainly resistant to attempts to change the way they approach their learning. For example, a number of studies have reported an increase in surface approaches in the rst year of university (Richardson, 2000): the reported move away from a deep approach to learning is not unique to this cohort of students or to this faculty. Several other similar studies have demonstrated that a deep approach to learning in higher education generally declines in the rst year (Biggs, 1987; Gow & Kember, 1990; Renshaw & Violet, 1995). (Johnston, 2001, p. 182) The underlying belief in the possibility of change, however, appears to remain unchallenged. Problems and Paradoxes Many of these discussions seem to be avoiding the paradox that arguably lies at the heart of this way of conceptualising formal learning. Despite research results continually showing that (a) changing approaches is extremely difcult, and (b) a surface approach

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can lead to very successful learning in terms of results, further research and theorising continues to focus on how environments can be changed in order to increase deep approaches. Attempts to apply this model to other cultural contexts have yielded results which appear to contradict some of its fundamental assumptions. Memorising is associated in this model with rote learning, which is linked to lack of understanding, a surface approach, and poor results. In studies with Chinese students, however, high achieving students appeared to be memorising in a way that led to understanding, which is associated with a deep approach. The anomaly was named The Chinese paradox (Marton & Trigwell, 2000; Kember, 2000) and appeared to be found also in studies with students from Nepal (Kember & Gow, 1990; Dhalin & Regmi, 1997). In the rst case, the paradox was solved by redening notions of memorisation (Marton et al., 1996); in the second, the contradictory information was dealt with by dening a new narrow approach to learning [2]. These attempts to account for information that challenges the underlying principles of the model arguably reveal a tendency to view research ndings in this area as a kind of neutral, cognitive truth, that appears to be seen as beyond the constructive powers of cultural context. Richardson, for example, discussing research with students in Nepal, suggests that: in these students, Watkins and Regmi concluded that the conception of learning as changing as a person did not represent the most sophisticated level in a developmental hierarchy but instead had been induced by exposure to the religious and philosophical traditions prevalent in Nepal this conception of learning can be induced by exposure to local cultural conditions in the absence of any genuine intellectual development. (Richardson, 2000, pp. 49, 50; italics added) Such descriptions appear to be blind to the epistemological, philosophical and cultural inuences which underlie the research traditions within which the model has itself been created, and the way in which these are reected in its structure, assumptions and value judgements. The lack of t between the model and these different cultural contexts could be seen as an indication of the deeper paradoxes and contradictions which exist within this overall conceptualisation of learning. An awareness of the potential problems connected to applications of the original perceptions/approach research is not new. Marton and Saljo ([1984] 1997) point out in their earlier research that the logical reasoning that leads to the assumption that it is possible to inuence the way that people approach learning does not always lead to the expected results (p. 53): it is important to realise that the indicators of a deep approach, isolated in the research, are symptoms of a rather fundamental attitude towards what it takes to learn from texts. Thus, one cannot treat these observations on what characterises a deep approach as pointing to causal factors that can be isolated and manipulated through rather simple means to achieve the desired end. It is quite easy to induce a surface approach however, when attempting to induce a deep approach the difculties are quite profound. (Marton & Saljo, [1984] 1997, p. 53) The suggestion that a student who gets good results may perceive the learning environment in a particular way does not necessarily mean that manipulating the environment will change the way another, different, student sees the world. In fact, the

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example often given to introduce the idea of deep and surface approaches (Marton & Saljo, [1987] 1997; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Biggs, 1999) stresses that two theoretical students who take the two different approaches will do so within the same teaching and learning context. In these examples it is the individuals personal views and understandings of the context that are deemed to create their nal approach and learning outcome, not the context itself. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, it may be that it is almost impossible to induce a deep approach, if it is not already there. Some of the problems with research studies based on these ideas may be the result of methodological problems, particularly in connection with the specic survey instruments used. In addition to the possibility of response sets such as social desirability or acquiescence (Watkins & Regmi, 1995), questions have been raised about the psychometric validity of questionnaires such as Biggs Learning/Study Process Questionnaire (Mitchell, 1994; Richardson, 2000) and some versions of the Approaches to Studying Inventory (Richardson, 2000). More generally, and perhaps more importantly, there is the issue that survey instruments do not actually measure conceptions, but only what students say in response to questionnaire items; they are not sampling learners behaviour, but learners impressions (Mitchell, 1994, p. 8). Some of the questions that can be raised about methodology are arguably connected to the lack of epistemological clarity within this model, which seems to attempt to embrace both human subjectivity and qualitative explanation (Webb, 1997, p. 202), and the exceptionally rigorous methods of scientic research (Entwistle, 1984, in Webb, 1997, p. 197). Another difculty with the idea of a deep approach is its focus on meaning. A deep approach is dened as including a search for personal meaning, based on intrinsic interest, curiosity and a desire and ability to relate the learning to personal experience (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). Meaning, however, is extremely general and non-specic, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One way it seems to be interpreted in the literature is as nding the correct connections in terms of the subject area (see McLean, 2001). Meaning in this sense is dened by a particular discipline, or, more accurately, by the lecturer who is teaching and marking the assignments within that discipline. This is a very specic kind of meaning, and not necessarily one that is easily available to students who are operating outside of that subject area. The personal meaning that is permitted in this context is highly constrained by disciplinary boundaries, cultural norms, and assessment mechanisms. Personal meaning, for the student, on the other hand, may well be tied up with many aspects of life that are not closely connected to study, and it is conceivable that studying may only be small part of whatever meaningful activities a person is engaged in. A second type of personal meaning that informs some of these discussions is connected with liberal humanist ideas about empowerment and potential (e.g. McLean, 2001). This is also paradoxical in a formal learning context, for the reasons discussed earlier in connection with disciplinary meaning. Students in higher education are not free to charge off in new directions dictated by their own interests (Rogers, 1969, in McLean, 2001). Asking questions in the wrong way, building arguments on the basis of personal experience, or handing in essays that are written as free narrative are all unacceptable. Finally, there is the problem of all teaching and learning models that focus on the individual (such as discourses related to individual student needs), which is how a teacher is able to cater for the many different needs present in any one large group of students that make up a class, particularly in an expanding and underfunded system. Focusing on the uniquely contextualised perceptions of every student as an individual

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makes the idea of adjusting the environment in a way that will affect all students problematic. A similar area of conceptual difculty with this model is the focus on understanding, in contrast to reproduction of facts. Understanding, like meaning, is non-specic, and therefore inherently problematic. Like meaning, what it signies varies according to discipline, subdiscipline, and tutor. Assessment for understanding tends to imply that understanding is a state that is attainable, and demonstrable. Arguably, however, what counts as understanding, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is not a demonstrable state, but a more complicated idea that is connected with being able to show awareness of conicting perspectives, an ability to build an argument out of uncertainty, and, above all, to engage in a particular kind of questioning of fundamental values and assumptions. The absence of questioning in most descriptions of a deep approach is extremely puzzling.

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The Metanarrative of Conceptions, Perceptions and Approaches to Learning The problems concerning the ideas of meaning and understanding as discussed here seem to relate to the long-standing debate about generic abstraction versus the detail of specic contexts. Some of the problems with the conceptions/perceptions/approaches model may be related to the fact that, despite its theoretical concern with context, this is a general model, an abstraction that has been created out of the specic situations within which a variety of different types of research activity have been carried out. This is acknowledged in the literature: The original concept of approaches to learning was narrowly focused on the task of reading a text. It has since been broadened to include all the different sorts of task that students carry out. (Ramsden, 1992, p. 42) This level of generalisation makes the model initially attractive, but, as with all general models, questions can be raised about whether, and how, such generality can provide support for practitioners, when they try to actually apply such ideas to the messy and complex realities of their individual teaching and learning situations. Studies which explore the application of these ideas in dened contexts, such as Prosser and Trigwells work in the physical and biological sciences (1999), and Norton and Crowleys work in psychology (1995), clearly contribute to the research discourse about teaching and learning in higher education. But the widespread and usually unquestioning use of this model imposes limitations on the way that research data about student learning are both generated and understood. The model is arguably acting as a normative paradigm, within which further research studies can only ever further articulate the paradigms underlying assumptions (Kuhn, 1970). In this situation, ideas that fall outside or challenge the foundations of the paradigm become invisible. Kuhn suggests that paradigms gain ascendancy because they are more successful than their competitors in solving the few problems that the group of practitioners has come to regard as acute (1970, p. 23). Researchers in this area appear to have restricted membership of the group of practitioners to those who teach only in higher education, and to have further restricted the area of their interest by aligning themselves with the scientic approach to knowledge found in psychology. Through failing to take account of wider, more social perspectives on learning, this approach has created a narrow conception of the problems of the eld, and also appears to have made it possible for such research to be constructed as unique and apparently ground-breaking.

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The repetition and extension of empirical work which characterises this approach to learning research appears to be aimed at the orderly development of empiricallysupported theory (Davenport, 1987), which in this case is a coherent theory of higher education learning. In the context of a British higher education system now being called upon to guarantee results for employers in terms of learning, and improved efciency for the various bodies now involved in monitoring its activity, such a theory is both attractive and useful. It provides an apparently coherent rationale for the various actions that institutions have to be seen to be taking in response to demands from the Quality Assurance Agency, the funding councils, and the Institute for Learning and Teaching. It appears to provide the evidence required for evidence-based policy, a basis for changes in curriculum design, and a foundational theory for educational staff developers seeking to legitimate progressive practices in teaching and learning (Webb, 1997, pp. 198, 199). Overall, this model appears to have successfully provided a unifying framework (Davenport, 1987) for higher education pedagogical strategy which has not existed before. The apparent usefulness of this framework in a wide range of different and increasingly unstable higher educational contexts, however, is arguably obscuring the various agendas that such theory-construction serves. The relative lack of questioning of the current situation may be linked to the novelty of pedagogical research in higher education as a eld of academic research. The current situation is similar to that faced by adult education in the 1970s, when new research providing scientic proof that adults can learn (Knowles, 1970) opened adult education up as a valid area of research for the rst time. Initial research in this eld was centered on similar attempts to create a grand theory of adult education, perhaps because theory a creation of this kind is seen as the appropriate way to establish academic credibility in a context still dominated by the research agenda of post-Enlightenment rational science. Andragogy, the theory of adult learning developed by Malcolm Knowles at this time, was very successful in providing the unifying framework that the situation was seen to require. However, in the 30 years that have followed the original formulation of the theory, detailed analysis of the basic ideas of andragogy by other researchers, combined with attempts to apply the theory to the complexity of real-world contexts, have generated a range of different critical perspectives. These range from questions about the various interpretations of the term, and its status and application as a theory, to questions about its empirical basis, and discussion of later studies which do not seem to support its basic assumptions. In the last decade or so, questions from the perspective of critical social theory and post-structuralism/postmodernism have raised new areas for discussion, in particular those that focus on the unexamined power relations of adult educational contexts. The seminal research in higher education which led to the creation of the conceptions/ perceptions/approaches model (Marton & Saljo, [1984] 1997) was carried out at the same time as the development of the theory of andragogy, but the ensuing 30 years in higher education have seen a rather different kind of research development in relation to this original research. There appears to be little evidence of the theoretical developments that have occurred in other areas of educational research (and more generally in the social sciences), which might be described as an increasingly self-referential critique, informed by perspectives from critical theory and post-structuralism/postmodernism (e.g. Hanson, 1996; Usher et al., 1997). This strand of higher educational research seems to have taken little account of such developments, and instead to have focused its efforts on the accumulation of (increasingly quantitative) data, for the purposes of strengthening its particular grand theory.

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It has been argued above that the literature that uses this model tends to see it as outlining a kind of truth about student learning, or at least a generic set of relationships in teaching and learning that have particular implications for teaching methods and assessment. A slightly different way of viewing the model could be as an articulation of the aims and values of higher education, which in turn reect the value positions of wider class and social structures. In the previous elite system, restricted entry based upon specic cultural assumptions meant that such articulation was not required, or at least, it was possible for the teaching/learning system to function without it. In a mass system, however, which has to accommodate a much wider range of students, there is a need for investigation of, and explicitness about, aims and processes that have in the past been assumed as given. The model under discussion is arguably successful in making explicit what is valued by academic teachers, and what is not. The clear crystallisation of purpose and values which it achieves, however, also raises questions about the place and nature of such purposes and values in the current mass system, revealing as it does an arguably elite set of assumptions about student purposes and motivation. The rst of these assumptions is that students aims are, or can be made to be, the same as the aims of academics. This suggests that students want (or can be made to want) to relate personally and meaningfully to their subjects; that they are (or can become) interested in the subject, and get enjoyment out of studying it; that students want to and can become intellectually curious; that they are motivated by a desire to link new ideas to their past experience; and that they share the belief that teaching/learning at university is about discovering, questioning, and creating knowledge. Secondly, the model assumes that students are able to make sense of the institutions (or departments) aims as they are stated and presented, or as they are transmitted through teaching and assessment methods. Thirdly, it assumes that students who come to university are already at a level where they can engage with text, ideas, debates, etc. in the way that academics expect; that they have been prepared by secondary schooling, or possibly Access courses (Tait & Entwistle, 1996; Torrance et al., 2000). Finally, it assumes that students have the condence and skills to engage as is expected, and that they have the will do this (or at least that if the teaching environment is right, motivation to work in this way can be created [McLean, 2001]). The appropriateness and realism of such assumptions can be questioned in a higher education system that is now aiming to prepare 50% of the age cohort for the world of work. Such assumptions can also be questioned in relation to a system which is expected to be central to the formation of a learning society, where adults are expected to move in and out of higher education throughout the duration of their lives. The elite value positions that underpin the current system are in danger of rendering it profoundly dysfunctional in this new context, and the model being discussed here indicates clearly why this is so. The very existence and intrinsic nature of this model, and the way in which it is being used, are themselves a manifestation of the values and cultural assumptions that arguably need to be examined in the light of higher educations various new agendas. One of the key principles of the model is an overall orientation towards a limited and very specic high-level goal, which students are expected to develop towards. Critical perspectives from psychology (Burman, 1994) and adult education (Tennant, 1997) have raised a number of questions about the value preferences inherent in such developmental models, and the imposition of these values on people through the

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workings of institutional power. Webb, discussing developmental and hierarchical (stage) models of learning, suggests that: Stage theories do not give us a view of human nature, of learning as is, but instead they give us a normative view from the perspective of their authors. the highest point to be reached according to each stage theory is that which accords with the authors self-perception and cultural experience. (1996, p. 27) The conceptions/perceptions/approach model is a stage theory that could be seen to have constructed its goal in the image of academics themselves, rather than as representative of the goals of a wide range of student learners. Students are then pathologised against this normative formulation. Survey instruments, for example, are used in many studies in an attempt to nd out what is wrong with students who are not taking a deep approach to learning [3]. Within this model, the problems of students who are not acting like academics are diagnosed for the purposes of understanding, in psychological terms, how to improve student learning, in accordance with the aims of the institution (e.g. Watkins & Regmi, 1995). One of the fundamental problems with the view of learning that the model presents is that it removes the individual learner from the richness and complexity of his/her multiple contexts. It also constructs the learner as a being passively created by past experience, and passively amenable to reconstruction as a deep learner through a new set of moulding processes that take place within the university. The learner, in this model, is a human being without agency. There is little acknowledgement that learners are people, who may have any number of reasons not to want to respond to institutional agendas. People who are learners may be resisting, or unable to engage with, what higher education assumes, for reasons to do with a sense of alienation (Mann, 2001), perceived risk or personal cost, or contrary philosophical or cultural perspective. In the new higher education, the learner may be a person who is experiencing tremendous difculty in the face of unexplained norms and values; he or she may not know, for example, that facts are seen by many lecturers as the vehicle for the more abstract forms of conceptualisation that are expected, but not modelled or dened. In addition, he or she may be exhausted from part-time work or parenting, distracted by family or nancial problems, or lacking the fundamental condence, self-esteem or health to engage in the ways that are assumed to be both desirable and possible. The model being discussed here presents the good student as either already able to perform in the way that is desired, or at least amenable to moulding in this direction through the workings of various environmental factors that are under the control of the institution. The expectation is that students will reach this goal certainly within their undergraduate degree, and hopefully within its early years. What often seems to remain unacknowledged is that the attitudes and values which characterise the models description of the ideal learner (Kember & Gow, 1990; Richardson, 1994) have in fact taken academics themselves many years to learn. It is unlikely that even the most well-educated post-school student arrives in university with the strategies that enable them to learn in the following way: relating and distinguishing evidence and argument; looking for patterns and underlying principles; integrating the task with existing awareness; seeing parts of a task as making up a whole; theorising about it; forming hypotheses, and relating what they understand from other parts of the same subject, and from different subjects. (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999, p. 3) These are highly complex cognitive operations, which are inseparable from a persons

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contextualised, subjective understanding of the world. They are learnt and relearnt by those who become academics over and over again, in different disciplinary contexts, through trial and error. Marton et al. (1993, in McLean, 2001, p. 411), discuss how coming to an understanding of learning as being able to see things differently or changing as a person is not typical for students at university. The complex nature of such processes, however, is rarely acknowledged, partly perhaps because the value system in which these processes take place dictates that students have to nd their own way, without the major signposting or explicitness often described as spoonfeeding. Elton (2001) suggests that in the current teaching culture of universities it is only the best students who will learn in the ways that are valued by academics, and that, at present, the rest frequently learn supercially without understanding (p. 46). Even for the best, the experience of trying to reach the goals that are so clearly described in the model under discussion is one of struggle, challenge and difculty. In this new context a key question is arguably how the experience of struggle and challenge can be directed towards the achievement of academic goals for a much wider range of students, without compromising the overall aims of higher level learning. A Complementary Alternative? Exploration of Academic Literacies in Specic Contexts Whilst the model is fairly clear about the nature of its desired goals and ways of working, it is much less clear about the nature of the failure or low-quality learning end of the spectrum. Meyer et al. suggest that, statistically, there is little empirical support for a pure form of surface approach (1994, p. 99). According to Volet and Chalmers: Although appearing under different names, the various deep dimensions appear to represent a single coherent concept, as the research by Simons and Vermunt (1985) and Meyer et al. (1990) has shown, but the same was not found for the alternative surface dimensions, suggesting the need for ner and more elaborate analyses of the nature of students learning. (1992, p. 19) If the model is successful in articulating a generalised description of the position from which academics themselves operate, it does not do so well in describing, even at a general level, the difculties that students have in trying to get to that position, or indeed what it might mean not to have any sense of the existence of that position at all. Attention to the study skills that are assumed to be lacking in students at this end of the scale have not traditionally been the concern of academics who teach their subjects, and, as such, there appears to be little academic understanding in this area. Inventory constructs and current explanatory frameworks do not seem to be able to create a meaningful pattern for the responses of students who are not operating in the desired way: the constituent structure of the Approaches to Study Inventory is fragmented in students who fail or who are vulnerable to academic failure Several investigations have found that academically unsuccessful students do not just exhibit poorer approaches to studying but fail to exhibit any coherent approaches at all poor academic performance appears to be associated with a disintegration or fragmentation of the normal patterns of studying. (Richardson, 2000, pp. 170, 183; italics added)

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In the context of these unquestioned assumptions about normality and the desirability of coherence, fragmentation and disintegration describe only a lack of the kinds of frameworks that researchers are looking for. They do not explain anything about different kinds of patterns or frameworks, or factors that are not recognised by the research. A response to this might be to ask what a model of teaching and learning that represented the students perspective, rather than that of academics, might look like. Richardson, summarising research since the 1970s into attrition and retention, suggests that student completion depends on the integration into the academic structure and social life of the institution (2000, p. 36). Focusing here solely on what integration into academic structure might mean, Volet and Chalmers report on a study which tracked developmental shifts in study orientations over time, and suggest that such changes took place once a good understanding of the situation had been achieved (1992, p. 19). Arguably, students cannot integrate, and therefore be successful, unless they understand what it is that they are expected to do. Discussing with students what a deep approach might mean could be one form of explicitness. It is, however, only one level of explanation. Changing teaching methodologies and assessment tasks may alter the kinds of activities that students engage in, and possibly contribute to changes in the way they approach their study, but such changes do not, in themselves, necessarily make the details of academic practice any clearer to people who often come into university without any idea about what critique, argument or structure may mean. The idea that there is often a lack of shared understanding between students and teachers regarding the nature of academic discourse (Hounsell, 1987, in Storch & Tapper, 2000, p. 339) is supported by new research in the area of academic literacies (see Lea & Stierer, 2000; Francis & Hallam, 2000; Ivanic, 2001). Ivanic (2001), for example, has suggested that there is a mismatch between the purposes of literacy activity as dened by the academic community, the purposes of literacy for students as dened by the institution, and the purposes of literacy for students as dened by students themselves. Research into academic literacies challenges the idea that once students have successfully been inducted into the (homogeneous) culture of the university (through study skills training, preparatory courses, etc.), they will be able to use the skills they have learned for the rest of their university education. This research suggests that literacy practices are complex, contested, specic, and, above all, contextualised. Such a view raises questions about the possibility of adequate preparation for higher education (either at school, or on Access courses), as well as about generic learning support and transferable skills. These studies suggest that the development of students thinking and writing is often hampered by a lack of explicitness within the teaching of the subject with regard to the literacy norms of specic subjects. Such an idea challenges traditional fears that explicitness about the details of academic practice is a form of spoonfeeding, which will lead to the erosion of standards and the dumbing down of higher education. Research ndings in the area of academic literacies suggest the need for a shift from a view of success/failure based on ability and preparation, to one that sees study at this level as an apprenticeship into new ways of thinking and expression for students. This view suggests that such new forms of expression take a number of years to develop, and need to be explicitly modelled and explored. Though the idea of developing new ways of thinking that contrast with pre-higher education experience is quite well served by the conceptions and approaches model, the model does not focus attention on what such thinking actually looks like, and how it

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works, at the level of specic written texts in different disciplinary areas. The research of the original group in Sweden concentrated precisely on this area, but this focus has not been maintained by later researchers building on the original ideas. Little is known at present about the way that students learn, or fail to learn, through the processes involved in their interaction with texts and writing. A recent study into the reading processes of a group of postgraduate Masters students in psychology (Francis & Hallam, 2000) suggests that there is much to be learnt about individual and group processes in this area. The study found that the students were unable to recognise or deal with specic features of text connected with genre, and that the genres which caused the most difculty were those relating to the text types most frequently listed as recommended reading. It also suggested that the group responded to the anxiety created by discovering that others had not taken the same meaning from the text by seeking consensus, rather than returning to look at the text in more detail. Francis and Hallam suggest that these elements of student engagement with text should be seen not as defective learning but as normal learning awaiting further development. They stress the need for students to be inducted into the communicative practices of academic knowledge communities, and suggest that this has to be done as part of teaching of the subject: the implication of such a view is that awareness of genre should be cultivated directly in relation to the texts used within the practices of teaching and learning, and that prior genre experiences may not be suitable for new texts and new courses. (2000, p. 295) Studies such as this begin to identify elements of academic discourse that educators could explore with students at the level of specic textual example. In addition to questions of purpose, audience, and features of discourse connected with genre, fundamental concepts such as argument and evidence are often highly opaque to students (Lea & Street, 2000). It is arguably the need to try to concretise such abstractions that often lies behind requests for example essays, student copying, and possibly some occurrences of plagiarism. More detailed work at the level of specic textual examples (in subject areas, with subject experts) could help students to build up a situated, working understanding of what such elements of discourse actually look like, and how they function in a range of different contexts. That students learn to do this is particularly important if it is accepted that there is not one academic culture that students have to be inducted into, but that the academy consists of a range of diverse and often contradictory cultures that students have to learn to negotiate and survive (Lea & Street, 2000). Conclusion Referring to such a wide range of differing studies that relate to teaching and learning in higher education as one model is clearly a generalisation in itself that obscures much important variation and difference. The aim of this discussion, however, has not been to suggest that patterns can never be perceived, or that attempting to identify general trends is necessarily invalid. The purpose of this article has been to draw attention to the restricted nature of this particular approach to the study of higher education learning, and the way in which its construction of the learner avoids any real engagement with the complexities of location and context. The policy and funding agendas currently impacting upon the higher education sector in the UK and Australia seem to be encouraging this retreat into the illusory certainty of scientist approaches; the search for technical-

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rational solutions for what are increasingly dened as technical-rational problems. This seems ironic, even reactionary, at a time when most other elds of learning research are engaging in critical self-examination, and taking increasing account of the situatedness of all forms of social practice. It has been argued that the research discussed here has constructed a model of student learning which is based upon a set of elite values, attitudes and epistemologies that make more sense to higher educations gatekeepers than they do to many of its students. This has been contrasted with the relatively new area of academic literacies research, which is starting to investigate more difcult questions about the interactions of task, context and power in a range of diverse higher educational situations. The apparent inability of the conceptions/approaches model to engage with questions that relate to its own assumptions and positions perhaps illuminates something of the nature of the challenge which the higher education sector currently faces. If the system is to grow into a genuinely accessible form of education for 50% of 18 year-olds, in addition to the widest possible range of adults learning throughout their lives, it is going to have to nd new ways of conceptualising its core values and activities. Questions about accessibility and widening participation do not necessarily imply a reduction in standards, or a diluted form of criticality. These fears emanate from ingrained cultural assumptions that are linked to wider class and social structures. Whilst this analysis has raised questions about the wisdom of basing policy and staff development initiatives upon a model which does not appear to be able to describe the majority of higher education students, the model itself could be seen as highlighting the class-based value-positions which still inform much pedagogical thinking in higher education. Correspondence: Tamsin Haggis, Institute of Education, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK; email: tamsin.haggis@stir.ac.uk NOTES
[1] What this means, however, is hard to pin down, as, despite his claim that quality learning can be identied by high grades, Biggs also discusses how a student who is under-engaging in terms of what is properly required can nonetheless graduate with a rst class honours degree in psychology (1999, p. 14). [2] Learning tasks dened by the teacher; understanding is sought in a narrow but systematic, step-by-step approach; as each part of the task is understood, its important details are memorised (Dhalin & Regmi, 1997, pp. 490491) [3] The Approaches to Study Inventory (Entwistle et al., 1979, in Ramsden, 1984, 1997), for example, identies learning pathologies such as disorganised study methods, negative attitude, globetrotting, operation learning, and improvidence (Kember & Gow, 1990, p. 360). Kember and Gow describe the symptoms of improvidence as failure to build an overall picture or concept map of the elements of the subject (1990, p. 36.)

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