Diving under the surface


Photo by Craig Bennett, Flickr

When I was young, I spent hours looking at the stars and studying charts of the night sky. I collected snails after a rainstorm and put them in box with leaves for a few days (I could hear them munching at night). I looked in every rock pool. I loved growing things in the veggie patch. I loved books and TV shows on nature and wanted to grow up to be David Attenborough. I was deeply immersed in learning about the world around me.

Yet I took a superficial approach to learning through many of my school and university years. Why? The workload, the pressures of balancing study with work and life, the way subjects were taught, and the way exams seemed to require and reward memorisation and regurgitation of facts. I’d usually forget the details of each subject soon after each exam and now, years later, I struggle to recall the basics of many of the subjects I studied (organic chemistry, anyone?).

Those teaching in higher education have probably come across the idea of deep and surface approaches to learning. It’s a key concept that we teach in our short program for new academics at the University of Sydney, and expand upon in our year-long Graduate Certificate.

And we’re not alone; Peter Kandlbinder and Tai Peseta’s survey of 46 institutions found that it was one of five key concepts about higher education learning and teaching taught in such programs. Known as the student approaches to learning theory, the concept was introduced by Ference Marton and Roger Säljö in 1976.

Marton and Säljö investigated how students read a particular text, and found two different approaches to learning. Students taking a deep approach wanted to understand the meaning of the text, while students taking a surface approach focussed on memorising the text in order to reproduce it later.

Many researchers have since explored students’ approaches to learning. Paul Ramsden, John Biggs and Catherine Tang, among others, have argued that students adopt different approaches to learning in different subjects and tasks, depending on many factors including past experiences, motivation, and perceptions of the learning environment (such as workload).

Mike Prosser and Keith Trigwell found a relationship between students’ perceptions of their learning environment, the approach they took as a result (deep or surface) and their subsequent results. That is, students who took a deep approach achieved better results than students who took a surface approach – but noted that the relationship only holds if the assessment measures and rewards deep approaches.

So what are the critiques of the student approaches to learning theory? Apart from the fact that this signature concept was developed by ‘old men’, Tamsin Haggis has argued that:

  1. Student approaches to learning have become reified such that some people label students as either deep or surface learners (see for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMZA80XpP6Y).
  2. Surface approaches to learning can lead to successful results.
  3. The student approaches to learning theory doesn’t work in all disciplinary or cultural contexts.
  4. There has been limited developed of the theory.

Delia Marshall and Jennifer Case responded to these concerns, saying don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ (p258). They explain how the student approaches to learning theory has been developed and critiqued, though they agree with Haggis that there needs to be more critical engagement with the theory. Marshall and Case contend that student approaches to learning is a:

‘powerful framework with which to make sense of aspects of student learning situations….Rather than discarding the theory altogether, we would argue that other perspectives have the potential to enrich and extend it…’ (p263)

These other perspectives include academic literacies, sociocultural theories, discourse analysis and network theories…see Catherine Manathunga’s paper for more ideas or add your own ideas below.

Sexism in higher education research?

On a day when my twitter feed was full of sexism and scandal, I downloaded a new paper by Peter Kandlbinder, called Signature concepts of women researchers in higher education teaching and learning. It’s just been published in Studies in Higher Education, which is one of the gee whiz, gold star, highly ranked higher education journals.

Apart from the fact that the title reminded me of signature dishes of famous chefs, the paper was both useful and shocking. Useful because it draws attention to the contribution of four female researchers in higher education teaching and learning: Sheila Slaughter, Carolin Kreber, Angela Brew and Sarah Delamont. The signature concepts of these researchers are academic capitalism (Slaughter), scholarship of teaching (Kreber), teaching-research nexus (Brew), and postgraduate supervision (Delamont). Kandlbinder also identifies the pathway that each researcher adopted which led them to becoming known for their signature concept: create a unifying concept (Slaughter), publish in multiple journals (Kreber), link two fields together (Brew), and provide advice for practitioners (Delamont). Kandlbinder also notes that each researcher began exploring their signature concept during their doctoral studies.

Now onto the shocking bit: Kandlbinder chose to include a couple of comments from anonymous reviewers, I think on his earlier paper on Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning. One of these reviewers said:

“…higher education [research] is…dominated by the names of ‘seven old men, mostly now retired, who are linked to old concepts, largely generated 30 to 40 years ago with little to recommend them since’.” (p3)

I’m shocked that Kandlbinder included this comment in his paper. While I respect that it is the perspective of the reviewer, and that it might be an opinion shared by others, I find the comment to be harsh and unhelpful.

I’m not saying that sexism in academia doesn’t exist – a recent thesiswhisperer post and associated comments talk about this, and the issue has been explored by many researchers such Joan Eveline in her book Ivory Basement Leadership. I’m saying that comments along the lines of ‘old men, old concepts’ don’t help anyone. Why devalue someone’s work because of their gender or age?

In the Acknowledgements section, Kandlbinder thanks the six (!) anonymous reviewers of, I assume, his paper Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning, which talked about the work of seven male researchers. He says that the reviewers encouraged him to go back at look at his data to find the contributions of female researchers. So that’s fantastic, good on those reviewers. But don’t diss the guys just because they are guys. I’m all for critiquing the concepts – and will do so in my next post on student approaches to learning.