Approaches to Learning

In the following scenario, how would you describe Sammy's, David's, Alex's view in relation to studying?

Setting: Three Form 3 students in a school playground talking about their summer holiday with each of them adopt different approaches to learning.

Sammy: My friends! It is great that we have eventually finished all the examinations. Then… what shall we do for our summer holidays? Ah… I have an idea…Let us go to China or Taiwan or Thailand…just somewhere. We will have lots of fun there, guys.

David: I am too busy! I plan to borrow many reference books to read in the summer. There are many interesting books I would like to read. I think I can understand my subjects more and in deeper ways. I have already bought many books and if you are interested in them, I can lend some to you.

Alex: Oh! No! We won’t have enough time! The HKDSE is coming. I will spend my holidays finishing the exam papers of the past 10 years. If possible, I will even do these questions twice.

Sammy: Stop, stop…. We will have much fun going to China. Join with me!

David: Knowledge is important to us. Think about our world! If we don’t have knowledge, we won’t have the advancement of society.

Alex: Everybody knows past papers are very important. I must finish doing them. Examination results are most important to me.

Sammy: You two are crazy! We have just finished the examination. How can you be in the mood to talk about studying now? You two are so clever! You can just study before the examination and you can still get good marks. I am going to play basketball. Bye for now!

Adapted from the Educational Studies: Classroom Learning and Student Development course guide, Faculty of Education, HKU.


Q: What is an approach to learning? Is it the preferred strategies used by students?

The phrase “Approach to learning” describes students' motive to study and preference regarding how they go about completing academic tasks. For instance, Alex chooses to memorize facts to meet requirements and get a good grade, while David chooses to try his best to comprehend and make sense of what is taught in order to become knowledgeable.


Q: What are the key theories in the field?

  • Marton and Saljo (1976) used the phenomenographic approach, which involves in-depth interviews, to understand students' perspective on a situation of text comprehension. They found two contrasting perspectives on the same text comprehension task -- surface and deep approaches to learning.
  • Entwistle and Ramsdan (1983) further developed Marton and Saljo's findings with an especially designed inventory, the Approaches to Study Inventory (ASI).
  • Biggs (1993) independently developed another instrument, the Study Processes Questionnaire (SPQ), to classify students' approach to study.

All theorists found the two contrasting characterization of approach to study, deep and surface approach to learning, as identified by Marton and Saljo. The major characteristics of the two approaches to learning are shown in the following summary table:

Comparison of deep approach and surface approach (Entwistle, 2004)

Surface ApproachDeep Approach
Treating the course seen as unrelated bits of knowledge Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience
Routinely memorizing facts and carrying out procedures Looking for patterns and underlying principles
Focusing narrowing on the minimum syllabus demands Checking evidence and relating it to conclusion
Seeing little value or meaning in the course or set tasks Examining logic and argument cautiously and critically
Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy Monitoring understanding as learning progress


Q: What factors influence students' approaches to learning?

In the face of different assessments and learning requirements, the same student can have drastically different interpretations of an educational event and its objective, and therefore the means for handling the tasks at stake.

In a nutshell, when assessment tasks can be completed by rote learning memorization, students will resort to surface approach to learning. When assessment tasks demand understanding, application and transfer to novel situations, or integration of information, then students will be likely to employ deep approach to study.

Furthermore, research has shown that the mobilization of deep approach is associated with better and higher quality of learning outcomes.


Q: I realize that most of the discussion of approach to learning stems from studies done in Western contexts, how do these findings apply to us, in a Chinese context?

Approach to learning among Chinese learners:

  • Chinese learners were initially thought to rely on the surface approach to learning, as they relied heavily on rote learning and memorization. However, Chinese learners' achievement in many international assessments consistently is top among many countries. This is known as the 'paradox of the Chinese learner'.
  • Researchers later found that rote learning and memorization carry different meaning for Chinese learners. Memorization is considered a means to achieve deep understanding and abstraction.
  • Furthermore, it has been found that the mobilization of deep and surface strategies are not exclusive among Chinese learners, they are capable of using both surface and deep approaches simultaneously to strive for academic excellence. It is thought to be influenced by Confucius’ teaching, which emphasized attaining achieving through effort.




Study Process Questionnaire -- Excerpted items (Biggs, Kember & Leung, 2001)

1. I find that at times studying gives me a feeling of deep personal satisfaction.

2. I find that I have to do enough work on a topic so that I can form my own conclusions

before I am satisfied.

3. My aim is to pass the course while doing as little work as possible.

4. I only study seriously what’s given out in class or in the course outlines.

5. I feel that virtually any topic can be highly interesting once I get into it.

6. I find most new topics interesting and often spend extra time trying to obtain more

information about them.

7. I do not find my course very interesting so I keep my work to the minimum.

8. I learn some things by rote, going over and over them until I know them by heart even if

I do not understand them.

9. I find that studying academic topics can at times be as exciting as a good novel or


10. I test myself on important topics until I understand them completely.

11. I find I can get by in most assessments by memorising key sections rather than trying to

understand them.

12. I generally restrict my study to what is specifically set as I think it is unnecessary to do

anything extra.

13. I work hard at my studies because I find the material interesting.

14. I spend a lot of my free time finding out more about interesting topics which have been

discussed in different classes.

15. I find it is not helpful to study topics in depth. It confuses and wastes time, when all you

need is a passing acquaintance with topics.

16. I believe that lecturers shouldn’t expect students to spend significant amounts of time

studying material everyone knows won’t be examined.

17. I come to most classes with questions in mind that I want answering.

18. I make a point of looking at most of the suggested readings that go with the lectures.

19. I see no point in learning material which is not likely to be in the examination.

20. I find the best way to pass examinations is to try to remember answers to likely




Further Reading
  • Biggs, J. (1987). Students approaches to learning and studying. Melbourne. Australian Council for Educational Research.
  • Biggs, J. (2010). Teaching according to how students learn. In L.F. Zhang, J. Biggs & D. Watkins (Eds.), Learning and development of Asian students: What the 21st Century teacher needs to think about (pp.245-274). Singapore: Prentice Hall.
  • Chan, C.K.K. (2001). Developing learning and understanding through constructivist approaches for Chinese Learners. In D.A. Watkins & J. Biggs (Eds.), Teaching the Chinese Learner (pp. 181-204). Comparative Educational Research Centre & the Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd. Hong Kong.
  • Entwistle, N. J. & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning. London: Croom Helm.
  • Marton, F. & Saljo, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning, outcomes and process, Bristish Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.
  • Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.