Students’ Conceptions of Teaching and Learning

A large study of students enrolled in geography courses at multiple universities in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States looked at their conceptions of geography, teaching, and learning. Each was considered separately.

The study employed several methodologies, among them a phenomenographic analysis of responses to several open-ended questions. This qualitative approach has been described as a method for “mapping the qualitatively different ways in which people experience, conceptualize, perceive and understand various aspects of, and phenomena in, the world around them.” (p. 18) It does not judge the conceptions but seeks to establish a set of descriptive categories. In this case a 20-percent sample from the larger study was created.

The study provides a valuable model of how any discipline might better understand the conceptions students bring to their study of the content. However, in the case of this study those findings are of interest to geographers only. More broadly relevant were their findings about these students’ conceptions of teaching and learning.

Students in this sample had two primary conceptions of teaching. The first, and by far the most common, was an understanding of teaching as information transfer. Here are some sample statements illustrative of this conception: “teaching is someone able to express material to others in a clear and understandable way so that others can learn”, and “teaching is the delivery of information from one person to another in an understandable manner.” (p. 24) Three-quarters of the sample reported this conception of teaching.

The second and less-frequently encountered conception was of teaching as helping learning. Students either combined this and the first conception or saw it separately. These examples illustrate: “teaching is to help students to understand what you yourself have previously learned”, and “teaching is giving others the opportunity to learn –especially guidance.” (p. 25)

With learning there were more conceptions. In fact, the ones extracted from this study confirm others reported in previous research. Starting with the most common conception, learning is the increase in knowledge. “Learning is the process involving the taking up of new information”, and “learning is when you gain knowledge about something you previously new little about. This conception of learning was held by just over two-thirds of the students in the sample. The second most common conception builds on the first one. Here learning is seen as an increase in information or memorization for latter application. Most of the illustrative comments here focused on the application of knowledge in anticipated job situations. Thirdly, these students saw learning as memorization for reproduction. “Learning is taking on new information which can be understood/remembered and redelivered.” (p. 26) The final two conceptions of learning were reported significantly less often: learning as constructing personal understanding and learning as changing personal understanding.

Researchers analyzed these conceptions by country, and those differences are reported in the study. There were differences. The conception of teaching as transfer ranged from almost 72 percent in the U.S. to over 85 percent in the U.K. Percentage differences between those holding lower-level conceptions of learning (the first three) ranged from 87.5 percent in the U.S. to 96.7 percent in the U.K. In both cases the percentage differences are small when weighed against the preponderance of students holding these orientations. Percentages like these go a long way in explaining student resistance to those instructional approaches that encourage different and deeper kinds of learning.

Researchers attribute these conceptions of teaching and learning to the strongly didactic approaches that characterize students’ previous learning experiences. They point out that the “ideal of higher education as a voyage of personal discovery will remain just that, a staff [faculty] ideal unrealized by students, unless students are helped to explore other conceptions of learning and teaching.” (p.32)

Reference: Bradbeer, J., Healey, M., and Kneale, P. (2004). Undergraduate geographers’ understandings of geography, learning and teaching: A phenomenographic study. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 28 (1), 17-34.