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Conceptions of learning held by students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary schoolCarole Steketee
Edith Cowan University
What: The following paper presents the results of a study completed as part of an honours degree, where the conceptions of learning held by students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary school were investigated.
Why: Conceptions of learning are the beliefs and ideas people have about what learning actually means. People often think that the notion of learning means the same to everyone. Based on Svensson's (1979, cited in Pramling, 1983, p. 12) assumption however, that the phenomenon of learning has not one, but several meanings, the author decided to see if this was the case for primary school aged students. This interest was also fuelled by related research showing that the conception of learning an individual holds actually influences the way in which he/she approaches tasks in class, which ultimately affects the quality of the learning outcome (van Rossum & Schenk, 1984). In view of this, and the fact that no research of this type has been carried out with primary school aged students, it was acknowledged that information of this type should be available to teachers of this level.
How: Using a phenomenographic approach, the conceptions of learning held by six students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary school were explored. Data collected from a series of in-depth interviews resulted in the identification of six distinctly different conceptions of learning which will be described later.
The findings of these studies are thought to form different levels of sophistication ranging from a basic understanding of learning to a more advanced viewpoint. For example, if we take a closer look at Pramling's results (see Table 1), she found that Swedish preschool students' conceptions of learning ranged from learning as the ability to do something (eg, skip, write) to learning as the ability to know things (eg, answers to multiplication tables) to learning as the ability to make sense of things (eg, to understand the concept of multiplication). Similarly, in their study with open university students, Marton et al. (1993) found that students' conceptions ranged from learning as the accumulation of knowledge (ie, learning is knowing lots of things), to learning as the development of the individual as a result of new understandings and appreciations (see Table 1).
|Preschool Students||Adult Students|
Physically participating in an activity and doing something.
Building up one's store of knowledge about the world that surrounds them.
Understanding the meaning inherent in an activity or piece of information.
Increasing one's knowledge
Accumulating pieces of information.
One can infer from the hierarchical nature of these results that the development of more sophisticated conceptions of learning does not mean the preceding levels are relinquished. When an individual shows evidence of holding a particular conception of learning, it can be assumed that he or she also holds conceptions of learning that fall below this level. In other words, students who hold a high-level conception of learning also have access to the preceding lower levels. Conversely, students who hold low-level conceptions of learning do not have access, as this point in their learning, to higher level conceptions of learning.
van Rossum & Schenk's (1984) discovery of a relationship between individuals' conceptions of learning, and how they approach learning tasks, highlights the importance of identifying conceptions of learning. Their findings have suggested that an individual's conception of learning will influence his or her approach to various learning tas ks, which in turn will affect the quality of the learning outcome. For example, a low-level conception of learning will lead to a surface approach to learning (eg., rote rehearsal) whereas a higher level conception of learning will lead to a deep approach to learning (eg., elaboration). To complete this relationship, van Rossum and Schenk assert that surface approaches lead to less effective learning outcomes compared to deep approaches which lead to high-level, quality learning outcomes.
The relationship between conceptions of learning, approaches to learning and learning outcomes holds implications for teachers. Because students' conceptions of learning influence the way in which they approach learning tasks, it is imperative that teachers are aware of their students' understanding of learning. In order to facilitate meaningful learning by their students, and encourage students to achieve higher level learning outcomes, teachers must first seek to understand learning from the perspective of their students. Furthermore, teachers can expect to find a range of conceptions of learning within one apparently homogeneous class due to the influential interrelationship that occurs between individual characteristics, contexts and cultures (Svensson, 1979, cited in Pramling, 1983; Pramling, 1981, cited in Pramling 1983; Watkins & Regmi, 1992).
What are the conceptions of learning held by students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary school, ages 5, 8 and 11 respectively?
The following subsidiary questions were also explored as part of the overall investigation:
Säljö (1979) pioneered the use of phenomenography in his exploration of adult students' conceptions of learning. His study has been replicated many times (Giorgi, 1986, cited in Marton et al., 1993; Marton et al., 1993; Pramling, 1983) with similar findings supporting the use of this research method.
The six students were each observed for a half-day on two separate occasions in the natural setting of their own classrooms. Immediately following the periods of observation, each student was individually interviewed. The first interview session was informal as the purpose was to establish rapport between the researcher and the student, and to encourage the student to consciously think about and articulate his/her understanding of learning. The data for analysis were mainly gathered from the second interview, although the first interview provided rich complementary information.
Interviews were transcribed, and using NUDIST as a sophisticated organising tool, student statements were segmented into units of meaning based on the constant comparative method proposed by Glaser and Strauss (cited in Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 340). The classification of these units of meaning was based on a combination of ideas that came from the data, related literature and the conceptual and theoretical framework. Categories of meaning were defined, refined and merged, resulting in six qualitatively different conceptions of learning.
You need to learn so you can have a job and be good at it. Then you get a wage so you get more money.
[Learning is] when you get to shoot baskets better.
Learning is knowing more things, like having to know more things about the world so if a person says "what's 12+12" you would say "24".
Well you might learn the same things as in Grade Three except a bit harder. Like in nature study we did trees. You could do that but we would probably learn different things.
Well, it's like a feeling . . . I feel that something is clear and I'm happy about it because I know what it means.
You help each other because everybody has a different view of how it's done and when you put them all together you see that it can be done lots of ways even if some are better than others. It's like you think tha t everybody thinks like you but they don't and I always think that my way is right but if you stop and listen to what the group says you usually find better ways of doing things.
These conceptions are generally in accordance with Pramling's results (1983) showing a progression from learning To Do, to learning To Know and then ultimately to learning To Understand. A striking difference, however, is the identification of an additional conception which precedes Pramling's primary level of learning To Do. The author has labelled this the Generic Learning conception due to its indistinct nature. It appears to be the most basic level and possibly the one from which all others develop.
In addition, two knowledge-orientated conceptions of learning emerged in this study as opposed to only one identified by Pramling (1983). The two identified in this study both associate knowledge with learning, however, a slightly more sophisticated means of acquiring information in one has resulted in the creation of a separate, qualitatively different conception. Furthermore, the latter four conceptions in this study hold many similarities to adult conceptions of learning as identified by Marton et al. (1993). There were no such similarities discussed in Pramling's findings.
The following continuum (figure 2) indicates the predominant conceptions of learning held by each age group:
Generic Physically Knowing More Knowing Harder Searching for Constructing New
Learning Doing Things Things Meaning Understandings
The notion of making learning itself an issue for conscious reflection requires consideration to be given to the role of context in the formation of conceptions of learning. It requires a complete restructuring of the traditional content-focused curriculum to one that is more metacognitive in nature. Teaching metacognitive strategies will equip students with an array of deep-level strategies which will facilitate their understanding of various learning tasks, and subsequently, encourage more advanced conceptions of learning.
Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography: Describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10(2), 177-200.
Marton, F., Dall'Alba, G. & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19, 277-300.
Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Pramling, I. (1983). The child's conception of learning. Sweden: ACTA Universitatis Gothoburgensis.
Purdie, N. (November, 1994). What do students think "learning" is and how do they do it? A cross-cultural comparison. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Newcastle, Australia.
Säljö, R. (1979). Learning in the learner's perspective. I. Paper presented at the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Stockholm. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 173369).
van Rossum, E. J. & Schenk, S. M. (1984). The relationship between learning conception, study strategy and learning outcome. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 73-85.
Watkins, D. & Regmi, M. (1992). How universal are student conceptions of learning? A Nepalese investigation. Psychologia, 25(2), 101-110.
|Please cite as: Steketee, C. (1997). Conceptions of learning held by students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary school. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/steketee.html|