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Conceptions of learning held by students in the lower, middle and upper grades of primary school

Carole 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.

Conceptual background

The conceptual framework for this study developed out of Svensson's (1979, cited in Pramling, 1983, p. 12) assumption that the meanings people ascribe to the phenomenon of learning are influenced by the interrelationship that occurs between individuals, contexts and cultures. That is, the context within which learning takes place will influence an individual's conception of learning, as will their cultural and familial beliefs. The conceptions of learning held by the students in this study were assumed to be influenced by age, teaching context and the cultural beliefs held by family and society at large (see Figure 1). It is important to note that these influences were not explored, as the purpose of the study was to describe the types of conceptions of learning the students held, not why they hold them or how they were formed.

Cultural background

Society's expectations and beliefs

Teaching context

Teachers' conceptions of learning and teaching
School culture
Instructional method
Assessment method

of learning

Individual characteristics

Cognitive development

Home context

Familial cultural beliefs
Familial conceptions of learning

Figure 1: Conceptual framework

Theoretical background

Previous research in the area of conceptions of learning has predominantly focused on adult and secondary school students' conceptions of learning (Perry, 1970; Säljö, 1979; Marton, Dall'Alba & Beaty, 1993; Purdie, 1994). Ingrid Pramling's investigation into the conceptions of learning held by Swedish preschool students is the only known research of this type conducted with young learners. Until this study, there has been no research into the conceptions of learning held by primary school students.

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).

Table 1: Conceptions of learning held by adult students and preschool students

Preschool StudentsAdult Students
Learning as:


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.

(Pramling, 1983)

Learning as:

Increasing one's knowledge

Accumulating pieces of information.

Memorising and reproducing

Rote learning to recall pieces of information.


Accumulating knowledge to be used as required.


Searching for the underlying meaning.

Seeing something in a different way

Looking at a concept from different perspectives.

Changing as a person

Growing and changing as a result of new understandings and appreciations.
(Marton et al., 1993)

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).


The principal research question explored was:
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:

  1. What differences exist in the conceptions of learning held by 5, 8 and 11 year old students?

  2. What similarities and/or differences exist between the conceptions of learning held by the students in this study and those identified by Pramling (1983)?

  3. What similarities and/or differences exist between the conceptions of learning held by the students in this study and those relating to adult learners?
The method adopted for this study incorporated many qualities of phenomenographic research as the aim was to reveal students' conceptions of learning from the perspective of the students themselves. Marton (1981) has labelled this type of investigation a 'second order perspective' as the researcher's intention is not to express his/her own interpretation of phenomena, but to understand and express phenomena from the participant's point-of-view. The purpose of phenomenography is to systematically describe people's qualitatively different conceptions of the world around them, and data is typically generated through one-to-one interviews, and categories of conceptions that emerge from this data constitute the results.

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 total sample consisted of six students; three males and three females (see Table 2).

Table 2: Sample composition

Gender Year 1
Year 4
Year 7
Total number of subjects

Male Age 5Age 8Age 11
Female Age 5Age 8Age 11
Total students per class 2226

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.


The following six conceptions of learning emerged from the data.

  1. Generic Learning:
  2. Learning is described by students as something that happens through good behaviour and school attendance. This conception has a social orientation where learning is seen as a necessity for future employment and survival in the adult world.
    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.

  3. Physically Doing:
  4. Learning is described by students as the ability to do something. This conception has an action orientation where learning is seen to involve physical participation in an activity, whether it is carrying out a manual skill or the manipulation of materials.
    [Learning is] when you get to shoot baskets better.

  5. Knowing More Things:
  6. Learning is described by students as the accumulation of information such that they increase their stores of knowledge. This conception has a knowledge orientation where the more one knows, the better a learner one is.
    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".

  7. Knowing Harder Things:
  8. Learning is described by students as the accumulation of information that increases in complexity. This conception has a knowledge orientation where learning is seen as the acquisition of facts that form the foundation upon which related, yet more complex facts are built.
    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.

  9. Searching For Meaning:
  10. Learning is described by students as the ability to make sense of information. This conception has a meaning orientation where learning is synonymous with the overall understanding of material.
    Well, it's like a feeling . . . I feel that something is clear and I'm happy about it because I know what it means.

  11. Constructing New Understandings:
  12. Learning is described by students as the synthesis of information such that more personally relevant theories are developed. This conception has a meaning orientation where learning is seen to involve the construction of new understandings.
    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:

Simple Complex

Generic Physically Knowing More Knowing Harder Searching for Constructing New

Learning Doing Things Things Meaning Understandings

5 years

8 years

11 years

Figure 2: Predominant conceptions of learning
held by the three different age groups
Note: The original for this figure was not available to the HTML Editors when this file was prepared.

While there are obvious differences, the knowledge-oriented conceptions of learning were common to all three age groups. This finding raises implications for teachers in light of the fact that knowledge-oriented conceptions of learning have been associated with low-level approaches to learning. The challenge for teachers is to promote meaning-oriented conceptions of learning which have been associated with high-level approaches to learning and quality learning outcomes (van Rossum & Schenk, 1984). This can only occur when students are encouraged to look beyond their passive involvement in lessons and to see learning as an active process that requires their conscious reflection and cognitive engagement.

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.


The emergence of six qualitatively different conceptions of learning emphasises the contrasting nature of students' interpretations of the term 'learning'. This finding supports Svensson's (1979) assertion that learning has not one but several meanings. Consequently, teachers must not assume that all students perceive learning in the same way, but rather endeavour to understand variations in its meaning and the implications these variations are likely to have on the way students approach their learning. This knowledge will enable teachers to develop improved methods that will facilitate learning, whatever their students' conception of learning may be.


Lincoln, Y. & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverley Hills: Sage.

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

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