How does a student best learn? Are singular approaches the most helpful or should students work in groups to create understanding? In the latest edition of our ‘Learning Styles’ series, we explore the work of Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, and the importance of individual aims and goals in education.

It is generally agreed that, prior to the mid-1970s, there was no real body of work which attempted to explain different learning styles – until the research conducted by Ference Marton and Roger Säljö at the University of Gothenburg, that is. This work is considered crucial, and in order to discuss the findings of Entwistle and Ramsden, we must first understand the Marton and Säljö experiments.

During these experiments, which were conducted in 1976, Swedish students were asked to read an article. Once they had finished reading, they were asked a series of questions (such as ‘Did you find the passage interesting?’ and ‘Could you describe how you went about reading this text’?). The sessions were conducted on an individual basis and the discussions transcribed.

The aim of the experiment was to identify different approaches to learning. Marton and Säljö’s analysis of the results led them to separate the students into two learning categories: deep and surface learners. Deep learners were found to be prone to minute exploration, showing interest in the meaning behind the topic, and attempting to enhance their understanding by relating the material to other forms of knowledge. Surface learners, by contrast, were preoccupied with only the major themes, and tended to commit these to memory.

Entwistle and Ramsden

Building on Marton and Säljö’s earlier research, Entwistle and Ramsden extended the existing classifications of learning to include a third type: the strategic learner. In their seminal work, Approaches to Studying Inventory (1981), they refine Marton and Säljö’s ideas, creating a questionnaire (ASI) to identify the three different approaches. The characteristics of each learning style are outlined below.

Surface learning

Surface learners are focused on acquiring facts – to them, this is what learning is ‘for’. Surface learners often test well, as they are likely to memorise everything their course leader has told them – however, if an exam requires ‘outside the box’ thinking, they may struggle. They respond best to teachers who favour a didactic teaching style, and who will tell them exactly which materials to read and which notes to take. They respond badly to ideas that seem vague and overly complex; if there are too many strands to an argument, and the connections are not clear, they will struggle to follow.

Strategic learning

Strategic learners are focused on achievement. They will focus their efforts on time management, efficient working, and consistency (creating a study schedule that encompasses regular, lengthy periods of study, sticking to this rigidly for a time, and monitoring the strategy’s efficacy). Heavily influenced by the perceived preferences of their course leaders, they are very responsive to individual assessment criteria, adapting their approaches to suit the individual subject.

Deep learning

Deep learners are focused on self-development. Rather than learning by rote, deep learners search for meaning in their study materials, and are excited by new ideas. Ever curious, they constantly re-assess, spending time measuring what they are learning against past experiences to enrich their understanding. In direct contract to surface learners, deep learners relish complex ideas and respond well to a holistic approach: if given the opportunity to explore many strands at once, and look for patterns, they are able to better understand the overall theme.

When reviewing the above – and considering learning styles – it is helpful for educators and students to understand the importance of adaptability and individuality. Entwistle’s theory places value on the individuality of the learner: that there is real merit in giving students the freedom to use different approaches in different circumstances, and encouraging students to assess their own approaches and individual aims.

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