Explaining university students’ strong commitment to understand through individual and contextual elements

Main Article Content

Liisa Postareff
Sari Lindblom-Ylänne
Anna Parpala


Since the late 1970s numerous studies have explored students’ approaches to learning (referred to as the ‘SAL’ tradition). These studies have provided valuable evidence of students’ study strategies and intentions at the university. Since extensive research already exists on students’ approaches to learning, there is a need to move forward and analyse student learning from new perspectives. In the present in-depth qualitative study, we analyse interviews of 34 students who scored extremely highly on the deep approach scale in a pre-test in our previous quantitative study (authors, 2013) and thus are likely to have a strong commitment to understand, and a ‘disposition to understand for oneself’ which is a recently introduced, yet unexplored phenomenon (see Entwistle & McCune, 2009; McCune & Entwistle, 2011). We identified several individual and contextual elements which provided explanations for the students’ high scores on the deep approach, as well as for the increase, decrease or stability in their deep approach during one course. The results showed that most students showed a strong commitment to understand, but those whose deep approach sharply decreased during the course showed less commitment and their descriptions revealed problems with, for example,study skills, time management and regulation of learning. However, contextual elements such as the students' experiences of the course teaching and their interest in the course content did not clearly provide explanations for the changes in the deep approach. Elements of a 'disposition to understand for oneself  clearly emerged among students whose deep approach did not decrease, or decreased only slightly.


Article Details

How to Cite
Postareff, L., Lindblom-Ylänne, S., & Parpala, A. (2014). Explaining university students’ strong commitment to understand through individual and contextual elements. Frontline Learning Research, 2(1), 31–49. https://doi.org/10.14786/flr.v2i1.63


Baeten, M., Kyndt, E., Struyven, K., & Dochy, F. (2010). Using student-centred learning environments to stimulate deep approaches to learning: Factors encouraging or discouraging their effectiveness. Educational Research Review, 5, 243-260.
Biggs, J. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research.
Creswell, J. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches (3rd Edition). London: Sage Publications.
Diseth, A. (2003). Personality and approaches to learning as predictors of academic achievement. European Journal of Personality, 17, 143–155.
Elo, S. & Kyngäs, H. (2007). The qualitative content analysis process. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62 (1), 107-115.
Entwistle, N. (2009). Teaching for understanding at university: Deep approaches to learning and
distinctive ways of thinking. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Entwistle, N. J., & McCune, V. (in press). The disposition to understand for oneself at university: Integrating learning processes with motivation and cognition. British Journal of Educational Psychology.
Entwistle, N. J., & McCune, V. (2009). The disposition to understand for oneself at university and beyond: learning processes, the will to learn and sensitivity to context. In L-F. Zang & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Perspectives on the nature of intellectual styles (pp. 29-62). New York: Springer.
Entwistle, N. & McCune, V. (2004). The conceptual base of study strategies inventories in higher education. Educational Psychology Review, 16 (4), 325-345.
Entwistle, N., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning. London: Croom Helm.
Flick, U. (2002). An introduction to qualitative research. 2nd ed. London: Sage Publications.
Gijbels, D., Segers, M., & Struyf, E. (2008). Constructivist learning environments and the (im)possibility to change students’ perceptions of assessment demands and approaches to learning. Instructional Science, 36, 431–443.
Gow, L. & Kember, D. (1990). Does higher education promote independent learning? Higher Education 19, 307-322.
Hailikari, T., Postareff, L,. Tuononen, T., Räisänen, M. & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (in press). Students’ and teachers’ perceptions of fairness in assessment. In C. Kreber, C. Anderson, N. Entwistle, & J. McArthur (Eds), Advances and Innovations in University Assessment and Feedback. The Edinburgh University Press.
Heikkilä, A., & Lonka, K. (2006). Studying in higher education: students’ approaches to learning, self-regulation, and cognitive strategies. Studies in Higher Education, 31, 99-117.
Heikkilä, A., Niemivirta, M., Nieminen, J., & Lonka, K. (2011). Interrelations among university students’ approaches to learning, regulations of learning, and cognitive and attributional strategies: a person oriented approach. Higher Education, 61, 513-529.
Hidi, S. & Ainley, M. (2008). Interest and self-regulation: Relationships between variables that influence learning. In D. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Motivation and self-regulated learning (pp. 77-110). Theory, research, and applications. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Johnson, R.B, Onwuegbuzie, A.J., & Turner, L.A. (2007). Toward a Definition of Mixed Methods Research, Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 1(2), 112-133.
Kyndt, E., Dochy, F., Cascallar, E., & Struyven, K. (2011). The direct and indirect effect of motivation for learning on students’ approaches to learning, through perceptions of workload and task complexity. Higher Education Research & Development, 30, 135-150.
Kyndt, E., Dochy, F., Struyven, K., & Cascallar, E. (2011). The perception of workload and task complexity and its influence on students’ approaches to learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 26 ,393-415 .
Lietz, P., & Matthews, B. (2010). The effects of college students’ personal values on changes in learning approaches. Research in Higher Education, 51, 65–87.
Lindblom-Ylänne, S., & Lonka, K (1999). Individual ways of interacting with the learning environment - Are they related to study success? Learning and Instruction, 9, 1-18.
Lonka, K., & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (1996). Epistemologies, conceptions of learning, and study practices in medicine and psychology. Higher Education, 31, 5-24.
Lonka, K., Olkinuora, E., & Mäkinen, J. (2004). Aspects and Prospects of Measuring Studying and Learning in Higher Education. Educational Psychology Review, 16 (4), 301-323.
Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I. Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.
Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. Entwistle, (Eds.) The experience of learning (2nd ed., pp. 39-58). Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Academic Press.
Marton, F., Dall’Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19, 277-300.
McCune, V., & Entwistle, N. (2011). Cultivating the disposition to understand in 21st century university education. Learning and Individual Differences, 21, 303-310.
Nieminen, J., Lindblom-Ylänne, S., & Lonka, K. (2004). The development of study orientations and study success in students of pharmacy. Instructional Science, 32, 387–417.
Parpala, A., Lindblom-Ylänne, S., Komulainen, E., Litmanen, T., & Hirsto, L. (2010). Students’ approaches to learning and their experiences of the teaching-learning environment in different disciplines. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 269-282.
Patton, M.Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Perkins, D. N., & Tishman, S. (2001). Dispositional aspects of intelligence. In J. M. Collis & S. Messick (Eds.), Intelligence and Personality (pp. 233−258). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
Rytkönen, H., Parpala, A., Lindblom-Ylänne, S., Virtanen, V., & Postareff, L. (2012). Factors affecting bioscience students’ academic achievement. Instructional Science, 40, 241-256.
Schilling, J. (2006). On the pragmatics of qualitative assessment: Designing the process for content analysis. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 22 (1), 28-37.
Struyven, K., Dochy, F., Janssens, S., & Gielen, S. (2006). On the dynamics of students’ approaches to learning: The effects of the teaching/learning environment. Learning and Instruction, 16, 279–294.
Trigwell, K., Ellis, R. A., & Han, F. (2012). Relations between students’ approaches to learning, experienced emotions and outcomes of learning. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 811-824.
Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., & Waterhouse, F. (1999). Relations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and students’ approaches to learning. Higher Education, 37, 57-70.
Van Rossum, E. J., Deijkers, R., & Hamer, R. (1985). Students’ learning conceptions and their interpretation of significant educational concepts. Higher Education, 14, 617–641.
Vanthournout, G., Donche, V., Gijbels, D. & Van Petegem, P. (2013). (Dis)similarities in research on learning approaches and learning patterns. In D. Gijbels, V. Donche, J.T.E. Richardson & J.D. Vermunt (Eds.), Learning Patterns in Higher Education. Dimensions and research perspectives (pp. 11-32). Routledge.
Watters, D., & Watters, J. (2007). Approaches to learning by students in the biological sciences: Implications for teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 29, 19–43.
Vermunt, J. D. (1998). The regulation of constructive learning processes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 149-171.
Vermunt, J.D.., & van Rijswijk, F.A.W.M. (1988). Analysis and development of students’ skill in self-regulated learning. Higher Education, 170, 647-682.
Vermunt, J. D., & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and Instruction, 9, 257-280.
Watkins, D. A., & Hattie, J. (1985). A longitudinal study of the approach to learning of Australian tertiary students. Human Learning, 4, 127—142.
Zeegers, P. (2001). Student learning in science: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 59-71.