Maarten van de Ven
Since the work of Marton and Säljö in 1976, several studies investigated studied qualitative differences in student approaches to learning. Some students take a deep approach to learning while other students adopt a surface approach to learning, resulting in differences in academic achievement. The relations between on the one hand learning approach and on the other hand learning outcome were not always found to be strong.
This paper considers relationships between approaches to learning, learner identities, self-efficacy beliefs and academic achievement in higher education. In addition to already established survey instruments, the researchers developed a new scale, called subject area affinity. This scale explores the extent to which students identify with their area of study and imagine being part of it in future. The new scale showed strong psychometric properties when it was tested on a sample of 4377 students at a research-intensive university. The new scale correlated positively with both the deep approach and self-efficacy scales. The new scale also correlated negatively with the surface approach scale.
While students often adapt their approaches to learning in relation to their perceptions of the teaching–learning environment, strong identification with their subject area would likely provide a greater sense of meaning and relevance for what is learned. According to the authors, it seems plausible that this would then underpin a disposition to understand even if the teaching–learning environment were not entirely favorable. Approaches to learning could be seen as arising in particular interactions between the individual and the context, rather than as a characteristic of individuals. This aligns well with situated perspectives on learning. While some of the research on approaches to learning has considered students’ dispositions or tendencies, these dispositions can be seen as evolving over time in context and expressed in a situated manner in particular contexts. A student who identifies strongly with their subject area may well be more inclined to pursue a deep approach but that identification is constructed and reconstructed anew in context, as are the processes which would constitute a deep approach in a particular setting.
An ideal for future research would be to conduct longitudinal research in a range of contexts over the course of students’ undergraduate degrees and into the beginning of their later employment or postgraduate studies. This would provide richer understanding of how learners’ identities develop over time and how this relates to their approaches to learning.
The concept of subject area affinity might offer a significant contribution to understanding student learning in higher education.