Phenomenographic & Variation Theory

Phenomenographic & Variation Theory

The phenomenological perspective is based around understanding the experiences of others, for example a teacher gaining an understanding of the student’s perspective of a particular lesson. Basing this approach around the individual’s perspective, continual evolvement occurs in the different learning experiences we participate in (Marton, 1981). The same educational content could be delivered to a group of individuals which results in different meanings and interpretations to each individual.

Marton and Trigwell (2000) explored this variation in learning situations and what can be achieved with different learning strategies, stating “variation is the mother of learning’. Martin & Booth (1997) highlight the individual concepts of different ways of seeing or experiencing, conceptualising, perceiving and understanding phenomena in the world. For understanding education, one needs to see the impacts on variation and learning. It is worth focusing directly on the learner, “The real distinction of phenomenology is the focus on the student/learner approach to learning, classified as deep, surface or strategic” (Marton, Hounsell, and Entwistle, 1984).

This individualistic, interpretist experience of the learner also utilises a process called transfer (Marton, 2006). According to Marton (2006), transfer utilises previous experience and recognising differences from past and current learning situations, this develops the idea of sameness in terms of learning, but also emphasises this cannot occur without recognising differences at the same time. “And when it comes to preparing students for an unknown future, the nature of variation is of decisive importance” (Marton and Trigwell, 2000, p. 394).

Thorndike’s stimulus-response associations in learning explains this transfer of the learning process from one situation to another, even in completely different topics (Knowles et al, 2011). The process then starts again in this new situation but the transfer is from the learners past context and experiences (Marton, 2006). In phenomenography the learner may determine what is learned, rather than the traditional teacher determined learning outcomes (Biggs and Tang, 2007). Marton & Trigwell (2000) “position the student as the agent of learning”.

“By using phenomenography one can identify how key concepts are understood by the learner, while variation theory can assist in identifying the aspects that need to be varied for the students to gain a deep, and complete understanding, thus improving learning outcomes.” (Stamouli and Huggard, 2007).

Keywords: transfer; individualistic; phenomenology; Marton; agent of learning.


Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography—Describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10, 177-220.

Marton, F. (2000). The structure of awareness. In J. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 102-116). Melbourne: RMIT University Press.

Marton, F. (2006). Sameness and Difference in Transfer. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 499-535. doi: 10.1207/s15327809jls1504_3

Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N. J. (1984). The experience of learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Marton, F., & Trigwell, K. (2000). Variatio Est Mater Studiorum. Higher Education Research & Development, 19(3), 381-395. doi: 10.1080/07294360020021455

Stamouli, I. & Huggard, M. (2007) Phenomenography as a tool for understanding our students. Trinity College Dublin.

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