Contrasting Perspectives on Learning: A Historical View

This historical review on student learning by Entwistle (1997) provides a focus on higher education from the experience of learning for the student from the point of view from lecturers, psychologists and educational researchers. The message, is clear and in it’s simplest form, that as educators we need to think carefully about the quality of learning in higher education. Teaching and assessment can induce a passive, reproductive form of learning which is contrary to the aims of the purpose of the teaching itself.

Lecturers’ Perceptions of Student Learning

If we are interested in understanding the outcome of learning, then a sensible start is by reviewing the actual aims of the education. By examining what is actually achieved in relation to what is intended and considering what are the students expected to learn in this training? A common aim of higher education learning can be summarised by the term ‘critical thinking’ as well as the importance of acquiring skills and detailed course knowledge. These critical thinking skills adhere to higher education and the ‘work ready aims of generic skills and personal transferable skills’ which are increasingly valued by employers. These skills include problem-solving, communication skills, and working effectively with others (sometimes discussed as soft skills).

“This connection between the ‘teaching objectives’ (what lecturers say they want to do) and their ‘teaching activity’ (what they actually do) – a lack of relationship between intention and performance. This unrecognised contrast between intent and the effects of teaching is often expressed as a distinction between the formal and the hidden’ curriculum” (Entwistle, Percy & Nisbet, 1971, Vol. 2, Cht. 13, p. 12).

Psychological Research on Learning

Education looked to psychologists for explanations and understanding of the fundamental principles of learning. The view of the teachers approach was being intent on helping pupils to build meaning. Early education research noted that humans tend to repeat behaviour which leads to satisfying consequences (law of effect). “Many have resented the image of the teacher as a ‘manipulator of learning’, criticising the view of learning as solely the acquisition of information, and found the principles of programmed learning to be of limited value in the classroom”. Behaviourist researchers such as Skinner demonstrated that complex sequences of behaviour and reinforcement represented programmed learning. Knowledge was considered to be able to efficiently assembled, like a brick wall, out of its component blocks.

Intelligence and individual differences

IQ was used for it’s general validity as an indicator of educational potential. The idea that a single set of tasks could provide a good indicator of ‘general intelligence’ has been difficult to shift. Its simplicity is appealing and remains ongoing, think of standardised testing during school, the number of tests school children must complete in some countries is amazing (and not in good way). “Gardner (1984) argued for a broader definition of intelligence to include ‘multiple intelligences’ derived from a whole range of human competencies. He has suggested that we should recognise at least seven distinct intelligences, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, and bodily-kinaesthetic. His list also includes two forms of personal intelligence, ‘intrapersonal’ which depends on a ‘sense of self’ and ‘interpersonal’ which involves the capacity to ‘read’ other people’s intentions and feelings in a social setting”.


“Competence motivation describes the positive orientation towards learning created by the repeated experience of successful learning activities. Extrinsic motivation describes the seeking after external reinforcement for learning, from school marks, grades, or qualifications. Intrinsic motivation takes two forms, one in which learning is explained by interest and perceived relevance, and another generally described as achievement motivation, relies on a striving for success which feeds on perceived success and boosted self-confidence”.

Cognitive Structure and Processes.

“A simple information processing model envisages a short term, working memory which sorts out incoming perceptions and relates them to previous knowledge, and a long-term memory in which experiences and conceptual knowledge are stored. They are built up from sets of experiences which are only partially shared with others. Learning thus becomes a matter of the individual construction meaning, and this view of learning (constructivism) has recently become widely accepted within education.  Ausubel et al., (1978) suggest that students develop learning ‘sets’ which predispose them to utilise either rote (memorisation) or meaningful learning in tackling academic tasks”.

Carl Rogers believed that “students and teachers should recognise that emotions are an essential part of learning – that is of ‘significant, existential’ learning, learning which develops personality as well as the intellect. Rogers wanted to establish a ‘community of learners’, free to pursue those ideas which excite them, ideas which have intense personal meaning. He wants, above all, to free curiosity; For Rogers these qualities are ‘realness’ (the teacher shows authentic feelings such as boredom, interest, anger, or sympathy), ‘prizing, acceptance, trust’ (of the student’s personal and intellectual qualities), and ‘empathetic understanding’ (the ability to feel how learning seems to the student). This view of learning has a richness, and immediacy of impact, which is lacking from the mainstream psychological research in learning”. This is an interesting discussion on learning as personal development and highlights some of current discussion in the educational approach of school; and higher education. A heutagogy approach to allow student development is similar t Rogers theory, that provides learner exploration, development, connection with learning networks and wider communities of practice.

Educational Research on Student Learning

Selection and prediction research studies where the selection for higher education by using head-teachers’ ratings or tests of academic aptitude. “Entwistle and Wilson (1977) reported the use of cluster analysis to demonstrate the existence of groups of students with contrasting forms of motivation. Two main clusters were described as having ‘fear of failure’, and ‘self-confident, hope for success’; other types of students were described as ‘radical and extraverted’, and ‘idle and unmotivated’. The first three groups all achieved above average degree results, while the last group did very badly indeed. Wankowski (Raaheim & Wankowski, 1981) has argued that students who come to university for clearly defined reasons and with distinct vocational goals, are more likely to be successful than students with diffuse, unarticulated goals. An alternative qualitative approach involves approaches to research rooted in phenomenology which derive from a direct exploration of students’ experiences of learning. The traditional research paradigm involves explaining student behaviour from the outside, as a detached, objective observer. The alternative approach seeks an empathetic understanding of what is involved in student learning derived from students’ descriptions of what learning means to them. It involves a shift not just of methodology, but of perspective”.

The concepts and categories describing learning and studying highlight the differences for students coming into higher education, with some having a vocational orientation and for others the orientation may be more academic, personal, or social. “The students also come into higher education with differing conceptions of learning based on past educational experiences, students may see learning as mainly a matter of acquiring information and reproducing it accurately as required by the teacher. Alternatively they may believe that learning depends on transforming information in the process of reaching personal understanding”.

Defining features of approaches to learning:

  • Deep Approach 
    • Intention – to understand ideas for yourself
    • Relating ideas to previous knowledge and experience Looking for patterns and underlying principles
    • Checking evidence and relating it to conclusions
    • Examining logic and argument cautiously and critically Becoming actively interested in the course content
  • Surface Approach
    • Intention – to cope with course requirements
    • Studying without reflecting on either purpose or strategy
    • Treating the course as unrelated bits of knowledge
    • Memorising facts and procedures routinely
    • Finding difficulty in making sense of new ideas presented
    • Feeling undue pressure and worry about work
  • Strategic Approach
    • Organising Intention – to achieve the highest possible grades
    • Putting consistent effort into studying
    • Finding the right conditions and materials for studying
    • Managing time and effort effectively
    • Being alert to assessment requirements and criteria
    • Gearing work to the perceived preferences of lecturers

“Different types of assessment seem also to encourage either deep or surface approaches, with essay questions or problems encouraging a deep approach, but only if the questions set demand the demonstration of personal understanding. The quality of teaching also influences the approach to learning. Some lecturers seem to be able to provide students with a vicarious experience of relevance, which evokes a deeper approach to the course”.


Entwistle, N. (1997). Contrasting perspectives on learning. Chapter 1 from Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N. J. (Eds.). (1997). The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. Scottish Academic Press.