Is all learning the same learning?

Mr James Keogh, Dean of Studies and Learning Analytics

It is almost without question that schools are ‘learning communities’. However, that one little word, ‘learning’, and how it is understood has profound implications for all in such a learning community. Despite the common use of the term, research has shown that learning is understood or conceptualised differently (Marton, Dall’Alba & Beaty, 1993) by participants within a learning environment and/or across different learning environments.

The initial questions arising from this are: What are the different ways that learning is conceptualised and does it matter if there are different ways of conceptualising learning?

Learning has been identified in a range of studies over a number of decades as being conceptualised in different ways, from Saljo’s work in the 1970s (Saljo, 1979), Marton’s work in the 1990s (Marton, 1993) to the more recent work of Lin (2011). Although studies may have used slightly different descriptive wording, inherently the same range of understandings of learning has been identified over the years and across learning environments and can be represented by the following:

  1. knowledge acquisition
  2. memorisation and recall
  3. utilisation or application of knowledge
  4. understanding or meaning development
  5. interpretative process aimed at reality construction
  6. changing as a person.

These six different conceptions of learning can be considered in a hierarchical format with the first three more focused on the ‘what’ and thus related to ‘surface’ approaches of learning, and the latter three more transformative, being focused on the ‘how’ and therefore related to ‘deep’ approaches to learning (Oxford University, Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, n.d.; Lin, 2011).

An important aspect of these different ways that learning are viewed is that an individual is not pigeon-holed or defined by one category. Most people will operate over a range of these understandings in different circumstances. For example, being able to recite your phone number is very different from being able recognise, understand and explain the numeric coding system used to generate a phone number, for example including its country code, state code, and local region codes. However, a person may not operate across all of the identified categories if that category is not part of their understanding of what learning is.

It is this last point that is crucial in a school and is at the heart of that question posed earlier: Does it matter if there are different ways of conceptualising learning?

A classroom is a point of interaction of multiple understandings of learning. Not only are there students with their own view of learning, there are also teachers with their understanding of learning and then there is the curriculum material and its associated assessment which is structured around a view of learning. Yet the question remains: Does this actually matter?

In short, the answer is ‘Yes’.

As noted by Goodyear, Asensio, Jones, Hodgson and Steeples  (2003), the strategies and approaches a person uses to go about what they call learning is dependent on how they, as individuals, conceptualise learning. Consider two students, one whose dominant understanding and thus operational view of learning is of memorisation and recall while the other has a dominant view of learning of understanding and meaning development. They would approach their class-work quite differently. The former student may well spend time copying notes, looking for definitions, rehearsing or reciting from notes and trying to find THE answer to copy down. The latter student meanwhile is looking for problems to solve, wanting to explain and justify scenarios through predicting outcomes and analysing information. In fact these two students may well have very different expectations of their teacher ranging from ‘Tell me what you want me to know/do’ and ‘Where can I find the answer to this?’ to ‘Would you please show me how you worked that out?’ or ‘I’ve tried to make sense of this but I’m not certain. Would you explain it again?’.

Thus not only is a classroom a point of interaction between multiple understandings of learning, it can at times be a place of conflict between these differing understandings.

The follow-on from the strategies that students use to support their learning is the link to the students’ academic outcomes. As noted from research by Alamdarloo, Moradi and Dehshiri (2013), in support of findings by Purdie and Hattie (2002), there is a strong relationship between the varieties of different ways an individual conceptualises learning and their academic outcomes. This relationship is, of course, dependent on the nature of the assessment items and the view of learning that underpins the assessment. Naturally, it is difficult to perform at a high level on an assessment requiring understanding and meaning to be displayed when your operational view of learning is one of memorisation and recall.

Having dealt with the initial questions and now being able to identify different views of learning, and recognising that these differing views do matter in a school environment, the next obvious question is: Can people change or develop their conception of learning to one of a higher order and thus increase the chance of a higher academic outcome?

Again, the simple and short answer is ‘Yes’.

Some people will seemingly naturally build and develop their understanding of learning over time as opportunities to develop present themselves. Classroom work and assessment work in the younger years of schooling life are different in scope and depth (that is, in the underpinning view of learning) from those experienced later in schooling life. The challenges presented by the changes over the years at school offer the scope to change, adapt and refine one’s understanding of learning.

There are times, however, when it seems there is a plateau. The learning demand of the work has changed yet the learner has not moved with it, and doing more of what one used to do no longer leads to improvement. As much as this can be a frustrating time for the learner, it is the time to embrace the challenge of self-reflection and is truly when a school as a collaborative learning community comes into its own. It is the communication between teacher and student with a reflection on learning and helping to see alternative ways of working that are at the core of change — change to how learning is viewed, change to how learning is approached and a change to the way learning is displayed. As noted by two of the founders of this research area, Ference Marton and Roger Saljo (1984), in an environment of open communication and understanding between teachers and students, with regard to their experience of learning, it is expected to see improvements in the quality of learning.


Alamdarloo, G., Moradi, S., Dehshiri, G. (2013). The relationship between students’ conceptions of learning and their academic achievement. Psychology, 4(1), 44–49. Retrieved from

Goodyear, P., Asensio, M., Jones, C., Hodgson, V. & Steeples, C. (2003). Relationships between conceptions of learning, approaches to study and students’ judgements about the value of their experiences of networked learning. Retrieved from

Lin, H. (2011). A phenomenographic approach for exploring conceptions of learning marketing among undergraduate students. Business and Economic Research 1(1), 1–12. Retrieved from

Marton, F., Dall’Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19, 277–300.

Marton, F., & Saljo, R. (1984). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning, pp. 36–55. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Purdie, N., & Hattie, J. (2002). Assessing students’ conceptions of learning. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 2, 17–32.

Säljö, R. (1979). Learning in the learner’s perspective: Some commonsense conceptions. Gothenburg, Sweden: Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg.

University of Oxford, Institute for the Advancement of University Learning (n.d.). Paper 3: Students’ conceptions of learning.  Retrieved from