• Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: The procedural approach to learning: a bridge to a deep approach, or an adaptation to learning engineering that precludes understanding?

    Author(s): Jennifer Case and Delia Marshall
    Institution(s): University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape
    Session: Conceptual paper  

    Deep and surface approaches to learning, first identified by Marton and SSljs (1976), have subsequently been recognised in a wide variety of educational contexts, and have provided a powerful way of thinking about student learning in higher education. Most such studies have started with these two constructs (and in some cases a third strategic approach formulated by Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983). However, it has been suggested that approaches to learning might take on different manifestations in different academic specialisations, and this paper draws on two independently conducted studies in engineering programmes (Case, 2000; Marshall, 1995) in which, in addition to deep and surface approaches, a third distinct procedural approach was identified.

    Both these studies were small-scale qualitative studies of engineering students over the period of a course. Marshall (1995) followed thirteen students as they proceeded through the year-long Engineering Foundation course at Oxford University, while Cases (2000) study drew on the experiences of eleven second year chemical engineering students at the University of Cape Town during the first semester Material and Energy Balances course. Both studies used the concept of approach to learning, and sought to identify the approaches used at both a task and a course level. Marshall identified three approaches to learning used by the group, namely (i) surface, (ii) procedural deep and (iii) conceptual deep. Case also identified three approaches, termed (i) information-based, (ii) algorithmic and (iii) conceptual. The first and third approaches from each study can be seen to roughly equate to the classic surface and deep approaches respectively. The focus of the present paper is on the second approach, Marshalls procedural deep approach and Cases algorithmic approach.

    Marshall (1995) described the procedural deep approach as focusing on the application of problem-solving procedures/algorithms, and on the relationship between parts of algorithms with each other. She noted that in this approach students had the intention to gain understanding at some future point through familiarity with applications and problem-solving procedures. Case (2000) defined the algorithmic approach as a focus on the remembering of solution methods in order to be able to apply these in an assessment environment. The focus was on method, rather than understanding, although some students felt that understanding might come later after one had worked through many problems. The similarities between these findings are striking, and it would appear that these approaches are equivalent. We therefore decided to adopt the term procedural given the potential confusions with the term algorithmic that had been noted in the chemical engineering context.

    The point of debate centres around whether indeed the use of a procedural approach ultimately leads to understanding (and consequently a deep approach) as was asserted by the students in both studies. Marshall termed this a procedural deep approach due to the ultimate focus on understanding, while Case classified this as a surface approach due its focus on something other than understanding. The longitudinal data provide an interesting picture. Marshall identified over the course of engagement with engineering studies that students tended to converge from both deep and surface approaches towards a procedural approach. Cases study initially suggested that there was a general movement from surface to algorithmic (procedural) to deep, but later data suggests that there were some students who entered the course familiar with a deep approach who reverted to the algorithmic (procedural) approach.

    These findings raise important questions for tertiary engineering (and possibly also science) education contexts, where much of the teaching and curriculum is built on the implicit assumption that practising in the solution of numerical problems will result in conceptual understanding. These studies confirm that students do indeed pick up and act on this message, many implementing procedural approaches, but as to whether such approaches will result in understanding is a matter for debate.

    Case, J. M. (2000). Students' perceptions of context, approaches to learning and metacognitive development in a second year chemical engineering course. Unpublished PhD, Monash University, Melbourne.

    Entwistle, N. J., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning. London: Croom Helm.

    Marshall, D. (1995). The relationship between learning conceptions, approaches to learning and learning outcomes in foundation year engineering students. Unpublished D.Phil., University of Oxford, Oxford.

    Marton, F., & SSljs, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I - Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.