Peter Ashworth

  • Approaches to study and the student lifeworld

    Peter Ashworth, Sheffield Hallam University
    Kay Greasley, University of Leicester

    Research paper

    Themes: learning and teaching methods, assessment, skills development and lifelong learning, learning environments, supporting learners

    It is surely very attractive to anyone who has an interest in improving student learning, to be assured that it is possible to describe a limited number of approaches to studying which students may adopt, and to be given evidence that curriculum design, structure of assessment and teaching styles can be tailored so as to encourage students to take up the more effective approach. The Approaches to Studying Inventory (ASI, e.g. Entwistle and Tait, 1994) was based on qualitative research by Marton and Säljö (e.g. 1976), which established ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ approaches to study. Though both the ASI (e.g Haggis, 2003) and Marton’s phenomenographic method in general (e.g. Richardson, 1999; Ashworth and Lucas, 1998) have been opened to critical debate, the underlying qualitative research has not been specifically revisited. This paper attempts a qualitative explication of the meanings of study. Analyses of in-depth interviews with university students employ a heuristic due to Husserl (1983), distinguishing between the ‘noema’, the subjective object of awareness, and the ‘noesis’, the manner of mental activity in which the object is grasped. We follow the direction of thought that this implies: to investigate authentically ‘approaches to study’ is to enter the student’s existential lifeworld, and this cannot be characterised in the way that the ‘approaches to studying’ tradition (which attends entirely to the noetic side of conscious awareness) supposes. Approaches to studying are much richer than can be encapsulated by noetic descriptions of ‘depth’ or ‘superficiality’, even when elaborated as in later versions of the ASI. The conception of learning as ‘deep’ or ‘surface’ (etc.) has no helpful meaning in understanding the activity of university students.


    • Ashworth, PD and Lucas, U (1998). What is the world of phenomenography? Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 42, (4), pp415-431.
    • Entwistle, NJ and Tait, H (1994) The revised Approaches to Studying Inventory (Edinburgh, Edinburgh Centre for Research into Learning and Instruction).
    • Haggis, T (2003) Constructing images of ourselves? A critical investigation into ‘Approaches to Learning’ research in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 29, (1), pp89-104.
    • Husserl, E (1983) Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book (Translation by F Kersten of 1913 original), (Dordrecht, Kluwer).
    • Marton, F and Säljö, R (1976) On qualitative differences in learning I - Outcome and process,British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, pp 4-11.
    • Richardson, JTE (1999) The concepts and methods of phenomenographic research, Review of Educational Research, 69, (1), pp53-82.