Jenny Morris

  • Longitudinal development in conceptions of learning in higher education: the implicatins of equivocal research findings

    Jenny Morris
    University of Southampton

    Session 3e

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 10.10-11.10

    Research paper

    Themes: Lifelong learning, employability

    Employability, including the ability to undertake lifelong learning, is a central tenet within higher education (Yorke, 2006). The learning outcomes required of graduates in the modern workplace are argued to be associated with deep, rather than surface, approaches to learning (Kirby et al, 2002). Approaches to learning have, themselves, been found to be influenced by students’ conceptions of learning (Enrtwistle, 2000), of which a number, ranging in complexity, have been identified (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999). Many students have been found to enter higher education with lower order conceptions of learning (Entwistle, 1997), but it has been proposed (Entwistle, 1997) that, if the characteristics of the learning which students experience are appropriate, students’ conceptions can become more complex as they progress through their studies. Such development would mean that graduates would hold the higher order conceptions of learning needed to meet the demands of the workplace (Kirby et al, 2002).

    Although the number of longitudinal studies in higher education is relatively small, many of those which have investigated conceptions of learning eg. Marton et al (1993), and others undertaken in the related area of personal epistemology eg. Baxter Magolda (2002), King and Kitchener (2002), have identified such development. However, this has not always been the case, and evidence of limited or no development has been found in other studies eg. Boulton-Lewis (2004).

    The findings of two longitudinal studies in physiotherapy, in which temporal stability regarding conceptions of learning was found, add to the contradictory picture. The studies differed in both design, scale and timing. The earlier investigation was a large multi-centre, quantitative investigation (N = 237), and the other a qualitative study involving a cohort of students on one programme (N = 17). In light of the espoused association between conceptions of learning and workplace requirements, possible explanations for these findings need to be explored. This would have relevance not only within physiotherapy education, but has the potential to inform the general discourse around higher education and employability.

    Physiotherapy programmes in the UK are required to meet national standards which involve progressive development of the higher order cognitive skills required for clinical practice. The quality of programmes in relation to the stated outcomes is regularly monitored. In addition, students spend up to a third of their time on clinical placements in the workplace. These factors suggest that the educational experiences of the physiotherapy students in these studies would have facilitated development of their conceptions of learning (Entwistle, 1997), and that other explanations for these research findings are needed.

    Possible explanations for the temporal stability in these students’ conceptions of learning include, methodological issues, sample characteristics, and the influence of context and domain specificity. However, although these may go some way towards explaining these findings, they do not appear to do so fully.

    The equivocal findings regarding development of conceptions of learning in existing research, and the absence of satisfactory explanations for findings of temporal stability, suggest that cognitive development in higher education may be more complex than has been suggested, and that further research is needed.


    • Baxter Magolda, M B (2002) Epistemological reflection: the evolution of epistemological assumptions from age 18 to 30, In B K Hofer and P R Pintrich (eds.) Personal epistemology: the psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Boulton-Lewis, G M, Marton, F, Lewis, D C and Wilss, L A (2004) A longitudinal study of learning for a group of indigenous Australian university students: dissonant conceptions and strategies. Higher Education 47: 91 – 112
    • Entwistle, N (1997) Contrasting perspectives on learning, In F Marton, D Hounsell and N Entwistle (eds.) The experience of learning: implications for teaching and studying in higher education Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press
    • Entwistle, N (2000) Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: conceptual frameworks and educational contexts Accessed
    • King, P M and Kitchener, K S (2002) The reflective judgement model: twenty years of research on epistemic cognition, In B K Hofer and P R Pintrich (eds.) Personal epistemology: the psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Kirby, J R, Knapper, C K, Maki, S A, Egnatoff, W J and van Melle, E (2000) Computers and students’ conceptions of learning: the transition from post-secondary education to the workplace Educational Technology and Society 5 (2): 47 - 53
    • Marton, F, Dall’Alba, G and Beaty, E (1993) Conceptions of learning International Journal of Educational Research v 19: 277 - 300
    • Prosser, M and Trigwell, K (1999) Understanding learning and teaching: the experience in higher education. Buckingham, OUP
    • Yorke, M (2006) Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. York, HEA Accessed at