Phenomenography - Noel Entwistle


Background of Noel Entwistle

Dr. Entwistle is a Professor of Education and Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Instruction at the University of Edinburgh.  Since 1968 his main research interest has been on student learning in higher education. He has directed major studies which have contributed greatly to the understanding of how teaching and assessment affect the quality of learning.  His areas of interest are student learning and educational psychology.  







Theory Behind the Model

Phenomenography is an empirically based approach (based on observation and experience) that aims to identify the qualitatively different ways in which people experience, conceptualize, perceive, and understand various kinds of phenomena.  It describes learning as experiencing situations in the world in particular ways, generally studied with an educational research interest.


Entwistle focuses primarily on learning in higher education, and concludes that what students learn depends on how they learn, and why they have to learn it.  Research on the ways which students in higher education tackle their day-to-day academic work has drawn attention to the need to think of learning as the outcome of a whole range of interacting factors.  How well students learn depends on their:

§         Intelligence

§         Effort

§         Motivation


Academic learning is also influenced by the individual characteristics of learners, their past experiences in education, current experiences with courses they are taking, quality of the teaching, and the nature of  assessment procedures.  These are a set of related concepts which help explain why some students do well, while others do badly.


First, the reason why a student is taking a particular course effects the kind of effort they put into the course:

§         Academic Orientation - Some students enter higher education mainly for the intellectual challenge, or to prove they are capable of degree level work.

§         Vocational Orientation - Others are more concerned with obtaining a qualification which will ensure a safe job. 


Students also come into higher education with different beliefs about what learning actually means.  Adults hold very different conceptions of learning. It has been found that many people who have left school early see learning as just the result of building up separate bits of knowledge.  This view seems to be reinforced by traditional forms of education which test mainly the acquisition of facts.  But to be useful, information eventually has to be applied in some way.


The learner then has the job to reproduce that information in the same form as it was originally learned. This is not unreasonable when facts are being learned, but that is only one type of learning. Often students have to understand something for themselves and that depends on a transformation of the knowledge presented, an ability to relate it to what is already known and to make personal sense of it.




Entwistle’s Different Conceptions of Learning

1.       Increasing one's knowledge

2.       Memorizing and reproducing

3.       Utilizing facts and procedures

4.       Developing an initial understanding

5.       Transforming one's understanding

6.       Changing as a person


When students are asked to carry out an academic task, like writing an essay, the way in which they tackle that task depends on why they are taking the course.  This means that when they think about how to address the task, different students have different intentions. And those intentions have proved to be closely related to how they go about learning, and the quality of the learning they achieve.


Research on this topic was carried out initially by Ference Marton et al. (1984).  From interviews with students who had been asked to read an academic article and be prepared to discuss it, they distinguished between deep and surface approaches to learning which depended on the students' intention when tackling the task. Some students just memorized facts and focused on the surface level of the text. Other students focused more deeply on the underlying meaning, and sought to integrate the ideas. These characteristics of contrasting approaches are:


1.       Deep Approaches

§      Intention to understand material for oneself

§      Interacting vigorously and critically on content

§      Relating ideas to previous knowledge/experience

§      Using organizing principles to integrate ideas

§      Relating evidence to conclusions

§      Examining the logic of the argument


A deep approach was consistently linked with academic interest in the subject for its own sake, and with self-confidence.  The deep approach has been found to be more common in classes which have good teaching and freedom in learning.


2.       Surface Approach

§      Intention simply to reproduce parts of the content

§      Accepting ideas and information passively

§      Concentrating only on assessment requirements

§      Not reflecting on purpose or strategies in learning

§      Memorizing facts and procedures routinely

§      Failing to recognize guiding principles or patterns


A surface approach was associated with anxiety and fear of failure, and to some extent with vocational motives.  Classes which students rated as having a heavy workload, or as having assessment procedures emphasizing the accurate reproduction of detailed information, are each likely to induce a surface approach to learning and studying.