Journal of Social Sciences

Approaches to Learning in First Year University Physics

Rachel Wilson, Steve Georgakis and Manjula Sharma

DOI : 10.3844/jssp.2012.216.222

Journal of Social Sciences

Volume 8, Issue 2

Pages 216-222


Problem statement: In recent decades, discipline specific ways of thinking and knowing have gained increased recognition in understanding learning. However, there has been little empirical research examining student approaches to learning within specific disciplines or, even more specifically, within different streams of study or in response to different curriculum within a discipline. Approach: The aim of this study was to investigate student approaches to learning in physics. We explore whether different streams of study or exposure to different syllabi are associated with deep or surface approaches to learning. A total of 2,030 first year physics students at an Australian metropolitan university over three different year cohorts and three streams completed an adaptation of the Study Processes Questionnaire (SPQ) which produces measures of Deep and Surface approaches to learning. Students studied within ‘Advanced’, ‘Regular’ and ‘Fundamentals’ streams, based upon prior experience in physics study. Students within the three cohorts were exposed to different senior high school syllabi, as the exam board introduced a new and innovative syllabus. We make comparison on approaches to learning across streams and across the three year cohorts. Results: Findings show that the behavior of the mean scale scores for students in different streams in first year physics is in agreement with expectations; advanced streams reported higher levels of deep approaches while Fundamentals streams reported higher levels of surface approaches. Furthermore, different year cohort performance on the scales reflects changes in senior high school syllabus; with a new syllabus reflecting a shift toward more deep approaches to learning. Conclusion/Recommendations: It is promising to see that revision of syllabi has a direct impact upon student approaches learning. A challenge lies in ways to best harness this power and to address the trends seen in student approaches to learning across streams.


© 2012 Rachel Wilson, Steve Georgakis and Manjula Sharma. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.