European Journal of Psychology of Education

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 417–433 | Cite as

Understanding student learning in context: relationships between university students’ social identity, approaches to learning, and academic performance

  • Ana-Maria Bliuc
  • Robert A. Ellis
  • Peter Goodyear
  • Daniela Muntele Hendres


This research focuses on understanding how socio-psychological dimensions such as student social identity and student perceptions of their learning community affect learning at university. To do this, it integrates ideas from phenomenographic research into student learning with ideas from research on social identity. In two studies (N = 110, and N = 97) the relationships between student social identity, perceptions of the learning community, approaches to learning, and academic performance were explored. Our findings suggest that a strong student social identity is associated with a deep approach to learning, which in turn is linked to higher academic performance. Also, perceptions of learning community mediate the relationship between student social identity and deep approaches to learning. Significantly, a surface approach turns out not to be associated with student social identity or perceptions of the learning community, but it is negatively related to academic performance. Our research argues for the value of an integration of complementary frameworks, emphasising social and psychological aspects of the learning experience that can be used to improve our understanding of how and why students vary in the quality of their learning.


Higher education Student learning Approaches to study Student social identity Learning community 



The authors are pleased to acknowledge the financial support of the Australian Research Council through grant DP0988334. We are also grateful to our colleagues and the students of ‘Gh Asachi’ Technical University, and ‘AI Cuza’ University, Iaşi, Romania for their assistance in conducting the study.


  1. Anderman, L. H., & Anderman, E. M. (2000). Considering contexts in educational psychology. Educational Psychologist, Special issue on the Role of Social Context in Educational Psychology: Substantive and Methodological Issues, 35, 67–68.Google Scholar
  2. Ashford, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20–39.Google Scholar
  3. Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182.Google Scholar
  4. Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (3rd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Biggs, J., Kember, D., & Leung, Y. P. (2001). The revised two-factor study process questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 133–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bizumic, B., Reynolds, J. K., Turner, J. C., Bromhead, D., & Subasic, E. (2009). The role of the group in individual functioning: school identification and the psychological well-being of staff and students. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 58, 171–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bliuc, A.-M., McGarty, C., Reynolds, K. J., & Muntele, O. (2007). Opinion-based group membership as a predictor of commitment to political action. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 19–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bliuc, A.-M., Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., & Piggott, L. (2010). Learning through face-to-face and online discussions: associations between students’ conceptions, approaches and academic performance in political science. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41, 512–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bornholt, L. J. (2001). Self-concepts, usefulness and behavioural intentions in the social context of schooling. Educational Psychology, 21, 67–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bornholt, L. J., Maras, P., & Robinson, R. A. (2009). ‘I am–we are’: personal and social pathways to further study, work and family life. Social Psychology of Education, 12, 345–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cameron, J. (1999). Social identity and the pursuit of possible selves: implications for the psychological well-being of university students. Group Dynamics, 3, 179–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cameron, J. (2004). A three-factor model of social identity. Self and Identity, 3, 239–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dahlin, B., & Regmi, M. O. (1997). Conceptions of learning among Nepalese students. Higher Education, 33, 471–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Doosje, B., Ellemers, N., & Spears, R. (1995). Perceived intragroup variability as a function of group status and identification. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31, 410–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (1997). Sticking together or falling apart: ingroup identification as a psychological determinant of group commitment versus individual mobility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 617–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ellemers, N., de Gilder, D., & Haslam, S. A. (2004). Motivating individuals and groups at work: a social identity perspective on leadership and group performance. Academy of Management Review, 29, 459–478.Google Scholar
  17. Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., Prosser, M., & Calvo, R. (2008). Engineering students’ conceptions of and approaches to learning through discussions in face-to-face and online contexts. Learning and Instruction, 18, 267–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Engestrom, Y. (1999). Situated learning at the threshold of the new millennium. In J. Bliss, R. Säljö, & P. Light (Eds.), Learning sites: Social and technological resources for learning (pp. 249–257). Oxford: Elsevier Science.Google Scholar
  19. Enwistle, N. J., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning (pp. 169–194). London: Croom Helm.Google Scholar
  20. Goodnow, C. (1992). Strengthening the links between educational psychology and the study of social contexts. Educational Psychologist, 27, 177–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodyear, P., & Zenios, M. (2007). Discussion, collaborative knowledge work and epistemic fluency. British Journal of Educational Studies, 55, 351–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Greeno, J. (2006). Learning in activity. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 79–96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Haslam, S. A., Powell, C., & Turner, J. C. (2001). Social identity, self-categorization, and work motivation: rethinking the contribution of the group to positive and sustainable organisational outcomes. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 49, 319–339.Google Scholar
  24. Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Postmes, T., & Haslam, C. (2009). Social identity, health and well-being: an emerging agenda for applied psychology. Applied Psychology, 58, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jussim, L., Ashmore, R., & Wilder, D. (2001). Introduction: social identity and intergroup conflict. In R. D. Ashmore, L. Jussim, & D. Wilder (Eds.), Social identity, intergroup conflict, and conflict resolution (pp. 3–14). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Krause, K.-L., Hartley, R., James, R., & McInnis, C. (2005). The first year experience in Australian universities: findings from a decade of national studies. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. Accessed 21 June 2010.
  27. Kuh, G. (1995). The other curriculum: out-of-class experiences associated with student learning and personal development. Journal of Higher Education, 66, 123–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Lea, M., & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23, 157–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Marshall, D., Summers, M., & Woolnough, B. (1999). Students’ conceptions of learning in an engineering context. Higher Education, 38, 291–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. Publishers.Google Scholar
  32. Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976a). On qualitative differences in learning. I. Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976b). On qualitative differences in learning. II. Outcome as a function of the learner’s conception of the task. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 115–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McInnis, C. (2001). Researching the first year experience: where to from here? Higher Education Research and Development, 20(2), 105–114.Google Scholar
  35. McInnis, C. (2004). Studies of student life: an overview. European Journal of Education, 39, 383–394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. McInnis, C., James, R., & Hartley, R. (2000). Trends in the first year experience in Australian universities. Centre for the study of higher education, University of Melbourne. Accessed 26 Nov 2009.
  37. Mclean, M. (2001). Can we relate conceptions of learning to student academic achievement? Teaching in Higher Education, 6, 399–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ouwerkerk, J. W., Ellemers, N., & de Gilder, D. (1999). Group commitment and individual effort in experimental and organizational contexts. In N. Elemers, R. Spears, & B. Doosje (Eds.), Social identity: Context, commitment, content (pp. 184–204). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  39. Pike, G. R., Schroeder, C. C., & Berry, T. R. (1997). Enhancing the educational impact of residence halls: the relationship between residential learning communities and first year college experiences and persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 38, 609–621.Google Scholar
  40. Pintrich, P. R. (1994). Continuities and discontinuities: future directions for research in educational psychology. Educational Psychologist, 29, 37–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Postmes, T., & Jetten, J. (2006). Reconciling individuality and the group. In T. Postmes & J. Jetten (Eds.), Individuality and the group: Advances in social identity (pp. 258–269). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  42. Preacher, K. J., & Hayes, A. F. (2008). Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 879–891.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Richardson, J. T. E., Morgan, A., & Woodley, A. (1999). Approaches to studying in distance education. Higher Education, 37, 23–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Robbins, P., &. Aydede, M. eds. (2009). The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Schoenfeld, A. (1999). Looking toward the 21st century: challenges of educational theory and practice. Educational Researcher, 28, 4–14.Google Scholar
  48. Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of just choosing one. Educational Research, 27, 4–12.Google Scholar
  49. Solomon, G. (1995). Reflections on the field of educational psychology by the outgoing journal editor. Educational Psychologist, 30, 105–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Solomon, Y. (2007). Not belonging? What makes a functional learner identity in undergraduate mathematics? Studies in Higher Education, 32, 79–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  52. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of inter-group conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations: Monterey (pp. 33–47). CA: Brooks-Cole.Google Scholar
  53. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1984). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  54. Terry, D. J., Hogg, M. A., & White, K. M. (1999). The theory of planned behaviour: self-identity, social identity, and group norms. British Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 225–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tinto, V., & Russo, P. (1994). Coordinated studies programs: their effect on student involvement at a community college. Community College Review, 22, 16–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (1991). Improving the quality of student learning: the influence of learning context and student approaches to learning on learning outcomes. Higher Education, 22, 251–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  58. Van Rossum, E. J., & Schenk, S. M. (1984). The relationship between learning conception, study strategy and learning outcome. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 54, 73–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wilding, J., & Andrews, B. (2006). Life goals, approaches to study and performance in an undergraduate cohort. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 171–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zhao, C.-M., & Kuh, G. (2004). Adding value: learning communities and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45, 115–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisboa, Portugal and Springer Science+Business Media BV 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ana-Maria Bliuc
    • 1
  • Robert A. Ellis
    • 1
  • Peter Goodyear
    • 2
  • Daniela Muntele Hendres
    • 3
  1. 1.Institute for Teaching and Learning, Carslaw Building (F07)The University of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.CoCo, Faculty of Education and Social WorkUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Faculty of Psychology“A.I. Cuza” University of IasiIasiRomania

Personalised recommendations