Instructional Science

, Volume 38, Issue 6, pp 707–722 | Cite as

The impact of curriculum change on health sciences first year students’ approaches to learning

  • Rebecca Walker
  • Rachel Spronken-SmithEmail author
  • Carol Bond
  • Fiona McDonald
  • John Reynolds
  • Anna McMartin


This study aimed to use a learning inventory (the Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students, ASSIST) to measure the impact of a curriculum change on students’ approaches to learning in two large courses in a health sciences first year programme. The two new Human Body Systems (HUBS) courses were designed to encourage students to take a deep approach to learning. ASSIST was completed by 599 students enrolled in a biology class in 2006 that was part of the old curriculum, and by 705 students at the beginning and end of the new HUBS courses in 2007. Changes in students’ approaches to learning over time were examined. The ASSIST scores for both HUBS courses reflected the dominance of a surface approach, followed by a strategic and then a deep approach. However, by the end of the year, students were taking a deep and strategic approach to their studies to a greater extent, and a surface approach to a lesser extent. Moreover, students enrolled in the new course adopted a deep approach to their studies to a significantly greater degree than those studying the old curriculum. Despite the predominance of a surface approach, the results suggest that it is possible to bring about small but significant positive changes in students’ learning behaviour in a very large class through curriculum change. The proportion of students preferring a surface approach, and results showing that high performance on the final exam was significantly correlated with a surface approach, probably reflected contextual factors, including assessment, and is the focus of ongoing curriculum development.


Learning inventory ASSIST Curriculum change Evaluation Health science first year 



Students enrolled in BIOL115 in 2006 and HUBS191 and 192 in 2007, and the Committee for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT), University of Otago, for funding from a Research into University Teaching Grant.


  1. Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Byrne, M., Flood, B., & Willis, P. (2002). The relationship between learning approaches and learning outcomes: A study of Irish accounting students. Accounting Education, 11, 27–42. doi: 10.1080/09639280210153254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cassidy, S. (2006). Learning style and student self-assessment skill. Education & Training, 48(2/3), 170–177. doi: 10.1108/00400910610651791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Diseth, A. (2001). Validation of a Norwegian version of the approaches and study skills inventory for students (ASSIST): Application of structural equation modelling. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 45(4), 381–394. doi: 10.1080/00313830120096789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Diseth, A. (2002). The relationship between intelligence, approaches to learning and academic achievement. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 46(2), 219–230. doi: 10.1080/00313830220142218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Diseth, A. (2007). Students’ evaluation of teaching, approaches to learning, and academic achievement. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 51(2), 185–204. doi: 10.1080/00313830701191654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Diseth, A., & Martinsen, O. (2003). Approaches to learning, cognitive style, and motives as predictors of academic achievement. Educational Psychology, 23(2), 195–207. doi: 10.1080/01443410303225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Diseth, A., Pallesen, S., Hovland, A., & Larsen, S. (2006). Course experience, approaches to learning and academic achievement. Education & Training, 48(2/3), 156–169. doi: 10.1108/00400910610651782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Entwistle, N. (1997). Reconstituting approaches to learning: A response to Webb. Higher Education, 33, 213–218. doi: 10.1023/A:1002930608372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Entwistle, N. (2000). Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: Conceptual frameworks and educational contexts. Paper presented at the first annual conference of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Leicester. Retrieved from, 2 May 2008.
  11. Entwistle, N., & McCune, V. (2004). The conceptual bases of study strategy inventories. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 325–345.Google Scholar
  12. Entwistle, N., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding student learning. London: Croom Helm.Google Scholar
  13. Ertl, H., & Wright, S. (2008). Reviewing the literature on the student learning experience in higher education. London Review of Education, 6(3), 195–210. doi: 10.1080/14748460802489348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. General Medical Council. (1993). Tomorrow’s doctors: Recommendations on undergraduate medical education. London: GMC.Google Scholar
  15. General Medical Council. (2003). Tomorrow’s doctors. London: GMC.Google Scholar
  16. Gibbs, G. R. (1999). Learning how to learn using a virtual learning environment for philosophy. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15, 221–231. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2729.1999.153096.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Greasley, A., & Bennet, D. (2004). A virtual learning environment for operations management. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 24(10), 974–993. doi: 10.1108/01443570410558030.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Haggis, T. (2003). Constructing images of ourselves? A critical investigation into ‘approaches to learning’ research in higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 29, 89–104. doi: 10.1080/0141192032000057401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hassall, T., & Joyce, J. (2001). Approaches to learning of management and accounting students. Education and Training, 43, 145–152. doi: 10.1108/00400910110394071.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jelfs, A., & Colbourn, C. (2002). Do students’ approaches to learning affect their perceptions of using computing and information technology? Journal of Educational Media, 27(1–2), 41–53. doi: 10.1080/0305498032000045449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Laurillard, D. (1997). Rethinking university teaching. A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Long, W. F. (2003). Dissonance detected by cluster analysis of responses to the approaches and study skills inventory for students. Studies in Higher Education, 28(1), 21–35. doi: 10.1080/03075070309303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lonka, K., Olkinuora, E., & Makinen, J. (2004). Aspects and prospects of measuring studying and learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 301–323.Google Scholar
  24. Maguire, S., Evans, S. E., & Dyas, L. (2001). Approaches to learning: A study of first-year geography undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25(1), 95–107. doi: 10.1080/03098260020026660.Google Scholar
  25. Malcolm, J., & Zukas, M. (2001). Bridging pedagogic gaps: Conceptual discontinuities in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 6, 33–42. doi: 10.1080/13562510020029581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Marton, F., & Saljo, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I Outcome and process. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4–11.Google Scholar
  27. McDonald, F., Bond, C., Spronken-Smith, R. A., Reynolds, J., & McMartin, A. (2009). Evaluating the impact of curriculum change in a large health science first year class. Assessment and Evaluation, in prep.Google Scholar
  28. Newble, D. I., & Entwistle, N. J. (1986). Learning styles and approaches: Implications for medical education. Medical Education, 20, 162–175. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.1986.tb01163.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Newble, D. I., Entwistle, N. J., Hejka, E. J., Jolly, B. C., & Whelan, G. (1988). Towards the identification of student learning problems: The development of a diagnostic inventory. Medical Education, 22, 518–526. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.1988.tb00797.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Newble, D. I., & Gordon, M. I. (1985). The learning style of medical students. Medical Education, 19, 3–8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.1985.tb01132.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd Ed ed.). London: Routledge and Falmer.Google Scholar
  33. Reid, W. A., Duvall, E., & Evans, P. (2005). Can we influence medical students’ approaches to learning? Medical Teacher, 27(5), 401–407. doi: 10.1080/01421590500136410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Reid, W. A., Duvall, E., & Evans, P. (2007). Relationship between assessment results and approaches to learning and studying in year two medical students. Medical Education, 41, 754–762. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2007.02801.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Richardson, J. T. E., & King, E. (1991). Gender differences in the experience of higher education: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Educational Psychology, 11, 363–382. doi: 10.1080/0144341910110311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Speth, C. A., Lee, D. J., & Hain, P. M. (2006). Prioritizing improvements in internet instruction based on learning styles and strategies. Journal of Natural Resources & Life Sciences Education, 35, 34–41.Google Scholar
  37. Spronken-Smith, R. A., Bussink-Smith, N., Grigg, G., & Bond, C. (2009a). Millennium graduates’ orientations to higher education. College Student Journal, in press.Google Scholar
  38. Spronken-Smith, R. A., Bond, C., Bussink-Smith, N., & Grigg, G. (2009b). The relation between orientations to higher education and curricular experiences. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, in prep.Google Scholar
  39. Tait, H., & Entwistle, N. (1996). Identifying students at risk through ineffective study strategies. Higher Education, 31(1), 97–116. doi: 10.1007/BF00129109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Tait, H., Entwistle, N., & McCune, V. (1998). ASSIST: A reconceptualisation of the approaches to studying inventory. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning. Improving students as learners (pp. 262–271). Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.Google Scholar
  41. Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., & Waterhouse, F. (1999). Relations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and students’ approaches to learning. Higher Education, 37, 57–70. doi: 10.1023/A:1003548313194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Webster, R. (2002). Learning styles and design: The use of ASSIST for reflection and assessment. Proceedings of the 2002 Annual International Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), Perth, Australia. [Online conference proceedings]. Available:

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rebecca Walker
    • 1
  • Rachel Spronken-Smith
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carol Bond
    • 1
  • Fiona McDonald
    • 2
  • John Reynolds
    • 3
  • Anna McMartin
    • 1
  1. 1.Higher Education Development CentreUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  2. 2.Department of PhysiologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  3. 3.Department of Anatomy and Structural BiologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations