The analysis of the interviews made it clear that students varied in descriptions of how they set about studying and learning. In the following, examples from the interviews will be presented to illustrate in what way students gave evidence for aspects of deep, surface and strategic approaches. This description is followed by a more fine-grained picture of how individual students in the interviews described their approaches to studying. The ratings produced as a result of the interview analysis are then presented and compared to the measures from the ASSIST inventory.
Examples of deep, surface and strategic approaches
Evidence of a deep approach was given by Alice when she described the importance of understanding the definitions:
You need to understand the definitions because there are a lot of definitions that they go through and it’s not just about learning by heart but it’s about understanding and then you have to do the problems again and again until you know them, the biggest difference now is that we’re not allowed to use formula sheets so you really have to know what you’re doing and not just look it up.
Indications of a surface approach was revealed by Ben in the interview. He said that he usually does a lot of tasks, and also that you, due to the fast pace, get behind schedule if you miss just one study hour. He also emphasised that it is not possible to understand everything.
I usually just go home and study by myself […] I do all the recommended tasks, and also the recommended previous quizzes and also previous exams that one can try on […] but it is a terribly fast pace, it is not possible to understand everything. […] You need to study lots of hours every day, and if you lose just one hour then you really get behind schedule.
A strategic approach was evident in the interview with Danny. In particular he described how he usually set about planning his work.
To plan my work I use a paper where I note the big tasks and their deadlines. And then I also have another paper where I note subtasks like studying mathematics […] so when I have studied mathematics for one hour then I can cross that out, in that way I break it down.
Individual students’ approaches
Apart from analysing the interviews with a focus on approaches apparently adopted by students, the analysis went on to produce a more fine-grained picture of individual students’ approaches as these were demonstrated in the interviews. In particular, this part of the analysis sought to clarify the relationship between individual students’ personal ratings of approaches as measured by the ASSIST inventory and the ratings produced as a result of analysing interview statements. In the following, we present descriptions of findings elaborating on students’ approaches to studying in relation to deep, surface and strategic approaches as expressed in the ASSIST inventory. This is done through examples being provided from the cases of Eric and Hannah, followed by a description of how the co-authors independently given ratings correspond, and how the common decided rating relates to the students’ actual measures in ASSIST inventory.
Eric is a student at the Computer Science engineering program. In the interview, Eric told us that he likes the lectures as they give him ‘a glimpse’ of what they are supposed to learn and he can then go back to his notes and look through what has been brought to the fore in the lecture. Before the lecture, he usually goes through the assigned learning material. When studying, he tries to supplement both his notes and the literature.
If I have a lecture in the morning and I can go home in the afternoon, then I sit down directly and go through what I have learnt. And also before the lecture I usually go through the chapter that we are to learn from, I think that it is very effective. […] I get the lecture in the morning, then in the afternoon at home I go through it once more.
At the beginning of the week, Eric makes a schedule. Taking the schedule for lectures and tutor sections as a starting point, he makes a detailed plan for his studying. He plans what subject to study and when to take breaks.
In the beginning of each week I make a schedule for school activities and then I adapt my studies to that. For example, today I have an empty day, so this afternoon I have planned to sit two hours with mathematics and then a half-hour break and then two hours of something else and so on, so that’s no problem at all.
So, Eric has a tightly structured way of studying and he was also able to give arguments for the approach to studying that he describes. From the interview, we get to know him as a student who adopts a highly strategic approach to studying and our interpretation is that he would have rated himself as 30 in the ASSIST, the highest level of strategic approach. He rated himself in the inventory on the highest level for each item related to strategic approach; in total he scores 30, the same as our interpretation from the interview.
Eric also told us in the interview that he tries to understand the concepts and the ideas behind what is written. He does nearly all of the tasks, even if the course responsible had chosen some of them as a suggestion of which to prioritise, but he does not want to do them as a robot.
What I usually do is to understand, like not just sit there and do the assignments like a robot. I try to understand the concepts and the idea behind what is written, so if I understand how, like a formula, how it works and how they developed it, then I understand everything much better and can relate to that when I use it. That is so much more effective than just sitting down doing lots of assignments and then remembering how to do it.
Eric’s attempts to understand, along with his careful way of approaching the literature and study notes from the lectures, suggests that Eric, to a great extent, adopts a deep approach to studying. Our interpretation of the interview is that he would rate himself as having a deep approach scored to 26, a high level in the scale (6–30). His own rating in the inventory sums up to 27 on the items related to deep approach.
Looking for signs in the interview to interpret the level of surface approach is a bit harder. Eric solves many problem tasks, more than needed. However, from his way of describing his studies, he approaches these tasks in a way that suggests that he tries to understand the concepts and ideas behind what is written. So, our interpretation is that he would rate himself quite low on the surface approach scale in the ASSIST; we presume that his answer would sum up to 6 related to surface approach (scale 5–25). His own rating is exactly the same as our interpretation.
Hannah is a student in the Media Technology engineering program. She has always liked mathematics but has been worried about studying mathematics at university level since she has heard stories of how difficult it can be. However, for her, it has turned out well. Hannah talks about mathematics as something that in previous school years has been concrete, but in the present course, algebra and geometry, she finds it difficult to connect what she is studying to possible applications in real life. She tells us that she has tried to regard mathematics as a way of thinking, and that the studying is aimed at learning this particular way of thinking.
In elementary school [mathematics] was mostly that it was something concrete, it was like one apple plus one apple and then you have two apples, but now it becomes, as I feel now I don’t have any concrete connection to what we are doing. […] What I try to do is to think that mathematics is more like a way of thinking, to learn problem solving, and to let go of trying to understand exactly what I am doing.
It is problematic for Hannah to make this change in view on mathematics. She tries to accept that she does not understand everything.
I guess it is something you have to accept, that you don’t have to understand everything, you just have to know it, a bit. […] I don’t have any understanding of why [a subspace] is [a subspace], why you should have it and what to use it for. […] well, I’ll just have to wait and see, accept that this is a subspace and then just move on with it.
Hannah talked about how she tries to read the literature in the course but sometimes has difficulty in understanding it. She tries to explain to herself what is meant, step by step, reformulating the text and connecting it to examples given in the lectures.
I often read [the textbook] but sometimes I feel that I don’t really understand what I am reading, and sometimes I can understand it in one way but not apply it. […] But I often try, so I sit down thinking, I try to explain to myself what they mean by this step, and so on.
Attending lectures also helps her recognise the steps by examples other than the textbooks. She always takes part of the lectures and even if she does not understand what is taught she takes notes. She said she thinks that maybe if she looks into the notes afterwards then she will understand. Hannah does not usually make plans for her studies. She takes part in the lectures and tutor sections, but apart from that she primarily engages in private study. In the beginning of the semester, she often did the tasks the very last minute but she has now started to work together with peers on the tasks they are to present every week in seminars.
From the interview, we can conclude that Hannah really wants to understand, but also struggles to realise this aim. She uses internal monologues to help overcome problematic passages in texts and she goes back to notes taken in the lectures. She wants to connect mathematics to something concrete but tries to remedy the perceived lack of such connections by trying to accept that this is mostly about learning a new way of thinking. Our interpretation is that she would rate herself as 21 on the deep approach (scale 6–30) and as 11 in surface approach (scale 5–25). She is moderately strategic in her approach to studying, she does not make explicit plans for her studies but she has started to work together with peers to prepare for the seminars. She also tries to find strategies to overcome her problems of not understanding, such as internal monologues and note taking. Drawing on these interpretations of the interview data, we predict that she would rate her as 19 on the scale for strategic approach (scale 6–30). In the inventory, her answers on the items sums up to 19 on deep approach, 14 on surface approach and 15 on strategic approach. So, we have put her a bit high both on deep approach and strategic approach and a bit low on surface approach.
Ratings generated from the interview analyses
Drawing on the interview analyses, the two authors tried, independently, to emulate individual students’ profiles as these would presumably—given what came out of the interviews—have rated themselves in the ASSIST. The ratings made by the two researchers independently were compared (see Table 3). Of 153 ratings, 90 were identical and 52 one step removed, yielding a correspondence of 142 of 153. Items number 6, 12, and 15, all belonging to a deep approach to learning, accounted for the highest deviations. The differences of the two authors’ ratings were both positive and negative, the mean for deep approach was −0.37, for surface +0.16 and for strategic +0.02. So, largely it was a good match between the two authors’ ratings.
The interview ratings compared to actual measures in the ASSIST inventory
The ratings given by two of the authors were discussed and a common decision on rating was made, producing the following pattern of approaches (see Table 4). In the table, the measures from the ASSIST inventory for each of the interviewed students are also given. As can be seen in the table, for some students, e.g. Eric, the rating from the interview analysis and the measure given by ASSIST is nearly the same. For other students, e.g. Hannah, the deviation is higher, but still the correlation between interview analysis and ASSIST is good. The student with the highest deviation in total is George. It could be noted that George, like Hannah, is not that extreme in scoring as Eric. From Table 4, it is clear that the deep approach ratings from the interviews are a bit low for most of the students (six of nine). For surface approach it is the other way around, for five of the students the rating from the interview analysis is higher than the measure from ASSIST. The average differences are −0.6 for deep, +0.8 for strategic and +1.3 for surface approach.
In sum, the findings include several examples of how students in interviews described their ways of studying and how these descriptions can be connected to deep, strategic and surface approaches. It has also been shown how individual students in the interviews gave evidence for various levels in each approach, showing the complex combinations of streams of all the three approaches building up a single student’s way of tackling the study situation. The combination of data through ASSIST scores and more fine-grained data provided by individual students in qualitative interviews has given complementary pieces of information in understanding student learning patterns. In conclusion, the interviews largely confirm the measures revealed in the ASSIST inventory. Additionally, we can conclude that the interviews provide rich illustrations of what a specific score on the ASSIST scale signifies in students’ self-reported ways of approaching their studies.