Effects of Constructivist Learning Environments || Constructivist learning environments and the (im)possibility to change students' perceptions of assessment demands and approaches to learning

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  • Constructivist learning environments and the (im)possibility to change students' perceptionsof assessment demands and approaches to learningAuthor(s): David Gijbels, Mien Segers and Elke StruyfSource: Instructional Science, Vol. 36, No. 5/6, Effects of Constructivist LearningEnvironments (SEPTEMBER 2008), pp. 431-443Published by: SpringerStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23372649 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 13:48

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  • Instr Sei (2008) 36:431-443 DOI 10.1007/sl 1251-008-9064-7

    Constructivist learning environments and the

    (im)possibility to change students' perceptions of assessment demands and approaches to learning

    David Gijbels Mien Segers Elke Struyf

    Published online: 19 August 2008 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

    Abstract Recent research shows that, as students interpret the demands of the assessment

    tasks, they vary their approaches to learning in order to cope with the assessment tasks.

    Three research questions are central in the present paper: (1) Do students who participate in

    a constructivist learning environment change their perception of assessment demands

    towards more deep level demands? (2) Do students in a constructivist learning environ

    ment change their approaches to learning towards a more deep approach to learning? (3) Is

    there a relation between change in approaches to learning and change in the perceptions of

    the assessment demands? Students following the course 'Education and psychology' of the

    teacher training program at the University of Antwerp completed questionnaires during the

    first, the second and the final lesson of the course. One questionnaire measured their

    approaches to learning and the other their general perceptions of the assessment demands.

    The course 'Education and psychology' can be labelled as a 'constructivist learning environment' with congruent assessment methods. Results of the paired sampled t-tests

    indicated that students indeed do change their perceptions of assessment demands towards

    more deep level demands. However, the results also indicated that students did not change their approach to learning towards a more deep approach. On the contrary, students seem to

    develop more surface approaches to learning during the course. Correlation analyses indicated that only changes of perceptions of assessment demands towards less surface

    levels are significantly related to changes in approaches to learning, towards a more surface

    approach. Results of the stepwise multiple regression analyses indicated that students'

    approach to learning at the beginning of the course seems to have a higher impact on the

    D. Gijbels (El) E. Struyf Institute for Education and Information Sciences, University of Antwerp, Venusstraat 35, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium e-mail: david.gijbels@ua.ac.be

    M. Segers Department of Educational Sciences, University of Leiden, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands

    M. Segers Department of Educational Research and Development, University of Maastricht, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Springer

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  • 432 D. Gijbels et al.

    extent to which they change their approach to learning than how students perceive the

    demands of the assessment within the course. These results point us to the complexity of

    the relationship between the learning environment, the students' perceptions of assessment

    demands, and students' approaches to learning.

    Keywords Constructivism Assessment demands Approaches to learning

    Perceptions

    An important challenge for today's higher education remains the development and

    implementation of teaching practices that will foster in students the skill to acquire and

    apply their knowledge efficiently, think critically, analyse, synthesise, and make inferences

    (Tynjl 2008). It is said that students should adopt more deep approaches to learning in

    order to achieve these goals. Overall, it is claimed that 'new' learning environments have

    the potential to improve these educational outcomes for students in higher education by

    making the students' learning the core issue and defining instruction as enhancing learning

    (Dart 1997; Lea et al. 2003). The concept of the deep approach to learning is associated

    with searching for meaning in the task and integration of task aspects into a whole. This

    kind of learning is driven by an intrinsic motivation to seek meaning and understanding.

    The concept of surface approach to learning refers to students that learn by memorizing

    and reproducing the factual contents of the study materials without seeking for further

    connections, meaning, or the implications of what is learned. This approach is driven by an

    extrinsic motivation to gain a paper qualification or a reward (Biggs 1987; Marton and

    Slj 1976). Marton and Slj (1976) assumed that learning approaches are not stable psychological

    traits and that students adjust their approaches to learning, depending on the requirements

    of the task. Although, as Biggs (1993) suggests, students might have a predisposition to

    either deep or surface learning approaches in general, research has indeed shown that this

    preferred approach can be modified by the learning environment for individual courses or

    for particular tasks (Ramsden 1984). There is a general consensus that one of the most

    salient contextual variables that influence students' approaches to learning is the assess

    ment method (Crooks and Mahalski 1985; Ramsden 1992; Scouller and Prosser 1994;

    Thomas and Bain 1984). Students can shift between surface and deep approaches to suit

    the assessment demands of their courses (Newble and Jaeger 1983; Ramsden 1979;

    Thomas and Bain 1984; Wilson and Fowler 2005). It appears that although students have a

    preferred approach to learning and enter a course with specific intentions of applying their

    preferred approaches to learning, they vary their approach according to their perceptions of

    the assessment demands. As students interpret the demands of the assessment tasks they

    consciously or subconsciously vary their approaches to learning in order to cope with the

    assessment tasks. This is often referred to as the backwash-effect of assessment (Segers

    et al. 2006). If a particular assessment is perceived to require just passive acquisition and

    accurate reproduction of details students will employ a surface approach to learning with

    low-level cognitive strategies such as rote learning and concentrating on facts and details

    while preparing for the assessment. When assessment is perceived to require high-level

    cognitive processing to demonstrate a thorough understanding, integration and application

    of the context knowledge, then students are more likely to engage a deep approach to

    learning in order to accomplish the task.

    Springer

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  • Constructivist learning environments 433

    Prior research on the relation between perceptions of assessment demands

    and approaches to learning

    Up till now, only a few studies have presented empirical evidence for the relation between

    students' perceptions of assessment demands and their approaches to learning (e.g., Tang

    1994; Scouller 1996; Segers et al 2006). A case in point is the study by Tang (1994). She

    conducted a study in the Physiotherapy Section at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, in the

    subject of Integrated Professional Studies with first-year students (N = 158). The assess

    ment of this subject has traditionally been by written tests consisting of short essay

    questions (test condition). In order to steer students' learning towards higher level cog nitive preparation strategies, course assignments have been introduced (assignment

    condition). Students' approaches to learning at the beginning of the academic year were

    measured by the Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs 1987). Additionally, after each

    assignment, the task-specific Assessment Preparation Strategies Questionnaire (Tang 1994)

    was administered. A qualitative study consisted of interviews of 39 randomly selected

    students from the sample. The aim was to explore their perceptions of the assessment

    demands and effects on the adoption of preparation strategies. Path analysis for the test

    condition demonstrated congruence between the students' approaches to learning and their

    assessment preparation strategies. "Those students who were surface-oriented were more

    likely to employ low-level strategies when studying for the test, while those who were

    normally deep-oriented had a higher tendency to employ high-level preparation strategies

    "(Tang 1994, p. 6). The interviews indicated that deep-oriented students were not disad

    vantaged in this condition of assessment as they adapted to the perceived low-level

    demands of the test and orchestrated their approach to learning by adopting surface

    learning strategies with 'deep intentions' in order to succeed for the test. The patterns of

    relationships for the assignment condition were different from that of the test condition.

    There was a relative lack of relationship between the students' approaches to learning at

    the beginning of the year and the subsequent adoption of preparation strategies in writing

    assignments. Tang (1994) suggests that writing assignments is a new experience for most

    of these first-year students and therefore they cannot readily rely on their approaches to

    learning they usually make use of when handling a task ('habitual'approaches to learning). "Under such circumstances, their motives, whether extrinsic, intrinsic or achieving, become a more relevant reference for the decision for the actual strategies to be employed"

    (Tang 1994, p. 8). The results of the interviews demonstrated that high-level strategies such

    as understanding, application of information, relating to other subjects, and previous

    knowledge are requirements perceived to be necessary for both assessment conditions.

    However, low-level strategies such as rote learning, memorisation, and reproduction were

    perceived to be relevant only to the test condition.

    The study of Scouller (1996) was related to Tang's study as it focussed on students'

    approaches to learning related to the mode of assessment implemented. Scouller (1996)

    investigated through questionnaires students' approaches to learning (classified as either

    deep or surface) and their perceptions of the intellectual abilities or skills being assessed (classified as lower or higher) within two assessment contexts of the same

    course: An assignment essay and an end-of-course short answer examination. The

    sample consisted of 140 first-year Sociology students at the University of Sydney. The

    main findings reveal that the assessment method strongly influenced the way these

    students learned and prepared their assessment tasks. The patterns that emerged were

    much more straightforward than those in the study of Tang (1994). The Sociology students were much more likely to employ surface approaches to learning when

    Springer

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  • 434 D. Gijbels et al.

    preparing for their short answer examinations than when preparing their assignment

    essays. In contrast, when writing their assignment essays these students were signifi

    cantly more likely to employ deep approaches to learning than when preparing for their

    short answer examinations. Finally, these students were significantly more likely to

    perceive the short answer examination as assessing lower levels of intellectual abilities

    and skills than the assignment essay. In contrast, students were more likely to perceive

    the assignment essay as assessing higher levels of intellectual abilities and skills such

    as analysis and synthesis than their short answer examination. Probablyin any case

    more than the Hong Kong students in the study of Tang (1994)we assume that these

    students have prior experiences with different modes of assessment, including assign

    ments and therefore can rely on habitual strategies to handle the assignments and thus

    to be strategic in their approach to learning.

    A recent study of Segers et al. (2006) further explored the conditions for assessment

    to steer learning within a second year 'international business strategy' course at the

    University of Maastricht in The Netherlands, by investigating the impact of the imple

    mentation of an OverAll Test. An OverAll Test is case-based and intends to measure the

    extent to which students are able to use knowledge (models, theories) to define, analyse,

    and solve authentic problems. More than in the aforementioned studies, explicit attention

    is paid to the alignment of learning, instruction, and assessment. In the course under

    study, the OverAll Test was implemented as an integral part of a redesigned learning

    environment. The main differences between the original and the redesigned learning

    environment are the format of the learning tasks (study tasks in the original course and

    problem tasks in the redesigned course) and the mode of assessment (a knowledge

    reproduction test in the original course and a combination of a knowledge reproduction

    test and an OverAll test in the redesigned course). In order to unravel the mechanism

    through which assessment steers learning, two variables, indicated as relevant in the

    aforementioned studies, were taken into account: Students' intended approaches to

    learning as an indicator for their general approaches to learning at the beginning of the

    course (Tang 1994) and their perceptions of the assessment demands, (Tang 1994;

    Scouller 1996). Two questions were central: (1) When comparing the origin...

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