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.

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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

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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 original assign

    ment-based course (N = 406 students) and the redesigned problem-based learning

    environment (N = 312 students), is there a change in the students' intended approaches

    to learning, their perceptions of the assessment demands and their actual approaches to

    learning at the end of the course?; (2) What is the association between these three

    variables in both conditions, the original and the redesigned learning environment? To

    measure students' perceptions of the assessment demands the Scouller Perceptions of the

    Assessment Demands Questionnaire (Scouller and Prosser 1994) was used. Students'

    intended and actual approaches to learning were measured with the Study Process

    Questionnaire (SPQ) (Biggs 1987). The results indicated that, in contradiction with the

    expectations, the students in the original course actually adopted more deep approaches

    to learning and less surface approaches to learning than the students in the redesigned

    course. Although the students were informed about the differences in the various course

    information resources, there were no significant differences between both groups of

    students in the approaches to learning they intended to employ as well as in their

    perceptions of the assessment demands. The study concludes that more research, also in

    other contexts, is needed to study and understand the complex relation between the

    students' perceptions of the demands of new modes of assessment and their intended and

    actual approaches to learning.

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  • Constructivist learning environments 435

    The present study

    The present study intends to build on the findings of the studies mentioned above. It starts

    from the perspective that student learning approaches are adaptable to change. The

    research presented focuses on students' change in learning approaches and in perceptions of the assessment demands when they enter a constructivist learning environment. It

    questions how change in learning approaches is related to their initial approaches to

    learning, their perceptions of assessment demands as they enter a course (general per

    ceptions), and their perceptions of the assessment demands when confronted with new

    modes of assessment implemented in the course. The study is conducted in a university teacher training course where a constructivist learning environment is implemented.

    Three research questions guide the present study:

    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 environment change their approaches to

    learning towards a more deep approach to learning?

    3) To what extent are students' changes in approaches to learning related to students'

    change in the perceptions of the assessment demands?

    Method

    Participants

    The participants in this study were the students following the course 'Education and

    psychology' of the teacher training programme at the University of Antwerp, Flanders,

    Belgium. The research instruments were administered to the students during the first

    (initial approaches to learning, n = 197), the second (perceptions of assessment demands, n = 160) and the final lesson (actual approaches to learning and perceptions of assessment

    demands, n = 180) of the course. As the study investigates the development of approaches to learning and perceptions of assessment demands, only students who participated on each

    of the measurements were included in the data analysis. A total of 67 students completed all instruments or filled in a readable student ID number, on the basis of which the different

    instruments could be matched. Of these students 67.1% were female and 32.9% were male

    students. The course was also available as an in-service course; 73.1% were regular pre service students, 26.9 % were in-service students (already working). The mean age of the

    students was 24 (SD = 6.65).

    The education and psychology course

    The research was carried out within the context of a compulsory course 'Education and

    psychology (3 ECTS, 7 weeks). This course in the university teacher training programme can be labelled as a 'constructivist learning environment'. We see constructivism as an

    umbrella term that groups learning perspectives with the same basic assumption about

    learning: Namely the understanding that knowledge is actively constructed by the learner

    (Birenbaum 2003; Harris and Alexander 1998; Tynjl 1999). The 'Educational and

    psychology' course can be labelled as a student-centred 'constructivist' learning envi

    ronment in which a blend of active learning and congruent assessment environments is

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  • 436 D. Gijbels et al.

    created for the students: Guided self-study, activating lectures, two authentic group

    assignments, and two individual assignments. The 7 weeks of the course were designed as

    follows: Before the first session, the students were asked to study the open learning

    material by themselves. During the first (plenary) session, the teacher presented some cases

    and discussed possible solutions with the students, based on the theory described in the

    open-learning material. During that first lesson a small lecture was given on how to create

    active learning materials for students in secondary education. Near the end of the first

    session, the students were divided in groups of 5 or 6 students and were given two

    authentic group assignments (-1- prepare a lesson for your peers on a given topic related to

    the psychology of adolescents and -2- design 4 subsequent 'lessons' for students in sec

    ondary education making use of active learning materials) on which they could work

    during sessions 2 and 3. The teacher was available for feedback during these sessions.

    Session 6 was used for a guest-lecture about how to deal with difficulties in the classroom.

    Sessions 4, 5 and 7 were used to actually 'give' the lessons they prepared (peer-to-peer

    teaching). Teacher-feedback and peer-feedback was given on the peer-to-peer teachings

    during these lessons.

    The assessment during this course was designed to be in alignment with the instruc

    tional goals and approach. This implies the students were assessed by means of the 2

    authentic group assignments, an individual observation assignment, and an individual self

    reflection assignment. The two authentic group assignments were exactly these two

    assignments mentioned above students have been working on during the course in sessions

    2 and 3. They were assessed based on the written preparation of the lesson they had given

    themselves (students had the opportunity to rework these preparations after they had given

    the lesson) and on the written preparation for the 4 subsequent lessons for students in

    secondary education, making use of active learning materials. In the individual observation

    assignment students had to write an observation report about the lessons they observed

    from their peers in sessions 4, 5 and 7. In the individual self-reflection assignment, the

    students needed to reflect critically about what they had learned personally from working

    in a group of 5 or 6 students on the 4 subsequent lessons-group assignment. Students had to

    hand in all assignments 3 weeks after the final session.

    Of further importance is that the teacher training program at the university in Flanders

    can only be started after the student reached the bachelor degree in his or her discipline.

    Furthermore, students can only graduate in the program after they graduate as a master in

    their initial discipline (e.g., law, science, economics, ...). Given the teacher-centred nature

    of the courses at the university in which this study took place (see e.g., Stes et al. 2008), we

    assume that for most students, the highly constructivist, student-centred teaching approach

    in the teacher training programme was a new experience.

    Research instruments

    The R-SPQ-2F is a refined version of Biggs' (1987) original Study Process Questionnaire

    (SPQ). In the theoretical framework of the SPQ, three approaches to learning (surface,

    deep, and achieving) are proposed, each with a motive and strategy subscale. Kember and

    Leung (1998) conducted a study with over 7000 Hong Kong students which investigated

    the construct and internal reliability of the SPQ. The results indicated that a model with

    two factors had the best fit. Other studies, including cross-cultural research, have also

    shown that a two factor solution with a deep and a surface approach, rather than the initial

    three factor solution, accounted for most of the variance (Snelgrove and Slater 2003;

    Watkins and Regmi 1996; Zhang 2000). Biggs et al. (2001) accordingly refined the SPQ.

    ) Springer

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  • Constructivist learning environments 437

    Table 1 Item examples and reliabilities of used R-SPQ-2F and ADQ-scales

    Scale Item example Condition Cronbach's

    alpha

    Deep approach I related material, as I was reading it, to what I Pre-test .652

    already knew on that topic Post-test .802

    Surface approach I learned some things by rote, going over Pre-test .740 them until I knew them by heart Post-test .760

    Assessment of deep I expect the test to assess my ability to Pre-test .590

    learning levels integrate from a variety of resources Post-test .741

    Assessment of surface I expect the test to assess my ability Pre-test .789

    learning levels to reproduce key terms and definitions Post-test .841

    The revised two factor SPQ is scored on a five-point Likert scale and categorizes students

    into two different types of approaches to learning. These are 'surface learning approaches'

    (referring to students' intentions to learn by memorizing and reproducing the factual

    contents of the study materials) and 'deep learning approaches' (associated with students'

    intentions to understand and construct the meaning of the content to be learned). An

    example of an item for both scales is presented in Table 1.

    The ADQ is developed and validated in higher education by Scouller and Prosser

    (1994). The reliability of its scales is confirmed in other studies (e.g., Segers et al. 2006). It contains twelve questions on a five-point Likert scale. Two scales result from this ques tionnaire: One for low-level surface skills and one for high-level deep skills of intellectual

    processing. An example of an item for both scales is presented in Table 1.

    Procedure

    The revised study-process-questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F, Biggs et al. 2001) was used during the first and the final lesson respectively to measure their initial and actual approaches to

    learning. The Assessment Demands Questionnaire (ADQ, Scouller and Prosser 1994) was

    used during the first and the second lesson respectively to measure students' general

    perceptions of the assessment demands and their perceptions of assessment demands for

    the present course. Since the teacher explained the method of assessment for the course

    during the first lecture, students' perceptions of the assessment demands for the present course were measured during the second lecture.

    Results

    First, the reliability of the scales used in this study was computed. The reliability for the

    different scales based on the pre-test and the post-test, measured by Cronbach's alpha, are

    presented in Table 1. The reliability for the different scales was deemed sufficient for the

    purpose of this research, although the ADQ-scale 'assessment of deep learning levels'

    resulted in a rather low Cronbach's alpha for the pre-test (alpha = .59).

    Tables 2 and 3 present the descriptive statistics for the variables measured as well as for

    the 'change variables'. The results in Table 2 indicate that, when entering the course,

    students adopt more a deep than a surface approach. Also at the end of the course, students

    adopt more deep than surface approaches. In general, they perceive the assessment

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  • 438 D. Gijbels et al.

    Table 2 Results of the paired samples t-tests for students' preferences of assessment demands and

    approaches to learning

    Variable Condition Mean SD t df P

    1. Deep approach to learning Pre-test 2.79 .62 -.01 66 .992

    Post-test 2.79 .58

    2. Surface approach to learning Pre-test 2.24 .51 -1.93 66 .057

    Post-test 2.38 .57

    3. Assessment of deep learning levels Pre-test 3.25 .61 6.36 66 .000

    Post-test 3.88 .61

    4. Assessment of surface learning levels Pre-test 3.69 .56 8.839 66 .000

    Post-test 2.73 .79

    Table 3 Means, Standard deviations, and correlation matrix for differences between post-test and pre-test

    Variable Mean SD 1 2 3 4

    1. Change deep learning approach .01 .53 1 -.259* .000 -.153

    2. Change surface learning approach .14 .60 1 -.151 .256*

    3. Change perceptions deep assessment demands .62 .80 1 -.231

    4. Change perceptions surface assessment demands -.96 .88 I

    * Correlation is significant at the .05 level

    demands as more surface than deep. However, for the course Education and psychology,

    they perceive the assessment demands as more deep than surface.

    On average, the change in deep learning approaches is close to zero (see also Table 3),

    although there are differences between students (SD = .53). The change in surface

    approaches to learning is more clear, although also here students seem to differ in the extent

    of change (SD = .60). With respect to students' perceptions of the assessment demands,

    there is a change towards the perception of less surface and more deep assessment demands.

    Also here there are differences between the students which are relatively high (as indicated

    by the standard deviation of respectively .80 for change in perception of deep assessment

    demands and .88 for change in perceptions of surface assessment demands).

    To assess whether the changes in learning approaches and perceptions of assessment

    demands were significant, paired sample t-tests were used.

    The results (see Table 2) of the paired sampled t-tests partly meet the expectations:

    They indicate that students indeed do change their perceptions of assessment demands

    towards more deep level demands and less surface 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 (p < .10).

    In order to gain insight into the relations between the variables discerned, a correlation

    analysis was conducted. The Pearson correlation coefficients in Table 3 indicated that, as

    expected, changes in deep approaches are negatively correlated to changes in surface

    approaches to learning (r = 259,/? < .05). Moreover, the change in students perceptions

    of surface assessment demands was significantly correlated to students' changes in

    approaches to learning (r = .256, p < .05). Knowing that the change in students' per

    ceptions of surface assessment demands was a negative one, this indicates that the more

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  • Constructivist learning environments 439

    Table 4 Regression analyses with dependent variables change in deep learning approach and change in surface learning approach

    Beta T

    Change in deep learning approach

    Initial deep learning approach .544 5.288 .000

    R = .544, R2 = .296, F(1.66) = 27.333, p = .000

    Change in surface learning approach

    Initial surface learning approach .468 4.418 .000

    Change perceptions surface assessment demands .229 2.158 .035

    R = .533, R2 = .284, F(2.66) = 12.682, p = .000

    students perceive the assessment as an assessment demanding less surface learning, the

    more students seem to develop surface approaches to learning. In order to better understand students' change in learning approaches, we conducted

    stepwise multiple regression analyses. We analyzed how much variance in students'

    change in deep and surface approaches can be explained by their initial learning approa ches and their general perceptions of the assessment demands. The results of the regression

    analyses are displayed in Table 4. The results indicate that 29.6% of the variance in

    students' (lack of) change in deep learning approach can be explained by students' initial

    deep learning approach. Accordingly, students' change in surface learning approaches is

    significantly influenced by their initial surface learning approach. The change in surface

    learning approach is also influenced by the change in perception of surface assessment

    demands. Together they explain 28.4% of the variance in students' change in surface

    approaches to learning. It seems, however, that the learning approach students make use of

    when entering the course has a higher impact on the extent to which they change their

    learning approach, than how they perceive the demands of the assessment within this

    course. More specifically, the negative beta coefficients as reported in Table 4 indicate that

    the stronger the students' initial learning approach is in terms of deep or surface, the less

    students adapt their learning approach.

    Conclusions and discussion

    In this study we tried to find an answer to three questions with-at first sight- mixed results.

    The first question can be answered positively: students indeed do change their perceptions of assessment demands towards a more deep level assessment. This, however, did not

    imply that students also changed their approach to learning towards a more deep approach. On the contrary, students seem to develop more surface approaches to learning during the

    course. The answer to the second question 'Do students participating in a constructivist

    learning environment change their approaches to learning towards a more deep approach?' seems to be clear: no. Finally, the answer to the question how students' changes in

    approaches to learning are related to students' change in the perception of the assessment

    demands indicates that the more students expect an assessment that assesses less surface

    levels, the more they seem to change their approach to learning towards a more surface

    approach to learning. Furthermore, to explain students' changes in learning approaches, the

    initial learning approaches students use, seem to have a relative strong impact on how they

    approach their learning in a specific course, no matter the characteristics of the course.

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  • 440 D. Gijbels et al.

    Moreover, on average, there is hardly any change in the adoption of a deep learning

    approach, although the differences between students seem to be important to consider.

    However, there is a clear change towards the adoption of a more surface approach to

    learning. Also in this case, there seem to be important differences between students. This

    result refers to the debate on the extent of variability of students' learning approaches.

    Although strange at first side, our results confirm to some extent the findings of prior research. First, there is the question of how feasible it is to change students' learning

    approach towards more deep learning. The findings in the study by Marton and Slj

    (1997) suggest that it is obviously easy to induce a surface approach. Attempting to induce

    a deep approach, however, was profoundly more difficult. This is also evidenced in the

    Nijhuis et al. (2005), Struyven et al. (2006) studies indicating that attempts to deepen students' approaches to learning did not meet the expectations. It might be questioned to

    what extent other elements of the learning environment as indicated in the Entwistle and

    Ramsden (1983); Trigwell and Presser (1991); Nijhuis et al (2005) studies mediate the

    relation between students' perceptions of the assessment demands and their learning

    approaches. The Entwistle and Ramsden study as well as the Trigwell and Presser study

    showed that a perceived heavy workload and less freedom in learning were related to a

    surface approach. Moreover, they found that perceived good teaching, clear goals, and

    more freedom in learning were related to a deep approach. A more recent study of Nijhuis

    et al. (2005), evidenced the influence of three elements of the perceived learning envi

    ronment on their learning strategies: The clarity of the goals, the appropriateness of the

    workload, and the usefulness of the literature. When students perceive these elements as

    negative, they are inclined to employ surface learning strategies. The relationship between

    a perceived higher study load and the use of deeper approaches to learning has also been

    found by Struyven et al. (2006). This study confirmed that the perceived quality of the

    learning environment influences students' approaches to learning and that the educational

    setting, as experienced by students, holds crucial information which is necessary to

    understand students' learning. It might be questioned whether in our study the students

    perceived the workload of their course as too high and whether they consequently adopted

    more surface approaches to learning? First, as many students have successful experiences

    with assessment focussing on low-level cognitive skills in their prior education, being

    confronted with assessment demanding higher-order thinking skills might evoke stress in

    terms of experiencing a high workload to meet these demands. Second, students had to

    perform a lot of self-study activities and were involved in peer-to-peer teaching, all of them

    learning activities which were novel to many of the students. For students having studied

    for 3 or 4 years in a rather traditional way, this way of teaching can be perceived as not

    only causing 'heavy workload' for students, but (despite the efforts of the teacher) also

    having unclear goals (the teacher is not telling everything himself). The tight program

    schedule where the self-study and teaching activities had to be performed in a short period

    of time with strict deadlines could induce less freedom in learning.

    Second, there is the issue of differences between students in the variability of their

    learning approaches. The results of a study of Nijhuis et al. (2008) revealed that two groups

    of students can be discerned with respect to the variability of learning approaches: A

    restricted one and a variable one. The restricted group was characterized by low variability

    in deep as well as surface learning; the variable group had high variability in deep as well

    as surface learning. Our results suggest that students indeed differ in the extent of change

    in approaches as well as perceptions. For future research, it would be interesting to explore

    if the clustering of students in different groups of students with respect to the variability in

    learning approaches as resulted from the Nijhuis et al. study (2008) can be confirmed.

    Springer

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  • Constructivist learning environments 441

    Finally, some remarks should be made which would suggest that the conclusions of this

    study should not be 'overstated' until the findings are repeatedly found, with more stringent

    safeguards against other confounding factors. First, the relatively small match (/V = 67)

    between students having completed both the pre- and post-test for the different research

    instruments could be a problem. Since the sample of students in both the pre- and post-test conditions consisted of students who were attending the lesson in which the questionnaires were administered, the difference in number between the post-test and the pre-test is not

    surprising. Near the end of a course and closer to the summative examination, it is not

    unusual that fewer students attend the courses. In addition, the readability of the ID

    numbers, on the basis of which the different questionnaires (pre- and post) were matched,

    caused problems in a few cases. Second, this study has been conducted in the specific context of one course in a university teaching training program. Subsequent studies in

    different contexts might indicate whether the results of this study can be generalized to

    other contexts. Third, although the results of the survey study indicate statistical rela

    tionships between initial approaches to learning and changes in approaches to learning, the

    argumentation that students use in weighing the various pro's and con's for the adoption and adaptation of a specific approach to learning remain unclear. A qualitative approach

    using interviews with students might help ascertain the argumentation in the decision

    making process. Fourth, we have chosen to use questionnaires as the instrument for

    determining factors influencing learning approaches. Although these questionnaires have

    been validated in higher educational settings and are therefore reliable measures, they are

    self-reports. As research on self-assessment suggests the prevalence of over- and under

    rating (Ross 1998), the reliability of self-reports can be problematic. In our study,

    especially the reliability in the pre-test for the assessment of deep learning levels scale was

    not so high (.590). Thus, a multi-method approach to measuring learning approaches may be preferable. Such multi-methods may include the use of the thinking-aloud during stu

    dent teacher reflection concerning progress on a learning task and also the observation of

    student teachers while working on a learning task. Finally, in this study, the course took

    only 7 weeks. It might be questioned if this period is not too short to expect changes towards a more deep approach to learning. The reasoning of Curry (2000), that learning

    concepts closest to the learning environment are the most likely to be sensitive to change,

    might explain the change in perceptions and not in learning approaches. The dissonance in

    students' perceptions and approaches can be interpreted as an indicator for this sleeper effect: Students probably need time to get used to the new approach and to adapt both their

    perceptions and study approaches. In order to measure sleeper effects, future research

    needs longitudinal designs, measuring change in perceptions of the assessment demands,

    and of students' approaches to learning. To conclude, the results of this study point to us the complexity of the relationship

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

    demands, and students' approaches to learning. Implementing a constructivist learning and

    assessment environment does not directly lead to a change students' approaches towards

    more deep learning. Our results indicate that the power of (the perceived) assessment to

    steer learning is both limited and complex.

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    Article Contentsp. [431]p. 432p. 433p. 434p. 435p. 436p. 437p. 438p. 439p. 440p. 441p. 442p. 443

    Issue Table of ContentsInstructional Science, Vol. 36, No. 5/6, Effects of Constructivist Learning Environments (SEPTEMBER 2008), pp. 351-467Front MatterUnderstanding the effects of constructivist learning environments: introducing a multi-directional approach [pp. 351-357]Students' approaches to learning and assessment preferences in a portfolio-based learning environment [pp. 359-374]The impact of new learning environments in an engineering design course [pp. 375-393]Self-regulated strategy development in writing: Going beyond NLEs to a more balanced approach [pp. 395-408]Understanding collaborative learning processes in new learning environments [pp. 409-430]Constructivist learning environments and the (im)possibility to change students' perceptions of assessment demands and approaches to learning [pp. 431-443]Relationships between students' conceptions of constructivist learning and their regulation and processing strategies [pp. 445-462]The effects of constructivist learning environments: a commentary [pp. 463-467]

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