Students’ Approaches to Learning

Students are not all the same. This is obvious when we think about their diversity in terms of ethnicity, language, cultural background, their educational backgrounds, their motivations for doing medicine, and many other things. But students also can differ from each other in the approach that they take to their own learning. A familiar example: students can be intrinsically motivated by the ideas, techniques, and content they are learning about, or they may be extrinsically motivated by performance on the exams, or by social status of medicine (although we hope and expect that this is not a common motivation in our students, and our recruitment practices are designed to weed this kind of motivation out). The research on these kinds of differences is more complex than this simple example, however, and it may be useful to you in your educational work to have a sense of the different approaches that students take to their learning.

The following is an example of one framework developed by Richardson (1990) based on work by Ramsden and Entwistle (1981):

(from Bath et al., 2004, p. 18).

It is clear in this model that these two approaches, or orientations, are very different from each other and it should be quite obvious to you that these differences will manifest in students’ behaviours in a strongly patterned way; indeed you may have had the experience of these two different orientations with your own students.

Why is this important?

Being aware of the differences in students’ orientations and motivations can be very useful to you in understanding the behaviours that you see in your work educating students. Student focused on “reproduction” may be anxious, may demand specific information about examinations way ahead of the exam period, and may focus on specific, granular details of the subject matter, and in doing so may miss important contextualising detail.

This information also may help you to design your materials and learning encounters with students, so as to begin to shift those reproduction-oriented students to a more meaning-orientation, which is more compatible with the self-directed, or “agentic” approach that is appropriate for medical students to develop, which in turn supports their commitment to life-long learning.



Bath, D., Smith, C., & Steele, C. (2004). A tutor’s guide to teaching and learning at UQ. The University of Queensland.

RAMSDEN, P., & ENTWISTLE, N. J. (1981). Effects of Academic Departments on Students’ Approaches To Studying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 51(3), 368–383.

Richardson, J. T. E. (1990). Reliability and Replicability of the Approaches to Studying Questionnaire. Studies in Higher Education, 15(2), 155–168.