The “How” and “What” of learning physics

  • Michael Prosser
  • Rosemary Millar


Recent research on student learning in higher education has increasingly focussed on experiential aspects of how students approach their studies and what they learn from their studies. In this paper we describe the results of a study using phenomenographic research techniques, which focusses on student learning in a first year university physics course. The study, using interviews with sixteen volunteer students from the course, shows that only those students who actively sought to change their conceptions of the subject matter did so, while those who sought only to reproduce that subject matter did not.

Key words

Approaches Physics Learning 

Enseignement de la physique: apprendre quoi et comment?


Les recherches les plus récentes dans l’Enseignement supérieur ont mis l’accent sur la façon dont les étudiants conçoivent leur activité d’étude et les apprentissages qui en découlent. Dans cet article nous décrivons les résultats d’une recherche phénoménographique concernant les activités d’apprentissage de la physique par des étudiants de première année d’Université. L’analyse d’entretiens conduits auprès de 16 étudiants révèle que ceux qui ont recherché à modifier leurs préconceptions dans le domaine ont tiré un plus grand bénéfice que ceux qui ont simplement reproduit les contenus enseignés.


  1. Alexandersson, C. (1985).Stability and Change: An Empirical Study of Knowledge Acquired in School and Everyday Life. Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences, 53.Google Scholar
  2. Ausubel, D., Novak, J. & Hanesian, H. (1978).Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  3. Duit, R. (1987).Research on Students’ Alternative Frameworks in Science-Topics, Theoretical Frameworks, Consequences for Science Teaching. Unpublished manuscript, Institute for Science Education, University of Kiel.Google Scholar
  4. Johansson, B., Marton, F., & Svensson, L. (1985). An Approach to Describing Learning as Change Between Qualitatively Different Conceptions. In L. West, & A. Pines (Ed),Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change (pp. 233–257). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  5. Marton, F. (1988). Describing and Improving Learning. In R. Schmeck (Ed.),Learning Strategies and Learning Styles (pp. 53–82). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  6. Marton, F., & Saljo, R. (1976a). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: 1. Outcome and Process.British Journal of Educational Psychology. 46, 4–11.Google Scholar
  7. Ramsden, P., Beswick, D., & Bowden, J. (1986). Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on First Year University Student’s Learning.Human Learning.5, 151–164.Google Scholar
  8. Ramsden, P. (1987). Improving Teaching and Learning: the case for a relational perspective.Studies in Higher Education, 12, 275–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Strike, K., & Posner, G. (1985). A Conceptual Change View of Learning and Understanding. In L. West & A. Pines (Ed),Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change (pp. 211–231). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  10. Svensson, L. (1977). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: 3. Study Skill in Learning.British Journal of Educational Psychology, 47, 233–243.Google Scholar
  11. West, L., & Pines, A. (1985).Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisbon, Portugal/ Springer Netherlands 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Prosser
    • 1
  • Rosemary Millar
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Teaching and LearningThe University of SydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Department of PhysicsThe University of SydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations