Main Article Content


The aim of this article is to provide a systhesised review of the literature on conceptions of learning in both the western and Asian contexts. It follows Cooper’s (1988) steps for synthesising the literature. The review begins by examining definitions of conceptions of learning, a process that enables analysis of the quantitative and qualitative dichotomy. It then moves to the potential interrelationship between various conceptions, more specifically, the hierarchical structure proposed by researchers. In the following section, it explores the significance of conceptions of learning by examining the close relationship between learning conceptions and learning approaches. Next, the review focuses on the conceptions of learning uncovered in the Asian contexts, particularly the Chinese context. The article concludes that studies on the conceptions of learning are meaningful and conceptually helpful, thereby calling for more empirical and theoretical works.


Conceptions of learning approaches to learning students

Article Details

How to Cite
Zhao, X. (2022). Unravelling Conceptions of Learning. International Journal of Asian Education, 3(2), 97–108.


  1. ÅKerlind, G. S. (2003). Growing and Developing as a University Teacher--Variation in Meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375–390.
  2. ÅKerlind, G. S. (2005). Academic growth and development - How do university academics experience it? Higher Education, 50(1), 1–32.
  3. Åkerlind, G. S. (2008). A phenomenographic approach to developing academics’ understanding of the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(6), 633–644.
  4. Åkerlind, G., Bowden, J. A., & Green, P. (2005). Learning to do phenomenography: A reflective discussion. In Bowden, J. & Green, P. (Eds.). Doing developmental phenomenography, Melbourne: RMIT University Press.
  5. Abhayawansa, S., & Fonseca, L. (2010). Conceptions of learning and approaches to learning—A phenomenographic study of a group of overseas accounting students from Sri Lanka. Accounting Education, 19(5), 527–550.
  6. Asikainen, H., Virtanen, V., Parpala, A., & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2013). Understanding the variation in bioscience students’ conceptions of learning in the 21st century. International Journal of Educational Research, 62, 36–42.
  7. Ballantyne, R., Thompson, R., & Taylor, P. (1994). Principals’ conceptions of competent beginning teachers. In R. Ballantyne & C. Bruce (Eds.), Phenomenography: Philosophy and practice. Proceedings of the 1994 Phenomenography Conference. Brisbane: Centre for Applied Environmental and Social Education Research, Queensland University of Technology.
  8. Biggs, J. (1994). Student learning research and theory: Where do we currently stand? In Gibbs, G. (Ed.), Improving student learning: Theory and practice. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development.
  9. Biggs, J. (1996). Western misconceptions of the Confucian-heritage learning culture. In Watkins, D., & Biggs, J. B. (Eds.). The Chinese learner: Cultural, psychological, and contextual influences. Hong Kong: CERC & ACER.
  10. Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality in learning at university. 3rd Edition. England: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
  11. Boulton-Lewis, G. M., Marton, F., Lewis, D. C., & Wilss, L. A. (2004). A longitudinal study of learning for a group of indigenous Australian university students: Dissonant conceptions and strategies. Higher Education, 47(1), 91–111.
  12. Burnett, P. C., Pillay, H., & Dart, B. C. (2003). The influences of conceptions of learning and Learner Self-concept on high school students’ approaches to learning. School Psychology International, 24(1), 54–66.
  13. Byrne, M., & Flood, B. (2004). Exploring the conceptions of learning of accounting students. Accounting Education, 13(sup1), 25–37.
  14. Chalmers, D. & Fuller, R. (1996). Teaching for learning at university. London: Kogan Page.
  15. Cooper, H. M. (1988). Organizing knowledge syntheses: A taxonomy of literature reviews. Knowledge in Society, 1(1), 104–126.
  16. Cope, C., & Prosser, M. (2005). Identifying didactic knowledge: An empirical study of the educationally critical aspects of learning about information systems. Higher Education, 49(3), 345–372.
  17. Chiou, G.-L., Liang, J.-C., & Tsai, C.-C. (2012). Undergraduate Students’ Conceptions of and Approaches to Learning in Biology: A study of their structural models and gender differences. International Journal of Science Education, 34(2), 167–195.
  18. Dahlin, B., & Regmi, M. P. (1997). Conceptions of learning among Nepalese students. Higher Education, 33(4), 471-493.
  19. Duarte, A. M. (2007). Conceptions of learning and approaches to learning in Portuguese students. Higher Education, 54(6), 781–794.
  20. Edmunds, R., & Richardson, J. T. E. (2009). Conceptions of learning, approaches to studying and personal development in UK higher education. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(Pt 2), 295–309.
  21. Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., Calvo, R. A., & Prosser, M. (2008). Engineering students’ conceptions of and approaches to learning through discussions in face-to-face and online contexts. Learning and Instruction, 18(3), 267–282.
  22. Fuller, R (1999). Do university students’ conceptions of learning really influence their learning? In Cornerstones: What do we value in higher education? Proceedings, July 12-15, Melbourne, Australia: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.
  23. Fung, Y., Carr, R., & Chan, S. K. (2001). Conceptions of learning held by bachelor of education students at the open university of Hong Kong. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 21(1), 45–52.
  24. Gibbs, G. (1995). Changing lecturers’ conceptions of learning through action research. In A. Brew (Ed.), Directions in staff development. Buckingham, England: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.
  25. Giorgi, A. (1986). A phenomenological analysis of descriptions of concepts of learning obtained from a phenomenological perspective. Publications from the Department of Education, Göteborg University.
  26. Haggis, T. (2003). Constructing images of ourselves? A critical investigation into “approaches to learning” research in higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 29(1), 89–104.
  27. Ho, D. Y. F. (1991). Cognitive socialisation in Confucian heritage cultures. Paper presented to Workshop on Continuities and Discontinuities in the Cognitive Socialisation of Minority Children. US. Dept of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. June 29-July 2.
  28. Johansson, B., Marton, F. & Svensson, L. (1985). An approach to describing learning as a change between qualitatively different conceptions. In West, L. and Pines, L. (Eds.), Cognitive structure and conceptual change. Orlando: Academic Press.
  29. Kember, D., & Gow, L. (1991). A challenge to the anecdotal stereotype of the Asian student. Studies in Higher Education, 16(2), 117–128.
  30. Lee, W. O. (1996). The cultural context for Chinese learners: conceptions of learning in the Confucian tradition. In Watkins, D., & Biggs, J. B. (Eds.). The Chinese learner: Cultural, psychological, and contextual influences. Hong Kong: CERC & ACER.
  31. Lu, G. & Yu, D. (2003). Learning style and university student self-regulated learning. Xi’an: Xi’an Jiaotong University Press. [In Chinese]
  32. Lu, G., Yu, D. & Liu, S. (2006). The learning style of university student in private higher education. Xi’an: Shaanxi people’s education press. [In Chinese]
  33. Martin, E., & Ramsden, P. (1992). An expanding awareness: how lecturers change their understanding of teaching. Paper presented at the 1992 HERDSA Conference, Gippsland.
  34. Marton, F. (1988). Describing and improving learning. In Schmeck, R. R. E. (Ed.). Learning strategies and learning styles. Berlin, Heidelberg: Plenum Press.
  35. Marton, F. & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  36. Marton, F. &Saljo, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I outcome and process. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46,4-11.Retrieve from:
  37. Marton, F., Dall’Alba, G. & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of Learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19, 277–300.
  38. Marton, F., Dall'Alba, G. & Tse, L.K. (1992). Solving the paradox of the Asian learner. Paper presented at the Fourth Asian Regional Congress of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Kathmandu, Nepal. January 3-7.
  39. Marton, F., Dall’Alba, G. & Tse, L. K. (1996). Making and understanding: the keys to the paradox? In Watkins, D., & Biggs, J. B. (Eds.). The Chinese learner: Cultural, psychological, and contextual influences. Hong Kong: CERC & ACER.
  40. Marton, F., Watkins, D., & Tang, C. (1997). Discontinuities and continuities in the experience of learning: An interview study of high-school students in Hong Kong. Learning and Instruction, 7(1), 21–48.
  41. Marton, F., Wen, Q., & Nagle, A. (1996). Views on learning in different cultures: Comparing patterns in China and Uruguay. Anales de Psicología, 12(2), 123-132.
  42. Marton, F., Wen, Q., & Wong, K. C. (2005). ?Read a hundred times and the meaning will appear ...? Changes in Chinese University students? views of the temporal structure of learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 291–318.
  43. McKay, J. (1995). Promoting rejection within teaching: A case study in educational change within a department, Unpublished PhD Thesis. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
  44. McLean, M. (2001). Can we relate conceptions of learning to student academic achievement? Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), 399–413.
  45. Pang, M. F., & Ki, W. W. (2016). Revisiting the idea of “critical aspects.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 60(3), 323–336.
  46. Patrick, K. (2000). Exploring conceptions: Phenomenography and the object of study. In Bowden, J. & Walsh, E. (Eds.). Phenomenography, Melbourne: RMIT University Press.
  47. Peterson, E. R., Brown, G. T., & Irving, S. E. (2010). Secondary school students’ conceptions of learning and their relationship to achievement. Learning and individual differences, 20(3), 167-176.
  48. Pillay, H., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (2000). Variations in Conceptions of Learning in Construction Technology: Implications for learning. Journal of Education and Work, 13(2), 163–181.
  49. Pillay, H., Purdie, N. O. L. A., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (2000). Investigating cross-cultural variation in conceptions of learning and the use of self-regulated strategies. Education Journal, 28(1), 65-84.
  50. Pratt, D. D. (1992). Chinese conceptions of learning and teaching: a westerner’s attempt at understanding. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 11(4), 301–319.
  51. Prosser, M., & Millar, R. (1989). The “How” and “What” of learning physics. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 4(4), 513–528.
  52. Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. New York: McGraw-Hill International.
  53. Purdie, N. M., & Hattie, J. (2002). Assessing students’ conceptions of learning. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 2, 17-32.
  54. Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge Falmer.
  55. Sharma, D. S. (1997). Accounting students’ learning conceptions, approaches to learning, and the influence of the learning–teaching context on approaches to learning. Accounting Education, 6(2), 125–146.
  56. Säljö, R. (1979). Learning in the learner’s perspective: I. Some common-sense assumptions (No. 76). Göteborg: University of Göteborg, Institute of Education.
  57. Säljö, R. (1987). The educational construction of learning. In J. T. E. Richardson, M. W. Eysenk, & D. W. Piper (Eds.), Student learning. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  58. Sachs, J., & Chan, C. (2003). Dual Scaling Analysis of Chinese Students’ Conceptions of Learning. Educational Psychology, 23(2), 181–193.
  59. Samuelowicz, K., & Bain, J. D. (1992). Conceptions of teaching held by academic teachers. Higher Education, 24(1), 93–111.
  60. Sandberg, J. (2000). Understanding human competence at work: an interpretative approach. Academy of Management Journal, 43(1), 9–25.
  61. Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  62. Täks, M., Tynjälä, P., & Kukemelk, H. (2015). Engineering students’ conceptions of entrepreneurial learning as part of their education. European Journal of Engineering Education, 41(1), 53–69.
  63. Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (1991). Relating approaches to study and quality of learning outcomes at the course level. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61(3), 265–275.
  64. Tsai, C.-C. (2009). Conceptions of learning versus conceptions of web-based learning: The differences revealed by college students. Computers & Education, 53(4), 1092–1103.
  65. van Rossum, E., & Schenk, S. M. (1984). The relationship between learning conception, study strategy and learning outcome. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 73-83.
  66. van Rossum, E. J., & schenk, S. M. (1984). The relationship between learning conception, study strategy and learning outcome. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 73–83.
  67. van Rossum, E., & Taylor, I. P. (1987, April). The relationship between conceptions of learning and good teaching: A scheme of cognitive development. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington DC.
  68. Watkins, D. & Regmi, M. (1992). How universal are student conceptions of learning? A Nepalese investigation. Psychologia, 35(2), 101–110.
  69. Webb, G. (1997). Deconstructing deep and surface: Towards a critique of phenomenography. Higher Education, 33(2), 195-212.
  70. Wen, Q. & Marton, F. (1993). Chinese views on the relation between memorization and understanding. Paper presented at the 5th European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction Conference in Aix-en-Provence, August 31-September 5.
  71. Wong, K. C., & Wen, Q. (2001). The impact of university education on conceptions of learning: A Chinese study. International Education Journal, 2(5), 138-147.
  72. Yang, Y.-F., & Tsai, C.-C. (2010). Conceptions of and approaches to learning through online peer assessment. Learning and Instruction, 20(1), 72–83.
  73. Zhao, Z., & Thomas, G. P. (2016). Mainland Chinese students⿿ conceptions of learning science: A phenomenographic study in Hebei and Shandong Provinces. International Journal of Educational Research, 75, 76–87.
  74. Zhu, C., Valcke, M., & Schellens, T. (2008). A cross-cultural study of Chinese and Flemish university students: Do they differ in learning conceptions and approaches to learning?. Learning and Individual Differences, 18(1), 120-127.