Document Type

Theses, Ph.D


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence


1.3 PHYSICAL SCIENCES, *pedagogy

Publication Details

Successfully submitted for the award of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) to the Technological University Dublin, 2010.


This phenomenographic study describes students’ approaches to learning and their perceptions of the learning environment in an introductory physics course which is taught using a problem-based learning approach. This research builds on previous studies which showed that these students develop a greater conceptual knowledge than their counterparts in a more traditional learning environment while others showed very little development even though they engaged fully with the pedagogy. This study aimed to examine and describe the students’ approaches to learning. The definitions of surface, strategic and deep approaches to learning are not appropriate in this context and could not be applied as all students engage fully in the collaborative problem-solving process, albeit in different ways, and hence displayed none of the characteristics of the traditional surface approach and many, if not all, of those associated with the deep approach. Many previous research studies have shown that these “traditional” approaches to learning can manifest in different ways and this is primarily due to the influence of the students’ perceptions of the problem-based learning environment and examine their influence on the students’ approaches to learning. This study was conducted using phenomenographic methodology to collect, analyse and interpret data from twenty individual semi-structured interviews with introductory physics students. It presents a systematic way of identifying the variations in the students’ approaches to their learning in a problem-based learning environment and the variations in students’ perceptions of the learning environment. The study also involved the observation of the students’ within the problem-based learning environment in order to examine the manifestation of their approach. Finally, a quantitative inventory was used as a pre- and post-test to ascertain the students’ conceptual knowledge development. Relations between the approaches, perceptions, actions and conceptual knowledge development were then examined. The findings from this study reveal that students approach their learning in one of three ways: PBL deep; PBL strategic; and PBL surface. These approaches have similarities to the three traditional approaches mentioned above but have clear differences as well. In particular in terms of their link to the students’ conception of understanding. A link was also established between students’ perception of the learning environment and their approach to learning. The findings have also indicated an alignment between approach, perception, actions taken in problem-based learning environment and the development of conceptual knowledge. This research provides an insight into, and a better understanding of, the way introductory physics students approach their learning in a problem-based learning environment that is constructively aligned to develop understanding. It also underlines the significance that students’ conceptions of understanding and perceptions of the learning environment will have on influencing their approach to learning. This study can inform problem-based learning course design, tutoring and teaching and assessment practices not only in physics education but in any discipline where conceptual understanding is a primary learning outcome.