Projects > Research Projects > Student’s Learning Profile

Student’s Learning Profile


NUS Students' Approaches to Learning and Studying


This project is a longitudinal study designed to follow the first, second, and third years of NUS students' approaches to learning and studying. An approach to learning has two components- how students approach a task ( strategy ) depends on why they want to approach it in the first place ( motive ). Two problems plague many college students and hinder their learning: (1) lack of knowledge about appropriate learning approaches, and (2) lack of motivation to use them.


There are two interpretations of "approaches to learning". It can refer to the process adopted prior to the outcome of learning as originally proposed by Marton and Saljo (1976) in their identification of surface and deep approaches in case studies of tertiary students. Or, it can refer to pre-dispositions to adopt particular processes, which is what is meant when students are asked by questionnaire how they usually go about learning (Biggs, 1987a). Biggs (1987a) developed the Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) to study tertiary learning and documented the deep, surface and achieving approaches to learning.


In its original conception, Biggs (1987) identified student approaches to studying as comprising two elements of motive and strategy. He identified 3 approaches to learning, each with a corresponding motive and strategy. This is outlined in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Biggs' conception of a 6-factor structure in students' approaches to learning

Surface approach : The motive here is extrinsic; it is to carry out the task because of either positively or negatively reinforcing consequences. The student is willing to engage in learning tasks and pass minimally either because life will be even more unpleasant if he does not, or because he/she wishes to gain a paper qualification with minimal trouble or effort. Surface motivated students focus on what appear to be the most important topics (as defined by examinations) and aim to reproduce them. Because of this focus, they do not see interconnections between elements, or the meanings and implications of what is learned.


Deep approach : The deep motive is based on intrinsic motivation or curiosity; the strategy arising from curiosity is to seek meaning. When a deep approach is adopted, there is a personal commitment to learning, which means that the student relates subject material to personally meaningful contexts or to existing prior knowledge, depending on the subject concerned. Deep processing involves processes of a higher cognitive level than rote learning-searching for analogies, relating to previous knowledge, theorising about what is learned, and deriving extensions and exceptions.


Achieving approach : Whereas the deep motive is focused on the process, the achieving motive is similar to the surface approach in that it is focused on a product, in this case the ego trip that comes from obtaining high grades and winning prizes. The general strategy is thus to maximise the chances of obtaining high marks. While this may lead to optimal engagement in the task (as does deep strategy), such engagement is the means, not the end (unlike deep strategy); the nature of the engagement really depends on what earns the most marks.

There are two main influences on the student's development of a certain learning approach: personal , and the teaching context. On the personal side, some factors in the student's background or personality do seem to be associated with a Surface Approach (Biggs, 1989), and others with a Deep Approach (Biggs, 1987b). On the teaching side, time pressures, examination stress, and using test items that emphasise low level cognitive outcomes encourage a Surface Approach. On the other hand, learner activity, student-student interaction, and interactive teaching, particularly problem-based teaching, encourage a Deep Approach (Biggs and Telfer, 1987). Thus, learning approaches can be modified either by changes in the personal situation of the student, or by changes in the teaching situation. For example, the teacher can help the student to change learning approach by changing the assessment method. This may change the student's motivation, which changes the approach used, which affects the outcome, which in turn affects the teacher's perception of the student's performance, and of course the student's own self-perception.

Much work on the studying and learning approaches of tertiary students has been carried out elsewhere (Biggs, 1987b; Ramsden and Entwistle, 1981) and in South-east Asia (Biggs, 1991, 1992, 1993; Kember and Gow 1990). However, very little research of this nature has been conducted in Singapore , except in the case of the National Institute of Education, hence the attempt to study the learning approaches of students in NUS. The SPQ is adopted here because it had been used to investigate the study approaches of university students in several Asian countries.

This study aims to capture information on students from their first year at NUS, and track them over their next two years of study here at the University. It is hoped that information gathered would provide some insights on how local students learn, and would offer clues on how teachers could facilitate students' learning. Specifically, attention would be given to the following:

  1. To investigate the learning approaches taken by NUS students over the course of their studies at the University;
  2. o explore any differences among freshmen from different pre-university colleges and institutions;
  3. To find out if the student's experience in NUS would have an effect on his/her approach to learning;
  4. To see the relation between the study approaches taken by the students and their assessment results; &
  5. To see if students in NUS are more inclined to adopt the Deep/Surface/Achieving Approach in comparison with students elsewhere as found in the literature.


The Instrument


Biggs' Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) is a 42-item self-report survey consisting of ratings on a 5-point scale to questions relating to respondents' study motivations and their usual study patterns.




The project began in 2000 with data collection using students matriculated in AY2000-2001. A version of Biggs' (1987) original SPQ, identified as SPQ2000 , was used. The preliminary data analysis on this cohort's responses showed that NUS students identified only one of the definite strategies (i.e., achieving) to obtain objective learning, and students were not able to specifically identify their motives in their tertiary education. It was concluded that Biggs' original approaches to learning model was not successful in measuring NUS students' study approaches. Conclusions were based on empirical evidence in conjunction with literature and previous analyses that utilized Biggs' original three-factor model.

Factor analysis of these data revealed that 14 questions in the SPQ2000 did not completely fall into the 6 factors originally conceptualized by Biggs. These problematic items were then replaced accordingly.




The changes to the 14 problematic items resulted in a new questionnaire, the SPQ2001 . The need for modification of the original Biggs' questionnaire, especially in relation to Asian students, has been highlighted in many investigations (e.g., Beckwith, 1991; Kember et al, 1998, 1999; Biggs, 2001; Zeegers, 2002). In the case of NUS students, vigorous statistical analyses on the data failed to show up the possible motives associated with appropriate strategies; this is possibly attributed to cultural factors, as suggested by other researchers (Biggs, 1996; Hau & Salili, 1996; Watkins, 1998; Kember, 2000; Kember & Leung, 2001). It was thus hypothesized that continuing with the original Biggs' questionnaire would be an inaccurate depiction of NUS students' approaches to learning, given that cultural differences played an important factor.

The modified SPQ2001 was administered in August 2001 to students matriculated in AY2001-2002. Confirmatory factor analysis was carried out to test the validity of Biggs' original 6-factor structure on this modified SPQ. The result showed a significant improvement over the previous results in the loading of each item onto its designated factor.


SPQ2001 was thus shown to be of higher reliability and validity than its original counterpart, but, since the 14 items from the original had been replaced with new ones, there was no way of validating the new items against the old ones. These new questions are thus potentially different from the SPQ2000 questions in terms of content (i.e., there is no clear link between the old and new questions in terms of constructs and manifestations thereof being measured). Hence the need for a new SPQ2002 .



The modified SPQ2002 , a combined version of SPQ2000 plus 14 modified questions of SPQ2001 , was administered to a smaller pilot sample ( N = 1782) from the first-year student cohort in 2002.


In order to ensure that SPQ2001 has comparable validity to SPQ2000, and that it measures the different study approaches at least equally well as the latter, three main statistical analyses were performed to compare the psychometric properties of SPQ2001 with those of SPQ2000 within the same sample using SPQ2002. To achieve this, three statistical analyses were conducted: scale reliability analysis, item-total correlations, and correlations with external criteria (i.e., A-level grades and CAP). These analyses indicated that there is generally comparable content, criterion-related (external) and hence, construct validity between the subscales of SPQ2001 and their counterparts in SPQ2000. Having established this, it was decided that the SPQ2002 would be used in subsequent surveys to follow-up the student cohort matriculated in AY2001-2002.

A progress schematic of the entire SPQ project is provided in Table 2.


Academic Year

T1: SPQ2000
(Aug 00; all faculties)


T1: SPQ2001
(Aug 01; all faculties)

T2: SPQ2002
(Aug 03; all faculties)

T3: SPQ2002
(Feb 04; all faculties)


T1: SPQ2002
(Sep 02; small pilot sample,
N = 1782)

Table 2. Progress of SPQ Project by Academic Year, Cohort Tested, Length Of Exposure To NUS, Measures Obtained, and SPQ Version Administered.

Notes :

  1. C1 = Cohort matriculated in 2000, C2 = Cohort matriculated in 2001,C3 = Cohort matriculated in 2002
  2. T1 = Measurement at beginning of exposure to NUS, T2 = Measurement after two years, T3 = Measurement after three years
  3. SPQ2000 = Original modified SPQ, SPQ2001 = SPQ with modified items only, SPQ2002 = SPQ with both the modified and original items.
  4. Common measures administered with all versions of SPQ: Matriculation No (for identification), Faculty/Department, Pre-U, Age, Sex, Race, A-Level grades, and Students' Needs for Achievement (SNA) Scale.
  5. Additional measure obtained for all cohorts: current CAP results at time of measurement.




CDTL conducted the final round of surveys on the cohort, to track them at the end of their third year. The data collected from these follow-up surveys will be subject to the same psychometric validation strategies as before, but this time on the matched samples. Statistical analyses will then be performed to compare the study approaches taken by students across the three time frames. This is to elucidate the learning approaches taken by NUS students at different stages during their course of study, from the time they enter NUS to the end of their third year. It is also to find out if students' experience in NUS would ultimately have an effect on their approaches to learning. Finally, correlations between JCs and the final CAP for students graduating in 2002 will also be investigated in order to see the effectiveness of high-end JCs in preparing students for subsequent tertiary studies in NUS.



Beckwith, J.B. (1991) Approaches to learning, their context and relationship to assessment performance. Higher Education, 22, 17-30. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Biggs, J.B. (1987) Student Approaches to Learning and Studying , Melbourne , Australian Council for Educational Research.

Biggs, J.B. (1996a) Approaches to Learning of Asian Students: A Multiple Paradox. In Asian Contributions to Cross-Cultural Psychology , Janak Pandey (Ed.), Sage Publication: New Delhi , 180-199.

Biggs, J.B. (1996b) Learning, schooling, and Socialization: A Chinese Solution to a Western Problem. In Growing Up the Chinese Way , Sing Lau (Ed.), The Chinese University Press: Hong Kong , 147-167.

Biggs, J. B. (2001) The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F, British Journal of Educational Psychology , 71, 133-149

Biggs J. B. and Telfer, R (1987) The Process of Learning (2nd ed.). Sydney : Prentice Hall of Australia .

Hau, K.T. and Salili, F. (1996) Achievements Goals and Casual Attributions of Chinese Students. In Growing Up the Chinese Way , Sing Lau (Ed.), The Chinese University Press: Hong Kong , 121-146.

Kember, D. (2000) Misconceptions about the Learning Approaches, Motivation and Study Practices of Asian Students, Higher Education , Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, 99-121.

Kember, D., & Leung, D.Y.P. (1998) The Dimensionality of approaches to earning: an Investigation with Confirmatory Factor Analysis on the Structure of the SPQ and LPQ", British Journal of Educational Psychology , 68, 395-407.

Kember, D., Wong, A., and Leung, D.Y.P. (1999) Reconsidering the Dimensions of Approaches to Learning, British Journal of Educational Psychology , 69, 323-343

Marton, F and Saljo, R. (1976) On qualitative differences in learning-I: Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11

Ramsden, P. and N. Entwistle (1981) Effects of academic departments on students approaches to studying. British Journal of Educational Psychology , 50, 368 - 383

Watkins. D. (1998) A Cross-Cultural Look at Perception of Good Teaching: Asia and the West. In University Teaching: International Perspectives , James J.F. Forest (Ed.), Garland Publishing Inc: New York , 19-34.

Zeegers, P. (2002) A Revision of the Biggs' Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ). Higher Education Research & Development, Vol.21, No.1 Carfax Publishing