Learning approaches in the Research Methods module in psychology

von Karina De Santis

Research Methods is a mandatory module in the Bachelor of Psychology program at the University of Bremen. We investigated the learning approaches used by our students. The data from 84 students show that they use the deep and the strategic more frequently than the surface learning approaches. The older students (≥22 years) learn predominantly deeply while the younger students (<22 years) learn predominantly strategically. Strategic learning is positively related to performance. Research-oriented teaching and assessment may promote the deep learning and the learning approaches depend on age. Restructuring of the curriculum in psychology should focus on strategies that encourage deep learning particularly in the younger students.

Learning in New Zealand, teaching in Bremen

I completed my first degree at the end of the world. In 1996 I enrolled in the Bachelor of Health Sciences at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. These were exciting times: grunge and Nirvana were in and the Lord of the Rings trilogy was about to be filmed in New Zealand. There was no email and we used computers to type up assignments after the English Department at Otago caused a revolution by banning all hand-written submissions.

My favourite first year course was Biology 115 (BIOL115) with approximately 1200 students, early Monday morning lectures, and late evening labs. The theoretical component was surprisingly interesting due to inspirational professors who presented the material in the context of their own research. I particularly liked the labs where we had the opportunity to test the theoretical material using simple practical experiments. These first encounters with research greatly influenced my choices of subsequent study courses. I selected courses that involved even more research and eventually chose an academic career. Research also took me around the world since New Zealand and brought me to Bremen in 2004. Since October 2014 I work as Vertretungsprofessorin in Research Methods in psychology.

I was pleasantly surprised when 21 years after I completed BIOL115 ResearchGate recently recommended an academic article regarding the curriculum change in the course and its impact on the student learning approaches (McDonald, Reynolds, Bixley, & Spronken-Smith, 2017). In their earlier article (Walker et al., 2010) the authors explain that BIOL115 was inadequate at promoting the deep learning and instead facilitated the surface learning of the material. For this reason the course curriculum was revised to strengthen the focus on research in teaching and assessment. The authors assessed the outcomes of the curriculum revision by comparing the learning approaches used by their students in the old and the new curriculum (McDonald et al., 2017).

How do our students in Research Methods in psychology learn?

Having read and reflected upon both articles I have asked myself: How do our students learn? What learning approaches do they use in our module? These questions are particularly important because our faculty of psychology is currently undergoing a restructuring process of the personnel as well as the curriculum structure. Since October 2014 I teach the Research Methods module in psychology that is traditionally disliked by students at any university (mandatory and too theoretical). Together with a colleague, Ms. Imke Gerkensmeier (Lecturer in Research Methods), and supported by a team of student-tutors we have designed a module that uses a research-oriented teaching approach. Similarly to my professors in BIOL115, we illustrate the theory using our own research expertise and publications during the lectures. We also encourage students to actively participate in the practical exercises based on the lectures. These exercises aim to make the module more interesting, to promote the deeper understanding of the material, and to facilitate the critical thinking skills.

Inspired by the studies from New Zealand (McDonald et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2010) and supported by Ms. Gerkensmeier and our student assistant, Ms. Hannah Seehoff (3rd semester BSc Psychology) we conducted a similar study with our students. The goal was to investigate the learning approaches used by students enrolled in our Research Methods module. The study methods are summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Study assessing the learning approaches of students in Research Methods in psychology

Learning approaches: deep, strategic, surface

ASSIST-24-German measures 3 learning approaches (deep, strategic or surface) with 8 statements each. Each learning approach consists of 2 main components shown in Figure 2 (Tait et al., 1998). The deep approach means learning by relating ideas (within or among modules) and understanding the evidence presented in classes. The strategic approach means learning that is focused on achievement using good organisation and time management. The surface learning involves memorising of facts with little understanding and being motivated by the fear of failure.

Figure 2. Learning approaches measured by ASSIST-24-German

Learning approaches in Research Methods

We obtained complete responses from 84 students in Research Methods and analysed their data statistically together with the students in classes during the Winter Semester 17/18. Each learning approach was computed by adding the answers to 8 statements describing that approach and dividing the total by 2 (components) to make our results comparable to those from New Zealand (McDonald et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2010).

The participants in our study were on average 23 years old, 56% were younger than 22, and the majority were female (80%). The results of our study are summarised in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Learning approaches in Research Methods in psychology

Learning in Research Methods is predominantly deep and strategic

The students in the Research Methods module learn using the deep and the strategic more frequently than the surface learning approaches (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Learning in Research Methods is predominantly deep and strategic

We have discussed these results with our students and interpret them as follows:

  1. Teaching methods and assessment affect learning approaches

The studies from New Zealand show that learning approaches depend on the curriculum structure, teaching methods, and course requirements (McDonald et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2010). The authors postulated that students tend to learn deeper when their courses include practical, research-based components and offer opportunities to actively exchange with peers and instructors. Furthermore, the appropriate assessment format rewarding understanding rather than a recall of facts is essential to motivate students to learn deeper.

In line with these arguments, our teaching methods appear to facilitate deeper learning for understanding because we encourage students to associate the theoretical materials with research examples and practical problems. We have already shown that our teaching methods are designed to facilitate lifelong learning and to encourage students to think rather than to consume (Kedzior & Gerkensmeier, 2017). We have also explicitly communicated that understanding rather than a recall of facts will be tested in the final examination. Therefore, relatively simple teaching methods could motivate students to learn deeper even in an introductory, theory-based module with more than 100 students.

Regardless of the innovative teaching and assessment methods, the students in New Zealand tended to use the surface learning approach throughout their three-year Bachelor’s degree (McDonald et al., 2017). The surface approach may be necessary to establish a strong knowledge base (McDonald et al., 2017). In fact, memorising of materials could be meaningful because the surface learning approach was positively related to higher grades in exams designed to test understanding in New Zealand (Walker et al., 2010). Thus, the research-oriented teaching and assessment methods can be successful at promoting the deep learning only if students are shown how to learn and the instructors explicitly communicate their expectations (Kedzior & Gerkensmeier, 2017).

  1. Learning approaches depend on future study and career plans

Both studies from New Zealand show that research-oriented teaching methods only partially affect how students learn (McDonald et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2010). In today’s highly competitive world the students may prefer to learn strategically to fulfil their future study and career plans. In fact, our students who learn more strategically also rate higher their own performance in the module so far. However, focusing on grades alone leads to unhealthy competition and to grade inflation because the top grades are incorrectly perceived as acceptable norms. The role of universities should be to widen the horizons of students rather than to prepare them for entry to graduate study programs or jobs alone. The challenge facing the university instructors these days is to motivate the students to learn not only for achievement but also for life using the appropriate teaching and assessment methods.

Learning approaches in Research Methods depend on age

Our results show that the learning approaches in Research Methods depend on age because the older students learn deeply while the younger students learn strategically (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Learning approaches in Research Methods depend on age

The effect of age on the learning approaches is not surprising. In our study about half of the students were 18-21 while the rest were 22-42 years old. Maturity and more life experience are likely to facilitate the deep learning approach in the older relative to the younger students (McDonald et al., 2017). Furthermore, the experience of the university environment can also contribute to deeper learning towards the end relative to the beginning of the bachelor studies (McDonald et al., 2017).

Our results could also reflect generation-related differences in learning approaches. The younger students appear to strategically use higher education as a stepping-stone for their future studies and careers. In contrast, the older students place more focus on gaining deeper knowledge and understanding of the material. These effects may have important implications for the curriculum revision in psychology at the University of Bremen. Our student cohorts traditionally include a mixture of young school leavers and older students. Therefore, the curriculum in psychology should be carefully designed to meet the potentially differing needs and approaches to higher education by students of different ages and experience.

Are our results just fake news?

It is important to consider factors that might have affected the results of any scientific study to prevent drawing of false conclusions from data. The key question is what factors have truly contributed to the learning approaches reported by our students. We can only speculate that the learning approaches depend on our teaching and assessment methods since we have collected the data only once. In contrast, both studies in New Zealand compared either two cohorts of students before and after the curriculum change (Walker et al., 2010) or the same students throughout their three-year Bachelor’s degree (McDonald et al., 2017). Therefore, it is likely that the new curriculum contributed to changes in the learning approaches in both New Zealand studies.

Together with our students in Research Methods we discussed the following issues that might have also affected our results:

  1. Are the differences in learning approaches meaningful?

Our results (Figures 4 and 5) as well as the data from New Zealand (McDonald et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2010) show that the average differences among the learning approaches were only small. Therefore, it is questionable if these differences are truly meaningful. Interestingly, the results of all three studies are comparable: the average learning approaches are similar and the trends towards deeper learning depending on the course structure are reported by students in different study programs in two countries.

  1. Did social desirability affect our results?

A frequent problem in psychological research is that participants may incorrectly report their behaviour based on what is socially acceptable and what the researchers want to hear rather than what the participants truly do (the so-called social desirability effect). It is unlikely that this effect influenced the results of our study for three reasons. First, the students did not know the true study goals nor the studies from New Zealand until after the data collection. Second, the ASSIST-24-German questionnaire was anonymous meaning that we could not link the answers to individual participants. Third, it was difficult to guess what specific learning approaches were investigated because the questionnaire statements used examples of different methods used while studying.

  1. Can ASSIST-24-German adequately measure learning approaches?

We have tested the structure of ASSIST-24-German and found that similarly to the original ASSIST (Tait et al., 1998) the deep and the strategic learning approaches were consistently measured. However, the surface approach was less consistently measured possibly because our translation from English to German and/or the adaptation of statements to our module were inadequate or that this learning approach should be measured with more than 8 statements. Larger differences among the learning approaches could be detected by improving the quality of statements or by removing the middle answer option (‘I do not know’) so that the participants have to either agree or disagree with the statements.


Our study suggests that research-oriented teaching and assessment may promote deeper learning and that the learning approaches depend on age. The older students tend to learn deeply for understanding while the younger students tend to learn strategically for achievement. The instructors in other modules or programs should investigate the learning approaches of their students and the factors affecting learning. Our results could be used in the current curriculum restructuring process to design a new psychology program that encourages deep learning especially in the younger students.


I thank my collaborators, Ms. Gerkensmeier and Ms. Seehoff, for their assistance with the study and the students in the Research Methods module in psychology (Winter Semester 17/18) for participation and interesting discussions about the results of the study. The study will be presented as a poster at the INHERE conference: Seehoff, H., Gerkensmeier, I., & Kedzior (De Santis), K. (2018). Empirical assessment of approaches to learning methods in psychology. Poster to be presented at the Learning Through Inquiry in Higher Education: Current Research and Future Challenges (INHERE 2018), Munich, 8-9 March, 2018.

Photo. The author, Karina De Santis (left), with collaborators, Imke Gerkensmeier (centre) and Hannah Seehoff (right).

About the author:

Prof. Dr. Karina De Santis is Vertretungsprofessorin in Research Methods in Psychology (FB 11) at the University of Bremen. She is a neuroscientist (publishing as Karina Kedzior) interested in the use of non-invasive brain stimulation methods in psychiatric disorders (see: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Karina_Karolina_Kedzior). She has been teaching research methods and statistics for 11 years and contributed to various studies on factors affecting learning in higher education, including research-oriented teaching and intercultural competence.


  • Kedzior (De Santis), K. K., & Gerkensmeier, I. (2017). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: the outcomes of research-based teaching in Bachelor of Psychology (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Wirkung von forschungsbasierter Lehre im Bachelorstudiengang Psychologie). Paper presented at the Tagung Forschendes Lernen- The wider view, Münster, Germany (25-27.09.2017).
  • McDonald, F., Reynolds, J., Bixley, A., & Spronken-Smith, R. (2017). Changes in approaches to learning over three years of university undergraduate study. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 5(2), 65-79.
  • Tait, H., Entwistle, N., & McCune, V. (1998). ASSIST: A reconceptualisation of the approaches to studying inventory (http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/questionnaires/ASSIST.pdf). In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning. Improving students as learners (pp. 262–271). Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
  • Walker, R., Spronken-Smith, R., Bond, C., McDonald, F., Reynolds, J., & McMartin, A. (2010). The impact of curriculum change on health sciences first year students’ approaches to learning. Instructional Science, 38(6), 707-722.

Picture credits:

  • Figures 1-5 and photos: Karina De Santis (private)

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