Joint discourses or disjointed courses : A study on learning in upper secondary school

University dissertation from Stockholm : HLS Förlag

Abstract: The main purpose of the present study is to investigate whether learning and ways of understanding subject content and structure differ between successful and less successful students—i.e. in terms of their grade point average—in upper secondary school. A second issue is whether different subjects and disciplines—i.e. science on the one hand and humanities/social sciences on the other—make different demands on students.Data were gathered through interviews with a total of 36 students in two classes at two periods of their schooling. Additional data were gathered from interviews with teachers in the two classes and a sample of the tests given to the classes. Both classes receive instruction in science as well as humanities/social sciences but in one class (N) the emphasis is on science whereas in the other (S) the emphasis is on humanities/social sciences.A common characteristic of successful students is that they adjust to the teacher’s way of structuring the subject by means of a deep approach and a pronounced cue-seeking. They also play a dominant role in classroom communication. Less successful students more frequently use a surface or procedural approach to learning, are less sensitive for cues, do not adjust to the structure of subjects as presented by the teachers and do not participate to the same extent in classroom communication. The characteristics for successful students are very stable over time. As for the less successful students, there is a difference between N- and S-students. A majority of the S-students who use a surface approach in the first year change towards a deep approach later in their schooling, whereas the procedural approach of N-students is stable.It is concluded that the stability shown by the successful students can be explained in that their deep approach reflects their understanding that subject structure may vary and cue-seeking for these students signifies an awareness of and subsequent adjustment to the particular structure presented by the teachers. By understanding the structure according to teachers’ intentions, successful students are able to participate in classroom communication, eventually establishing a joint discourse.The differences between a change of learning for S- and N-students could be interpreted in light of differences in subject structure and instruction between subjects. In humanities/social sciences, classroom communication and the presentation of alternative interpretations of subject matter play a prominent role in instruction, and students who initially use a surface approach might get guidance to alternative ways of understanding the subject matter and subject structure. In the science subjects in the N-programme, the presentation of alternative interpretations is not  as common. These subjects also have a hierarchical structure, and understanding the basic fundamentals is a prerequisite for understanding later topics. For the students who initially use a surface approach in these hierarchically ordered subjects, learning becomes a matter of memorising more and more disconnected facts in what might seem to be disjointed courses.

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