Changes in approaches to learning over three years of university undergraduate study


  • Fiona McDonald University of Otago
  • John Reynolds University of Otago
  • Ann Bixley University of Otago
  • Rachel Spronken-Smith University of Otago, New Zealand



learning inventory, ASSIST, physiology, anatomy, longitudinal study


This study aimed to evaluate and compare approaches to learning by a longitudinal cohort of undergraduate students as they progressed from their first to third years of study in anatomy and physiology. The Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (ASSIST) was
completed at the beginning and end of their first year of university study, and in their final semester. At first year, a surface learning approach predominated; however, at third year, students showed a significant increase in their use of deep and strategic learning approaches compared to first year, although surface learning approaches were retained. The extent to which third-year students took both strategic and deep approaches to learning was positively correlated with their performance on assessment. As students progress through a three-year science degree, they develop deeper and more strategic learning approaches, and assessment and teaching styles probably promote these approaches to learning.


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Author Biographies

Fiona McDonald, University of Otago

Fiona McDonald is an Associate Professor of Physiology at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests include regulation of ion channels in epithelia and endothelia to control blood pressure.


John Reynolds, University of Otago

John Reynolds is a Professor of Neuroscience and the Director of the Health Sciences First Year Programme at University of Otago, New Zealand. His research areas are learning and reward mechanisms in the brain, stroke and brain plasticity and Parkinson’s disease.

Ann Bixley, University of Otago

Ann Bixley was the Administrative Assistant for two of the First Year Health Science papers at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She holds an MSc in Ecology and PGDip Teaching (Secondary). Her research interests include control of New Zealand pastural pests by the introduced biological control agent Microctonus aethiopoides.

Rachel Spronken-Smith, University of Otago, New Zealand

Rachel Spronken-Smith is a Professor of Higher Education and Geography, and Dean of the Graduate Research School at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests in Higher Education include curriculum change, undergraduate research and inquiry, graduate outcomes and doctoral education.


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How to Cite

McDonald, Fiona, John Reynolds, Ann Bixley, and Rachel Spronken-Smith. 2017. “Changes in Approaches to Learning over Three Years of University Undergraduate Study”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 5 (2):65-79.