2013. Vol.4, No.11, 792-797
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
The Relationship between Students’ Approach to Learning and
Lifelong Learning
Rita Barros1, Angélica Monteiro1, Fouad Nejmedinne1, José António Moreira2
1Instituto Piaget/Universidade Jean Piaget, Praia, Cape Verde
2Department of Education and Distance Teaching, Open University, Lisbon, Portugal
Received July 29th, 2013; revised August 31st, 2013; accepted October 1st, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Rita Barros et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The current investigation proposes to analyse the relationship between learning, from the appropriation
students’ make of the different ways of learning and studying, and their willingness to be involved in life-
long learning (LL) activities. The theoretical rationale is inscribed in the Biggs’ Theory (1987), concern-
ing the student’s approach to learning, and under the guiding principle of LL. The concept of LL has been
understood and formalised in a distinct way, translated into different educational policies, the practices of
which must be empirically supported. We present a correlational study, with a sample of 163 Higher
Education students. The approaches to learning were supported by the revised two-factor study process
questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F). To evaluate the involvement of students in LL activities, the contents of some
items of the Lifelong Learning Questionnaire (Kirby, Knapper, Lamon, & Egnatoff, 2010) were used. The
results obtained in the correlational analysis allow us to associate the deep approach to some characteris-
tics of learners throughout their life, especially concerning the establishing of goals and the self-direction
of learning, whereas the superficial approach is mainly associated with the adaptation of learning strate-
gies. The practical implications of these results are discussed below.
Keywords: Higher Education; Learning Styles; Lifelong Learning
Learning is one of important themes explored in the multiple
theoretical perspectives of Psychology. Our research focuses on
learning in adulthood, whose characteristics involve particular
cognitive and motivational aspects that seem interesting to
some areas of psychology. Cognitive Psychology (Sternberg &
Grigorenko, 2000), Educational Psychology and Developmen-
tal Psychology (Smith & Pourchot, 1998) are good examples.
At same time, several authors in the area of Education, specifi-
cally those focused on the Education of youngsters and adults,
seek to understand the study processes and learning concepts of
these students (Biggs, 1987, 1993; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983).
Biggs, Kember and Leung (2001), based on the model pres-
age-process-product (3P), have developed a more simplified
version of the instrument student process questionnaire (Biggs,
1987) for the understanding of study processes and approaches
to learning, the revised two-factor study process questionnaire
This instrument evaluates the relationship between student
characteristics and education context, their approach to learning
tasks and learning results. The approach to learning, according
to the authors (idem: 135), can be superficial, deep or high per-
formance and involve different motivations and strategies.
In this article, we seek to relate the different approaches to
learning in higher education students and their willingness to
become involved in Lifelong Learning (LL) activities.
LL, understood as a paradigm emerging within the context of
a society of knowledge and information, offers the possibility
of looking at educational phenomena in a different way, and has
facilitated the emergence of a frame of mind valuing the learn-
ing accomplished by people within personal, social and profes-
sional fields (Pires, 2007).
Lifelong Learning, simultaneously translating into a political
agenda and a research field, requires a reflection focused on
this articulation. The contributions of research on this subject,
with an impact on political processes and learning practices,
must offer a critical analysis of their social contextualization, as
well as possible projections of what Lifelong Learning could
become (Preece, 2011; UNESCO, 2010), considering that the
future of Lifelong Learning still holds important ambiguities and
questions (Jarvis, 2010).
Theoretical Frame of Reference
Approaches to Higher Education Learning
Biggs et al. (2001) present a systemic version of the students’
approaches to learning, through the Presage-Process-Product
(3P) model. Within this model, results may influence the ap-
proaches to tasks, and these may influence the context of edu-
cation and the factors more directly related to students.
According to Biggs (1987), the main differentiating factor of
learning results is not the cognition ability but the using of dif-
ferent study processes depending on “approaches to learning”.
These approaches can be classified as superficial, deep and stra-
tegic or high-performance.
The superficial approach concerns an attitude based on the
“minimum possible effort”, that is, when faced with learning,
the student is not interested in understanding it or developing it
(…). This approach is, therefore, reproductive and marked by
extrinsic motivation and fear of failure.
The deep approach is oriented by the intention of the student
to face in depth the task or the content to be learned. For that,
high level cognition abilities are used, such as syntheses, ana-
lyses, comparisons and confrontations, and even the cultural and
cognitive repertoire is used, helping these students to achieve a
transforming and creative level.
The strategic or high-performance approach is based on the
intention of obtaining the maximum efficiency or the best clas-
sifications through the intrinsic motivations of the subject.
Lifelong Learning
The approach to the paradigm of Lifelong Learning guides
the discourses and educational practices of today, based on the
policies of the three main intergovernmental organizations with
activities in this field, namely the Council of Europe, the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD). In fact, the problematization of life-
long learning has been constant in the last few decades, and its
discursive and operational translation, in terms of educational
policies, has been marked by diversity and discontinuity. Where-
as the programmes of the Council of Europe and UNESCO are
based on universal values of peace, equality, interculturality, di-
versity and human rights, that is, a humanistic view of educa-
tion, OECD, because of its nature and history, has focused on
education’s economic benefits and potential and its functional-
ist side (Centeno, 2011).
The experience of UNESCO and the European Union shows
that the general goals defined by international organizations have
been globally ignored by the educational systems of different
countries, but also allows us to conclude that statistical goals,
seen as monitoring indications, do not guarantee the achieve-
ment of objectives by those same educational systems (Jallade,
In conclusion, Lifelong Learning has tensions and contradic-
tions, with consequences on political choices, educational prac-
tices and theoretical-scientific priorities.
Our study has a quantitative, correlational and cross-cutting
nature, and its main goal is to understand the relationship of
approaches to learning with age and the tendency/inclination to
become involved in LL activities.
Considering that lifelong learner’s characteristics involves
establishment of goals, application of knowledge and skills,
self-direction and evaluation, location of information and adap-
tation of learning strategies (Knapper & Cropley, 2000), our
hypothesis is that exists a positive and significant relationships
between those characteristics and deep learning approach.
The sample is constituted by 163 students from higher edu-
cation, 37 males (22.7%) and 126 females (77.3%). Most of the
respondents (89.6%) attend first cycle studies, granting a uni-
versity degree, 6.7% attend Master’s and 3.7% attend post-gra-
duations. The average age is 26.6 years, with a standard devia-
tion of 8.7, a minimum age of 18 and a maximum of 61. Regar-
ding the area of training, 97 of the cohort are in Education
(59.5%), 62 in Health (38%) and 4 are in other areas (2.5%).
With respect to the employment situation, 83 are exclusively
students (50.9%) and 77 are working students (47.2%). Three
of the respondents (1.8%) claim to be in another situation.
The sampling technique was non-probabilistic and, as such,
students were selected by convenience, particularly by easy ac-
cessibility, being guaranteed anonymity and the individual con-
fidentiality of the results.
The survey is split into three parts. The first part focuses on
social-demographic aspects, namely age, gender, education le-
vel, education area (Education/Health) and professional status.
This section also includes a question about the perception stu-
dents have about their academic performance, categorized ac-
cording to the ECTS classification scale, inscribed in the Euro-
pean Credit Transfer System, supporting the Bologna Declara-
tion (DGES, s/d).
In the second part of the survey, in order to evaluate the in-
volvement of students in LL activities, we were inspired by 10
of the 14 items included in the Lifelong Learning Questionnaire,
by Kirby, Knapper, Lamon, & Egnatoff (2010). The items used
are based on the lifelong characteristics of the learner, defined
by Knapper and Cropley (2000), namely the establishing of
goals, the application of knowledge and skills, self-direction
and evaluation, search for information and adaptation to learn-
ing strategies. According to the authors, the scale evaluates the
tendency/inclination of adults to LL, which results from the
combination of prematurely defined features and situational
factors taking place at a later stage, making it necessary to fo-
cus on those features and situations and realize how they can be
manipulated in a desirable sense. The items are evaluated in a
5-point Likert-type scale, from “I completely disagree” (2) to
“I completely agree” (+ 2).
The approaches to learning were evaluated in the third part of
the survey by the Portuguese translation of the Brazilian-vali-
dated scale Revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire
(R-SPQ-2F, performed by Godoy (2009). In this validation for
the Portuguese language, the original scale was initially subject
to translation and retro-translation processes. Its final version is
constituted by 20 items, evaluated in a 5-point Likert-type scale,
from “never” (1) to “always” (5), grouped in 4 sub-scales: deep
motivation, deep strategy, superficial motivation and superficial
strategy. There is a linear, positive and significant correlation
between deep motivation and deep strategy and between super-
ficial motivation and superficial strategy (moderate and low, re-
spectively). Low linear, negative and statistically significant cor-
relations are found between deep and superficial motivation and
between deep and superficial strategy.
The values of internal consistency, evaluated by Cronbach’s
alpha, are compatible with those in the original scale, regarding
deep approach (α = .76), and even superior regarding superfi-
cial learning (α = .74). The internal consistency and validity of
criteria reveal the good psychometric qualities of the instrument.
The same may be said about the construct validity, supported
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by the confirmatory factor analysis, performed according to the
Structural Equation Model (SEM). Thus, the structure of the
reviewed version shows two non-hierarchical factors, distin-
guishing the deep approach from the superficial approach, each
of them comprised by ten items. The results of this validation
meet the results of exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis
carried out in other studies, namely in Spain (Justicia, Pichardo,
Cano, Berbén, & De la Fuente, 2008) and reveal a very satis-
factory adjustment in view of the original model.
Given the above, it seemed suitable to use this instrument in
the Portuguese language in order to evaluate the approaches to
learning in Higher Education students.
The items in the Lifelong Learning Questionnaire (Kirby,
Knapper, Lamon, & Egnatoff, 2010) were selected according to
the following requirements:
2 items for each characteristic of the learner throughout
his/her life, according to Knapper and Cropley (2000), gi-
ven that the characteristics with less items integrate pre-
cisely two;
a balance in the number of items per characteristic;
the easiness in terms of fulfilment of the linguistic and cul-
tural equivalents underlying the Portuguese translation.
Concerns regarding the linguistic and cultural equivalence
have supported the Portuguese translation of the Brazilian-va-
lidated scale Revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire
After defining the data collection survey, the students were
asked to complete the online questionnaire, being guaranteed
anonymity and the individual confidentiality of the results.
Analysis of Dat a
The statistical analysis was performed through the SPSS—
Statistical Package for the Social Sciences—version 19.0, and
the procedures were accomplished through inferential statistics.
The correlational analyses were performed based on Pearson’s
linear correlation coefficient. All results were considered statis-
tically significant for a confidence interval of 95% (Marôco &
Bispo, 2005).
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Pearson’s coefficient points to a negative (r = .173) and sta-
tistically significant (p = .027) correlation between deep learn-
ing and age, indicating that, as age progresses, students in hi-
gher education are less likely to resort to deep learning. There
isn’t a significant correlation between age and superficial learn-
The adoption of a more superficial strategy by students as
age progresses may, once again, be related to the multiplicity of
roles performed by older students.
The social demands associated with young adults are distinct
from those they face in a mature adulthood (Erikson, 1963),
with implications in terms of investment in the different tasks
and consequent time management.
These results differ from those presented by Biggs and Kirby
(1983), since these authors show that pre-university students
reveal lower levels of deep approach, when compared with uni-
versity students. However, this difference in results can be jus-
tified by the social-cultural and historical context of the stu-
dents involved.
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Table 1 shows the statistically significant correlations be-
tween the approaches to learning and the items relating to the
characteristics of the learner throughout his life, defined by
Knapper and Cropley (2000), namely:
A) Establishment of goals
B) Application of knowledge and skills
C) Self-direction and evaluation
D) Location of information
E) Adaptation of learning strategies
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
the Establishing of Goals
Table 1 shows a positive correlation between the statement
“I love learning for its own sake” and deep learning, in its mo-
tivational and strategic components.
In students who love “to learn for its own sake” (item 9),
deep learning involves not only intrinsic motivation, aimed at
learning for its own sake, but also the examination of strategic
processes to be implemented. If students do not identify extrin-
sic reinforcement, they also miss this perception, which justifies
their negative correlation with the superficial strategy.
On the other hand, for students who show a deep learning,
focusing on details does not invalidate the existence of a mac-
roscopic vision of the learning content. Nevertheless, it implies
a more detailed strategy, and therefore more developed in its
analysis, translating into the positive correlation with the deep
strategy. Valadares and Moreira (2009) support this idea as they
articulate the processes of progressive differentiation and inte-
grative or inclusive reconciliation with significant learning.
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Application of Knowledge and Skills
The attribution of meaning, evaluated by item 5, implies the
articulation and coherence between the countless information
and knowledge supporting deep learning. This articulation is
only possible by resorting to deep strategies.
The negative correlation between the articulation of new sub-
jects to be learned from previous knowledge (item 12) and deep
motivation, combined with the positive correlation with super-
ficial motivation and strategy, can be explained by the under-
standing students have of it. In fact, it is possible that students
showing deep motivation understand the relationship with pre-
viously acquired subjects as a limitation to the exploration of
new contents. On the other hand, this relationship may be seen
as a learning strategy to be maximised, especially when the in-
vestment in the learning task is limited and when the student is
more focused on the results than on the learning processes, or
on the learning itself.
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Self-Direction and Evaluation
Learning evaluation can be combined with issues of auto-
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Table 1.
Correlations between LL and the approaches to learning and its dimensions (motivational and strategic).
Student’s Approach to Learning (SAL)
Lifelong Learning (LL)
I love learning for its own sake .375*** .186*.406*** .158 *
A When I learn something new, I try to focus
on the details rather than on the “big picture” .312*** .350***
I am able to impose meaning upon what others see as disorder .188* .254**
When I approach new material, I try to relate it to what I already know .18* .223** .318*** .204** .246**
I feel others are in a better position than I am to evaluate my success as a student.183* .267** .347*** .31*** .261**
It is my responsibility to make sense of what I learn at school .206** .186*
I try to relate academic learning to practical issues .309*** .16* .329***
I often find it difficult to locate information when I need it .318*** .247** .274***
I can deal with the unexpected and solve problems as they arise .256** .265** .157*
I feel uncomfortable under conditions of uncertainty .208** .344*** .34*** .227**
Note: *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
nomy, self-direction and self-regulation. The positive correla-
tion found between favouring hetero-evaluation and superficial
learning, both from motivational and strategic points of view,
implies external attributions.
By delegating on others responsibility to evaluate (item 8)
success in learning, students may, in case of failure, build de-
fence mechanisms for the protection of the self (Fontaine,
1990). For students with a deep approach to learning, the issue
of the evaluation only arises on a strategic level, as revealed by
the negative correlation observed. Causal attributions (internal
or external) justify, not only the learning evaluation, but also
the responsibility it entails (item 13).
In this regard, Biggs et al. (2001) mention that teaching and
evaluation methods often encourage the superficial approach, if
not properly aligned with the education objectives.
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Location of Information
Table 1 shows a positive correlation between the deep ap-
proach (motivation and strategy) and the statement “I try to re-
late academic learning to practical issues”. On the other hand,
we find a negative correlation between the superficial approach
(motivation and strategy) and the statement “I often find it dif-
ficult to locate information when I need it”.
Students investing in learning in a developed way transfer
“articulately the thinking strategies used in a given context, as
well as other knowledge generated from these, to others. Trans-
ference is the basis of knowledge accumulation and human
learning, especially determining the possibility of, from what is
already known (contents, strategies, abilities, etc.), articulating
it in another way, reaching new solutions, conclusions and ideas”
(Davis, Nunes, & Nunes, 2005: p. 210). Therefore, they relate
academic learning to practical matters (item 10). This concern
demands not only an intrinsic motivation in learning, but also
strategies that facilitate the relationship mentioned.
Deep investment in learning causes transversal skills to de-
velop, mainly the abilities of information selection, analysis,
synthesis. The development of these skills facilitates the search
for information supporting the learning process. Thus, it is un-
derstood that students with a superficial approach (both from
motivational and strategic points of view), not having the op-
portunity to develop these skills, share a perception of difficulty
in finding information when they need it (item 11).
Relationship between Approache s to Learn i ng a nd
Adaptation of Learning Strategies
The positive correlation between the superficial approach and
the statement “I can deal with the unexpected and solve prob-
lems as they arise” can be explained by the fact that in superfi-
cial approach the investment of the student is smaller.
In this context, we realize that the student builds a self-per-
ception of the ability to deal with the unexpected (item 3), even
if the result of its action is debatable, or even inappropriate. In
fact, by focusing on the results of the learning, procedural and
methodological matters, which ensure safety in the action, these
matters end up not being considered as very important.
Concerning item 4, discomfort facing uncertainty situations,
this is positively correlated with superficial learning and nega-
tively correlated with deep strategy.
If, in deep approach, uncertainty can be a challenge to the
adoption of deep learning strategies, in superficial approach it is
common for students to face situations in which they are unsure
about the efficiency of their knowledge and skills in order to
solve these situations.
“Feeling comfortable dealing with uncertainty” is directly re-
lated to metacognitive processes, such as, the decision making
process in extremely complex situations, very common today,
in which there is a dynamic and constantly changing environ-
ment (Rosenhead & Mingers, 2001).
Conclusion and Recommendations
With the purpose of analysing the different approaches to
learning among higher education students and their willingness
to be involved in LL activities, we have conducted this compa-
rative and correlational study.
More specifically, the goals of this study were as follows: 1)
to compare how students seize the different ways of learning
and studying according to their perception of academic perfor-
mance, training area and professional status (student versus
working student), and 2) to know the relationships between
approaches to learning and age and tendency/inclination to be-
come involved in LL activities.
Regarding the comparison between the approaches to learn-
ing and the students’ characteristics, we see that the main dif-
ferences, where applicable, concern the strategies used. Where-
as the approaches are not distinguished according to the percep-
tion of the academic performance, the strategic dimension dif-
fers according to the training area and professional status of the
Concerning the relationship between the approaches to learn-
ing and age, in our study, the older students tend to resort to
more superficial approaches, particularly in their strategic com-
ponent. It seems, as mentioned above, that this result can be ex-
plained by the demands of daily life and the assuming of simul-
taneous tasks for which fast and efficient solutions are required.
There is yet another important factor to consider, as mention-
ed by Bigg et al. (2001): the teaching strategies and evaluation
methods can force the students to choose strategies inscribed in
a superficial approach.
As for the relationship between the approaches to learning
and the tendency/inclination for students to become involved in
LL activities, this was grouped according to the lifelong char-
acteristics of the learner, namely: establishment of goals; ap-
plication of knowledge and skills; self-direction and evaluation;
location of information and adaptation of learning strategies.
Concerning the establishment of goals, the love of learning
for its own sake, positively correlated with deep learning, is re-
lated to the intrinsic motivation and emotional value the subject
confers to the learning itself. In turn, the ability to articulate a
macroscopic vision of learning contents with the details deman-
ded by deep learning reveals operational skills far beyond the
instrumentality of the know-how.
Regarding the application of knowledge and skills, there is a
tendency for the superficial approach to “maximise” already de-
veloped knowledge and skills in the resolution of new challeng-
Concerning self-direction and evaluation, the choice for more
superficial approaches is related to the responsibility of the
other. In the case of students investing in deep learning, there is
greater individual control, which translates into self-regulated
learning. This learning includes mental processes and learning
strategies, in which students become deliberately involved to
improve their learning and their performance. The sensed self-
competence and autonomy, the orientation for the task and the
learning environment in the classroom interfere with the intrin-
sic motivation.
Location of information is a skill which depends on how it is
selected and accessed, as well as on the ability to relate the
learning to practical matters. We see that the students likely to
show a superficial approach find it more difficult to locate in-
formation. This is a cross-cutting skill, just like the application
of knowledge in solving practical problems, which, as a whole,
constitutes a “common denominator existing either in acquired
knowledge beyond subjects and areas or in cognitive activities
of learning” (Pacheco, 2011: p. 49).
Finally, concerning the adaptation of learning strategies, we
see that students who tend to adopt a superficial approach seem
to be more able to deal with the unexpected, although they feel
uncomfortable in situations of uncertainty, contrary to what was
shown in the strategic dimension of deep learning.
Studying the relationships between approaches to learning
and some lifelong characteristics of the learner has allowed us
to equate some possible practical implications for the formal
contexts of higher education, which we will now mention:
Considering that superficial and deep learning are not mu-
tually exclusive or deterministic, it becomes the job of the
educational agents to promote a context facilitating signifi-
cant learning, characteristic of a more deep approach. In
this sense, Biggs et al. (2001) mention that the presence of a
more superficial approach may indicate that something is
wrong with the teaching and evaluation methods chosen by
the teachers (Biggs et al., 2001).
The stimulus to the establishment of relationships and re-
signification of contents, inherent to deep learning, is essen-
tial to the implementation of transferences. This transfer-
ence enables to “deliberately extend abilities and postures
into other scenarios, helping students to think about their
ideas, articulating them with those conveyed in other sub-
jects, and applying them in both school and non-school con-
texts” (Davis, Nunes, & Nunes, 2005: p. 210) where LL ac-
tivities are included.
The “I love learning for its own sake” is not necessarily a
pre-determined condition. The cyclic model of the “3P”
exemplifies the interdependence of every element compris-
ing the teaching and learning process. This way, by pro-
moting an environment conducive to learning, the teacher is
able to gradually inspire this love and stimulate the autono-
mous processes of discovery, typical of a self-regulated
This plasticity to be experienced within a formal context in
higher education may reflect in the willingness shown by
students to become involved in activities throughout their
lives. From this point of view, educating higher education
students and guiding them towards deep approaches can re-
present a significant contribution to this purpose.
Responding to challenges imposing on today’s society, life-
long learning becomes imperative.
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