Phenomenographic Approach

This is a summary and details from one article on the reading list for the 6511 Self-Directed Learning course I am currently taking. I’m going to post my notes on this blog so it will become a searchable collection of article summaries I can use in the future. This is my external memory bank of readings that I may wish to reference in my dissertation.

Akerlind, G. (2008). A phenomenographic approach to developing academics’ understanding of the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(6), 633-644.

Four Sentence Summary Akerlind suggests that phenomenography and variation theory, linked with empirical research, can inform the design of a course design to develop how academics understand the nature of teaching and learning. Akerlind begins by examining student-centered vs teacher-centered understanding before exploring the phenomenographic nature of teaching and learning, a phenomenographic perspective on developing conceptions, how phenomenography and variation theory applies to course design, and concluding that phenomenographic epistemologies are context sensitive. This article “problematises the idea of what conceptual development for university teachers can mean, and articulates a phenomenographic epistemology of conceptual development” (Akerlind, 2008, p. 643) that includes methods of bringing attention to variations in conceptual understanding of concepts of learning, through explicit use of the strategies suggested by Marton & Tsui (2004) of contrast, generalization, separation, and fusion, thus exposing whole/part dichotomies. By sharing the design of a course for teachers in academia that examines how variations in student learning experiences are influenced by conceptualizations of teaching, Akerlind provides examples of how strategies of contrast, generalization, separation and fusion could be applied to concept development in other course designs for concept development, addressing a need for research “articulating the implications of educational theory for the design of teaching development programmes” (Akerlind, 2008, p. 643).

WHY THIS? “This provides a logical argument for why a student-centered understanding of teaching is more likely to lead to better learning on the part of students, because teachers are taking their students’ role in learning into account in designing and monitoring teaching-learning situations.” (p. 634)

DIFFERENCES: “From a phenomenographic perspective, different conceptions of teaching are seen as representing different breadths of awareness of the phenomenon of teaching, constituted as an experiential relationship between the teacher and the phenomenon. From a cognitivist perspective, different conceptions are seen as reflecting different beliefs about teaching associated with different mental representations of the phenomenon, constructed on the basis of individuals’ experience.” (p. 635)

“From a phenomenographic perspective, different conceptions are seen as structurally related in a hierarchy of inclusiveness (citations excluded here), while from a more cognitive perspective different conceptions are positioned as independent, even if they can be ordered in a continuum of development or sophistication (citations excluded).” (p. 635)

EXPLANATION: “Phenomenography argues that individuals experience the world differently because experience is always partial.  … Thus, different ways of experiencing a phenomenon may be understood in terms of which aspects of the phenomenon are discerned, and not discerned, in people’s awareness of it. Awareness of an aspect is indicated by the perception of the potential for variation (bold emphasis mine) in that aspect: lack of awareness is indicated by an implicit, taken-for-granted assumption of uniformity in that aspace of the phenomenon (Marton & Booth, 1997).” (p. 635)

QUAL BELIEF / ADVICE: “Thus, during phenomenographic data analysis, the different ways of experiencing that emerge are not constituted independently, but in relation to each other. These different ways of ecperiencing are commonly ordered in terms of inclusivity of awareness, where more inclusive ways also represent more complex ways of experiencing the phenomenon, indicated by an increasing breadth of awareness of different aspects of the phenomenon.” (p. 636)

OVERVIEW: “Strike and Posner (1985) outline four conditions for conceptual change: 1. Dissatisfaction with the existing conception; 2. Some understanding of the new conception; 3. That the new conception should appear initially plausible; and 4. That the new conception should appear more powerful (p. 216). They emphasise the value of strategies such as the use of anomalies, analogies, and exemplars in facilitating conceptual change.” (p. 637)

“This model may be contrasted with a phenomenographic, or what I have termed a concept of expansion, approach to concept development (citations excluded here). From a phenomenographic perspective, less sophisticated conceptions are regarded not so much as wrong, but as incomplete, lacking awareness of key aspects of the phenomenon that are focal in more sophisticated conceptions.” (p. 637)

“… the expansion of individuals’ awareness of the phenomenon to include discernment of additional aspects of the phenomenon not currently discerned. This has led to the variation theory of learning, based on the argument that attempts to facilitate conceptual development should focus on optimizing opportunities for individual to experience variation in aspects, or features, of the phenomenon that they currently take for granted (Marton & Tsui, 2004).” (p. 637)


  • Contrast: “What the phenomenon is contrasted with draws attention to certain aspects of the phenomenon more than others, so the choice of comparator is important.” (p. 637)
    • “encourages the discernment of the whole from its context and, thus, discernment of the way in which the whole relates to its context. This may be seen as a way of comparing one whole (the phenomenon) with other wholes (related phenomenon).” (p. 638)
  • Generalisation: “we must experience varying instances of the same phenomenon such as different conceptions of teaching” … “separate the essential features of the phenomenon from irrelevant features” … “until one has noticed that there are various ways of understanding a phenomenon, one cannot see one’s own way of understanding as being only one way, rather than the way.” (p. 638)
    • “involves the comparison of wholes (one way of seeing the phenomenon) with other wholes (other ways of seeing the phenomenon), but focused at the level of the phenomenon” (p. 638)
  • Separation: “be able to separate these features from other feathers of the phenomenon, we need to experience these features varying while other features remain invariant” (p. 638)
    • “involves a comparison of parts (certain features of the phenomenon) with other parts (other features of the phenomenon” (p. 638)
  • Fusion: “take all of the essential features of a phenomenon into account at the same time, they must be experienced as varying simultaneously, in relation to each other. So an experience of separation needs to be followed by an experience of fusion.” (p. 638)
    • “enables the discernment of the part-whole structure of a phenomenon, that is, the relationship of parts (different features of the phenomenon) to the whole phenomenon. (p. 638)