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Section III: Measuring strategic processing

Surveys and retrospective self-reports to measure strategies and strategic processing


This chapter is about surveys and retrospective reports as measurement tools for learning strategies, with a focus on strategic processing. The chapter will start with a concise historical overview of the origin of measurement tools, the first generation of surveys and self-report inventories in the area of student learning strategies from the early 1970s onward. The emergence of research on metacognition in the mid-1980s gave rise to the development of a second generation of student learning strategy instruments, broader in nature and including metacognition as a central concept. Two widely used instruments will be discussed. The chapter will continue with very recent developments in this area, characterized by the inclusion of established scales in new instruments, new measurement techniques, new ways of analyzing data, seeking triangulation with other measurement instruments for learning strategies, and extending the research to a wider range of populations and contexts including teachers’ learning. This is followed by a critical discussion of the domains of applicability and limitations of inventories and questionnaires on learning strategies. The chapter will close with a discussion of future directions for research and implications for practice.

Learning strategies are conceptualized here as combinations of thinking activities that students employ to learn something (cf. Vermunt & Verloop, 1999). In the literature often three types of learning strategies are discerned: cognitive, affective, and metacognitive strategies (e.g. Zusho, 2017).

Cognitive processing strategies are those combinations of thinking activities that students use to process subject matter and that lead directly to learning outcomes in terms of knowledge, understanding, skill, etc. Affective learning strategies, which students employ to cope with emotions that arise during learning, lead to a mood that may foster or impair the progress of learning processes. Metacognitive regulation strategies are those combinations of thinking activities students use to choose learning goals and contents, to monitor the course and outcomes of their learning processes, and to adjust their learning if needed. Both affective and regulative learning strategies indirectly lead to learning outcomes via their impact on the processing of subject matter (Vermunt & Verloop, 1999).

A first generation of surveys and retrospective self-reports to measure student learning strategies

Although the origins of the measurement of learning strategies through self-reports probably go back to the middle of the previous century, in the early 1970s the academic literature witnessed the emergence of a first generation of learning strategy self-report measurement tools in different parts of the world. Roughly at the same time Biggs (e.g. 1978) developed the Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) in Australia, Entwistle and his colleagues made the Approaches to Studying Inventory in Europe (ASI, e.g. Entwistle, Hanley, & Hounsell, 1979), and Schmeck and colleagues generated the Inventory of Learning Processes in the USA (ILP, e.g. Schmeck, Ribich, & Ramanaiah, 1977). Typically, this first generation family of learning strategies inventories included scales on cognitive processing strategies, and some of them also included scales on study motivation.

Biggs’ SPQ (Biggs, 1978, 1984) is a questionnaire aimed at measuring study processes. The items were written based on variables mentioned in the literature as associated with studying in higher education. These were supplemented with items referring to more general study skills. The first version contained 80 items in the following ten scales: pragmatism, academic motivation, academic neuroticism, internality, study skills, rote learning, meaningful learning, test anxiety, openness, and class dependence (Biggs, 1978). Factor analysis on the data from students from three different countries showed a similar factor structure for the three samples. Three factors explained between 62% and 66% of the variance for the ten scales. The first, reproductive factor, was defined by rote learning, pragmatism, test anxiety, neuroticism, and class dependence. The second, meaningful factor, was defined by academic motivation, internality, meaningful learning, and openness. The third factor showed more variation, but for all student groups it was associated with good study skills and little anxiety. Correlation of the original items with the factor scores showed that each of the three dimensions consisted of two groups of items: an affective or motivational group and a cognitive, strategic group. In the next version of the SPQ, that contained 42 items, Biggs (1984) therefore grouped the items into three dimensions, which each consisted of a strategy and a corresponding motive. Students were asked to indicate on a five-point scale the extent to which every item applied to their attitudes towards studying or their usual way of studying. These dimensions and scales are presented in Table 16.1.

Table 16.1 Motives and Strategies in Study Processes (Biggs, 1984)




Utilizing (surface)

Instrumental (surface motive)

Reproducing (surface strategy)

Internalizing (deep)

Intrinsic (deep motive)

Meaningful (deep strategy)


Achievement (achieving motive)

Organizing (achieving strategy)

Table 16.2 Scales and Sub-scales of the AS I (Entwistle, 1981; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983)



I. Meaning Orientation Deep approach

Marton & Säljö (1976)

Use of evidence

Marton & Säljö (1976)

Relating ideas

Marton & Säljö (1976)

Intrinsic motivation

Biggs (1978)

II. Reproducing Orientation Surface approach

Marton & Säljö (1976)

Syllabus boundness

Parlett (1970)

Fear of failure

Entwistle & Wilson (1977)


Pask (1976)

III. Strategic Orientation Strategic approach

Miller & Parlett (1974), adapted by Ramsden (1979)

Extrinsic motivation

Biggs (1978)

Achievement motivation

Entwistle & Wilson (1977)

IV. Non-Academic Orientation

Desorganized study methods

Entwistle & Wilson (1977)

Negative atitudes to studying

Entwistle & Wilson (1977)


Pask (1976)

V. Styles of Learning

Comprehension learning

Pask (1976)

Operation learning

Pask (1976)

The three dimensions Biggs found show strong similarities with the three main orientations that emerged from Entwistle and Ramsdens (1983) study (see Table 16.2). In his 1984 publication, Biggs proposed to replace the terminology that he had used until then by the concepts of surface, deep, and achieving, to align them with the terminology used in the emerging literature on student learning in higher education at the time.

The ASI has been developed by Entwistle and his colleagues in a series of studies. The first research project (Entwistle & Wilson, 1977) aimed to determine the influence of relatively stable personality characteristics on students’ study success. The questionnaire on motivation and study methods that was developed in this project turned out to correlate only modestly with students’ exam results, on average a Pearson correlation of around .20. Personality characteristics like extraversion, neuroticism and radicalism showed even lower correlations. The researchers concluded that the original motivation and study methods scales were too simple to cover the very different ways in which students approach their studies (Entwistle, 1981; Entwistle et al., 1979).

In 1975 Entwistle and his colleagues started working on the development of a new questionnaire. Factor analysis on the original motivation and study method dimensions yielded five factors that were included as scales in the new questionnaire: organized study methods, achievement motivation, fear of failure, negative attitudes towards studying, and syllabus-boundness. Based on the dimensions that Marton and Sâljô

(1976) had identified in students’ approaches to learning (deep and surface approach) and Pask’s (1976) learning styles/strategies (operation and comprehension learning) new scales were developed and new items were written. From Biggs (1976) Study Behaviour Questionnaire the scales on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation were taken. Based on Ramsdens (1979) interviews with university students the scale ‘strategic approach’ was developed. The first version of the ASI contained 106 items in 15 scales. After a large scale study with 767 first year students from three universities and a variety of subject areas, the final inventory was composed. Some scales were removed, two new scales were developed based on Pask’s (1976) learning pathologies (globetrotting and improvidence) and two components that were thought to be essential for gaining deep learning outcomes were added: relating ideas and use of evidence. The best items from the item pool were selected for inclusion, and most scales were limited to four items. This final version contained 64 items in 16 scales, grouped into five categories (see Table 16.2).

The 64 items were formatted as Likert-type statements and students were asked to indicate on a five-point scale the degree to which each item applied to them. Sometimes students were asked for their general way of studying in their main courses (e.g. Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983), and sometimes they were asked for their way of studying with one particular course (e.g. Watkins, 1982).

Entwistle and his colleagues have since continued developing and updating their inventory. An excellent review of this work and a copy of all inventories are included in Entwistle’s (2018) recent book, entitled Student learning and academic understanding: A research perspective with implications for teaching.

The Inventory of Learning Processes (ILP) is a questionnaire developed by Schmeck et al. (1977) aimed at measuring learning styles. A learning style is defined by Schmeck (1983) as ‘a disposition on the part of some student to adopt a particular learning strategy regardless of the specific demands of the learning task. Thus, a style is simply a strategy used with some cross-situational consistency’ (p. 233). A learning strategy is described by Schmeck as a pattern of information-processing activities used to prepare for an anticipated test of memory’ (p. 234). In view of the descriptions of learning style and learning strategy, emphasizing the cognitive processing of subject matter, the ILP does not contain items referring to attitudes, personality, motivation, cognitive style, and preferences for physical and social study environments (Schmeck, 1983).

The items were derived from theories on human information processing and human learning. The three authors (Schmeck et al., 1977) translated cognitive processes as described in the literature into behavior-oriented statements, geared towards the environment and activities of university students. After several development steps and large-scale administrations of intermediate versions of the ILP, the final version was composed. This version contained 62 items in four scales that represented the following learning styles or strategies: deep processing, methodical study, fact retention, and elaborative processing. Schmeck (1983) emphasized that what he calls deep processing is not the same as the deep approach of Marton and Saljd (1984). Deep processing in his conceptualization is a purely information processing strategy of conceptual analysis, classification, and comparison of information. The deep approach as Marton and Saljo view it includes relating information to one’s own personal experiences. This last process emerged in Schmeck’s analyses as a separate factor which he called elaborative

Table 16.3 Scales of the LASSI (Weinstein et al., 1988)





Information processing



Selecting main ideas


Study aids

Test strategies

processing. According to Schmeck, deep and elaborative processing are distinct strategies, although they may be correlated.

The items of the ILP are behavior-oriented statements, and students are asked to indicate whether an item applies or does not apply to them (true/false items). Students are asked to think about how they go about studying in general and not in a specific course.

Weinstein and colleagues developed the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASS/). A major goal was to develop an instrument that could help educators and trainers diagnose strengths and weaknesses in students’ learning and study strategies in order to provide individualized remedial training. The contexts for the development project were the study skills and learning-to-learn courses running at US colleges and universities at the time to help academically underprepared students to remedy student deficiencies (Weinstein, Zimmermann, & Palmer, 1988). The final version of the LASSI contains 90 items in ten scales (see Table 16.3). Students are asked to indicate on a five-point Likert scale the extent to which an item is true for them.

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