Exploring variation in student experiences of big picture learning

Year: 2012

Author: Talbot, Debra

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper focuses on examining variations in the data obtained from semi-structured research interviews with secondary school students who attend Big Picture schools in Australia. The student interviews, which constitute the data for this analysis, were conducted as part of a longitudinal research project which is the focus of this symposium.  The qualitative component of this research has been designed chiefly to examine whether the personalised approach supported by BPL offers a different form of learning to less personalised approaches characteristic of more conventional approaches to learning.

Phenomenography is used as a complimentary approach to case studies or 'portraits' to examine the similarities and differences in the content of students' thinking about their experiences of BPL.

Phenomenography as a research approach appeared in publications by Ference Marton in the early 1980's and was described as a “kind of research that aims at description, analysis and understanding of experiences” (Marton, 1981). The methodology has since gained in popularity and the epistemological and ontological assumptions underpinning the approach developed (Akerlind, 2005). In this study, phenomenography allows the researchers to describe the variations in the way students experience learning in a Big Picture school rather than attempting to describe the Big Picture model itself. Phenomenography differs from a case study approach in that “conceptions and ways of understanding are not seen as individual qualities…(but) rather as categories of description” which are “stable and generalisable” (Marton, 1981). Rather than focusing on a detailed account of one person's experience individual experiences are analysed collectively in terms of the similarities and differences of experiences as they are described by the participants.

The paper describes the methods undertaken in this study and compares it to other phenomenographic studies in order to highlight what might be seen as the characteristic components of a phenomenographic approach. Issues of trustworthiness and credibility (Brandon, Collier-Reed, Ingerman, & Berglund, 2009)inherent in this form of qualitative research are addressed and the researchers' experiences of using computer software to aid the analysis are described and evaluated. Preliminary findings are reported with the understanding that this is a longitudinal study and as such further data may result in the categories of description being expanded as additional phenomena, concepts or principles are revealed (Marton, 1986).