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Students' understanding of theory in undergraduate education

Journal article
Authors Roy Liff
Airi Rovio-Johansson
Published in Teaching in Higher Education
Volume 19
Issue 4
Pages 419-431
ISSN 1356-2517
Publication year 2014
Published at Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI)
Pages 419-431
Language en
Keywords learning, pre-knowledge, theory-based analysis, higher education, phenomenography
Subject categories Applied Psychology, Business Administration, Educational Sciences, Pedagogy, Nursing education, Learning, Sociology (excluding Social Work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology), Social Psychology, Communication Studies


This paper investigates undergraduate students' application of theory in their analysis of problems presented in authentic leadership cases. Taking a phenomenographic research approach, the paper identifies two levels at which students understand ‘theory’: Level 1-Theory as knowledge acquired from books; Level 2-Theory as support for problem solutions. Only the students at Level 2 understanding achieved the highest learning outcome described by the Bologna Reforms. This result may be accounted for by the difference in the students' pre-conceived understanding of the events and relationships in the analysed cases. The phenomenographic assumption explains why the authentic cases are problematic. The high relevancy of the learning object – as an authentic case – may reduce the effect of variation, in this case the educational environment that is the mechanism for learning according to variation theory.

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