The aim of the study was to examine associations between occupational therapy students’ perceptions of the learning environment and their approaches to studying while adjusting for sociodemographic factors. The generic skills scale was associated with all of the three study approaches, while the clear goals and standards and appropriate workload scales were associated with the students’ scores on the surface approach. All significant associations were in the direction predicted from theory.
Relationships between generic skills and approaches to studying
Compared to their counterparts, students with higher scores on generic skills were more inclined to have higher scores on the strategic approach scale, and – in particular – the deep approach scale. These findings are in line with the findings reported by Tuononen and co-workers . Conversely, lower scores on generic skills were associated with higher surface approach scale scores. According to Entwistle (, p. 70), students with a deep approach to learning “integrate the whole with its purpose, showing an intention to impose meaning on the content in relation to the perceived nature of the task, trying to «stand back» from the task, thinking about the underlying structure and seeing it in a wider perspective”. This description of the deep learner strongly mirror the description of the generic skills scale, emphasizing analytic and problem-solving skills transferable to new situations [26, 29]. Thus, a degree of conceptual overlap may explain the strong association between the two scales, as detected in this study. In a similar vein, Beccaria and co-workers  found a strong relationship between meta-cognitive awareness and the deep approach to learning. Meta-cognitive awareness was also related to time management, goal setting, and self-reflecting as a group member, which align with the concept of generic skills as used in the current study.
The associations between generic skills and the study approach measures indicate that students using deep and/or strategic study approaches employ a fuller range of desired learning activities, including reflection, theorizing and application. According to Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy [2, 3], these learning activities reflect learning at the relational and extended abstract levels. However, for students using a surface approach, there is a shortfall. These students tend to handle all tasks, regardless of their complexity, with low-level learning processes (such as memorizing and recalling) without connecting the meanings embedded in the concepts they try to recall . As a result, learning based on a surface approach tends to be a recollection of terms, rather than an understanding of interconnected concepts. Conversely, a learning environment that fails to facilitate reflection, analysis and problem-solving (as reflected in low scores on generic skills) may negativity affect the student’s motivation and sense of meaning, potentially increasing surface approach learning behaviors. In such cases, students tend to treat tasks as something external, avoid extracting a deeper meaning from what they study, and tend to focus on elements, rather than the whole .
The consistent associations between generic skills and approaches to studying, as detected in this study, indicate that one possible way of changing students’ approaches to studying can be to assist them in transferring classroom-based knowledge and skills onto new situations. Variation in teaching methods and pedagogical practices are required for the learning of generic skills , as are students’ use of active learning strategies . At the same time, oppositely directed associations are equally viable, as using deep/strategic study approaches may make students more attuned towards the possible practical applications of their learning .
Relationships between appropriate workload and clear goals, and approaches to studying
We found that lower scores on ‘appropriate workload’ were associated with higher surface approach scores. According to Lizzio and co-workers , this is one of the most consistent findings in the field. For example, Diseth  found that perceived heavy workload was related to surface approach studying, whereas students who were more satisfied with the level of workload had higher levels of deep and/or strategic approach behaviors. Diseth’s results also showed that “workload” was the only learning environment variable which correlated with examination grades – perceiving the workload to be too heavy had an independent, direct effect on lower examination grades. Conversely, students who have adopted a surface approach to studying with a preference for simple and uncomplicated tasks may have low self-efficacy , and may therefore be inclined to perceive the workload as too heavy. For the students in the current sample, mandatory learning activities such as group work and practical skills training, constitute a substantial part. For students with a surface approach to studying, indicating having little personal engagement in the task or a feeling that the task is an unwelcome imposition by authority (, p. 72), such learning activities may therefore represent tiresome additions to the workload. This may contribute to explain the detected association between higher surface approach scores and perceiving the workload as to heavy.
It may be serviceable to conceive students’ approach to studying as potentially influenced by their learning environment. A heavy workload might cause motivation to decline and instigate a fear of failure, which in turn may lead to surface approach study behaviors. Students who fear failure may feel overwhelmed with the amount of study materials and can start panicking if they feel behind with the work. As demonstrated by Bonsaksen and co-workers , having higher scores on the ‘fear of failure’ dimension of the surface approach was associated with poorer academic performance among undergraduate occupational therapy students. An appropriate workload does not mean that the students invest less of themselves in their studying. Instead, time can be used in a different and more inspiring way. In line with Lizzio and co-workers , courses which are “less packed” may provide the students with a greater possibility to develop generic skills. When the workload is not excessive, it allows the student to use analytic, problem-solving and interactive learning processes, connected to the preferred deep study approach.
Similarly, students with lower scores on “unclear goals and standards” had higher scores on the surface approach to studying. Perceiving goals and standards of the study program to be unclear can make it difficult to see the purpose of the course they are attending, and a lack of purpose may indeed be considered an aspect of the surface approach to studying . Students tend to adopt a surface approach to studying as a ‘default option’, when they are uncertain what the academic environment requires of them .
A preferred learning environment is one in which students know what will be expected from them, and therefore know what they need to do to manage these expectations. Diseth  underscored the importance of clarifying the goals and standards in the education program, thus enabling the students to cope with the learning material so that they do not experience overload. Tuononen and co-workers  emphasized the need for students to understand the importance and relevance that generic skills have for their future work. Therefore, clarifying the goals and standards concerned with generic skills acquisition may be especially important.
Sociodemographic covariates to study approaches
In line with previous findings , this study revealed that female students and students who spend more time on independent study were more likely to use strategic approaches to learning. Other studies have also noted that female students appear to be more inclined than male students to use a deep study approach, and less inclined to use a surface approach [12, 40, 41]. Although the current study found gender differences only to be concerned with the strategic approach, a broader interpretation taking into account the results of the above-cited studies may indicate that female students are more inclined to use productive study approaches than men.
The detected relationship between higher age and deep approach to studying is also in line with previous research [12, 34, 42]. Being older naturally increases the possibility of having prior higher education, and the latter was also directly associated with higher deep approach scores. Both age and academic experience may add to the students maturity, as suggested from prior research – students who had previous experience from higher education had higher average exam grades, compared to their counterparts without similar experience .
Students whose current line of study was not their first choice had higher scores on surface approaches to studying. Students who originally wanted to study something other than occupational therapy may have experienced lower motivation and may have had less knowledge about the occupational therapy education program, compared to their counterparts. For those reasons, it may have been more difficult to get started with the learning activities and also to navigate in the curriculum, possibly leading to surface approach behaviors.
Study strengths and limitations
Several strengths and weaknesses related to the study should be noted. The sample size was appropriate for the analysis, by well exceeding a recommended ratio of 15 participants per independent variable . Participants were recruited from all of the six Norwegian education institutions offering occupational therapy education, and all of these aspects add to the validity of the study results. However, group sizes and response rates were different between the study sites, suggesting that the results are somewhat ‘weighted’ with students from some education institutions having more impact on the results than others. The cross-sectional study design (i.e., assessments performed at one point in time) precludes us from making causal interpretations about the direction of the detected associations. Associations between perceptions of the learning environment and individual study approaches may also be cyclical and self-strengthening in their nature.
In particular, the findings concerned with generic skills require one additional comment. Some researchers consider this scale to be more appropriately used when measuring the outcome from a learning process, rather than measuring an aspect of the learning environment . According to this view, scores on the generic skills scale express the students’ evaluation (not their experience) of how the study program contributes to their generic learning outcomes. However, we would rather suggest a reciprocal connection between the variables. Considering the education program to positively contribute to transferable skills may instigate or strengthen productive study strategies, and counteract unproductive ones. Conversely, disagreeing with the program contributing to generic skills may lead to demotivation and a lack of purpose, essentially reflecting the surface approach to studying.
The study is based on self-report data only. While alternatives to self-report data pertaining to affective and attitudinal states are sparse, future studies may supplement the data collection by adding objective measures (e.g., related to workload) that can be compared to the subjective measures. Several studies have suggested that subjective perceptions of workload are not good measures of actual workload, the latter being a complex function of a range of factors [18, 45].