Introducing phenomenography

In this second blog post running up to the #micer16 meeting in May, Claire Mc Donnell of Dublin Institute of Technology introduces us to phenomenography. Claire’s talk will pick up on this introduction, showing how she used this approach to inform the method of her research. Please feel free to comment on this article below, as this will help us inform the discussion section after Claire’s talk. You can access the dissertation that describes how she implemented phenomenography in the context of her study here: Learner Experiences of Online Pre-lecture Resources for an Introductory Chemistry Course at an Irish Higher Education Institution

What is phenomenography in the context of educational research?

Phenomenography is the study of ‘the different ways people interpret shared experiences’ [1]. It is an empirical approach and participant experiences are collected as evidence, usually in the form of interview transcripts. The purpose is to arrive at categories of description for each type of variation of experience across a group. Each category describes the characteristics of that variation. The result is a limited number of internally related, hierarchical categories of description of the variation called the outcome space [2,3]. The claim made is that the research outcomes collectively describe the entire range of possible ways that the particular phenomenon being studied can be experienced, at the point in time when the study was carried out and for the population represented by the sample group. Therefore, phenomenographic outcomes do not show the richness of the data, only variation, for which there is clear evidence from the transcripts analysed [4].

Why use phenomenography in education research?

Phenomenography can provide a useful description of the ways in which students experience any aspect of their learning and the approach was first developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Ference Marton and fellow researchers to examine student learning. Their research led to the identification of‘surface’ and ‘deep’ approaches to learning [5]. Since then, it has also been applied to examine perspectives of academic staff on their approaches to teaching [6] and has been used in other disciplines such as healthcare research. In any scenario, a researcher may be of the opinion that a phenomenon (e.g. students’ approaches to learning) can be experienced in a variety of different ways, and wish to characterise these and explore the relationships between them. Phenomenography focuses on the perspective and experiences of the learners and the researcher should set aside their own assumptions and experiences as much as is possible. The goal is that the outcome space is useful in planning future learning experiences and to develop generalisations about how to organise learning experiences in the discipline concerned [4]. Developmental phenomenography is a specific approach that aims to use the outcomes to help the participants or others like them to learn [4].

Examples from Chemistry Education Research

Bhattacharyya and Bodner used phenomenography as a theoretical framework in their study, which had the purpose of characterising various ways students propose organic chemistry mechanisms [7]. They considered it a suitable approach as they anticipated that students would approach the problems in a limited number of ways that they could describe and interpret. The study involved interviewing 14 participants using a “think-aloud” protocol, so that their approach could be documented.

Domin used phenomenography to investigate when students think conceptual development occurs in both problem-based and traditional laboratories [8]. He interviewed 15 students in a semi-structured format, asking for more elaborate answers on questions from a survey previously completed.

Phenomenography in my research

The previous examples illustrate that these researchers are aiming to characterise the experiences of students in two different learning scenarios – as they attempt problem solving and as they work in the laboratory. The advantage of the approach is that the data is based on the students’ experience and perspective, rather than just the particular observations we choose to make. In my presentation, I will discuss the characterisation of experiences of students as they used online resources related to their coursework. I was interested in these characterisations so that we could aim to improve the design of the resources, based on how students interacted with them. After interviewing nine participants, I assigned four categories to how students interacted with the online resources; as a task to be completed, as an assessment for the purpose of passing the module, as an assessment for the purpose of learning, and as a learning tool. I will discuss how I arrived at these categories, and what implications they have when considering the design of online resources.

Aspects to think about

  • Phenomenography is useful when investigating the different ways that participants experience a phenomenon. It is important that the researcher is of the opinion that that phenomenon can be experienced in a limited number of qualitatively different ways.
  • Phenomenographic outcomes will not show the richness of the data, only the variation in experiences. For this reason, it can be useful as a method to determine which feature of a phenomenon should be examined further [9]. Findings can also be used to develop generalisations about how to organise learning experiences in the relevant discipline [4]
  • If the essence of the experience is the focus of interest and a rich description is required, phenomenology should be the approach used instead.


[1] Bodner, G. M. (2004) Twenty Years of Learning: How To Do Research in Chemical Education, Journal of Chemical Education, 81, 618-625.
[2] Trigwell, K., (2000), A phenomenographic interview on phenomenography, In J. Bowden and E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography. Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 62-82.
[3] Åkerlind, G., (2002), Principles and practice in phenomenographic research. The Proceedings of the International Symposium on Current Issues in Phenomenography, Canberra, Australia.
[4] Bowden, J. A. (1996), Phenomenographic research – Some methodological issues. In G. Dall’Alba & B. Hasselgren (Eds.), Reflections on phenomenography: toward a methodology? (pp. 49-66). Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis; Bowden, J. A., (2005), Reflections on the phenomenographic team research process. In J.A. Bowden and P. Green (Eds.), Doing developmental phenomenography (pp. 11-31). Melbourne: RMIT University Press.)
[5] Marton, F. and Säljö, R., (1976a), On qualitative differences in learning: I — outcome and process, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46(1), 4-11; (1976b), On qualitative differences in learning — II outcome as a function of the learner’s conception of the task, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46(2), 115-27.
[6] Trigwell, K., Prosser, M. and Waterhouse, F. (1999) Relations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and students’ approaches to learning. Higher Education, 37(1), 57-70
[7] Bhattacharyya, G. and Bodner, G. M., (2005) “It Gets Me to the Product”: How Students Propose Organic Mechanisms, Journal of Chemical Education, 82, 1402-1407.
[8] Domin, D. S., (2007), Students’ perceptions of when conceptual development occurs during laboratory instruction, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 8, 140-152.
[9] Orgill, M.K. (2007) Theoretical Frameworks for Research in Chemistry/Science Education, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.



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