What makes the difference? An empirical comparison of critical aspects identified in phenomenographic and variation theory analyses

Mona Holmqvist, Per Selin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


This study investigated differences and similarities in outcomes of analyses based on phenomenography and variation theory. We used the same data for both analyses to highlight the assumptions of each approach. Participants were 198 students (grades 7–9) who provided written answers to the question ‘What is learning?’. The phenomenographic analysis identified qualitatively different categories representing different ways participants’ conceptualised learning, separated by critical aspects that distinguished each category. This analysis found six categories, seeing learning as: extended skills, process, investment, feelings, object-knowledge, relationships, and feelings. The variation theory analysis identified aspects constituting the object of learning, with critical aspects being those not yet discerned by the learner. Aspects and features identified in this analysis were: learner (skills, abilities, pre-knowledge, attitudes), learning activities (brain, listen, repeat, practicing), learning source (teacher, school, learning materials, friends, Internet, places/persons outside school), content/object of learning (facts, information, activity), and outcomes (job, enhanced future, development, performance, widening knowledge). Aspects and features not yet discerned are critical, and must be made discernable for the learner to enhance their understanding. This use of critical aspects differs from phenomenography, in which critical aspects identified qualitatively different ways of seeing learning (i.e., categories of collective experiences). In variation theory, aspects (dimensions) and features (values of the dimension) relate to individuals’ understanding in specific contexts (e.g., a school class). A major difference between phenomenography and variation theory is the perspective of collective- and individual-expressed discernments. In phenomenography, a person may belong to several categories, whereas in variation theory, the aspects an individual has discerned reflect the way that person understands the phenomenon. This means the outcome of variation theory can be used to design and test the outcome of instruction, whereas the outcome of phenomenography provides information about general assumptions of how a phenomenon can be discerned.

Original languageEnglish
Article number71
Pages (from-to)1-8
JournalPalgrave Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2019-Jun-09
Externally publishedYes

Swedish Standard Keywords

  • Educational Sciences (503)


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