Phenomenography: An education research tool from, and for, education researchers

What is phenomenography?

Phenomenography is a qualitative research approach that is increasingly used to investigate the differences, or the variations, in the way that  individuals within a specified population experience a particular phenomenon (Marton, 1981). For example, within education, phenomenography can be used to identify and quantify the different ways a given class of students experience a particular aspect of learning. More specifically, phenomenography my be defined as “a research method for mapping the qualitatively different ways in which people experience, conceptualize, perceive, and understand various aspects, and phenomena in the world around them” (Marton, 1986).

What are the origins of phenomenography?

Phenomenography originated from the research into  students’ experience  of  learning carried out at Goteborg University in Sweden in the 1970s by Marton and his colleagues (Tight, 2016). The main goal of this research was to understand, from the perspective of the students, the different ways they conceived of and went about their learning.

What are the assumptions underpinning phenomenography?

The key assumption underpinning phenomenography is  that there are only so many ways that a given population can perceive, understand or experience any given phenomenon  (Tight, 2016). The full range of different ways  that a given population experiences a phenomenon at any point in time is termed  the outcome space (Åkerlind, 2005). These different ways of experiencing a phenomenon can each be represented by a category of description, and these categories are hierarchically organised, with the higher-level categories encompassing the lower-level categories, and constituting a more developed way of understanding the phenomenon (Täks, Tynjälä, & Kukemelk, 2016; Tight, 2016).

Why is phenomenography appropriate for education research?

According to Marton and Booth (1998), learning comprises two aspects that are inextricably intertwined, namely the “what” aspect and the “how” aspect. The “what” aspect refers to the content of learning, and the “how” aspect refers to the way in which learning takes place. With respect to the “what” aspect, it is found that there is a qualitative variation in student learning outcomes. Similarly, with respect to the “how” aspect, it is found that there is a qualitative variation in learners’ approach to learning. Since phenomenography is a research method that focusses on determining variations in individuals’ perceptions and experiences of specified phenomena, it is well-suited to studying learners experiences and perceptions of learning.

When is it ideal to use phenomenography in education research?

Phenomenography can help educators to identify and foster learning approaches that facilitate a better understanding of the subject material that students are engaging with. This is consistent with research findings suggesting that different learning approaches lead to different learning outcomes (Marton, 1986).  As an example, Marton and his colleagues have used phenomenography  to identify and document differences in what students learn in specific learning tasks and to map these differences to the individual learning approaches that students adopt in the specified learning tasks (Marton, 1986). 

Phenomenography can also be used to uncover the different understandings that people have of specific phenomena and to sort them into conceptual categories. With respect to education, “learning, thinking, and understanding are dealt with as relations between the individual and that which he or she learns, thinks about, and understands” (Marton, 1986). Phenomenography enables us to understand these relationships, which, in turn, enables us to develop pedagogical interventions to improve the quality of student learning.  This is consistent with  Marton’s belief that  the goal of learning is to change  “the  way  a person  experiences,  conceptualizes,  or understands  a phenomenon” (Marton, 1981). 

How can phenomenography be incorporated into learning and teaching improvement?

Phenomenography is typically incorporated into learning and teaching improvement using this two-stage process (Åkerlind, 2008; Han & Ellis, 2019):

  1. Use phenomenography to identify variations in student experiences of the learning and teaching environment, including their perceptions and understanding of taught concepts.
  2. Implement strategies to shift students away from the less desirable variations to the more desirable ones, for example, by designing learning and teaching programmes that maximise students’ opportunities for discerning the full range of key features of the taught concepts.

What sort of research questions are addressed by phenomenography?

The typical research question addressed by  phenomenographic research is of the form (Booth, 1997):

  • How do the group of people we are interested in understand, or experience, this or that concept or phenomenon before and/or after studying it? 

As an example, Bucks and Oakes (2011) used the following pair of research questions in their study which sought to uncover the different ways that first year engineering students understand different programming concepts:

  • What are the qualitatively different ways that the conditional and repetition structures found in most programming languages are understood?
  • What are the ways that first-year engineering students understand these concepts?

Another example of research questions used in phenomenographic studies, is the research question formulated by Daniel, Mann, and Mazzolini (2016) in their study of academics’ experiences of the university lecture:

  • What are the different ways of experiencing lecturing?

Finally, a third example of typical  research questions used in phenomenographic studies is the pair of research questions that Fila (2017) used in in his study of  the ways that engineering students experience innovation during engineering projects:

  • What are the qualitatively different ways engineering students experience innovation during their engineering projects?
  • What are the structural relationships between the ways engineering students experience innovation?

Finally, what are the methods typically used in phenomenography?

Phenomenography is best viewed as a methodology whereby the actual methods used  in carrying out the research vary according to the specific question being addressed (Booth, 2001). Typical data collection methods include semi-structured interviews, open-ended questionnaires, written reports, video, think-aloud methods, and observation (Booth, 2001; Han & Ellis, 2019).

For small numbers of research participants, the semi-structured interview is often the preferred method since it provides rich and in-depth descriptions. For larger numbers of participants, the preferred method is the open-ended questionnaire since it is easier to administer and allows a wider range of experiences of a phenomenon to be captured (Han & Ellis, 2019). In practice, both methods are often used in conjunction as this allows both breadth and depth of variations to be covered in the data.

In line with most other qualitative methods, purposeful sampling in which the diversity of the sample is maximised to ensure a rich assortment of experiences is used (Booth, 2001; Daniel et al., 2016). The objective for this is to exhaust any variation in experience, and data collection is often extended until there is no further variation.

Data analysis consists of reading, analysing and categorising the collected data with the goal of identifying a set  of qualitatively distinct, logically related, ways of experiencing the phenomenon being investigated (Daniel et al., 2016).  This is an iterative process which continues until a stable set of distinct categories is obtained. Collectively, these categories constitute the outcome space of the phenomenographic study, and their dissemination is accompanied by descriptions of the essential aspects of each category, illustrated by pertinent extracts from the data (Booth, 2001).


Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Variation and commonality in phenomenographic research methods. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(4), 321-334. doi:10.1080/07294360500284672

Åkerlind, G. S. (2008). A phenomenographic approach to developing academics’ understanding of the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(6), 633-644. doi:10.1080/13562510802452350

Booth, S. (1997). On Phenomenography, Learning and Teaching. Higher Education Research & Development, 16(2), 135-158. doi:10.1080/0729436970160203

Booth, S. (2001). Learning Computer Science and Engineering in Context. Computer Science Education, 11(3), 169-188. doi:10.1076/csed.

Bucks, G., & Oakes, W. (2011). Phenomenography as a Tool for Investigating Understanding of Computing Concepts.

Daniel, S., Mann, L., & Mazzolini, A. (2016). A phenomenography of lecturing. Paper presented at the 44th SEFI Conference, Tampere, Finland. http://sefibenvwh. cluster023. hosting. ovh. net/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/daniel-aphenomenography-of-lecturing-56_a. pdf.

Fila, N. D. (2017). A phenomenographic investigation of the ways engineering students experience innovation. Purdue University,

Han, F., & Ellis, R. A. (2019). Using Phenomenography to Tackle Key Challenges in Science Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(1414). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01414

Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography ? Describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10(2), 177-200. doi:10.1007/bf00132516

Marton, F. (1986). Phenomenography—A Research Approach to Investigating Different Understandings of Reality. Journal of Thought, 21(3), 28-49. Retrieved from

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1998). The Learner’s Experience of Learning. In The Handbook of Education and Human Development (pp. 513-541).

Täks, M., Tynjälä, P., & Kukemelk, H. (2016). Engineering students’ conceptions of entrepreneurial learning as part of their education. European Journal of Engineering Education, 41(1), 53-69. doi:10.1080/03043797.2015.1012708

Tight, M. (2016). Phenomenography: the development and application of an innovative research design in higher education research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(3), 319-338. doi:10.1080/13645579.2015.1010284

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