Variation Theory

Learning Study | Variation Theory | Universitas 21 Fellowship | Variation Theory Conference

Variation Theory was initially develop by Professor Ference Marton and is a theory of learning.  It is used to frame Learning Studies.  When using Variation Theory a teacher will identify the aspects of the lesson content that is critical for students’ understanding.  The teacher can then use patterns of variation in these critical aspects to help students to discern differences and therefore learn. 

A basic conjecture of Variation Theory is that learning takes places when there is difference against a background of sameness.  This conjecture can be used to inform and evaluate pedagogic approaches.  An important point here is that identifying the critical aspects in the lesson content, and establishing a pattern of variation, should be the starting point for planning, rather than teaching strategies or methods.

Variation Theory Conference Outcomes

Download the PowerPoint presentation from the conference (PDF)

Learning Outcome Circles

Building on work done by Davis and Dunnill (2008) the Learning Outcome Circle is used as a starting point for planning in our Learning Studies.  The basic principle is that teachers identify key concepts associated with a particular section of the curriculum and arrange them in a circular formation.  Then teachers draw upon the identified concepts to identify conceptions which detail relationships between concepts.  These are represented by joining the concepts with lines.  

Diffusion example:

Concepts: Particles, rate, kinetic energy, temperature

Conception: An increase in temperature leads to an increase in the particles' kinetic energy.  The higher the particles' energy the faster the rate of diffusion. 

Patterns of Variation

Once target conceptions are identified a pattern of variation can be developed.  The core principle used to develop the Learning Outcome Circles into a teaching sequence is:

“Meanings are acquired from experiencing difference against a background of sameness, rather than from experiencing sameness against a background of difference.” (Marton and Pang, 2013)

Thus the goal is to plan for students to discern the target conception from a pattern of variation.  This is done by identifying the critical concepts and then developing a way of keeping some aspects invariant while varying other aspect(s). 

Examples of Patterns of Variation are detailed below and are also available for download (PDF). 


Topic considered

Learning Outcome Circle and   Pattern of Variation



Group 1: Interdependence



Group 2: Interdependence



Group 3: Forces



Group 4: Forces



Group 5: Diffusion



Group 6: Diffusion



Group 7: Photosynthesis



Group 8: Photosynthesis