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Recent research on student learning in higher education has highlighted the effect that students' perceptions of the nature of learning and understanding of their discipline has on their consequent understanding of the subject matter. This present project grew out of a programme aimed to help first-year students in physics develop their ideas on the nature of physics and how to study it. One of the issues to emerge from that project was the need to develop a more detailed understanding of students' perceptions, to be used both in further planning of the program and in its evaluation. This paper reports on the results of that study. It involved a before (340 students) and after (110) survey of first-year physics students at the University of Sydney. They were asked to complete an open-ended response survey, including questions on how they go about studying physics and what they thought the study of physics was about. A phenomenographic methodology was used to identify categories of description for each of the questions. The paper will describe the categories in some detail and the distribution of responses across the categories. It will also discuss a number of issues to emerge from the study and some implications for the practice of teaching physics.
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