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Author’s version of:
Case, J. M. (2008). Alienation and engagement: Development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning. Higher Education, 55(3), 321 - 332. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10734-007-9057-5

Alienation and engagement:
Development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning

Jennifer M. Case
Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town

Abstract

In this paper it is suggested that the themes of alienation and engagement offer a productive alternative perspective for characterising the student experience of learning in higher education, compared to current dominant perspectives such as that offered by approaches to learning and related concepts. A conceptual and historical background of the concept of alienation is presented, followed by an overview of some contemporary perspectives. Drawing on this literature, a framework is then developed for characterising student learning. It comprises three categories, referring to the alienation resulting from 1. entering the higher education community, 2. fitting into the higher education community, and 3. staying in the higher education community. Each category has an associated set of theoretical tools that can be drawn upon in analysing this aspect of the student experience.

Keywords: alienation, engagement, student learning, tertiary education, approaches to learning

Address for correspondence:
Dr J Case, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa Email: jcase@chemeng.uct.ac.za
Phone: +27 21 650 2751
Fax: +27 21 650 5501

Alienation and engagement:
Development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning

Jennifer Case
Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town

Introduction

For as long as there have been formal institutions of higher education there have been concerns about the quality of student learning. For example, consider a description of the student experience from Cardinal Newman, writing in the mid-nineteenth century. He described many students as ‘earnest but ill-used persons’, who

are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust, having gained nothing really by their anxious labours, except perhaps the habit of application. (Newman 1852/1964, p. 112-113)

This description is all too recognisable more than a century and a half later, but if we are to move beyond lamentable descriptions, we need a theoretical perspective that can help us start to understand why these poor quality learning experiences are so common. Currently, the dominant perspective in student learning research points to approaches to learning and related concepts (referred to hereafter in this paper as the ‘approaches to learning perspective’) as a way of understanding these situations (for a summary of key concepts in this perspective see Biggs 2003; Ramsden 2003).

The approaches to learning perspective can be illustrated by a tentative analysis of the above description of student learning in Newman’s time. Using the construct of approach to learning as a theoretical tool it is easy to identify many of the hallmarks of a surface approach to learning in Newman’s description, in particular a focus on the memorisation of content in order to pass an examination, and the absence of a focus on understanding. Further analysis using this perspective would most probably cite students’ perceptions of this overloaded and examination-dominated educational context as...
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