An alienation-based framework for student learning theory: Developing and justifying new interpretations of past empirical observations

Year: 2012

Author: Barnhardt, Bradford, Ginns, Paul

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


A specific structure for addressing weaknesses in an alienation-based framework proposed by Case (2008) for tertiary student experience will be presented. The proposed framework would subsume Student Learning Theory (SLT; Biggs & Tang, 2011) by recasting surface approaches to learning as alienated, and locating the factors that alienate students across three categories of student life in the higher education community: (1) entering, (2) fitting in, and (3) staying in. SLT is positioned in the third of these categories, reflecting an emphasis on assessment and workload for students to 'stay in' higher education communities. This framework enriches the view of students traditionally held in SLT both by placing their experiences in a broader context of human experience, and by enlarging the scope of related research. However, to date, the proposed framework has not been shown capable of explaining with any nuance or specificity key empirical observations in SLT. Firstly, arguments for adopting the proposed framework rest on the general face-validity that SLT constructs have alienation-like qualities. Secondly, the focus on assessment and workload addresses just two of the five factors featured on the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). Thirdly, limited consideration has been given to exactly how alienation theory would explain the observed correlations between such CEQ factors and approaches to learning.

To remedy these deficits, a structure is presented for the proposed framework that lends itself to quantitative testing, and that seeks to explain, in terms of alienation, the connection emphasized in SLT between student perceptions and learning behaviours. This structure employs the variants of alienation developed by Seeman (1959, 1975) as categories for reframing the five CEQ factors. A dual interpretation of alienation as involving sociological processes and corresponding psychological states is then used to explain observed correlations between each of the five key CEQ factors and approaches to learning reported by Trigwell & Ashwin (2003) and Wilson, Lizzio, & Ramsden (1997). The resulting structure therefore hinges on the plausibility of these five explanatory hypotheses. Each of these explanatory hypotheses will be presented in the succinct syllogistic format of abduction, developed in the work of Charles Peirce (1839-1914) as the reasoning process by which new hypotheses are generated. Abduction as a form of inferential reasoning will be explained, and the five hypotheses generated in this analysis will be assessed. Inasmuch as they are convincing, economical, and quantitatively verifiable, these five hypotheses offer support the proposed framework linking alienation and SLT.