Paul Ashwin

  • Using approaches to learning and critical pedagogy to understand the barriers to academic engagement in higher education

    Paul Ashwin and Monica McLean, University of Oxford

    In this paper, we outline how the literature on approaches to learning (for example Ramsden 2003, Prosser & Trigwell 1999, and Marton & Booth 1997) and the literature that adopts a ‘critical approach’ (for example, in higher education Webb 1996, Rowland 2000, and in education more generally Friere 1970 and Giroux 2001) can be brought together to help us to understand the barriers that face students and teachers in engaging in learning and teaching in higher education. That, even within higher education, these are two different perspectives drawing on different traditions and literatures is underlined by Rowland (2000 pp.5-7) who points out that pieces by Entwistle (approaches to learning) and Barnett (critical approach), which both focus on the ‘outcomes of teaching’ in higher education, have only a single reference in common.

    We are interested in attempting to bring these two perspectives together because we wish to relate the different foci of each. From our perspective, the approaches to learning literature has been successful in giving clear practical ideas for improving pedagogy by suggesting theoretically informed and research-based ways in which learning environments might be structured to improve the quality of students’ learning. However, it is largely silent on the extent to which teaching and learning are political acts and how barriers to learning can be due to structural inequalities outside of the learning environment. More critical approaches foreground the political nature of teaching and learning but their suggestions for teaching and learning practices are weak often suggesting that the quality of students’ learning will automatically be improved if teachers engage in a critical examination of their values. In bringing two perspectives together, we are seeking to offer a politically engaged pedagogy for higher education that also builds on a substantial body of work about how to improve the quality of students’ learning.

    In our paper, we will examine other attempts that have been made to bring these two differing perspectives together (for example, Mann 2000 and Lea & Street 1998) and then present our approach to bringing them together through identifying a framework from which the insights of both traditions can be viewed. We draw this from an understanding of how people interact with the world that is common to both Friere (1970) and to Marton & Booth (1997) that, rather than considering people and their worlds separately, considers the relation between people and their world to be the appropriate focus of pedagogy and research into pedagogy.

    In bringing these two perspectives together, we develop a new position that is focused on examining the barriers to academic engagement for both students and teachers with the purpose of finding ways opening up disciplines and institutions for engagement by students and teachers. Having given an initial presentation of our position, we will structure the discussion to focus on the meanings of bringing these two perspectives together in relation to widening access to higher education as well as ways of reducing the barriers to engagement of students and teachers.


    • Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Continuum Publishing Company
    • Giroux, H. (2001). Theory and Resistance in Education. Revised and Expanded Edition. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey
    • Lea, M.R and Street, B.V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23, 157- 172
    • Mann, S (2000). The student’s experience of reading. Higher Education, 39, 297 –317.
    • Marton, F. and Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    • Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding Learning and Teaching: The experience in higher education Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
    • Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Second Edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
    • Rowland, S (2000). The Enquiring University Teacher. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
    • Webb, G. (1996). Understanding Staff Development. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.