Linda Drew

  • Variation in approaches to learning and teaching in disciplinary contexts: how to accommodate diversity?

    Linda Drew, Chelsea College of Art & Design

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: Learning and teaching methods, learning environments

    Are some disciplinary contexts more likely to provide an environment which enhances student learning, accommodating individual students’ approaches and responding to student diversity?

    The paper seeks evidence to explore this question by examining studies of disciplinary differences pursued through epistemological characteristics such as structures for knowledge validation and responses to changes in the context. These differences are further explored in a review of studies related to the disciplines and teaching. Studies of particular contexts are also examined to understand the situated nature of disciplinary cultures.

    Disciplines can be defined in many different ways, including epistemologically, by their practices, their narratives of belonging and by identification The best known description of how disciplines demonstrate these differences is characterised by the hard/soft and applied/pure typology first posited by Biglan (1973) and further elaborated with empirical study by Becher (1989) and revisited in Becher and Trowler (2001). The Becher (1989) concept of academic tribes has been widely adopted as shorthand for categorisation of both academic knowledge and academics. Both of these studies also focused on research activity (and not teaching) as an aspect of the disciplinary variation found. A recent study (Cooper and Trowler, 2002) further develops some of the themes relating to disciplinary variation and identities in interaction, recurrent practices and implicit theories of learning and teaching. The notion of disciplinary communities and their teaching and learning regimes proposes a socially constructed notion of how groups of teachers come to know through the practice of teaching and of learning to teach.

    Studies of disciplinary variation in teaching have received limited attention. Case studies and research on disciplinary variation in improving student learning were the subject of the 7th International Improving Student Learning Symposium in 1999. In this proceedings, Trigwell, Prosser, Martin & Ramsden (2000) studied relations between approaches to teaching, academic leadership and disciplinary differences. It was noted that where arts/business teachers perceived a leadership environment which was supportive of good teaching they adopt a more Conceptual Change/Student-focused approach. This finding deserves further investigation in relation to the development of teachers and departmental heads in all departments.

    More recently however there have been some studies which connect disciplinary culture to the nature of teaching and learning processes and learning outcomes (Neumann, 2001; Neumann, Parry & Becher, 2002). Neumann (2001) applies her findings to the nature of teaching, teaching practices and approaches. More importantly, she makes connections between these approaches, disciplinary differences and student learning. This conceptual paper proposes that systematic study of this area needs to be conducted to further explore the links between teachers’ conceptions founded in disciplinary identity and the implications for the improvement of student learning.

    The main discussion in this paper concerns how these arguments help us to understand why some disciplinary learning and teaching contexts appear to be more successful at accommodating student diversity and variation in student approaches.


    • Becher, T. (1989) Academic Tribes and Territories. Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.
    • Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001) Academic Tribes and Territories: intellectual enquiry and the cultures of disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.
    • Biglan, A. (1973) Relationships between subject matter characteristics and the structure and output of university departments, Journal of Applied Psychology, 57, 195-203.
    • Cooper, A. & Trowler, P. (2002) Teaching and learning regimes: implicit theories and recurrent practices in the enhancement of teaching and learning through educational development programmes. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(3), 221-220.
    • Neumann, R. (2001) Disciplinary differences and university teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 26 (2), 135-146.
    • Neumann, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002) Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts. Studies in Higher Education, 27 (4), 405-417.
    • Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., Martin, E., & Ramsden, P. (2000) Discipline differences in relations between learning, teaching and ways of leading teaching departments. In C. Rust (Ed.) Improving Student Learning Through The Disciplines. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.