Higher Education

, Volume 68, Issue 6, pp 789–805 | Cite as

An alienation-based framework for student experience in higher education: new interpretations of past observations in student learning theory

  • Bradford Barnhardt
  • Paul Ginns


This article orients a recently proposed alienation-based framework for student learning theory (SLT) to the empirical basis of the approaches to learning perspective. The proposed framework makes new macro-level interpretations of an established micro-level theory, across three levels of interpretation: (1) a context-free psychological state (alienation), (2) a context-bound psychological state (student alienation), and (3) sociological processes from which these psychological states arise. Evidence for the viability of this macro–micro framework is, however, lacking, as is a clear path to seeking such evidence due to the framework’s complexity. The dichotomy of state and process implied by the framework reflects a recognised ‘dual interpretation’ of alienation, by which micro-level experiences are linked to behaviours through mediating macro-level psychological states. We use this dual interpretation together with Seeman’s (Ann Rev Sociol, 1975) six variants of alienation to construct a clear and well-ordered overall framework, and to hypothesize comprehensive explanations for the correlations observed between surface approaches to learning and five dimensions of learning experience emphasized in SLT. These five hypotheses are presented as succinct if…then statements, and assessed according to established qualitative criteria. Overall, the article prepares the way both for empirical verification of what is a complex theoretical structure, and for other future research in this vein.


Alienation Approaches to learning Course Experience Questionnaire Part/whole analysis Micro–macro theory 



We would like to acknowledge assistance with crafting this article provided by Paul Ramsden, Keith Trigwell, and by an esteemed colleague, scholar and friend, Ray Debus (1931–2014).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Education and Social WorkThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education and Social WorkThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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