Engagement in higher education. Who’s not engaging?

James Wilkinson


Just as undergraduates need to develop critical capacities, so as to scrutinise and justify beliefs, decisions and actions (Barnett, 1997), higher education teachers need to consider critically their own assumptions about and orientations towards teaching (Gow and Kember, 1993). These are often unexamined and unchallenged, so teachers can remain unaware of implications for students’ learning (Mezirow, 1990; Larrivee, 2000). Regarding subject disciplinary literacy development, relevant assumptions concern several important challenges: the complexity and opaqueness of disciplinary reading and writing practices (Lea and Street, 1998; Meyer and Land, 2003; Haggis, 2003; Gourlay, 2009); issues concerning engagement and assumed student deficits (Mann, 2001; Haggis, 2003; 2006); and the potentially alienating environment, norms, values and practices of higher education (Mann, 2001; Haggis, 2006; Bryson and Hand, 2007).   

This paper discusses these challenges and reports on a small-scale study investigating the context of students’ reading and writing difficulties at a London-based, Russell Group university. Methods included analysis of data from interviews with academics and student discussion groups, and from teaching observations. The findings suggest that the teaching orientations of learning facilitation and knowledge transmission, and their links to different learning approaches and outcomes, continue to shape many undergraduates’ experience, for better or worse.

The paper contributes to understanding these links using Self-Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Accordingly, teaching oriented towards learning facilitation, but not knowledge transmission, fosters students’ feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness, assisting internalisation of externally regulated behaviours, and increasing preparedness for engaged, self-directed learning (Niemiec and Ryan, 2009).



academic reading and writing; teaching assumptions; jigsaw classroom; co-operative learning; concept-mapping; enquiry based learning; motivation; engagement; Self-Determination Theory.

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ISSN: 1759-667X