Researching Student Learning in Higher Education: A social realist approach, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Researching Student Learning in Higher Education

A social realist approach, 1st Edition

By Jennifer M. Case


156 pages | 3 B/W Illus.

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Many contemporary concerns in higher education focus on the student experience of learning.With a larger and much more diverse intake than ever before, linked with a declining unit of resource, questions are being asked afresh around the purposes of higher education. Although much of the debate is currently focused on issues of student access and success, a simple input-output model of higher education is insufficient.

This book turns this conversation on its head, by inserting a full consideration of student agency into the context of higher education.Working sociologically, it explores the influence of the social context on what the individual student achieves. The theoretical tenets of a social realist approach are laid out in detail in the book; the potential value of this approach is then illustrated by a case study of student learning in engineering education.Employing Margaret Archer’s social realist theory, an analysis of student narratives is used to work towards a realist understanding of the underlying mechanisms that constrain and enable student success.Building on this analysis, the book develops a novel set of proposals for potential ways forward in improving student learning in higher education.


"There is much to be commended in this book and much to learn from it. In terms of audience, it is suitable for a wide range: established education researchers restless with their present theoretical frameworks and the questions they ask; post graduate and doctoral students starting out on Critical and Social Realist research, and anyone keen to engage more critically with what lies ‘beneath’ that which we take for granted. Besides the strength of a coherent argument and the logic of the structure which informs it, it is perhaps Case’s capacity to ‘walk the talk’ of theory and simultaneously integrate its application, that make this book the enlightening and valuable read it is." – Carol Thompson, Higher Education

Table of Contents

Part I: Setting the Scene 1. Contemporary Chellanges in Higher Education 2. Researching Student Learning: Accounting for structure and agency Part II: A Theoretical Framework 3. Critical realism as philosophical function 4. Realist Social Theiry: Archer's morphogentic approach 5. A Socialist Realist Perspective on Knowledge and Curriculum 6. Conceptualising Student Agency Part III: Developing a Case Study in Engineering Education 7. Geographical Context for the Study: Locating UCT Chemical Engineering 8. Disciplinary Context for the Study: Locating engineering education 9. Choosing Engineering 10. Studying Engineering- defining your project 11. Studying Engineering - engaging with others 12. Studying Engineering - the knowledge project 13. Conclusions for the Case Study Part IV: Drawing the Strands Together 14. A Social Realist Approach to Research on Student Learning

About the Author

Jennifer Case is a professor, with a particular focus on academic development, in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

About the Series

Research into Higher Education

Co-published with the Society for Research into Higher Education

This exciting new series aims to publish cutting edge research and discourse that reflects the rapidly changing world of higher education, examined in a global context. Encompassing topics of wide international relevance, the series includes every aspect of the international higher education research agenda, from strategic policy formulation and impact to pragmatic advice on best practice in the field.

For more information, or to express an interest in writing for the series, please contact Sarah Tuckwell,

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
EDUCATION / Students & Student Life
EDUCATION / Professional Development