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Using activity theory to shine a light on Teaching and Learning Regimes in graphic design education

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Published onDec 12, 2022
Using activity theory to shine a light on Teaching and Learning Regimes in graphic design education


This article builds on previous research (McDermott-Dalton, 2021) in which I used cultural and historical activity theory, along with a Change Laboratory methodology, to enable participants to model, expose and aggravate contradictions within the graphic design portfolio activity. In this paper, I consider whether the use of an activity system, which focused on a specific activity within an academic programme, could be adapted to chart a more generalised object such as graphic design education. The additional lens of Teaching and Learning Regimes (TLRs) aims to provide further insight into the culturally and historically situated practices of graphic design education, which emerged during the original study, but which were not captured in the final paper. Analysis of the original portfolio activity system’s object was extended to include the broader educational context of graphic design education. Co-constructed learning was used as a focus to capture the collaborative nature of graphic design education. Primary and secondary contradictions were revised where necessary to suit the broader remit, with eight Teaching and Learning Regimes used as a lens to examine the situated practice of graphic design education. The portfolio activity system was useful as a lens to consider the broader object of graphic design education. The community, rules and division of labour, documented in the activity system, related to the wider design context, while the outcome was arrived at through the investment of all stakeholders in a co-constructed learning environment. The additional lens of TLRs provides a new perspective on the generalized object of graphic design education, and reveals deeply embedded socio-cultural organisational practices. This approach will be useful to researchers and practitioners who wish to extend research on specific activity systems to explore practice sensibilities within a particular academic context.

Keywords: Teaching and Learning Regimes; activity theory; Change Laboratory; graphic design

Part of the special issue Activity theory in technology enhanced learning research

1. Introduction

This article builds on previous research (McDermott-Dalton, 2021) in which I used cultural and historical activity theory (CHAT), along with a Change Laboratory methodology, to enable participants to model, expose and aggravate contradictions within a graphic design portfolio activity. In this paper, I consider whether the use of an activity system, which focused on a specific activity within an academic programme, could be adapted to chart a more generalised object such as graphic design education.

The additional lens of Teaching and Learning Regimes (TLRs) i.e., “rules, assumptions, practices and relationships related to teaching and learning issues” (Trowler & Cooper, 2002, p. 222) aims to provide further insight into the culturally and historically situated practices of graphic design education, which emerged during the original study but which were not captured or reported in its final paper. These tensions and contradictions are often deeply embedded within teaching and learning practices, and the use of TLRs seeks to uncover them as a precursor to praxis change.

1.1 Description of original research

The portfolio activity in graphic design education in Ireland is an integral part of the curriculum, involving a variety of stakeholders including students, teaching faculty, professional staff, and the wider design community. For final year students, the portfolio often showcases work for potential employers, and may be displayed during their end of year show. For other students, it is used as an assessment tool throughout each year of the undergraduate programme. However, much of the preliminary work for the design portfolio is completed digitally, prior to production as a physical artefact. Given the increased emphasis on the development of digital skills as a core competence for graphic design students (Lupton & Phillips, 2015) and my role as a design technology faculty member, I wanted to explore how the portfolio activity might be reimagined in a digital context. Since CHAT has as its unit of analysis a specific activity viewed within the context of the collective, emphasising “the purposeful interaction of the subject with the world” (Leontiev, 1978, cited in Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 31), it seemed an appropriate tool to examine the portfolio activity in greater detail.

Additionally, as a potential driver for change, a Change Laboratory methodology invited participants to represent the portfolio activity, expose contradictions, and jointly reimagine what an alternative digital portfolio might look like. Five semi-structured interviews with graphic design students and staff were conducted, following ethical approval from both the research site and Lancaster University. Through analysis of the interview data, I identified tensions within the portfolio activity and mapped out the primary and secondary contradictions which existed within the activity system, in my role as insider-researcher. I explored these with participants during a Change Laboratory session, and we jointly considered a proposal for an alternative digital portfolio. However, the expansive learning cycle, which is an integral part of the Change Laboratory methodology, did not continue beyond the modelling phase because of time constraints, limiting the potential for change to be implemented (McDermott-Dalton, 2021). Nonetheless, we agreed that CHAT as a dialectical theory had the potential to contribute to building agency amongst stakeholders.

1.2 Rationale for expanding beyond the original study

Alongside the primary research objective outlined above, evidence of ‘proto-practice reservoirs’, i.e. sets of discourses, ideologies and assumptions (Trowler, 2020) emerged during the Change Laboratory discussions. The scope of this special issue provides an opportunity to reflect on how the use of CHAT and in particular the Change Laboratory methodology (Engeström et al., 1996), focusing on object-oriented activity, might provide insight into a more generalized object such as graphic design education. The use of Teaching and Learning Regimes (TLRs) as an analytical lens provided additional insight into practices that had developed over time in the context of graphic design education. To that end this paper focuses on the following research question (RQ):

  • To what extent can CHAT, used to examine an activity within a graphic design programme, be combined with Teaching and Learning Regimes to provide an insight into the broader activity of graphic design education?

2. Theoretical considerations

Both CHAT and TLRs have a shared history in terms of their theoretical heritage. Teaching and Learning Regimes have their origins in Social Practice Theory, which shifts focus away from individual “attitudes, behaviours and choices” (Trowler, 2020, p. 30) towards the collective and situated social practices. According to Trowler (2005), Social Practice Theory stems from “twin strands of communities of practice theory and activity systems theory” (p. 18) which are “rooted in social constructionist thinking and Marxist materialism” (Lave, 1993 cited in Trowler, 2005, p. 18). However, the activity within an activity system is defined by participants within the community and this community of practice may have a number of activity systems. Given this theoretical relatedness, I felt it appropriate to explore the wider object using a combination of CHAT and TLRs.

2.1 Analysis of the move from narrow to broader object

While the empirical research mentioned above describes the activity system that has the design portfolio as its object, in order to reflect on the situated practices which emerged during the research process, it was necessary to conceive a different object within the original portfolio-focused activity system. Sannino and Engeström (2018, p. 45) “distinguish between the generalized object of the historically evolving activity system and the specific object as it appears to a particular subject, at a given moment, in a given action”. The design portfolio is considered the “given action”, however it is situated in the general context of graphic design education and “the development of a graduate with a range of skills and competencies” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 9). The reimagined object of graphic design education, moving from the specific to the generalized object, is the focus of this paper. The activity system analysed to represent the design portfolio activity is still valid and is presented in Figure 1, albeit with a modified object.

Figure 1: Activity System of graphic design education (co-constructed Learning) activity with primary (green/circle) and secondary (red/arrow) contradictions (adapted from McDermott-Dalton, 2021)

The subject remains the learner, within a wider design community, who will be challenged to become an “all-rounder” (Graphic Design Lecturer) at graduation. Co-constructed learning is included within these working spheres / engagements (Engeström, 2008, p. 257) and is integral to graphic design education because of its collaborative nature. Jacoby and Ochs (1995) note that at its core, co-construction is intended to cover “a range of interactional processes, including collaboration, cooperation and coordination” (p. 171) and is both “historically and culturally situated” (p. 178). It is a product of both individual and collective experience over time, and as such lends itself to this study, where embedded practices are the subject of scrutiny.

The original primary and secondary contradictions for the portfolio activity are adapted to a broader graphic design education context. Primary contradictions, within elements of the reimagined activity system, are shown in Table 1. Secondary contradictions, between elements of the reimagined activity system, are shown in Table 2. 


An internal struggle exists as students consider ‘what I should do’ vs ‘what I want to do’. Faculty will need to consider this in the design of their briefs. 


All creative solutions must meet the prescribed brief, which faculty design within the context of institutional rules (Module Learning Outcomes (MLOs), Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs)) and sectoral (design) conventions. 


Technology may present students with challenges, whether this relates to software or design materials.  


Conflicting opinions are offered by members of the design faculty and the wider community and may initially confuse students, yet they must select the most appropriate advice. 


The students’ own environment may determine who they approach for help to complete the design projects, whether this is support provided by the department or their peers.  


Achieving the Module Learning Outcomes and Programme Learning Outcomes within the graphic design programme validates the students’ learning. However, through the process of peer and tutor review and feedback and the co-constructed learning that occurs, the graphic design student inevitably finds their own voice as a designer. 

Table 1. Primary contradictions in the graphic design education activity system


Contradictions may exist between how students wanted to respond to a brief and the need to adhere to institutional rules, design conventions and the design brief. 


Students are required to use a variety of approaches, but may feel they lack the skills to use the tools properly (e.g. technology) 


Students need to consider how the message is communicated to them from members of the community. They also need to consider how their message (within a design brief) would be communicated to the wider community. 

Subject-division of labour

Students will lean on various members of the community in the creation of their design solution, whether from tutors or peers who give feedback or the technical team who help with the production of the creative solution. The student then assimilates this knowledge to produce their work. 


There are challenges associated with finding one’s creative voice, within the confines of academic MLOs and PLOs.  

Community-division of labour 

When finalising the creative solution, contradictions may arise about who does what? For the design portfolio, while a lot of members of the community had given advice about how the portfolio should look, ultimately it was the students’ submission and they felt this sense of responsibility keenly. This doubt over ownership often applies throughout the early part of the academic programme but should be less evident as students approach their final year. 


The expense students associate with industry standard software (Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) and resources mean they often had to find ways to ‘make do’ using cheaper alternatives or earlier versions of the software. As more and more technology is used within graphic design education, these contradictions will become more apparent.  


Contradictions may arise in terms of students’ skills development to meet learning outcomes and design conventions. The short timeframe associated with the academic teaching context may stifle creativity as deadlines loom. 


Contradictions exist within the Community between the value-based ideas of what a design project should look like and the skills that need to be developed to achieve these. 

Table 2. Secondary contradictions between elements of the graphic design education activity system

The secondary contradictions highlighted initially for the design portfolio activity are, in many cases, also valid for the broader, more general object, which is graphic design education. However, I must concede that using a generalised object brings its own issues. Sannino and Engeström (2018) give the example of medical practitioners, for whom the object of the activity may be difficult to define: “if asked to specify the object further, each practitioner tends to give a somewhat different characterization, depending on the personal history of the individual and his or her position in the division of labor [sic] within the activity system” (p. 46). Similarly, within the graphic design department the characterisation of graphic design education and the design graduate will depend on the participants’ experience and their position within the design community.

Additionally, these contradictions are analysed through the lenses of eight TLRs, to examine how these findings from concrete activity within an academic context—the design portfolio activity system—relate to the Change Laboratory’s role in conceptualising the generalized object, i.e., graphic design education. Through an iterative process, each of the TLRs was examined using the primary and secondary contradictions, outlined below, together with an analysis of the activity system and participant responses as captured in the original research study. Since ethical approval was only granted for the initial study, interview transcripts were not available for further analysis and participant quotes were limited to those published in the original study.

3. Findings: TLRs, tensions and contradictions with graphic design education

Trowler (2019) considers social practices as emergent, shaped by activities of the past and how things were done before. The past is context-specific, relating to the people who operate within a particular context and a TLR. Historicity in CHAT facilitates the charting of an activity over time (Engeström, 1987), in particular using the Change Laboratory methodology, which encourages participants to analyse the current situation through an expansive learning cycle (Engeström et al., 1996), in addition to representing past and potential future practices. Within my empirical research, these “backstories” contributed to charting the development of the design portfolio, with one staff member noting how “the use of language [within design] has changed over the last 10 years”. (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 12).

These eight moments (Trowler, 2020) will consider the findings from the empirical research and researcher-interventionist observations on the research process, in particular the Change Laboratory methodology used, in terms of how they contribute to a better understanding of graphic design education and co-constructed learning within the discipline.

In the following section the activity system object (graphic design education) and its inherent contradictions or tensions will be approached through the analysis of eight TLRs. The TLRs are numbered and grouped where I felt that synergies existed. Appropriate CHAT principles are included, and examples from the research findings are provided in support of TLRs.

3.1 (1) Codes of signification and (2) subjectivities in interaction or object-oriented and artefact-mediated activity

Codes of signification are related to what are often referred to as “connotative codes”—layers of meaning which accrete upon “signs” during the process of cultural construction, thus going beyond the “denotative code” imbued in the sign itself (Barthes, 1967, cited in Trowler & Cooper, 2002, p. 228). In an academic context a shared understanding of a specific set of codes are developed over time, and the dialectical nature of CHAT provided an opportunity to explore these codes. Additionally, mediating artefacts within the activity system can be either concrete or abstract signifiers, which “embody a set of social practices, their design reflecting a history of particular use” (Preece, 2015, p. 2).

The Change Laboratory process offered a platform for both students and faculty to articulate concerns as openly and directly as possible (Bligh & Flood, 2015) and they discussed potential practice problems within the context of the design portfolio and beyond. Codes were evident within the Change Laboratory, but also used by staff and students within the qualitative interviews, some examples of which included group crits, design briefs, portfolios and studio work. Given that the “activity system is by definition a multi-voiced formation” (Engeström, 1987, p. 8), how participants articulated the activity system provided an insight into graphic design conventions.

Closely linked to this is the notion of subjectivities in interaction, i.e., individuals interacting with each other. In graphic design, peer review is an integral part of the learning process and contributes to the culture of co-constructed learning, with different attitudes and ideas informing the peer review process. The design community included a broad range of members, from faculty and students to the wider design industry. One student articulated clearly the tensions that can arise: “it does mess with your head when you’ve got different people telling you that’s not good but somebody else saying that’s good” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 13). However, part of becoming a designer (and a design graduate) is finding one’s own voice within this community. Identifying all the stakeholders within the activity system demonstrated to students the extent of the community, of which they were members.

3.2 (3) Conventions of appropriateness and (4) power relations or the multi-voicedness of activity

During the empirical research, it emerged that while multiple voices contributed to the developmental process that is portfolio production, students felt they had to conform to the conventions of the academic programme, and the design community within which they were learning. Secondary contradictions were evident between students’ interpretations of the design portfolio, and the expectations of the broader design community. Establishing the rules which governed the design portfolio activity provided an opportunity to explore existing conventions within graphic design education, and students’ attempts to navigate these conventions. Students felt that they needed to conform to the rules around the design of the portfolio, or the lecturer “would pull [them] back in line” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 12). Students also recognised that they had creative licence “so long as it fits in the module deliverables” (ibid).

These findings are also related to codes of signification, discussed above, and implicit theories of teaching and learning. I would contend that these are closely linked to power relations, pointing to what is appropriate behaviour and action within a particular context. Within graphic design programmes, the culture of learning is informal, and faculty work closely with students to develop their creative solutions, preferring to “guide” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 12) rather than lecture students. Nonetheless, students were clear that they needed to align their creative solutions with the expectations of faculty assessing the work to “show some form of measurability” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 13). Daniels et al. (2010, p. 113) consider the role of power relations in the context of CHAT, noting that “the relations of power and control that regulate social interchange give rise to specialised principles of communication”. These are socially situated practices, specific to the community within which members operate.

3.3 (5) Recurrent practices and (6) tacit assumptions or the historicity of activity’s problems and potential

Recurrent practices are “unreflective habitual routines” (Trowler & Cooper, 2002, p. 231), which develop over time. Some examples provided by Trowler and Cooper include how faculty engage with students, or how students interact within a classroom environment. They may also relate to how technologies are viewed and used, closely linked to conventions of appropriateness but also often based on tacit assumptions within the context.

An examination of the historicity of the design portfolio activity highlighted a number of stages from idea generation to production, incorporating a variety of recurrent practices, such as the articulation of ideas, group crits, tutor feedback or the use of different design technologies to produce the work. Tan and Melles (2010, p. 464) argue that an activity theoretical approach is suited to the analysis of the design process, describing “the activity structure and development of designers’ practices within a contextual perspective”. Additionally, adopting the position of researcher-interventionist allowed me to prompt further discussion on elements of the design process and context within the department. Although dialectically opposed in relation to some teaching and learning practices—such as the inclusion of a variety viewpoints on portfolio design—staff and students discussed these with a view to enacting change, moving towards a solution that worked for all stakeholders.

3.4 (7) Discursive repertoires and (8) implicit theories of teaching and learning or contradictions for development

In determining the rules and members of community within the activity system for the design portfolio, emerging discursive repertoires were exposed. These discursive repertoires relate to the production of text (speech or writing, for example) in a way that identifies tensions between “right solution and the client direction” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 12) and the need for “measurability against industry” (ibid, p. 13). Primary contradictions arose within the community, where different people (faculty, professional staff, peers) gave advice on how to complete the portfolio and what it should look like, leaving students unsure whose advice to follow. Secondary contradictions emerged between the community and the division of labour, where students ultimately had to make decisions about how to design the portfolio. Since these contradictions are transferable to any design activity within the programme, it is appropriate to assume that they are valid contradictions in the context of the activity system presented for graphic design education.

4. Expansive transformation and the role of technology

The discipline of graphic design promotes teaching approaches which are still considered novel in other domains (e.g. peer assessment, formative assessment and feedback). The design portfolio shows evidence of this, with faculty encouraging students to map their learning, “basically their journey from start, to middle and the end and completion […]” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 13). Collaboration is embedded within design practice and, for the empiricial research, was evident in the Change Lab session where an expansive learning cycle was used to jointly reimagine the design portfolio activity.

The reconceptualisation of the activity involved considerable discussions around the use of technology. CHAT emphasizes “the importance of studying the real-life use of technology as a part of unfolding human interaction with the world” (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 34). In investigating the use of technology to create the design portfolio, tensions emerged within and between elements of the activity system. Students were expected to create the portfolio using specific industry standard technologies, yet often lacked the digital skills to use these tools properly, since skills were developed as part of the design brief activity, rather than within specific digital technology modules. However, since the career of a graphic design professional has evolved considerably because of technology, these tensions and attendant dilemmas within graphic design education need attention. Combining the use of CHAT and the lens of TLRs allows us to better understand the culturally and historically embedded TEL practices within a specific context.

5. Discussion, limitations and conclusion

This article set out to consider if the combination of CHAT and TLRs could provide a richer analysis of culturally and historically situated practices within graphic design education. During the original research study, on the use of CHAT and a Change Laboratory methodology to examine the portfolio activity, tensions and contradictions associated with the wider educational context emerged, prompting a further analysis of these practices.

CHAT provides a means to explore activity within the context of the collective, and through its use with a Change Laboratory methodology, increases stakeholder agency in confronting and changing their problematic sociocultural conditions, in this case within an educational context. One faculty member noted the move towards an emphasis on the “student voice” (McDermott-Dalton, 2021, p. 12) and the fact that “learning is embedded within a wider community in which all participants are actively involved and supported in their learning by the community” (Potter & France, 2018, p. 113). Both students and staff modelled the portfolio activity and, although dialectically opposed in some instances, the process provided them with an opportunity to consider other perspectives in relation to the activity. The additional lens of TLRs provides a new perspective on the situated practices within graphic design education. When combined, CHAT and TLRs revealed implicit tensions and contradictions, which I argue are necessary to uncover as precursors to change.

While other research approaches were considered, I contend that the same level of insight into the system of graphic design education would not have been achieved. Both Action Research and Design-Based Research were explored for this purpose. However, I noted that Action Research would limit the reimagining of the portfolio to my own teaching practice (not appropriate since the portfolio presented work from all modules completed and a number of stakeholders were involved in its design and assessment). Design-Based Research includes collaboration between researchers and practitioners, to design and test an intervention to address an issue in local practice (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012). However, it does not usually include students in the development phase. Since the aim was to jointly reconceptualise the activity with students and faculty members, CHAT seemed the most suitable theoretical framework, given its aim of trying to understand the activity within the context of the collective (Bligh & Flood, 2015). Karlgren et al. (2016) situate CHAT within the context of interaction design, while Raff (2013; 2010; 2006), Tan and Melles (2010), and Tarbox (2006) use activity theoretical approaches within the specific discipline of graphic design, giving the choice of theoretical framework additional weight within the design research community.

Finally, although there was sufficient information included in the original research publication, it would have been beneficial to revisit the interview transcripts to look for additional evidence of the proto-practice reservoirs. However, this would have necessitated additional ethical approval which was not possible within the given timeframe. Nonetheless, I argue that the original findings, together with my own knowledge of graphic design education, and my position as an insider-researcher, provide sufficient support for the claims made in this paper. Future research might consider the joint use of CHAT and TLRs within a single research study, or as a multi-staged approach to a research objective.


This paper draws on research undertaken as part of the Doctoral Programme in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

About the author

Geraldine McDermott-Dalton, Faculty of Continuing, Professional, Online and Distance Learning, Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, Athlone, Republic of Ireland.

Geraldine McDermott-Dalton

Geraldine McDermott is Senior Lecturer within the Faculty of Continuing, Professional Online and Distance Learning. She is an experienced lecturer in the areas of digital applications, design technologies and transition pedagogy, as well as French and German. As member of a Community of Practice of Online Educators, she supports lecturers’ digital skills development through the provision of workshops, resources and mentoring. Her research interests include Digital Pedagogies, Digital Fluency, and Multimodal Inquiry. Her current PhD research, undertaken as part of the Doctoral Programme in e-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University, focuses on higher education lecturers’ use of multimodal screencasts to teach disciplinary concepts.

Email: [email protected]

ORCID: 0000-0001-5499-6411

Article information

Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.

Publication history: Received: 05 October 2021. Revised: 21 October 2022. Accepted: 21 October 2022. Published: 12 December 2022.

Cover image: Badly Disguised Bligh via flickr.


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