Can you have active learning if your approach to teaching is passive?

My task this week is to read and comment on teaching portfolios written by colleagues in my university, in two different faculties. This is proving enjoyable, as the window they offer into the different ways in which these teachers are challenged, and in which they are trying to therefore adapt and grow, provides an inspiring view of higher education and where it is hopefully headed.

However, I have been struck over and over by something that bothers me: the common use of fairly passive verbs to describe both their own teaching and their students’ learning. Here I am referring to terms like presenting lectures or tutorials; delivering content, or a learning message; allowing students to learn or engage in particular ways; covering the curriculum, and providing students with information or knowledge.

Yet, over and over, lecturers using these passive verbs iterate the desire for their students to become more active, engaged and engaging students who can embody a wide range of graduate attributes that will enable them to contribute meaningfully to the discipline whist studying, and to their professional field after graduation. I am wondering, now, whether and how students can truly attain this goal if the espoused approach to teaching is passive, embodied in the verbs noted above?


Research over the last couple of decades in Southern Africa and globally has repeatedly, both conceptually and through empirical studies, argued for an increasingly active, participatory approach to teaching and learning. Students need to be increasingly involved in their own learning, and teaching needs to create authentic opportunities for students to create knowledge, critique knowledge and apply their skills to field or subject-specific tasks that move them closer to becoming graduates who can contribute meaningfully, both to society at large and to their chosen profession. This kind of teaching, and related learning, is anything but passive, and yet the dominance of lecture and tutorial ‘presentation’, ‘content delivery’, and ‘absorption’ or ‘reception’ of knowledge continues to persist.

I wish I had answers as to why there is this continuing gap – often unseen by lecturers who are tasked with closing or crossing it – between the passive ways in which teaching seems to be described and even enacted, and the active learning expectations lecturers have of their students on the whole. This is a challenging question for academic staff developers, and for university managers who assign time and money to teacher-development on their campuses, particularly in an increasingly volatile higher education environment globally where hard questions are being asked about the form and shape of the education students are engaged in. Academics are not hired, oftentimes, because they can be or are good teachers; they are employed for excellence in research or potential to be productive researchers. The teaching they do often feels far less valued, visible and worth investing in.

This is not a new refrain, but it is worth pointing out, again, that if universities expect their lecturing staff to be cognisant of current scholarship and practice innovations in the field of teaching and learning, and be able to adapt, grow and apply new learning to their teaching such that their own practice is aligned with their expectations of students, time needs to be created for lecturers to do this meaningfully. Teaching needs to be more fully valued, and seen as valuable work worthy of personal and professional investment, rather than expected to be an area of excellence that must be worked in in lecturers’ own time outside of research and further study of their own towards postgraduate degrees.

Further to time is the need for the creation and sustenance of meaningful and ongoing support for lecturers who are working to reflect on, learn from, and enhance their teaching and create more responsive and relevant learning environments within their disciplines or fields. Rather than ‘parachuting in’* for short workshops every now and then, and then becoming frustrated when excitement and change cannot occur or be sustained, academic staff developers need to also be willing and able and supported in offering more long-term, relationship-based and collaborative assistance to teaching academics. While also not a new comment, there is frustratingly slow change on this front.


I don’t think the use of these passive verbs is accidental or meaningless; the words we use to talk about ourselves, our teaching and our students are powerful, and they invoke particular understandings of education and its role and purposes within our lived contexts. They have meaning, and they need to be used carefully. I think, in spite of excellent and challenging work being done in academic staff development around the world that critiques passive understandings of teachers as delivery people or messengers and students as clients or receivers, dominant conceptions of teaching and learning as delivery and receipt tend to hold, unchallenged because they are often invisible.

We need to listen for these words, and challenge them as carefully and firmly as we can, while offering support to those who need to cross the bridge from passive to more participatory teaching, bringing their students with them as they do. We need to be more united in calling for critique of dominant conceptions of lecturers, students, teaching, and learning. We need to continue to speak back to approaches to structuring university life that devalue teaching and therefore reduce the time for the work and relationship-building efforts that really go into creating meaningful higher education that can grow graduates who can and will contribute to enhancing social justice and the public good.

Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

Writing in the Academy

From From

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus and offered a choice – life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change…

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Why good supervisors might sometimes make easy things harder

Nick Hopwood

I recently had an experience that made me reflect on an aspect of research supervision (supervision of a PhD, EdD, DCA, or Masters by Research).

Bear with me: I’m going to tell a short story relating to some training I do in freediving, and then I’m going to explain why I think it points to some helpful ideas about supervision and what postgrad students may be experiencing in terms of difficulties, particularly writing.

A lesson in freediving


When I’m not at work, one of the things I love to do most is freediving. Freediving involves holding your breath while being under water. It is an amazing activity that involves physical and mental challenge, discipline and practice. I am often at my most peaceful, focused and contented state when freediving. A large part of freediving involves depth: taking a big breath and swimming down towards the bottom of the sea. I’ve put…

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Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

This could be a useful starting point for thinking about teaching students how to write in the disciplines.

Writing in the Academy

I attended a really interesting seminar presentation last week by Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town on ‘academic literacies and the question of knowledge’ (this is also the title of a paper the talk was based on – well worth reading). One of the points she made, referring to a 2007 paper by Theresa Lillis and Mary Scott has really had me thinking, and is the subject of this post: that we need to move, in our academic literacy work, from a more ‘normative’ framing and practice to a more ‘transformative’ framing and practice.

Briefly, Lillis and Scott describe normative practices as those which are focused on identifying textual features or features of practice – genres/moves/’rules’/steps/forms etc – and inducting students into these so that they can become proficient and recognised as belonging to that community of practice. An example would be teaching students how to write argumentative…

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Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

Writing in the Academy

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really…

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Student supervision and feedback

Why strong labs sometimes submit weak papers (Josh Schimel)

I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.

In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.

I’ve sometimes found myself in the situation described above, where the student work I’vwe been going through has seemed to have so many issues that it would be easier for me to simply rewrite the work than to try and guide the student towards deeper understanding. I have to fight the urge to correct what I see as problems, and give feedback that aims to help the student see the problems themselves. Until they learn how to recognise the issues and make appropriate changes, we’re not helping them to develop as academics and colleagues.

As a supervisor, one of the ways that I’ve found to avoid this has been to switch off the “Track changes” feature. While it gives me a sense of satisfaction to see how much I’ve “helped”, I know that the student will probably just “Accept all changes”. This means that my attempt to show them a “better” way has missed the point because they won’t be paying attention to it anyway. I was alerted to this fact when the due date for a Masters proposal was rapidly approaching and the student was beginning to stress about their impending submission. They were concerned when I suggested that they begin final preparations, and responded that it wasn’t ready yet, because I, the supervisor, had not yet corrected all of the grammar and spelling. That’s when I knew that I was the problem.

Now when I give feedback I try to ensure that my comments are in the form of questions that highlight what I think are gaps in the students thinking or writing processes. I try to give suggestions for actions that the student can take in order to addresse these gaps, and sometimes offer links to resources that they can use. The point is that it is the responsibility of the student to take action, based on the feedback, in order to improve the work.

Digital storytelling at CPUT

Here is a presentation by Daniela Gachago (@dgachago17) and Veronica Barnes as part of a series on innovative teaching and learning practices at South African higher education institutions. in addition, here are some other Digital Storytelling presentations by Daniela.