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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Unteaching how we think about teaching

Unteaching.  I like that.  We need to unteach the assumptions we carry about teaching.  Foremost is the assumption that teaching is easy.  Anyone can do it.  We see this in our national discussions on school teachers.  Every year in December we lament the annual matric results.  It is so predictable that I am sure the same articles are recycled from year to year.  Why are we surprised that young people coming from communities plagued by poverty and a host of social ills should be performing poorly on an academic exam?  Underlying this is the assumption that it should be an easy task for a teacher to take these young people and transform them into high performing exam writers.  Of course we do know that some school teachers are not at all up to the task and some could be putting in more effort, but I think what we are missing is that there are many teachers working hard in difficult contexts, putting in long hours and lots of care.  I had all the naivety whacked out of me during a memorable teaching practical in the early 1990s when  my youthful self headed off to a Khayelitsha school to start demonstrating how my brilliant teaching would change the world.  The experience left me with a much more realistic sense of what it would take to turn this country around and quite how much growth I was going to have to go through before I could start being part of the change.  Why do we expect schooling to solve all our social problems? 

 Let’s then return to a more modest discussion that focuses on teaching and what it can achieve. I’m sorry but there are no magic bullets in education.  Teaching is a complex activity, sapping of energy and creativity, and the learning outcomes are never assured.  If someone tells you otherwise they are lying.  But we need not despair.  We know that good teaching does make a difference.  It makes learning more likely to happen and it can inspire young people to start to become something in their lives.  Although there is no simple cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning, good teaching is totally focused on learning.  Learning is this extraordinary process where an individual person takes on knowledge and makes it their own, something they hold and with which they can work.  If you want to help that process to happen then you are part of trying to bring together both the learner and the knowledge.  Teaching that is only focused on the knowledge will have a limited impact, especially in a context where you have learners who are still developing their ways of learning.  Teaching that is only focused on the learner will involve people in busy activities that might even make them feel good but no real knowledge will be taken on board.


Now I want to situate our discussion on teaching in the university context.  Unlike school teachers, teaching is only a part of what academics are required to do.  Academic life is a busy job with many different parts that need to be juggled, predominantly teaching, research and administration.  Let’s disabuse ourselves of another notion: The view that somehow we are in the future going to get more resources with which to accomplish our work in universities.  We are not.  This is true pretty much everywhere in the world.  We are most probably going to have to do more with less.  So we need to get really smart.  The way most of us currently allocate time is not always that smart.  So you are going to have limited time to spend on your teaching.  What should you prioritise?  I have identified five things that are top priorities for me.  And I have to confess right away that producing beautiful powerpoint slides is not one of them…

 My first priority centres on the knowledge.  And in the context of teaching in the sciences, for me the focus on conceptual understanding is crucial.  The lecture serves to ‘open up’ the subjects, to create a conceptual map and to establish the major signposts.  You have to go into a lecture knowing the few ‘big ideas’ that you are planning to tackle in that session.  Here, of course, your own clear understanding of the subject is non-negotiable.  But to that you also need to add some sense of where students are likely to trip up.  Unfortunately, schooling tends to encourage the development of high end memorisation skills.  These are of limited use in the learning of science and engineering knowledge.  I try to do everything I can to signal this point.  Significantly, I allow students to bring into a test one A4 page on which they can write anything they like.  Given what we are usually testing in our courses, I find students don’t really need this ‘crib sheet’.  But, significantly, it can reduce some of the exam nerves, and most importantly it demonstrates to students that I will not be asking them much that requires simple recall.


My second priority is to work hard to be able to accommodate as wide a range as possible of student educational backgrounds in the class.  No one said this would be easy but it is the central challenge for university lecturers today.  You are not a good teacher because you can engage a homogeneous group who all came from highly resourced school and family backgrounds.  You are a good teacher because you can (of course) engage this (typically minority) portion of your class as well as the majority for whom life was not so ideal.  A key challenge here is in building an integrated classroom community.  If students feel isolated and marginalised, if they feel that they don’t deserve to be there, then learning is not going to happen.  One thing that I have been working on a lot in the last while are innovations that give extra time on task for those students who need it, noting that you as a teacher do not necessarily have extra time to give.  A first complete no-brainer is to do lecture casting.  Here students have an opportunity to go through parts of the lecture again where they didn’t fully grasp everything the first time it all happened.  We have clear evidence that this is making a significant difference for students who struggle in the course.  This year we kicked off with another innovation in our first year.  Here, students who have performed poorly in the first semester came back on campus for three weeks during the vacation for intensive work with a top postgraduate tutor.  This was extremely well received by students and we are watching the impact as we go forward in the course.


My third priority might surprise some.  I make a tremendous effort to get to know student names.  I teach classes typically in the order of 130 students and I find that over the semester I can pretty much get most names under my belt.  I am not ‘good at names’.  But I simply make this a priority.  I do have a few tricks though.  In the first two weeks of lectures students come in small groups to have a lunchtime cooldrink with me and to tell me something about themselves.  I find that knowing something about a student – ‘He’s the guy from Kimberly who said he is enjoying the big city’ – helps me to remember a name.  I require students to introduce themselves when they participate in class.  This also helps other students to get to know names.  If you want to totally shift the way your students experience your teaching then put effort into names.  It is a very radical thing on a university campus, for a lecturer to greet a student by name.  I have only taught classes up to 150 so I do accept that for those of you with bigger classes this might be a huge challenge.  But the evidence is that many of us teach 150 or fewer students in our classes.


My final two priorities centre on intellectual challenge.  I believe the intellectual challenge has to start in the lecture theatre.  So I am not into passive transmission style lectures.  I ask students questions; I get them to try out small parts of problems; I get them to discuss things in small groups.  This relates to my final priority which is to set clear deliverables and to have high expectations.  I expect my students to work hard and to deliver top quality work.   I require students to drop me a note if they have to miss a class session; this is to develop a facility in communicating with me as a lecturer and a confident professional attitude.  I mark ‘hard’.  I set challenging tests.  I run projects that are complex and open-ended.  I ask probing questions when students do their project oral presentations.  But I also always praise when I see outcomes that are looking good.  I tell the class when I am impressed to see from the website traffic that there was hard work happening in preparation for the test.  I tell them when I like what I am seeing in the project reports.  I also tell them where the next set of challenges will lie and where they need to put more effort. 


This is not an easy job.  This is not a job with a straightforward set of techniques.  But it is the best job.  There is nothing else I would rather be doing with my life.  It is a huge privilege to work with these young people and watch the transformation as they learn and grow.


Photos: Gary Hirson Photography


Where do I find the time?

People do not fail in life because they aim too high and miss… (The Principal of Change)

“People do not fail in life because they aim too high and miss. They fail in life, because they aim too low and hit.”

We often can’t imagine how we’ll ever find the time to make the changes we know are important to improve learning. But it’s not about finding the time. If you try finding the time in an already packed curriculum, you won’t. It’s about recognizing that if the change is important, then you must make the time to do it.