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Teaching and Learning


Introduction: on the importance of teaching and learning

Teaching is becoming increasingly important in academic careers. Many research institutions - including such big names as Harvard, Oxford and the MIT - have noticed that their previous, exclusive focus on research skills at the moment of hiring their academic staff compromised the quality of their teaching and the learning process of their students.

To remedy that situation, some universities and research institutions have activated teaching training programmes. In Europe, the EUI Max Weber Programme has also distinguished itself by including teaching in its diversified training on academic practice. Some North American universities have also started to request a "teaching portfolio" from candidates to their academic positions. The portfolio is to show 1) a candidate's (self-) evaluation of her past teaching experiences and 2) the actions that the candidate undertook to improve her teaching skills.

This career tip is to give you some very general ideas both on different learning processes and general approaches to teaching. We believe, as do many, that learning and teaching are correlated, and that in most cases a good teacher makes a good learner. You may need this information if you are starting - or planning to start - a job or career which includes lecturing. In general, as teaching is becoming an increasingly important part of a researcher's academic career we expect that you may want to know more about this subject.

This career tip focuses very much on the theory of teaching and learning. To get more practical information about teaching, check also our tips on how to design a course and some teaching tactics.


Different students

To start with, it is important that you realize that the students in your class are not the same. They are different in many respects. Be aware that:

1) Students don’t all operate the same way

2) Students are stimulated by different sources, styles, and so on

3) Students' previous knowledge and context are keys to their learning performance


The two main approaches to learning

Not all students are equally and fully motivated to follow a lecture. A teacher should be aware that in front of him/her there are, broadly speaking, two types of students:

Surface approach. These students only want to complete the tasks for your course and memorize the information necessary for the assessments. They often fail to distinguish principles and tend to limit their knowledge to some basic elements. They often use previous exams to predict questions, and try to organise time and effort to obtain the highest possible grades.

Deep approach. These students are motivated to learn and will spontaneously do exercises and interact with the content. They usually relate new ideas to previous knowledge. They also relate concepts to everyday experience and evidence to conclusions. In the end, they will have a good understanding of the logic of the arguments that you formulate in class. In principle, your task as a lecturer is to motivate students to understand the content of your course at a deeper level, beyond and below the surface.


Developmental perspectives

Some argue that there are four super-categories of individual development. In this vein, a lecturer should not expect the same level of reflection from first year undergraduates as much as from MA or PhD students. Remembering this is also important for the lecturer when setting out the objectives for his/her course.

These four categories are:

Dualism. Students tend to have a simplistic view of reality divided into right or wrong. Their behaviour is often similar to mere passive digestion. They tend to assume that what the lecturer says is the ultimate answer or truth about a certain issue.

Multiplism. Students realise that not all answers are known - not even by the lecturer - and that different opinions are valid in such grey areas.

Relativism. Students consider the importance of the source of information and use evidence, logic and analysis to distinguish between the different sources. Students tend to become makers of meaning rather than just recipients.

Commitment. Students take up a position and are able to provide clear arguments in support of their own opinion. It is important to gauge the level of the students that you have in front of you and to know what to expect from them. This does not mean that the course cannot be challenging! It means that you as a lecturer should not only pass on content to your students, but also help them reach the commitment level through the use of appropriate techniques and exercises.


Some Information on Communication from Neuro-linguistic Programming

There are different ways in which we communicate.  Surprisingly, verbal communication is a small part of our communication (only 7%). The other two main ways in which we communicate are paraverbally (38%), and, above all, non-verbally (55%).

We provide these figures for you to reflect on communication as a lecturer, and second, for you to understand how students communicate to you as a lecturer. In fact, if when you are lecturing some or even most of your students do not pay attention to you and to what you are saying, or talk to their classmates, they are in fact communicating something to you!

What senses are most used by human beings to learn new information? Consider also these figures on the ways human beings learn new information:

  • 20% auditively
  • 40% visually
  • 40% practically

Many think that learning is mainly about listening passively to what a teacher says. These statistics reveal that learning is facilitated by the use of some visual support doing exercises with the information that is being passed on. This means a lecturer should develop more than one method of conveying the same message in order to reach the attention of different kinds of students.


Why Don't Students Participate in Class?

It is important that you ask yourself why your students do not participate in classroom activities. Of course, some students might not be interested at all. Yet, that is normally the case of only a small proportion of students in a class.

One problem may be lack of attention. Consider that, statistically, students' attention span is between 10 and 15 minutes, whereas a university lecture lasts between 50 and 75 minutes! As a teacher, you need to control your students' attention and use periodic brief activities (between 2 and 5 minutes) to re-energise your students for the next 10-15 minutes.

There are basically three factors that impair good participation:

Instructor fosters one-way communication

The faculty behaviour can, consciously or not, create a severe hierarchy that hinders participation. Some teachers tend to ridicule some questions or initiatives by students, or make punishing remarks and the use of technical or specialised lexicon may reinforce the distance between teachers and learners.

The general atmosphere is also crucial. In this vein, there are several elements that disfavour the learning process and that you should eventually consider: front-to-back seating, a failure to get feedback about the course, a too rigid attendance requirement, an overemphasis on grades and grading, and the lack of dialogue and discussion between students about the content of the course.

Instructor does not cope well with different student learning styles and lack of participation

It is important that you realise the different learning styles of your students in order to create a constructive, appropriate and stimulating learning environment in the class.

Some students will be avoidant by nature, and will not be interested in learning the course content in the traditional classroom. Some are competitive and simply want to perform better than others in the class. Others are dependent on what the teachers say, show little intellectual curiosity and learn only what is required.

By contrast, some students tend to participate more because they are collaborative, and feel that they can learn most by sharing ideas and expertise. Others are simply more participant and enjoy going to class. Some are independent and will listen and comment on different ideas being expressed in the classroom.

The objective of a lecturer is not to blame those who don’t participate but to create a context that fosters dialogue and participation for all. You as a lecturer will play a fundamental role as facilitator to make sure that shy or less motivated students end up participating too.

The lack of specific structures which encourage participation

You should pay attention when explaining what you expect from students. A typical sentence might be: "I expect you to participate in the class and part of your grade will be based on such participation." Although this may help students to understand that participation is important, it may nevertheless create confusion: what is participation? Is it answering questions, giving a report, sharing information? How much of the grade is affected by participation? What are the consequences of not participating? All these questions should be answered directly by the lecturer so as to provide students with a clear explanation of what participation means on your course.

Rewards are also fundamental to stimulating student participation. However, rewards should not only come from the instructor. It is also good to foster peer-to-peer rewards when possible (after a presentation, a debate, etc.) and even self-rewards. We tend to forget that each of us spontaneously analyses her/his own behaviour. It is important that students learn to objectively assess both their weaknesses and strengths.


Three Theories of Teaching

After discussing different types of learning and issues of participation, we now introduce the three main approaches to teaching:

Teaching as trasmission of content

The first and probably most common teaching style is the transmission of content: the student is a passive recipient of information and the teacher is the main authority. There are some clear advantages for the teacher, such as the control over the environment, the content and the timing. However, this approach also creates some problems: going back to what was suggested above, this type of teaching often leads to surface learning. In the case of exam failure, it is common for the teacher to blame the student.

Teaching as organising student activities

The second teaching style focuses on what the student does. The relationship is one of supervision: the lecturer tends to keep the student busy with lots of activities and puts down a clear set of rules to learn. Here too, some advantages can be identified: the learning process includes both the teacher and the student, and the accent is placed on participation. There are, however, some problems too. For example, this type of teaching often leads to a one-size-fits-all-model, overlooking the fact that students are different. It also tends to overfocus on teaching methods.

Teaching as enabling the learning process

The third teaching style conceptualizes the relationship between the student and the teacher as one ofcooperation. The teacher tries to create a participatory context and correct students' misunderstandings about the course. On the basis of what students need, the lecturer will use various teaching methods instead of one single protocol. Students normally become much more motivated to actively participate in the course as they are asked to construct knowledge on their own, or in team, during the course. They are thereby forced to shift from a surface learning to a deep learning approach. This style requires a great capacity for listening, which often only comes with experience. Yet, this approach too has some negative drawbacks. In particular, it is hard to apply to a large audience. Furthermore, it might be excessively time-consuming as the lecturer has to be well prepared and ready to adjust the course to the student needs.

Be aware that none of these styles of teaching is the best in absolute terms: a good lecturer will shift from one to another, or combine them, depending on the course, the type of students who attend it and the general context. At the same time, there is a widespread opinion that the third approach is preferable, especially with respect to the first, teacher-centred, type of approach, which minimises too much the students' role in the learning process.

In any case, keep in mind that teaching should not be about talking to passive students: learning is a process, not a product, in which the learner plays a crucial role. It is important that you pay attention to what the student does on his/her own, and with other students, with the received information.


A Video about Teaching and Learning

The video "Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding" from the University of Aarhus (Denmark) discusses many of the issues of learning and teaching that we have presented above. The video contains both theoretical information on good teaching and practical hints on how to teach properly. The video is in English and lasts about 20 minutes. To know more about the video click here. To watch the video, click on the play button in the frame.



Bligh, D. (2000), What's the point in discussion? Exeter, UK: Intellect.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., Marshall, S. (2003), A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice. London and New York: Routledge Falmer.

Felder, R., & Brent, R. (1996), Navigating the bumpy road to students-centered instruction. College Teaching, 44 (2), 43-47.

McAlpine, L., (2004), Designing learning rather then designing teaching: A model of instruction for higher education that emphasizes learner practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(2), 119-34.

Weimer, M. (Sep/Oct 2003), Focus on learning, transform teaching. Change, 35(5), 48-54.

Woodberry, R. D., & Aldrich, H. E. (2000), Planning and running effective classroom-based exercises. Teaching Sociology, 28 (July: 241-48). 

Page last updated on 18 August 2017

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