Thinking About Teaching

Topic Progress:

Biggs and Tang1 (p. 8-9), tell of two students, both of whom you may recognize from your own courses.

‘Susan’ is academically committed; she is bright, interested in her studies and wants to do well. She has clear academic or career plans and what she learns is important to her. When she learns, she goes about it in an ‘academic’ way. She comes to the lecture with sound, relevant background knowledge, possibly some questions she wants answering. In the lecture, she finds an answer to a preformed question; it forms the keystone for a particular arch of knowledge she is constructing. Or it may not be the answer she is looking for and she speculates, wondering why it isn’t. In either event, she reflects on the personal significance of what she is learning. Students like Susan virtually teach themselves; they typically do not need much help from us.

Perhaps you identify with Susan as you have ‘been there’. As an academic yourself, you have long had a drive to learn and also the skills to learn well. Perhaps you also identify with Robert (as we have all ‘been there’ too).

[He] is at university not out of a driving curiosity about a particular subject or a burning ambition to excel in a particular profession, but to obtain a qualification for a decent job. A few years ago, he would never have considered going to university. He is less committed than Susan, possibly not as bright, academically speaking. He has little background of relevant knowledge. He comes to lectures with few questions. He wants only to put in sufficient effort to pass. Robert hears the lecturer say the same words as Susan is hearing but he doesn’t see a keystone, just another brick to be recorded in his lecture notes. He believes that if he can record enough of these bricks and can remember them on cue, he’ll keep out of trouble come exam time.

In short, Susan is taking a ‘deep’ approach to her learning, while Robert is taking a ‘surface’ approach.

Biggs & Tang argue that there is a higher proportion of ‘Roberts’ in modern universities and colleges jumping through the hoops required to complete a course or program with the minimum of fuss and effort. This presents a challenge for those of us who identify with the ‘Susans’ of the world and perhaps conduct our classes to cater more to Susan (who doesn’t really need our help) than to Robert (who clearly needs assistance).

Three Ways to Think About Teaching

Encouraging Robert to approach his learning in a way that is more similar to Susan seems to be a central task for teachers in higher education, where the goal isn’t merely to pass a course or earn a credential, but to learn to think independently. Below are three common ways that teachers think about teaching.

  1. What the student is.
    Teachers often begin their career by thinking about ‘good students’ and ‘poor students’. They see their role as being the one with the answers who communicates The Truth clearly. It is up to students to engage with the material, take appropriate notes, and memorize The Truth to be regurgitated on the exam. Students who succeed in this context are ‘good’ students and those who do not succeed are ‘poor’ students who need to work harder. Failure is the result of the student being lazy or unmotivated.
  2. What the teacher does.
    After a time, many teachers recognize that there may be better ways to transmit information from their own minds into the minds of their students. This is a significant improvement over blaming the student for their own failures, but it still relies on a transmission model of teaching and learning. Teachers functioning at this level will often incorporate a variety of learning modes where students will listen, read, watch, or discuss. While this model does not blame students for failure, it does blame teachers for not using the appropriate techniques or management strategies.
  3. What the student does.
    The level of teaching expertise to which we hope you will aspire is to focus on what the student does in relation to meeting the intended learning outcomes. This is what is described by the common phrase ‘student-centred learning’. All the fancy techniques and technologies used by level 2 teachers are meaningless if they do not serve to help the student attain the intended learning outcomes.

So now the question becomes clear: How do we encourage students to do the things which will lead to the attainment of the intended learning outcomes?

For further information, please watch the video embedded below which dramatizes some of the characteristics of Robert and Susan. We hope you’ll be able to ignore the stereotypes implied in the video, that ‘bad’ students are perhaps morally suspect.


  1. Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (4th ed.). New York: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.