My approach to teaching/learning

Brian Martin


My aim in teaching is to create a situation where students become enthusiastic about understanding the subject matter themselves and consequently deeply integrate new content and frames of meaning into their way of thinking. To attempt to achieve this I use a variety of methods such as speaking in pairs, small groups, role plays and debates. Most important is the use of group projects in which students tackle current issues linking subject material with contact with people outside the university. This approach can generally be called student-centred and problem-based. The limitations to fully implementing such an approach lie within the structure of the university curriculum and credentialism.

My approach grows out of three interlinking strands: my personal experience with learning and learners; study of the experiences of others; and experimentation.


Personal experiences

The seeds of my interest in student-centred learning were in my own experiences in school and university. As a self-motivated learner, I found that most lectures were at best inefficient and at worst a waste of time. More significantly, I found that being forced to learn a specified syllabus and then regurgitate the material in essays or examinations actually reduced my interest in learning more about the subject. My best learning then and since has been due to intrinsic interest, usually oriented to a practical purpose. One university subject I took was completely different from the others in that the students played a major role in deciding format, content and assessment; I remember it as by far the most effective learning experience in four years of classes.

In my experience since the 1970s with social action groups such as Friends of the Earth, there have been many occasions in which learning is a crucial task. For example, activist opponents of uranium mining needed to learn the arguments about everything from reactor accidents to proliferation in order to defend their views in public meetings or private discussions. I ran workshops for activists preparing themselves for speaking and wrote overviews of arguments designed for activists. This experience demonstrated to me the immense power of problem-oriented learning, an approach that can provide a great depth of understanding even for people without the educational background normally thought necessary (Martin, 1988).

Even more influential has been my experience with nonviolent action training (Coover et al., 1981; Jelfs, 1982). This refers to a general approach to social action in which a variety of methods are used to prepare activists for a range of tasks, including social analysis, group dynamics and direct action. Methods used include brainstorms, role plays, small group exercises and personal reflection. In my experience with social activists, didactic methods are least effective and methods that involve participants in dealing directly with past, present or future situations are often highly effective. It is also quite clear that dealing with the personal needs of people is crucial. Content without consideration of the psychology of the learner is often pointless. Interestingly, many of the methods of nonviolent action training are adapted from the work of educationists and social scientists who have investigated learning, group dynamics and so forth.

The university as a site for learning obviously is quite different from social action groups. The goal of many students is obtaining a degree rather than achieving any collective social purpose. Nevertheless, some of the insights from nonviolent action training can be applied to university teaching.



Since the early 1970s I have regularly read critiques of orthodox schooling and accounts of alternative approaches to learning (among others, Abbs and Carey, 1977; Freire, 1972; Holt, 1981; Illich, 1971; Kozol, 1972; Reimer, 1973; Shor, 1980; Spring, 1975). These have provided me with insight and inspiration (Martin, 1989). The principal insight is that the structure of conventional educational institutions largely reflects the interests of professionals in them and the most powerful groups served by them (governments and corporations), the result of which is that in many ways educational institutions are inimical to learning. The principal inspiration from these critiques is that there are alternative ways of doing things and a considerable number of people, both inside and outside educational institutions, who are pursuing these alternatives.

As well, there is a considerable literature dealing with teaching methods used within higher education (e.g. Bligh, 1972; Boud, 1981; Gibbs, 1992; Gibbs and Jenkins, 1992; Ramsden, 1992). One important message from this literature is that the conventional approach to teaching, dominated by lectures and focussed on content, is not very effective in fostering deep learning. Other methods and mixtures of methods have proved much more successful, though there is no single method that is appropriate for all circumstances.

As well as reading about education, I have learned a lot by watching other teachers at work. As Education Officer in the Sydney University Postgraduate Students Association in the early 1970s, I organised a scheme for postgraduates to sit in on each other’s classes and provide feedback. I learned a lot from the classes I observed, not least by talking to the students in the classes at a time when I was young enough to pass for an undergraduate. Since then I have continued to learn about teaching by watching others in action, most recently Will Rifkin’s class in the Management Department in 1994.

Over the years, I have participated in many workshops on teaching, covering a range of topics including microteaching. One of the features of the best workshops is the opportunity to meet other teachers and learn about their approaches to teaching.



Trying out new methods and assessing their effectiveness has been a constant feature of my teaching. Although a case can be made for sticking with tried and true methods, it is my experience that a teacher’s enthusiasm rubs off on the students and that this can more than compensate for limitations of an otherwise less-than-ideal new method. In the early 1970s I ran a voluntary course using the method of Epstein (1970), in which first-year students read a series of research papers in the field of the teacher’s research. This course led to the students pursuing further educational innovation (Henderson et al., 1974). I also worked on research projects with a few undergraduate students, which showed the enormous power of problem-oriented learning as well as its frictions with conventional educational structures (Martin, 1976). In the summers of 1994-95 and 1995-96 I again worked with student apprentice researchers.

Since joining the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong in 1986, I have tried out a range of techniques, including speaking in pairs, small group exercises, speaking exercises, debates and role plays (Martin, 1993). Some of these exercises are ones I have read about, others I have adapted from nonviolent action training, and yet others are ideas suggested to me by various people. In each case, I assess each method both directly and by obtaining feedback from students. For example, at first I heavily used the method of speaking in pairs, but critical comments from some students led me to use it more sparingly. In contrast, students seem to get a lot out of well-specified exercises in which they work in small groups, so I have used this method more frequently over the years.

A key part of my classes has been projects in which students work in groups and have some interaction with the community, for example through interviews. Since my classes deal with contemporary issues, these projects provide a means for students to see directly the relevance or otherwise of book and classroom learning to outside realities. Through experience with project groups I have found that to foster learning of both content and process skills, groups need to be relatively small (two to five students) and have a clear brief to link theory and practice.

One of the major constraints on innovative approaches to learning in universities is assessment and, more generally, credentials. Only a few students are self-motivated; most have come to respond to assessment pressures. I have been influenced by the arguments of Kohn (1993), who argues that motivating learning by assessments is counterproductive and that intrinsic motivation should be promoted through interesting content, student cooperation and student participation in designing the learning experience. Accordingly, I have experimented with a variety of assessment systems.



Abbs, Peter and Graham Carey, Proposal for a New College (London: Heineman Educational Books, 1977).

Bligh, Donald A., What’s the Use of Lectures? (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education, 1972).

Boud, David (ed.), Developing Student Autonomy in Learning (London: Kogan Page, 1981).

Coover, Virginia, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser and Christopher Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1981).

Epstein, Herman T., A Strategy for Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

Gibbs, Graham, Improving the Quality of Student Learning (Bristol: Technical and Educational Services, 1992).

Gibbs, Graham and Alan Jenkins (eds.), Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education: How to Maintain Quality with Reduced Resources (London: Kogan Page, 1992).

Henderson, Graeme, Brian Martin, John Skaller and Carol van Beurden, "Radical approaches to learning physics: some experiences of first year university students," Australian Physicist, October 1974, pp. 204-209.

Holt, John, Teach Your Own (New York: Delacorte Press, 1981).

Illich, Ivan, Deschooling Society (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).

Jelfs, Martin, Manual for Action (London: Action Resources Group, 1982).

Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

Kozol, Jonathan, Free Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).

Martin, Brian, "John and Graeme, undergraduate apprentice researchers," Dialogue, Vol. 10, No. 1, April 1976, pp. 44-57.

Martin, Brian, "Education and the environmental movement," in Tom Lovett (ed.), Radical Approaches to Adult Education: A Reader (London: Routledge, 1988).

Martin, Brian, "What should be done about higher education?" Social Anarchism, No. 14, 1989, pp. 30-39.

Martin, Brian, "Increasing student participation in tutorials," Overview [University of Wollongong Centre for Staff Development], Vol. 1, No. 2, December 1993, pp. 8-11.

Ramsden, Paul, Learning to Teach in Higher Education (London: Routledge, 1992).

Reimer, Everett, School is Dead (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education, 1973).

Shor, Ira, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980).

Spring, Joel, A Primer of Libertarian Education (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975).

This document is located on the page

Information for students in Brian Martin's classes

See also

Brian Martin's publications on education

Brian Martin's website