Kudos to two terrific teachers

09 December 2013

Two UCT academics, Professor Jenni Case and Associate Professor Mohamed Paleker, were honoured at the prestigious National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards on 28 November. The awards are granted by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA), a professional association primarily for educators in the tertiary sector.

Case, who teaches in the undergraduate chemical engineering programme and has a special responsibility for academic development, was one of only five academics in South Africa to receive the CHE-HELTASA National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award for 2013. Her research on the student experience of learning has been widely published.

The five award-winners were deemed to have made very significant contributions to university teaching and learning, and to be able to share their philosophy, insights and innovative ideas with academics across the sector.

Paleker, of UCT's Department of Private Law, received one of six commendations for excellence in teaching and preparation of an impressive teaching portfolio. The current course co-ordinator of Law of Succession and Civil Procedure, Paleker received UCT's Meritorious Award for teaching in 2004. In addition to publishing numerous journal articles, books and chapters in books, Paleker is an attorney of the High Court of South Africa and an advisory member of the South African Law Reform Commission. Paleker and Case both hold a UCT Distinguished Teacher Award.

Associate Professor Mohamed Paleker

Associate Professor Mohamed Paleker

Says Paleker: "The work that you do is the rent that you pay for the room and space that you occupy in this world." "It is extremely difficult to articulate one's teaching methodology," he says. "I adjust my teaching all the time to conform to the subject matter, class size, and the level of the student."

One of Paleker's mantras is to make learning fun.

"When we were younger, our teachers taught us by play. For some odd reason when we grow older they stop doing that. Learning becomes a serious business. Teachers take on the persona of Mr Gradgrind – see Charles Dickens' famous novel Hard Times – and consequently, we begin to see learning as something of a chore. However, I believe that if you make learning fun, anyone will be able to assimilate anything."

A former director of the moot court, Paleker is a great believer in the benefits of moots for students, with their emphasis on research, writing, and analytical and creative reasoning, as well as professionalism and legal ethics.

"I have not found a better way for students to assess what they have learnt in the LLB than by doing a moot." Paleker also places great emphasis on feedback to students.

"Because students know that I am taking my marking task seriously, I find that they put much more effort into their work. Consequently, I hardly find a student handing in bad-quality work."

Paleker operates enthusiastically in the spaces opened up by technology, routinely using Vula (UCT's educational web interface). However, he plans to take this even further.

"It is my intention to create educational iBooks for the courses that I teach and to offer them for free. The problem at present is that the Apple iBook store is not available in South Africa, but it is only a matter of time before it does become available." To truly teach law effectively, Paleker's methods must transcend the classroom.

"In a field like law one can easily isolate oneself in an academic institution, because it is fairly simple to separate the theoretical from the practical. But to be a dynamic teacher one needs to bring new ideas and knowledge to the classroom, because this stimulates cutting-edge research. In this regard I fully endorse UCT's social responsiveness policy, as it allows me to go into the 'field' and to engage with issues affecting civil society."

"African people say that a person stands on the shoulders of his or her ancestors," he adds. "I tell students in the last lecture each year that they must see me as a shoulder they have stood on, but that they must reach for new heights and surpass me.

"It is my desire to see every person in this country being able to access the courts and the justice system. Through my teaching, social responsiveness work and research I hope to make a difference, so that by the time I retire I will be able to say confidently that I have paid my rent."

Professor Jenni Case


Innovation is the name of Case's game. The core courses she teaches carry a range of learning activities to support student learning, from a programme of small group meetings with first years to get to know them, through conceptual quizzes in second year, to a research-based implementation of lecture-casting (publishing videos of lectures online).

Case also helped design the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education course and taught it for a number of years from its inception.

"Teaching has been a constant and central focus of my career: it is something I have always enjoyed doing, and I have had sustained feedback on my effectiveness as a teacher. At the same time I have been repeatedly challenged to think about what I do and to work on developing better ways to facilitate student learning."

For Case, taking pride in teaching is a given. When asked why it should matter, she responded with some puzzlement. "Why academics should take care in their teaching is simply because this is a key thing we are paid to do! Educating students is a crucial part of the university's function, and anyone should take pride in what they do.

"Between 2001 and 2007 I taught intensively across all sections of the course and implemented a series of changes which have been well received," she says. "Some of the changes have included introducing an interactive mode of teaching, the reworking of the course content to better match students' level of engagement, the introduction of a textbook which has matched the course orientation, the introduction of assignments for regular individual feedback, the reconstruction of tutorials to allow for better tutor engagement, the introduction of activities that foster interaction in class (for example, the first-year camp), the reworking of the Introduction to Studying Engineering module to meet a broader range of interests in the class, and the introduction of a first-year design project."

She identifies a number of core aspects in her approach to teaching: passion for the subject; a conceptual focus that helps students identify and grapple with key concepts of the subject; and a concern for individuals, showing empathy, with such simple gestures as learning all her students' names, while not "challenging them any less".

Case also believes in "building community in the class", as she remains concerned about the lingering impact of apartheid on student relations and performance. "I piloted a series of approaches to getting students to network in the first-year course, and have taken this further in the second-year integrated project. Here I create deliberately diverse groups and schedule all class sessions such that group work takes place in class with one laptop per group, and where I can intervene where necessary."

Building a student engineer identity is also crucial, she says; while she puts effort into developing her teaching team, giving tutors responsibility and ownership of their tutorial groups.

Case was lauded by her students. Said one: "Her abilities as an educator are obviously unmatched. She has the unique ability to present seemingly complex material so that it is understandable.

"More profoundly, my experiences with Professor Case have actually come from outside of the class room. She played a critically enabling role. She was always encouraging and supportive of my extra-curricular activities as a university student."

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