A teacher that transforms obstacles into opportunities for excellence

​​Dr Panos Lazanas, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technology within the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), was the recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Teaching Excellence Award for 2013.​​​

Dr Lazanas began teaching in 1981 at the former Technikon Witwatersrand (TWR) in Johannesburg, having come through the ranks with almost every technical qualification available, namely a Wireman’s licence, National Diploma, National Higher Diploma, and later on a B-Tech, an MSc, and a PhD. He is someone who really understands both the work place and academia. He recalls that in those early days students were very committed to their studies: they were generally employed, closely mentored, and complemented their studies by way of hands-on experience. Technical training was highly regarded and encouraged by both parents and society-at-large.


Today’s students are very different: they lack technical experience, they appear passive and disengaged, accept whatever is offered, and try to rote learn. And as a result, pass rates plummet.

​Where Dr Lazanas saw the light, however, was while presenting extra-mural classes at the then JCE Gifted Child Centre. Here he was free to explore and experiment, and came across personal motivational techniques and subconscious motivation criteria. What he discovered was quite simple, and yet transformed his teaching:​


  • We all have a need to be recognised and appreciated, so instead of passing or failing students, it is better to treat them as a student would be treated.
  • Assessment is not to be used to pass or fail a student but to identify how close a student is to mastery. After a failed assessment either more tuition from the lecturer or more practice from the student will result in mastery of the material at hand.
  • If a person can link their current learning activity to what they value subconsciously, the battle of engagement with the learning material can be won.


Dr Lazanas put these three principles to practise and found that he could transform seeming obstacles into opportunities for excellence. In his classes, initial rapport-building is followed by a teaching phase with the material presented in context, and an application phase where the information is tested in a tutorial session or a lab. And then – importantly – the assessment phase, where, in addition to mastering calculations and solving problems, the student has to verbally explain the meaning of the underlying theoretical concepts. This approach to assessment is a lengthy process: students can discuss, revisit, or get information from anyone who can assist them, but finally they stand alone before the relentless questioning of the benevolent inquisitor. And learning always seems to happen before the cut-off time. With students motivated to go on until they really understand what they are talking about, Dr Lazanas regularly achieves a pass rate of over 90%.


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