Surfing the waves of learning: enacting a Semantics analysis of teaching in a first year
(Rhodes University, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Students’ ability to build knowledge, and transfer it within and between contexts is crucial to
cumulative learning and to academic success. This has long been a concern of higher
education research and practice. A central part of this concern for educators is creating the
conditions that enable their student’s deep learning, as this is an area of significant struggle
for many students. Legitimation Code Theory, in particular the dimension of Semantics, is
proving useful in examining the kinds of conditions that may be necessary for students to
build disciplinary knowledge cumulatively over time. Using illustrative data from one case
study, this paper suggests that the conceptual tools offered by Semantics can provide
academic lecturers and academic development staff with a set of conceptual and analytical
tools which can enable them to 'see' and understand the ways in which knowledge can be
cumulatively acquired and used, as well as the possible gaps between what they are teaching
and what their students may be learning. The hope is that these new insights will provide new
directions for change in teaching and learning where these may be needed.
Keywords: knowledge-building; legal education; Legitimation Code Theory; pedagogy.
If you asked a broad cross-section of lecturers teaching undergraduate students today what
their goals for teaching and learning are, they would probably mention students’ need to learn
holistically and deeply (Biggs, 1999), to connect learning between courses and years of study,
and to build knowledge over time, rather than simply seeing each assignment or course as a
discrete learning event that has little bearing on other learning events. In higher education
This is a postprint. For the full article:
Clarence, S. 2016. Surfing the waves of learning: enacting a Semantics analysis of
teaching in a first year Law course. Higher Education Research & Development, DOI:
research and practice terms, deep learning would be made more possible through students
successfully transferring (Burke, Jones and Doherty, 2005; Salomon and Perkins, 1989) their
learning (skills, knowledge, understandings and so on) from one context to others and using it
in relevant ways. In addition to shifting towards a mode of engagement that goes beyond
learning only what is required to pass assignments or tests, deep learning requires that
students become more instrinsically motivated by learning for personal and intellectual
growth, rather than externally motivated by grades and passing assignments and tests (Biggs,
Students’ (in)ability to learn deeply through transferring learning successfully is a
significant subject of debate in education (Christie and Macken-Horarik, 2007; Maton, 2009,
2014). There are two issues at stake here. The first is the term ‘transfer’ itself, which tends to
be connected to much-criticised ‘skills’ discourses in higher education research; the term is
also used differently depending on the context, and the kinds of learning students are engaged
in. A generic notion of transfer tends to assume an autonomous student learner who is open
and ready to receive and learn a range of knowledge and generic skills (Boughey 2002; Lea
and Street, 1998), packing a metaphorical suitcase as they move through their degree courses,
and unpacking knowledge, skills and so on selectively in different locations according to their
ability to understand what is required. This packing and unpacking is further complicated
when literacy ‘skills’ students are expected to use to make connections are construed as
generic, and outsourced to literacy development modules outside of the disciplinary
curriculum (Jacobs, 2013). The second issue stems from this; the bulk of the responsibility
for becoming a deep learner, making connections and packing and unpacking the suitcase of
knowledge, skills and dispositions effectively is placed onto students themselves, with
lecturers cast as facilitators of a learning journey students should be able to navigate with
minimal coaching and guidance (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005). In contexts where students
are entering higher education from a range of home, school and literacy backgrounds (Kapp
and Bangeni, 2009; Lillis, 2001), entering disciplines that are entirely new to them, and
needing to adopt a mode of learning different from that which helped them through secondary
school (Boughey, 2013; Kapp and Bangeni, 2009), this is indeed problematic.
Research in the academic literacies field since the early 1990s has shown that the
notion of the autonomous student learner is a problematic one (Boughey, 2002; Jacobs, 2007;
Lillis, 2001). Undergraduate students do not necessarily always see and understand the tacit
‘rules’ that govern which skills, knowledges and practices apply in different contexts and
disciplines, nor do they necessarily know how to navigate those rules and apply a nuanced
understanding of them in their own learning (Lea and Street, 1998; Lillis, 2001). One of the
reasons could be that the purpose of applying knowledge in simulated contexts in higher
education is different to that in the workplace (Steyn, 2014). Another could be that, in
teaching, students are not always clearly shown how to connect more abstract concepts with
their more contextualised applications, even though this is argued to be essential to enable the
conditions for transfer to occur (Billing, 2007). Rather than seeing what they are learning as
connected parts of a system of meaning, or as related to eventual professional worlds of
practice, students may rather segment the curriculum into sets of knowledges or skills needed
to pass tests and exams, especially in early undergraduate years where they may retain
school-based approaches to learning that are focused narrowly on assessments (Kapp and
Bangeni, 2009). What is needed for deep learning to occur is for students to move from being
users of knowledge to being creators of new knowledge, integrating and building on prior
knowledge, skills and dispositions as they do so, yet these shifts take time and are often not
made as overt or explicit to students as they could be (Christie and Macken-Horarik, 2007;
Jacobs 2007, 2013).
A more useful term to capture the notion of transfer and deep approaches to learning
is Karl Maton’s term ‘cumulative knowledge-building’ (2009, 2014). Cumulative knowledge-
building or learning is understood as building knowledge both within and across contexts
such as a course or disciplinary field, and can also be extended to cover the transitions from
higher and further education into the workplace. The kind of learning denoted by the term
‘cumulative’ could be described as relational, connected learning in the sense that students
should be able to seek and find links between concepts and their application, and between
different concepts and different types of application where relevant, as well as between
concepts used across disciplinary contexts (Author, 2014). This paper postulates thus that
deep learning is cumulative, connected learning where students are shown how to draw on
prior learning while engaging with new learning to connect up knowledge, skills, practices
and dispositions to build larger ‘constellations’ of meaning (Maton, 2014: 130, also see Ch 8)
- epistemic, dispositional and practical - that they can enact and continue to develop in
professional practice and future learning.
How to enable and enact cumulative learning is not just a question for student
motivation, or approaches to learning; it is a question for teaching. Curricula, pedagogic
practices, and assessment tasks that enable and encourage cumulative, rather than ‘segmented
learning’ (Maton, 2009: 43), can better clarify for students what needs to be transferred or
connected, how, when, and for what purposes. However, while cumulative learning is indeed
one of the most important goals of higher education, many students struggle to achieve this
successfully over the course of an average undergraduate degree, leading researchers to argue
that segmented learning is a ‘spectre’ that haunts higher education (Maton, 2009: 106). How
do we lay this ghost to rest? How do we move more students from superficial and segmented
engagement in their learning to an increasing ability to connect, relate, and cumulatively
build knowledge and learning in the desired ways?
A useful starting point is an analysis of teaching in the classroom that offers us a new
way of looking at what lecturers are doing when they introduce, unpack, demonstrate and
discuss new knowledge. This analysis can offer insights into whether and how teaching
practice itself may be inadvertently segmenting learning, or encouraging a less ‘deep’ or
cumulative approach to learning. It can also offer us a way of seeing what lecturers are doing
when teaching is connecting with and cumulatively building on prior learning more
effectively, so that these moves can be made more consciously, and more often.
This paper illustrates the enactment of one set of conceptual tools drawn from
Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), to enable an analysis of curriculum and pedagogy that can
shine a light onto different kinds of knowledge-building practices, and how teaching can
either enable or constrain cumulative student learning. Using one academic discipline as an
example, the paper will show how harnessing the analytical tools offered by the LCT
dimension of Semantics, both lecturers and students alike can learn to ‘surf’ the waves of
learning and create more enabling educational environments for cumulative knowledge-
building and meaning-making.
The paper begins with a brief discussion of relevant research in higher education
studies, before moving on outlining the conceptual framework for this research. The
penultimate section enacts a Semantics analysis of selected classroom teaching data, before
the paper concludes by offering initial thoughts on how this kind of analysis could be enacted
in other disciplinary contexts.
Thinking in binaries in higher education
One of the most influential ‘binaries’ in higher education studies, in addition to the well-
known ‘high-road’ and ‘low road’ transfer (Salomon & Perkins, 1992), is ‘deep and surface
learning’ (Biggs, 1999). Although these kinds of binaries are not necessarily set up as two
opposite states of being, studies do tend to position them as ‘versus’ the other, with one often
valourised over the other (see Smyth, 2003; Biggs, 1999). Biggs (1999), for example, argues
that surface learning is largely a result of passive students and teacher-centred teaching, and
that deep learning should be valued and encouraged by focusing on students’ needs in
learning and students’ active engagement with knowledge. Salomon and Perkins (1989) argue
that students should be encouraged away from what they term ‘low road’ transfer where
students are unable to move beyond local or limited contextual connections in learning,
towards ‘high road’ transfer of knowledge where they are more likely to be abstracting,
generalising and making connections.
These binaries are powerful organising mechanisms in much thinking and research in
teaching and learning. They can be a useful starting point, but one problem with binaries is
that they enable a view of only two states or positions, and not all teaching, learning,
knowledge, and knowing can be so narrowly compartmentalised (Maton, 2014). If I focus on
only one side of the binary, for instance, I may fail to see things that fall outside of it, and my
curricula, teaching or assessment approaches constructed and enacted on the basis of a one-
sided view of learning will be partially sighted. For example, a student-centred approach to
teaching that valourises students as active constructors of their own knowledge and lecturers
as mere facilitators may view a teacher-centred approach with lecturers as experts there to
provide access to disciplinary knowledge and skills as problematic, and devalue related
aspects of teaching or learning that may be associated with it (see Maton, 2014, chapter 8).
However, this move may obscure aspects of the student-centred approach that need careful
critique, such as its potential inability to see knowledge as a differentiated object of study
(McKenna, 2013). Likewise it may obscure valuable aspects of a teacher-centred approach,
for example a view of lecturers as having expert and powerful knowledge that can help
facilitate greater epistemic access for students within their disciplines (Jacobs, 2007).
Binaries, in other words, limit choices and can obscure important aspects of either side that
may well be in need of critique and development.
Binary thinking further separates actions or positions we take into seemingly static
states of being - usually ‘charged’ either positively or negatively according to our beliefs and
values, or what is valued within our working contexts (Maton, 2014). It is difficult, within a
binary approach, to imagine ways of moving from the negative to the positive state - for
instance, from surface to deep learning (Biggs, 1999). Further, it is difficult to imagine being
in more than one state at one time, for example, approaching learning in a way that exhibits
both surface and deep approaches or characteristics. Biggs’ formulation of deep and surface
learning, and accounts of research into teaching that draw on this (Smyth 2003; Hay, 2000),
tends to promote more of an either/or than both/and kind of approach (Maton & Moore,
2010). It could, for instance, be argued that surface learning, or low-road transfer can be part
of learning how to learn more effectively, and that, to borrow Biggs’ personifications of deep
and surface learning - Susans and Roberts respectively (1999)1 - all of us exhibit
characteristics of both kinds of learning, depending on the context we are in and the kind of
learning we are engaged in.
Rather than thinking in terms of binaries, and reinforcing notions of students and
lecturers needing to valourise one state and reject the other, a relational (both/and) approach
offers us more scope for avoiding positive/negative dichotomies or binaries, and for
reflecting on teaching as helping students to decide when to employ which strategy, to what
end, and also to move between these binary ‘states’ as students move through their learning,
within university and after graduation. To find out what counts as the ‘right’ kinds of
learning, and therefore what kinds of teaching approaches may be needed, lecturers and
academic developers have to be able to look not just at the students and their learning
activities and needs, but also at the knowledge and the disciplinary environment that they are
learning within. To see disciplinary environments in terms of their underlying organising
principles or goals, and how these work to shape what counts as ‘theory’, ‘concepts’ and
‘context’ or ‘application’, we need conceptual and analytical tools that can go beneath what
we see on the surface. For these tools, the paper now turns to Legitimation Code Theory, or
Legitimation Code Theory and knowledge
To become part of a disciplinary community, and learn to think and know and act as a
practitioner or knower in that field or community, students need more than just knowledge
and related skills and relevant dispositions. Becoming part of a disciplinary community, such
as Law, and learning to think, speak, act and write in ways that are recognised and valued by
other members of the community (Gee, 1989), such as lawyers and other legal professionals
for example, requires an ability to interrogate the way that knowledge is cumulatively
acquired, used and eventually produced within the discipline (Maton & Moore, 2010). In
other words, students need to know what they are learning about as well as why the
knowledge is important, how the different pieces fit together to make a coherent whole, and
where the smaller knowledge, skills and dispositions they are acquiring fit within the bigger
intellectual field or discipline, inside and beyond the university. Thus, questions about
knowledge as an object of study are important, and need to be asked and answered in higher
education research about pedagogy and curriculum. Notably, questions about how students
are learning cannot be asked separately from what they are learning, and the roles and
purposes that the knowledge within the curriculum is playing within the academy, and within
the wider intellectual fields of knowledge outside of it.
LCT is a realist sociological ‘toolkit’ (Maton, 2014: 15) that has, at its heart, an
understanding of knowledge as being emergent from but not reducible to the contexts in
which it is generated (Maton and Moore, 2010). Drawing on critical realism (Bhaskar, 1998),
LCT’s position on knowledge holds that while human beings create knowledge about the
world from within particular social and historical contexts, and therefore that this knowledge
is always partial and fallible, the knowledge is constructed about an ontologically real world
and therefore we can judge certain claims about that world to be more relevant, true or valid
than others. A realist theory of knowledge makes clearer the bases on which knowledge
claims in disciplines can be judged and weighed by students as they navigate disciplinary
discourses (Kotzee, 2010). This judgement is important for students to develop over time as
they build knowledge within their disciplines, and work out how different parts of knowledge
relate to one another to build meaning.
LCT’s principal goal is the analysis of the organising principles or underpinning
‘rules of the game’ that shape and change intellectual and educational fields of production
and reproduction of knowledge (cf. Bernstein, 2000). In other words, the conceptual tools
LCT offers can enable an analysis of both knowledge and knowers within social fields of
practice by enabling the analysis of the ways in which these fields are organised and how
knowledge and knowing are understood in educational practice. This paper will use the
dimension of Semantics to reveal one set of organising principles, or logics, underpinning the
field of legal education.
Semantics is a dimension of LCT that enables research to explore the kinds of pedagogic
practices that enable and constrain cumulative learning (see Maton, 2013, 2014). Briefly,
Semantics has semantic gravity and semantic density as conceptual tools for exploring the
kinds of teaching and assessment that are enacted, their aims, and the kinds of learning that
could or should be happening (Maton, 2013, 2014).
Semantic gravity (SG) describes the degree to which meanings are tied to their
contexts (Maton, 2014). Weaker semantic gravity describes a situation where meaning is less
dependent on context, for example where one is working with abstract, conceptual or
theoretical knowledge. Stronger semantic gravity describes a situation where meaning is
more dependent on its context, for example when theory is being applied to a problem or task
(Maton, 2014). The ability to accumulate knowledge and transfer it between and across
contexts and tasks is compromised when teaching and learning leans too far towards weaker
or stronger semantic gravity to the exclusion of the other; in other words it can increase the
likelihood of segmented, or surface, rather than cumulative, deeper learning (Maton, 2009).
Semantic density (SD) refers to the concentration of meanings within socio-cultural
practices, whether these are comprised of terms, concepts, gestures, symbols, or phrases.
(Maton, 2014). Stronger semantic density denotes a symbol or term that has a greater
concentration of meanings condensed into it, whereas a symbol or term that has weaker
semantic density has fewer meanings concentrated within it. These meanings can relate to
emotions, feelings and sentiments as well as to empirical facts and features of the concept or
term (Maton, 2014).
Semantic gravity and semantic density are realised in terms of their relative strength
or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that
reveal combinations of stronger and weaker semantic gravity and semantic density together.
These codes shift and move over time as semantic gravity and semantic density strengthen
and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic
wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a
lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of semantic gravity
and semantic density - where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example -
are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following
section. It should be noted, here, though, that semantic gravity and semantic density do not
necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of
waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.
Relative strengths and weaknesses in semantic gravity and semantic density need to
be mapped within particular teaching and learning contexts; what counts as ‘contextual’ and
‘conceptual’ in academic disciplines is not uniform (Clarence, 2016). Also, depending on the
level at which students are working, and the topic, module or subject they are studying,
semantic waves may need to begin and end in different places. For example, with more
loosely defined problems, the wave may begin lower, with stronger semantic gravity and
weaker semantic density as the context of the problem is discussed in detail, before shifting
up towards weaker semantic gravity and stronger semantic density as students are encouraged
to find more principled ways of understanding the problem, and search for a solution. Thus,
there here is no ideal wave to strive for. What is important is a notion of lecturers modelling
for students how to surf waves as learning moves between what is contextual and conceptual
within the discipline, weaving and meshing prior and new knowledge together. Through
surfing up and down waves of varying complexity and steepness over time, lecturers can
deepen and consolidate students’ understanding of how knowledge in the discipline is
created, debated, critiqued, updated and used in relevant ways.
Figure 1: a generic semantic wave (Clarence, 2016: 127)
When teaching demonstrates a broken wave, where the first part of the wave referred
to above (the unpacking) breaks off without the repacking to create one ‘cycle’ of the wave it
can result in what could be called ‘down escalators’ (Fig. 2, 3) (Maton, 2013). Conversely,
‘power’ as an abstract concept
application in an example
one could also conceive of ‘up’ escalators where one starts with a context-dependent example
and moves towards the principle or concept, before breaking the potential wave and moving
to the next example/concept combination. Further, where meanings are either too generalised
and context-independent or too locked into particular contexts, the result can be high or low
flatlines (Fig. 2, 1 and 2 respectively), where students may be able to account for either the
theoretical (high flatline) or applied understanding (low flatline) of a concept or idea, but may
struggle to connect the two together either coming down into a contextualised application, or
lifting out of the context to see the concept more abstractly and connect it to other contexts
and problems, respectively, thus creating a waving motion (Maton, 2013).
Figure 2: heuristic example of generic down escalators, and high and low flatlines
Central to the argument made in the following section is the notion of movement - up and
down in waves of varying steepness is significant for cumulative learning. However, the
steepness or complexity of semantic waves is less of a concern in this paper than is the
attempt to use the concept of a dynamic wave metaphor to advance an argument for what this
kind of analysis can illustrate about teaching in relation to its ability to enable or constrain
cumulative knowledge-building over time. The ultimate aim of this analysis is to speak back
to the notion of binary thinking and the teaching that evolves from that, to show that deeper
and more surface modes of learning are actually on a continuum, and both have their place in
a relational understanding of learning as both/and, rather than either/or. Teaching enabled by
a relational, rather than binary, understanding of learning can better create the conditions that
are necessary for cumulative learning over time.
Semantics in action in a first year Law course
The case study is a first year Law course called the Law of Persons taught by two lecturers in
the Private Law department in a historically disadvantaged South African university. This
course is a foundational course for further study in the LLB degree, and introduces students
to core concepts they will return to and build on, such as legal subjectivity and legal
Data reflected on in this section come from teaching observations, including detailed
fieldnotes and video data, over the course of the first semester in 2013. The course is
relatively similar each year in structure and content, although content is updated as the law
changes. The researcher attended all lecturers, writing detailed fieldnotes at each lecture,
which were later formally transcribed and coded using an analytical framework developed
from the conceptual framework provided by LCT, detailed above. Discrete units or topics of
study were video-recorded, and this data were also transcribed and coded alongside the
fieldnotes. The videos captured verbatim classroom discourse, but it was unfeasible to
transcribe three lectures per week for 14 weeks, hence the balance between notes and
Analysis and discussion
As space is limited here, only examples from one set of lectures on a tricky concept, the
nasciturus fiction (which accords rights to an unborn foetus in specific legal situations), will
Prior to the classes on the theory and application of the nasciturus fiction the students
were taught about legal subjectivity. A central concept drawn into the application of the
fiction in case law involves deciding whether the unborn foetus, or nasciturus, can be
regarded as a legal subject in order to claim certain rights, for example inheriting from an
estate. The four basic rights that a legal subject has conferred on them when they acquire
legal personality at birth were taught thus:
[Lecturer A presents] 4 categories of rights that legal subjects can have. Starts with
corporeal rights. “When a subject has ownership over a corporeal object he has a real
right”. “Who is that right enforceable against?” She uses as an example her bottle of
water. Tells students “you have to get your own, this is mine, you have to respect my
real right to own my water bottle”. Moves on to 2nd category of personal rights. She
starts with a common example, hiring a babysitter to look after her kids - if the
babysitter peforms her duties well, she can expect to be paid - this is a personal right.
Moves on to the next category, personality property - “an aspect, for example, your
dignity or honour…that attaches to who you are”. She gives an example of being
spied on by a peeping Tom - this may infringe on her dignity more than it might for
her neighbour, thus this is a personality right. She then introduces the 4th category,
immaterial or intellectual property - “an intangible product of the human mind”. For
example, ideas. The idea a person has is a legal object, rather than what the idea
becomes, and these rights are enforceable against everyone. She then puts up a table
listing all four categories of rights, and their definitions along with examples [on a
slide]. (Field notes, 2013)
If we represent this part of the lecture as a semantic wave, looking at movements in the
extract between stronger and weaker semantic gravity and semantic density, we can see that
Lecturer A is presenting these rights as a series of escalators, or as a list. Each right, apart
from personality rights, is introduced in more abstract terms (weaker SG and stronger SD, as
it is packed with many potential meanings that need to be explained), and then it is simplified
and unpacked, strengthening the semantic gravity and weakening the potential semantic
density each time (see figure 3). Personality rights, where the lecturer starts with a context-
dependent example, before moving to the principle or concept, represent an up rather than
down escalator, moving from stronger SG and weaker SD towards weaker SG and stronger
SD. Even though these rights can be drawn into a larger or longer wave in which they are
applied, the message students may receive is that these rights can be studied or memorised as
a list, rather than incorporated into a larger conception of legal subjectivity. Therefore, even
if they are connected to later discussions students may still segment these four categories of
rights as a list, and may not see how to weave them into an abstract and semantically dense
conception of rights as both theoretical and applied parts of a person’s legal subjectivity.
Figure 3: Heuristic escalators on legal rights
A week after legal subjectivity and the rights of legal subjects is introduced, both lecturers
teach the concept and application of the nasciturus fiction, which students struggle with each
year according to the lecturers. They thus spend at least three lectures and one tutorial
teaching this concept.
Lecturer B: So let's proceed with the protection of the unborn foetus by means of the
nasciturus fiction. As you know [referring to slide up] legal personality begins at
birth. So prior to birth that foetus is not regarded as a legal subject, and therefore,
because that foetus is not regarded as a legal subject such foetus cannot have rights,
duties and capacities…However, in terms of Roman law it was recognised that there
might be situations where the unborn foetus might have an interest…So what they
would do is they would employ this fiction and by employing this fiction they would
say that at the date of conception we will treat that child has having been born. Coz
remember this is the scenario now (writing on board): the child has been
conceived…This is the birth (drawing a timeline); this is where the child is going to
be born, but during this period between conception and birth the law recognises that
situations may arise where the child might have an interest. So what will we do? They
will employ this fiction and they will say that if the child was conceived by the time
this interest began or came into effect or was available, then we will treat that child as
if he was already born…for example if that child could be a beneficiary under a will,
SG+ SD- examples and explanations
personal rights personality
ok? So if such a situation arises, the law protects the potential interest of the
nasciturus…it will only become definite at…birth….So what do we do with that
interest?...It's kept in abeyance. In other words it's suspended until…the child is born
in the legal technical sense. In other words those common law requirements are met.
(Lecturer B, video, February 2013)
If we follow this presentation of the broad concept, bearing in mind that students have been
introduced to legal subjectivity and rights quite broadly before this, possibly in a segmented
way, and that this is the first time they are encountering this new concept, we can see that
there is very little weakening of the semantic gravity, and that the semantic density around
terms like ‘nasciturus fiction’, ‘rights, duties and capacities’, ‘Roman law’, and ‘interest’, is
not weakened much through unpacking, explanation or application. The explanation is likely
to be experienced by students as relatively abstract (see figure 4). Again, there is a potential
message to students that this concept can be memorised as theory, even if it is later drawn
into examples or problem-scenarios. If concepts are introduced abstractly thus, this has
implications for how lecturers think about what their students have already learned, and what
prior knowledge they can attach new, abstract knowledge to so as to make sense of it. It has
further implications for how lecturers then draw abstract theoretical knowledge into possible
applications, how many problems or scenarios the concept is applied in, and how and how
much students are then enabled to practice the application themselves in tests or assignments.
Figure 4: heuristic representation of high semantic flatline (Clarence, 2014: 117)
rights, duties and
capacities - foetus’ interest
Finally, an example of a semantic wave, on the same topic, from later in the same lecture.
Lecturer B: So if it is clear that the unborn child would have an advantage then our
law employs this fiction and then we will…deem the child to have been born alive at
the time of conception. Does everyone understand? …So what is the legal position
over here of the nasciturus fiction? Let's use an example. [Goes to the board, starts
writing] This is the testator. The testator will draft the will, and in terms of the
testator's will he says 'I will leave my estate to my daughter and her children who are
alive at my death'. Ok, so she has a child A and B and she's also pregnant with C, so
I'll do C with a little circle there. In terms of the testator's will he says I leave my
estate to my daughter and her children who are alive at the time if my death. The
testator then dies and at the moment that he dies that is when the estate is divided,
usually, ok. At the time of his death the daughter already has a child A and B and she
was also pregnant with child C. Everyone understand that example? [pause] If we
look at when legal subjectivity begins, would C be able to inherit? No. … Because?
… Not regarded as a legal subject. But now we have the nasciturus fiction and in
terms of this fiction what is the position of C? We will deem that C was born at the
date of conception, is it not? We will then keep his interest or this advantage in
abeyance until birth, ok? Now if we did not employ this nasciturus fiction would C
have been able to inherit? No. So do you see our law then protects the unborn foetus?
If C dies or is stillborn, can C then claim in terms of that will? No. The legal position
is kept in abeyance until he or she is born and acquires legal personality or until it is
certain that the nasciturus will not become a legal subject. If the nasciturus becomes a
legal subject he or she receives rights - the rights that were kept in abeyance for him
or her. (Lecturer B, video, February 2013)
Looking at this example, we can see the lecturer applying the concept in a problem-scenario,
drawn from actual case law, that makes the initial, abstract account of the concept (figure 4)
less abstract. She begins with a brief recap of the basic account of the nasciturus fiction,
which is still relatively abstract (weaker SG and stronger SD), but then she brings the wave
down into an example, strengthening the semantic gravity and weakening the semantic
density as she clarifies how students might employ the fiction in a problem-scenario, here the
apportioning of an estate. She closes the example by repacking the concept of the nasciturus
fiction, recapping in more conceptual or technical terms what the requirements are for the
fiction to apply (see figure 5).
Figure 5: heuristic wave of application of nasciturus fiction (Clarence, 2014: 118)
Over the course of the larger study, both of these lecturers spoke to their students
about seeing a gap between what they expected from students and what they saw in formal
assessments. After the first test, Lecturer A talked to her students about not knowing how to
answer questions – ‘lots of useless repetition; lack of clarity; poor grasp of key concepts; not
seeing the overall picture – the connections between questions as part of a whole paper’
(Field notes, 2013). Looking at the classroom data, and enacting a Semantics analysis as this
section has done, we can see possible reasons in the teaching itself for this lack of connection
in many students’ thinking, and draw implications for reconsidering the notions of deep and
surface learning, and how to be more conscious of creating waves and movement through
teaching and assessment, with the aim of enabling cumulative knowledge-building over time
This paper has engaged with the issue of how teaching and learning in higher education
enables students to achieve deeper, more holistic learning through successfully transferring
skills, knowledge and dispositions towards learning across different courses and learning
contexts, over time becoming different kinds of knowers or future professionals. Recasting
deep learning as cumulative learning, and contrasting this with segmented learning (Maton,
2009), and arguing that cumulative learning is necessary for successful ‘transfer’, this paper
argues that rather than making cumulative learning primarily students’ responsibility, the
Example of A, B and C
principle to apply
question of enabling this needs to be one for teaching as well. The case study demonstrates
how responsibility for cumulative learning cannot be students’ alone. Lecturers and tutors
have a valuable role to play as those with the kinds of dispositional, skills-based and
disciplinary content knowledge that students come to university to acquire. Students and their
lecturers and tutors thus need to work together in more coordinated ways to make the tacit
organising principles and values of the disciplines more visible and explicit, so that what
counts as valued knowledge, what needs to be transferred when, how and why, and how the
different parts of the curriculum build on and connect into one another can be explored,
unpacked and learned cumulatively over time.
LCT, specifically the dimension of Semantics explored here, offers a novel and
potentially powerful way of analysing pedagogy to see more clearly where lecturers may be
inadvertently segmenting knowledge, as well as connecting it up in both visible and invisible
ways. This analysis goes further than simply raising this awareness; the analytical tools used
here can be enacted in academic staff development work (Clarence, 2016), in peer tutor
development (Clarence, forthcoming), and in action in classrooms (Kirk, forthcoming) as
they give lecturers a means with which to rethink the ways in which their curricula need to be
written, organised, taught and assessed to create the conditions necessary for students to
achieve deeper, more cumulative and more transformative learning over time.
I would like to thank Steve Kirk for his insights on early drafts of this paper, and the two
anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.
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