Celebrating Teaching Day

This morning we were treated to some talks by some of the award-winning teachers at The University of Waikato. It was a bit unfortunate that none of the talks were from the ‘scientific’ disciplines, but that’s not because none of the winners were from scientific disciplines. We have our good share of excellent teachers in this faculty. Here are a few things stood out for me.

1. Kirstine Moffat’s unquenchable use of theatre.  Granted, she lectures in English Literature, which makes putting on period costume and illustrating a point with a conversation between sock puppets less radical than in some subjects, but getting otherwise unenthusiastic students to pay attention has to be a good thing. I think if I pulled out a couple of sock puppets in an engineering lecture the room would empty faster than in a response to a fire alarm. So it would need to be a bit different, but I’m sure there’s room for some creative thinking.

2. Gemma Piercy (Labour Studies and Social Policy) pulled out this quote from one of her students

The mark you get for an assignment is more valuable to you than having the knowledge about the assignment topic itself."

I think a good many students will agree with that. The comment says a lot. First of all, it says that the student is after a degree, as in the final certificate. Whether or not he or she actually has any understanding of the topic is a secondary issue; what matters is the bit of paper, because it’s that bit of paper that gets them a job. Next it hints that there is something deeply wrong with the assignment. An assignment should link with a learning outcome – doing well on an assignment should be synonymous with learning. In my experience, if something is going wrong with your teaching, the first thing to look at are the assessments. And it also suggests that there is a failing to engage the students with the teaching and learning process. "Why are we learning this?" is a common question from a skeptical student. If the outcome at the end can’t be envisaged, then the motivation to learn evaporates.  Gemma’s done a wonderful job over the last couple of years of getting it right.

3. Then there’s Juliet Chevalier-Watts (Law). With her talk, what I got out was to have the courage to try different things. Some may not work first time, some may lead to cries of derision from one’s colleagues (and the students for that matter), but "if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got." And that doesn’t help anyone to move forward.

As I write this, I’m also contemplating a meeting that I have in a few minutes to discuss the nuts and bolts of a particular third-year engineering paper that I’m teaching next semester. Dynamics and mechanisms is a deeply tedious topic (I think so) – and one with a few really hard bits in it. Last year I was a little bit radical with it (e.g. the test you could talk in – also here) – this year I think I need to go a bit further. Time to start making that sock puppet.

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