Talking Teaching

September 3, 2010

reflecting on my philosophy of teaching

This is a follow-on from Fabiana’s ‘congratulations’ post. When you’re nominated for an Ako Aotearoa award, you have to put together a teaching portfolio that reflects on & provides evidence for your philosophy of teaching & learning – at 8000 words this is rather extensive! If you’re chosen for an award, Ako Aotearoa asks for a ‘cut-down’ version to go in a publication that’s sent out to the various tertiary institutions in New Zealand. I asked if I could use that briefer essay here as well & they were OK with that, so here goes. I realise that it’s a very personal reflection & that others may – probably do! – have different perspectives on the things I’ve touched on. Please do share your own ideas :)

I followed a rather indirect path into teaching. In fact, the first career I consciously remember thinking about was medicine. That lasted until I realised that it was a lot harder to put someone back together the right way than to open them up in the first place! So I turned to science, and in fact headed off to university with the intention of following my mother’s example and becoming a secondary school science teacher. All that changed when I was invited into Honours, and for a while it looked like I was headed for a research scientist’s career. But after my PhD I ended up applying for the job of ‘assistant biology teacher’ at Palmerston North Girls’ High. And that was it: I was hooked on the interaction with students and the buzz you get when something ‘clicks’ for them. And I’ve been a teacher, first and foremost, ever since.

Looking back, the eight years I spent in secondary classrooms were invaluable as they gave me an insight into what I could expect of new students coming into my first-year biology lectures and labs, and that’s shaped how I teach. In fact, I’m as much a learner as my students. From secondary school teachers I learn about classroom practices and processes that work for them and with which ‘my’ students will be familiar when they arrive at Waikato. Working on national school curriculum and examinations has taught me a great deal about writing good assessment items. And writing a blog on biology, evolution, and pseudoscience has made me a better communicator and allows me to encourage students (well, anyone reading it, actually) to think more critically and read more deeply in the scientific literature, and hopefully helping to inspire their own passion for science.

I hope that all my students will finish their time with me with some understanding of the nature of science, given that science is such an integral part of modern life. Just giving them ‘the facts’ is never going to achieve this, and in fact I think that a discussion of just how much ‘content’ should be learned is long overdue. Guiding students to an appreciation of the process of science is just as important, something I try to do by telling stories, asking questions, and giving them the opportunity to ask their own. This sort of active participation in learning is what really turned me on to science, and can only help my own students to become ‘deep’, independent learners with a broad, in-depth understanding of the subject. This philosophy influences my course design, teaching, and assessment, and over the years I’ve worked closely with colleagues – in particular the senior tutor with responsibility for running our first-year labs – to review and redesign our introductory papers in ways that we hope will enhance student understanding, learning, and enjoyment.

First-year teaching can be a tricky balancing act, squeezed between the demands of second-year lecturers to have students prepared for their classes, and the need to develop understanding and awareness of what science is all about – in all students, not just those going on to major in science. Achieving this balance is made even harder by the fact that for a lot of students there’s a big gap between what they actually learned at school and what many lecturers assume that they learned. This is one reason I value my ongoing links with the secondary sector so highly – what I learn through them flows on into my teaching and enhances the whole learning experience for my students. I think it’s also put me in the relatively rare – and privileged – position of being able to easily recognise those gaps in learning and to work on bridging them with the young people coming into my classroom. And I do try to give something back, through help with preparing for examinations, and giving talks on human evolution (which resulted in my nickname, the ‘Skull Lady’!).

I’ve never been comfortable with the traditional university lecture format and its transmission model of teaching (lecturer talks, students take notes). I much prefer to actively encourage student participation and a two-way flow of information, telling stories rather than simply providing facts, and using open-ended questions and quick pop quizzes. Each quiz is just a few questions that either examine prior knowledge of the next concept, or tests their understanding of concepts just covered. Students discuss their answers with each other and then with me as well, plus I’ll put my answers up on screen so they get immediate feedback. And they tell me they find all this extremely helpful.

But it’s always easier to get this sort of active participation in tutorial classes, where you can more often use small-group and one-on-one techniques. To me, in tutorials students should feel comfortable asking questions about concepts that they find difficult; about material in upcoming labs; even about items in last night’s news. All these provide more opportunities to help them make those all-important links between new and prior knowledge. I find tutorials enormously stimulating because the students are always asking new questions, and I enjoy the challenge of working to present the answers in a meaningful way. Concept mapping’s a great tool for this, one I began using regularly a few years ago during a PhD research project. This technique lets students see how concepts fit together and allows them to build on their existing knowledge in a way that really encourages deep learning.

Of course, like it or not, students’ perceptions of assessment practices also affect their learning, and you also need to use assessment methods that encourage that desirable deep learning habit. Here again my involvement with development and review of national science curriculum materials, achievement standards and assessment has had a big impact on my own assessment practices, something that was brought home to me when I first set an ‘NCEA-style’ essay question in an exam. The great majority of my first-year class answered that question far better than any ‘standard’ university-style questions in the same exam paper, partly I think because it was a format they were used to and partly because it gave them the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging narrative in response rather than simply repeating ‘the facts’.

We also use the e-learning platform Moodle in a variety of ways: for extra tutorials, as a forum to discuss all sorts of things (including setting up revision groups and helping each other with problems), and as a way to obtain lecture notes to review later. I think this works because the students find Moodle a non-threatening environment (especially when you enable anonymous commenting), which encourages many students to become more involved than they might be in an actual classroom – it’s another way for them to build confidence and capability in their studies. It also gives students another way to contact teaching staff, especially if they don’t like to speak up in lectures or tutorials. Any opportunity to build a personal relationship with lecturers is useful, as we know that this can have a significant impact on a student’s decision to continue with a course of study, or even with their university career. And recently I’ve started using Moodle as a means of supporting the Scholarship Biology students, helping them to develop the critical thinking skills that they’ll need for their exams.

In a way this last is just an extension of my other on-line activities – a couple of websites (Evolution for Teaching and Science on the Farm) and the ‘Bioblog‘. I originally began blogging because some secondary colleagues asked if there was something else I could do to help their scholarship students, and a blog seemed a good way to write posts to get them thinking, to provide up-to-date information, and to talk about the exam. But it’s quickly grown to something that I use with my own students to introduce them to scientific papers, and I find it’s got an international readership – something that gives me a real thrill.

For the future – I want to keep on doing what I know and love. When I reach the point where teaching’s no longer exciting but ‘just another job’, and when I lose that frisson of nerves at the start of a new class, a new year, a new semester, then that will be the signal to stop. But in the meantime, the Ako Aotearoa award offers me the chance to do something (maybe many somethings) to enhance what I do in the classroom. Conferences beckon, but I’m in the fortunate position of having a bit of funding put aside for that anyway. Friends reckon that as the Skull Lady™ I should be buying a new, updated set of hominin skulls for classroom use. But for someone who writes and speaks about evolution, the opportunity to do something like visit the Galapagos and experience some of the things that so deeply influenced Charles Darwin would be hugely inspirational. (I suspect what eventually decides that one will depend on a combination of teaching commitments and the best time to go in order to avoid huge crowds.) But whatever I end up doing, I will remain deeply grateful to Ako Aotearoa for putting me in the position of being able to contemplate this conundrum in the first place.


  1. I admire the thought you put into teaching. I realize that not all teachers/lecturers are like that and I hope that I get professors half as dedicated as you.

    Do you think that your stint as a secondary school teacher helped you improve at finding alternate ways to ply studenets with information and get them interested? It seems to me something that high school teachers need to focus on more that professors think they need to.

    Comment by Cyclobutane — November 11, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    • Yes, I do think that my secondary-teaching background has made a big difference in how I teach at uni. It’s a real pity, in my opinion, that uni lecturers don’t get more formalised training in how to teach (& also in how to assess to best promote student learning) – it would be so much better for them & for their students if they did. That needs a bit of a cultural shift, though, since at the moment the focus does tend to be on research first :(

      Comment by alison — November 12, 2010 @ 9:42 am

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