Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Reflections on teaching and learning: well that came as a bit of a surprise

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know about this already. On Monday afternoon, after spending a day popping in and out of exam boards, I got an email from our Students' Union with an attached letter. This informed me that:

"I am pleased to inform you that you have received the Graduate’s Teaching Award in the School of the Built Environment.
You were nominated for this award by the graduating students in your school as part of the Learning and Teaching Oscars.  We received many lovely comments as to why you should receive this prize and I hope this recognition from your students of you work will in some way show how much your efforts are appreciated."

I'm not ashamed to say that reading the email made me cry I was so touched that my students thought so highly of me. And it's not as if I've taught that many students - across the two courses I led and the two courses I helped on, I had probably fifty students in total.

As I've previously posted about and reflected upon in one of my PGCap assessments I am slightly ambivalent about some of the teaching quality agenda - it can turn teaching and learning into a popularity contest, a higher education X Factor. A basic factor that has probably helped me get this fantastic feedback is that my students do relate to me because I'm young; a bit more like them.

I have tried out a lot of innovative things - getting students to tweet in class; lots of different class activities to embed learning (I still have an aluminium Vauxhall Corsa engine in my office); put some videos and screencasts on the VLE; and even had a go (unsuccessfully) at using Prezi; giving essay feedback as audio recordings (highly recommend that - quick, easy and students engage with it). But from the bits and pieces I've got back from the students so far it's actually just pretty basic stuff that they liked: I was approachable and friendly; they could empathise with me as a person; I was lucky enough to have the time to write two large sets of course notes (had to be distance learning ready) so I had a very good idea in my head of what curriculum I was delivery. And I did not shower my students with good marks - when they did well I rewarded them. But my marks are similar to all my colleagues.

For my latest PGCap assignment (which is turning into something like a dissertation) I'm concurrently reading the 60's classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity (big PDF) and Brabazon's University of Google. They have very similar messages in many ways, except the former is from the Fordist age and the latter is speaking to the post-Fordist age. But one major difference is Postman and Weingartner's use, focus even, on Marshal McLuhan's axiom "The medium is the message" - a real insight into a World being rocked by the advent of television and radio. I thought this notion delivered profound insights into VLE and distance teaching. Reading Brabazon made me think again. The message still needs to be good quality and adapted to the medium, no matter what that medium is. Technology can't make up for ropey teaching (or learning, for that matter). I can make as many mediocre screencasts as I like, but my students will do well with a good set of notes.

And part of that medium has to be the empathy and trust with students that I think I developed - an insight from another bit of reading recommended by my wonderful colleague Marilyn Higgins for my PGCap project, Carl Rogers Learning to Be Free. And this email that popped into my inbox from a student today reassured me of that:

"First off. let me tell you what an amazing lecturer and academic you are. Your enthusiasm for learning is infectious. It's no surprise that all the students feel the same way. Secondly, I really appreciate the support and interest you have shown me in the last year. You reminded me that people in the university really do care about their students...I wish you all the success with your career and if its any thing to go by with your first year at Heriot-Watt, you have a bright career ahead of you. All the best and it was a pleasure to meet you."

No amount of rubric generated feedback from Blackboard will beat that! Now, the challenge for me, and to reflect on in my PGCap project, is how to deliver that in a curriculum that is internationalised and dual mode. And before then, I get to go to Graduation and collect me certificate for being a great teacher! I can't wait to hang it on my office wall.

/edit: spookily, just as I clicked "post" the course feedback started arriving in my inbox. Having looked at it, and focused on all the comments below, I was thinking "ooh that's a bit mixed" and was wracked with guilt. On reflection, I got 100 for nearly every score, and the comments are things I need to improve on next year.


  1. Well done.

    Where is that depot in your Vimeo vids?

  2. Thank you.

    And it's in Grangemouth.

  3. Just saw this post. Well done indeed!