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Effective teaching (and learning!)

March 10, 2013

I’ve written before about how teaching and tutoring have greatly enhanced my own understanding of my subject. Teaching is something I really enjoy and the longer I spend in academia the more I see the value in having, and now being, a great teacher. So I was very excited to hear that this years Deans visitor for the Faculty of Science is Professor Saundra McGuire from Louisiana State University in the USA. Professor McGuire gave several talks during the last few weeks and I attended a morning workshop aimed specifically at tutors like myself.

I’ve come away from the workshop feeling thoroughly inspired and decided I had to share a few insights from her talks. I feel like I’ve gained not only an array of new ideas to help the students I work with but also a better understanding of how I’ve learnt things during my time at University.

We started off our workshop by examining what it is to learn something, and asking what do students really need to get out of their university education? Whilst school may be the time to memorise and repeat facts, university makes very different demands on learners. It is no longer enough at university to remember facts, students have to progress from knowledge to understanding and application of concepts. This can be a bit of a blow for many students, who’ve recently been successful at school and achieved a coveted place at a top university.

Teaching at this level, and tutoring in particular, becomes more about equipping students with the skills to learn, understand and crucially, apply concepts to problems. And mostly, teaching the students that this should be their motivation. Professor McGuire showed us that students know a lot of this already – they know that you have to understand a subject better to teach it, than to get an A on a test, but they also recognize that if you know a subject so well that you can teach it, you’ll probably get that A!

Professor McGuire introduced us to blooms taxonomy as a way of understanding how learning changes through high school in to higher education. The taxonomy is basically a hierarchical triangle with the following sections (starting at the bottom):

– Knowledge
– Comprehension
– Application
– Analysis
– Synthesis
– Evaluation

According to the taxonomy, undergraduate students should progress from the knowledge and comprehension skills gained at high school on to application and analysis (synthesis and evaluation is the domain of the researching graduate student, an equally difficult jump I’m sure many of my fellow PhD candidates will agree!).

Here are a few other tips Professor McGuire shared which I think will be very useful for me in future:

– Don’t use textbooks to work example problems. Have a go first then check the answer and try to work out where you went wrong BEFORE looking at the books method! Take home message: Making mistakes is a great learning experience. I personally think this is the only way you ever learn how to code.

– Use a study cycle:
– Preview – Prepare your mind for what its about to learn about.
– Attend – All the lectures.
– Review – Move new knowledge from to long term memory.
– Study – 2/3 short intense sessions during the day, 2 at night.
– Assess – Consider: Am I learning well? Be aware of the process.

– Use reading strategies:
– Get the course materials – textbooks etc
– Give an overview – make a big picture – spider plan etc based on chapter structure. Summarise from bold print/italicized text, graphs etc.
– Think about questions you might want answered.
– Consider differences between concepts and importance to other topic areas.
– Read paragraph and put in own words/translate in to your home language.

– Remind students that their mindset determines their reactions. See challenges as something to embrace rather than avoid; see difficult tasks as the path to mastery, rather than being fruitless.

– Attribute failure to correctable causes and success to effective strategies.

For more information about effective teaching, check out courses and other resources available at the Centre for Academic success ( and the book “How people learn” by John D. Bransford, available here.

Many thanks to Professor McGuire for the fantastic lecture and workshop!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. marianneevers38 permalink
    March 10, 2013 10:19 pm

    Made interesting reading,x x

  2. marianneevers38 permalink
    March 14, 2013 6:21 pm

    This made interesting reading.x x

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