Dr Barbara Johnston, from the School of Environment and Science in Griffith Sciences is the winner of a 2019 Griffith Group Learning and Teaching Citation.
What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?
One of the great motivators for me is seeing the satisfaction in students when they understand something that they have been struggling with – the ‘aha’ moment. That motivates me to find different ways of explaining and approaching the material so that students with diverse backgrounds or diverse ways of learning can engage with the content and understand it. Once students get really interested in a topic, then their enthusiasm is inspiring for me to try to help them delve deeper into the topic and to stretch them further.
How have teaching practices in your discipline changed with the introduction of new technologies, and how has technology changed the way you interact and engage with your students?
When I studied mathematics at university it was nearly all ‘chalk and talk’, so things have come a long way as far as technology goes. Students are now able to use computers to visualise things and to do calculations and analysis that weren’t possible in the past. Also, as an educator I am able to harness those technologies to present lecture material. About five years ago, I started using a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where students meet the content of the course via videos that I record, which then leaves time in class to actively engage with the material. Using various screens on a large tablet, I am able to incorporate different material into the videos: pre-prepared lecture slides that I can write on; computer demonstrations that I can run as they watch; and, effectively blank ‘paper’ that I can write on and demonstrate the steps needed to solve problems.
What strategies do you use to enhance the learning experience for students in your Applied Mathematics courses?
In conjunction with the videos, I use ‘active learning’ to enhance the learning experience for the students. Initially, this occurs outside the classroom, as students use the ‘Check Your Understanding’ sheets that I have paired with the videos. These ask higher level questions such as ‘what if’, ‘what is the connection between’ and ‘why’ to help the students actively engage with the material. Discussing the answers to these makes a bridge into the start of the class, and then students spend the class time doing activities such as: making tables that summarise or connect material; constructing flow charts that help them sort out the steps in applying a solution method; identifying and discussing the most difficult concepts; working in pairs using new vocabulary or solving problems, and working as a class with me to solve problems.
What have you learnt throughout your academic career about creating an engaging learning experience for students, and what have you learnt from experimenting with new approaches that didn’t quite work out?
I don’t believe that everything I need to teach has to be intrinsically engaging – sometimes you just have to learn the basics of something. But, if you can motivate the students to learn it, for example, by building on what they already know to give them the satisfaction of understanding or putting pieces of the puzzle together, or because they can see the application for it, then they become engaged. I’ve found that not every new approach works as well as I might like, particularly the first time, sometimes due to factors outside my control (timetable, or the number of students who attend class), and sometimes because I was not completely clear about what I required from the students.
Given it isn’t always easy to innovate within a learning and teaching context, what advice do you have for colleagues looking to try something new in their teaching?
My advice would be to try to get students interested or invested in the new approach by explaining early on to them why you are doing it and what benefit you see for them in it. Then survey students in about week 4 and make changes if possible.
What is something new you are looking forward to trying in your learning and teaching practice over the next year or so?
This year I introduced a new assignment, in my third-year course, where students had to collaborate in pairs to produce a ten-minute video and a handout on a topic in the course. Next year I want to tweak the assignment and the assessment a bit.
What advice do you have for educators looking to enhance their teaching practice?
Don’t try to change too much at once, and don’t be put off if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time. Use student feedback and your own observations to modify it and have another go the next time (and maybe talk it over with a colleague to get a different perspective).