Dr Chris Irwin and colleagues in the Nutrition Team (Associate Professor Ben Desbrow and Miss Danielle McCartney), from the School of Allied Health Sciences, received a 2018 Griffith Learning and Teaching Citation for their experiential learning approach to nutrition education influencing, motivating and inspiring students to improve awareness of individual dietary behaviours (relative to national recommendations), and develop competence in applying Australian Dietary Guidelines to modify eating behaviour.

We asked Chris to tell us a bit more about his teaching practice and implementation of experiential learning approaches.

Dr Chris Irwin

What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?

I am motivated and inspired by my students and academic colleagues to provide the best learning experiences I can, every time I teach. Seeing students develop an understanding of critical concepts in a course; then take that new knowledge and apply it across a variety of different contexts gives me a great sense of pride in my work. Teaching in a nutrition discipline, being able to help facilitate the development of competence that supports advocating for improved dietary patterns in others and develop better adherence to dietary guidelines is extremely motivating.

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?

New technologies have revolutionised education and fundamentally changed learning and teaching for the better. Making use of technology helps students engage in learning experiences and be active learners in nutrition. Using online materials, simulated learning environments, discussion boards and social media platforms help facilitate this engagement.  Furthermore, as an evidenced-based profession, having access to the latest scientific diet-related research/information via online repositories supports continued professional development.

How has your implementation of experiential learning approaches facilitated the development of students’ capacity for empathy and compassion as future professionals?

Incorporating experiential learning activities in nutrition that engage students in a process of recording, analysing, modifying and implementing dietary information; then reflecting on their personal experiences to identify barriers/challenges to dietary adherence is an important process in acquiring knowledge, skill and value from direct experience.While the learning experience improves students’ awareness of their individual dietary behaviour and develops competence in applying dietary guidelines, the reflection component provides students with an opportunity to facilitate compassion and empathy towards the challenges associated with adhering to a ‘healthy diet’. This is important for these future health professionals, who will eventually advise members of the broader community on health-related matters that may include dietary lifestyle modifications.

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?

Learning is enhanced when students are required to develop and apply knowledge they can directly relate to. In order to create engaging learning experiences, it’s important to understand your learners and build the content/learning experiences around them (i.e. what do they already know and what they need to develop/learn). To have engaging learning experiences, things don’t have to be complex/complicated, but they do need to be relevant, interesting, and applied. In my experience, experimenting with new approaches is all part of the process of developing engaging learning experiences, but more importantly finding out what works and what doesn’t work. Not every new approach will engage students in learning, so it’s critical when something doesn’t work, to get feedback. This will help in creating more engaging experiences for future attempts.

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 is be brave and ‘give it a go’. Not every new approach will engage students in learning, but you won’t know unless you try, and you might just be on to something great. I’m a firm believer that even as educators we are always learning, and sometimes the lesson is ‘what not to do’. But there are some things you can do that may help the process: (1) understand your students and build the learning experience around them; (2) don’t over-complicate tasks, but make them relevant, interesting, and applied; (3) get feedback on what works and what doesn’t work; and (4) never give up – if it doesn’t work, try something else.

What is something new you are looking forward to trying in your learning and teaching practice over the next year or so?

I am looking forward to creating and using a series of online ‘interactive’ learning resources in nutrition education to help facilitate students understanding and application of the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs). These resources will focus on translating information from the ADGs into a user-friendly and interactive format that enhances students’ ability to apply the information, facilitates enhancement of learning and promotes a greater understanding of nutrition principles for healthy eating.

What advice do you have for educators looking to enhance their teaching practice?

Irrespective of the course or mode of instruction (i.e. lecture, tutorial, workshop, laboratory), ensure consistently high-quality learning experiences are provided to facilitate the best opportunity for success in all students. I believe there are five core components that compliment this:

  1. Consistently use learning direction. Central to this is the importance of communicating clear objectives and expectations for student learning.
  2. Provide high quality blended learning resources.
  3. Use experiential learning as an approach to influence, motivate and inspire students to learn.
  4. Provide timely and useful feedback regarding assessment.
  5. Acknowledge that students’ learning experiences may be affected by personal circumstances, so providing support on a personal level is fundamental to their success as learners.