Dr Leah Coutts, from the Queensland Conservatorium in Arts, Education and Law is the winner of a 2019 Griffith Group Learning and Teaching Citation.

What motivates and inspires you in your teaching? 

The largest motivation for me in my teaching is connecting with and learning from my students, and facilitating their discoveries. I’m inspired by innovations in teaching that empower students to take ownership of their learning in meaningful ways. In order to achieve this, it cannot be the educator alone who decides what is meaningful. I’m therefore motivated to learn about students’ perspectives, goals, challenges and interests and to shape their class learning experiences accordingly. Traditional teacher-student hierarchies are beginning to break down, which is inspiring new approaches to curriculum design that excite me as an educator. 

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? 

Technology has enabled some music literature courses at QCGU to utilise a flipped classroom model or to be offered intensively. Echo360 and JPoll have been incorporated into courses to encourage student engagement in large classes, and more lesson content is being placed online to enable more active learning within the classroom. This has also enabled us to increase peer interactions and to be led by students’ perceived needs at any one time. These approaches to learning, supported by technology, has enabled me to focus on building rapport and connection with students in the classroom setting and to set expectations about what participation and engagement involves, focusing on rapport, trust and transparency with students. My role is to facilitate activities and discussions, rather to disseminate knowledge, staying open to the direction this takes us in.  

I have also recently been involved in the creation of an online study skills guide for QCGU students. Having self-guided online modules means my role has changed from conducting tutorials on study skills, such as academic writing and referencing, to providing assistance and feedback in the context of students’ needs and tasks. This helps to increase student ownership of learning and to provide targeted, rather than general, support as required. 

How can the ‘Students as Partners’ approach enhance student learning outcomes? 

Students as Partners – in this case planning aspects of a course with students instead of for students – has the ability to enhance student learning outcomes in a number of ways. First of all, inviting students to collaborate in designing essay questions or assessment tasks (for example) requires detailed discussions about the course aims and the purpose of required assessment tasks. This increases transparency around expectations. Inviting students to have input also increases rapport and trust, as well as the perceived relevance of assessment tasks. In turn, this can enhance students’ ownership of learning, motivation and commitment. Most importantly, as Kolb and Kolb (2015) acknowledge,‘To learn something that one is not interested in is extremely difficult’ (p. 208). Taking a Students as Partners approach enables an educator to learn about students’ interests, goals and challenges. This can enhance course design outcomes through increased interest and engagement. 

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?  

Following from my previous answer, I have learnt that unless you know who your students are, it is extremely challenging to create an engaging learning experience. This, of course, is compounded by the fact that each individual student has their own interests, goals and expectations, but by discovering and acknowledging this together with students, we can collaborate in creating the most interesting and beneficial path as we navigate course content together. 

Through my desire to work in collaboration with students, I’ve realised that there also needs to be consistency across a program for the best results. If students don’t see value in participating, or if they hold a traditional hierarchical view of student and teacher roles, engagement can remain low. A willingness to participate in enhancing a course ranges substantially within a cohort. But as an educator, it is important that I continue to extend those invitations, to model the collaborative student-teacher environment I wish to foster and to be open about this approach and its potential benefits for those who choose to be involved. 

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 strongest piece of advice is to be open and honest with your students about the innovative approaches being implemented and the reasons for doing so. Asking students to go on a journey with you, and remaining open to feedback and adjustments along the way, will ensure everyone is on the same page. This can also inspire and engage students along the way. 

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

So far I’ve responded a lot in terms of student-teacher partnerships, but one thing I’m looking forward to is learning about other courses in the program I teach into and to find ways to enhance cross-program alignment. Oftentimes we are so focused on our own courses, we miss vital opportunities to make strong connections in learning outcomes across courses. If educators can make these alignments explicit to students within each course, I think relevance and interest can be strengthened  further. This, I feel, is especially important for core foundation courses where immediate relevance may be less obvious to students.  

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

You don’t have to have all the answers or to have a ‘perfect’ model or piece of technology to start. It’s important to be willing to take risks, to learn through trial and reflection, and to embrace your own learner mindset. This can be challenging or uncomfortable if an educator is used to feeling in control but having an authentic desire to be present with any enhancements made and curious about the outcomes can increase our own engagement. I love Whitworth and colleagues’ (2007) description of this type of teaching as ‘dancing in the moment’, which is something I think we can all aspire to embrace more fully.    

Some of Leah’s recent articles on students as partners: 

Coutts, L. (2018, August 24). Students as partners in curriculum reform. NiTRO: Non-Traditional Research Outputs. Available at: https://nitro.edu.au/articles/2018/8/24/students-as-partners-in-curriculum-reform?rq=coutts

Coutts, L. (2019). Exploring partnerships: A Students as Partners pedagogical approach for fostering student engagement within an academic music course. The Musician’s Career Lifespan in Creative and Educational Spaces in the 21st Century. Proceedings from the 22nd International Seminar of the Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (CEPROM). Available at: https://www.isme.org/other-publications/proceedings-ismes-ceprom-commission-2018