In 2016 Emily Don completed the Foundations in Learning & Teaching program (FiLT) at Macquarie University, even before she had an academic appointment. At the time Emily was a full-time post-doc on a 1-year contract. Emily had been a tutor and demonstrator during her PhD. During her time in the lab as a post-doc, Emily realised teaching was the bit missing from her equation.
Balancing research and teaching
Sometimes in the lab, things don’t work. It can feel like you’re not getting anywhere and you’re not making a difference with your science. Whereas in the classroom, there are regular positives as students reach that ‘aha’ moment. When teaching sits alongside research, a balance can develop.Dr Emily Don, Dept of Biomedical Sciences
Emily acknowledges that her research has taken a hit while she focuses on her teaching. Emily explains to me that her field of research, motor neuron disease, can be confronting, especially when meeting the patients as you realise that your research may not help the person in front of you. “If you can get into the classroom and pass on your knowledge of science or professionalism, it can really help get the balance right”. Emily believes teaching helps improve her presentation skills and make her research interests and science generally more accessible to family and friends.
Emily recognised FiLT would provide a qualification that could demonstrate her interest in University teaching. When Emily started FiLT she realised how important the knowledge was and how much it was going to help her in a teaching role. Her previous teaching was purely based on her own educational experience and a one-day training session.
The Higher Education sector and students have changed so much since I went to University; I would have gone into teaching very underprepared if I hadn’t done FiLT.Dr Emily Don
Emily now enjoys teaching professional practice Units in the Bachelor of Clinical Science; these units help prepare students for the workforce. Emily became interested in the field of professional practice as a post-doc and answered an EoI. With support from her supervisor, Emily began as a Tutor, teaching a two-hour tutorial per week in her own time. According to Emily, her teaching career escalated quickly when the Unit Convenor went on maternity leave later that year and together with a senior mentor and the program directors, kindly offered Emily the chance to step up and convene a unit.
What key learnings did you take from FiLT?
The area of ‘reflective practice’ resonated with Emily. “With Science, we troubleshoot why an experiment might not have worked but the process of learning something and then writing about the experience was new to me.” The other ‘a-ha moment’ during FiLT for Emily was learning about ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 2003) i.e. starting with the outcomes we intend students to learn and aligning teaching and assessment to those outcomes. Explaining explicitly to students why content is being covered and how the assessment and content are linked to the learning outcomes is key to motivating adult learners, who ‘need to know’ why (Knowles, 1984). Emily believes B.ClinSci students (who complete a two-year fast-track degree) value her being explicit about why they’re learning something.
FiLT helped impress upon Emily how the University sector and students have changed since she completed her undergraduate degree. Having empathy with students and understanding your audience is critical to successful teaching. Appreciating that students need a bachelor’s degree as an entry level for most jobs now and that a student may not be passionate about her Unit clearly help Emily relate to her students.
Emily enjoyed the cross-institutional diversity and variety of discipline perspectives offered at FiLT sessions. “In medical science, it’s easy to get bogged down in one way to deliver information and the importance of remembering terms and concepts; you forget that there are so many different approaches to engage students with content.” FiLT also helped Emily develop connections with other ‘teaching-focused’ ECRs within the Faculty; academics that she could turn to for advice about L&T matters or bounce teaching ideas off.
Emily was disappointed to hear that FiLT is no longer offered at Macquarie. We are both hopeful of a foundation course in higher education learning and teaching, so that other ECRs have the same opportunity to connect with educational principles and progress their career.
While MQ is developing a framework for continuous professional development for learning and teaching, what resources can you share with peers starting on their higher education teaching journey?
Biggs, J.B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press/Society for Research into Higher Education. (Second edition)
Biggs, J. Aligning teaching for constructing learning
Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.