What does it take to win a learning and teaching award? In this series of Teche posts we showcase our award-winning teachers and uncover the methods and approaches behind their award-winning practice.

Ali Lalbakhsh teaches engineering units (for the Diploma of Engineering) in the Macquarie University College. He adopts an empathetic teaching approach to foster engagement, boost confidence, and equip students to succeed beyond their wildest expectations. His strategies have led to a doubling of student attendance in his classes, a significant increase in assignment submission rates and a high level of student satisfaction with the learning environment.

Ali won a Student Nominated Award in the 2023 Vice Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Awards.

A teaching philosophy based on mindset growth

The Diploma of Engineering serves as a pathway program for students who are ineligible for direct entry into a bachelor’s degree. Some of these students feel they are ‘not good enough’ because they were not directly admitted, which can diminish their ambitions to merely passing the course. This attitude creates an invisible barrier to engagement. To address this, Ali centers his teaching philosophy on fostering a growth mindset among his students.

Empowering students to thrive

Here’s how Ali provides students with the encouragement they need, and the right attitude, to thrive:

1. Understanding student backgrounds

Ali prioritises understanding why students are in a pathway program by encouraging them to send a self-introduction email. There are no expectations – Ali simply asks “I’d love to know about you: Who are you? What are you doing here? What has brought you here?” This sparks conversations, builds trust, and uncovers their life stories and vulnerabilities, allowing him to proactively address issues that could impact their performance.

2. Creating an engaging and inclusive learning environment

Ali designs learning experiences that challenge assumptions, engage students in active learning, and stimulate intellectual curiosity. He addresses STEM stereotypes among female students to foster a sense of belonging and ensures that all students feel comfortable and confident in class. Concepts are clearly explained, and the learning environment is safe and non-judgmental, encouraging even the shyest students to participate.

3. Scaffolding learning

Ali redesigned the WENG1000 (Introduction to Engineering) curriculum to scaffold engineering skills with transparent, flexible assignments aligned with learning outcomes. Students are taught one key concept at a time and then apply their knowledge in a task.

Multi-stage submissions and built-in teacher feedback at each stage significantly improved student performance and academic integrity. Part of the final mark students receive is based on how well they comprehend and apply the feedback in their final submission.

Three stages of feedback:
1. Self feedback – students evaluate their own performance and justify why they think that way.
2. Peer feedback.
3. Teacher feedback delivered face to face and in writing.

4. Monitoring progress

Ali encourages students to set individual goals and monitors their progress through one-on-one sessions, motivating them to achieve greater results. He believes in the power of one-on-one feedback to work miracles – the College class sizes are generally less than 20 students which makes it possible to have these types of interactions during tutorial time.

5. Balancing self-directed and group learning

Students are supported through a mix of open-ended group and individual activities, helping them realise their potential.

6. Linking Learning to Industry

Ali makes learning relevant and engaging by using real-world examples and incorporating work-related skills. One assessment task is an industry-inspired project, co-designed with students, involving research, teamwork, and the creation of portfolios and presentations. He redeveloped the units WENG1000 and WENG1050 to promote ethics and self-learning in the context of real-world engineering problems and applications.

Ali’s lasting impact on students

Ali’s mentorship extends beyond the classroom, with students continuing to work on their projects for years, resulting in scholarly publications and real-life applications. “I was supported heavily by Ali when I decided to submit one of our research assignments as a review paper in a journal” shared one student.

Ali’s inspiration and motivation have led to College students publishing in top peer-reviewed journals. A team of Macquarie University College students, under Ali’s guidance, was selected for the highly competitive national innovation program, D.Start 2022, by the Defence Science and Technology Group and CSIRO. Such national recognition is exceptionally rare at the diploma or undergraduate level.

He made the whole class feel that we were going to be not just engineers, but people who would change the world for the better.

His enthusiasm for teaching and helping is intoxicating and makes you push yourself that bit further to achieve greater results.

He encouraged me to believe in myself and to achieve things I could never believe were possible.

Visit the Awards for Excellence in Education site for details, deadlines and guidance on writing your application.

Read about our other award winning teachers

Further reading

  • Ali Lalbakhsh article in Macquarie’s Lighthouse: Some of the very best innovations might start from a broken idea.
  • Ali Lalbakhsh, “Engagement and empowerment of first-year engineering students through a passion-based assignment,” In 33rd Australasian Association for Engineering Education Conference (AAEE 2022), Sydney, Australia.

Banner image: Photo by Alain Pham on Unsplash
Post compiled by Kylie Coaldrake

Posted by L&T Development

The Learning and Teaching Staff Development team works with staff across the University to ensure they are supported to facilitate quality learning for students. This includes offering professional development, contributing to curriculum and assessment design, recognising and rewarding good practice, supporting peer review of teaching, and leading scholarly reflection. Email professional.learning@mq.edu.au with questions or requests.

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