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.

Irina Dedova has been teaching anatomy at Macquarie University for 3 years across the units ANAT1002, ANAT2003, CHIR6110, CHIR611 in the Department of Chiropractic, Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences. Although anatomy is a key discipline area for many aspiring health professionals, it has a reputation amongst students of being ‘difficult’. Following evidence-based educational design practices, Irina set about redesigning the curriculum in her units in order to help students navigate major concepts and learn efficiently through carefully-planned stratified chunks of learning. The impact of this was a more positive learning experience for students and a measurable increase in grades.

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

Facing the challenge: a difficult unit in need of change

When Irina joined MQ, she quickly discovered that the anatomy units she was to convene faced many challenges:

  • Reputational difficulty: Anatomy has a reputation for being a difficult subject, with many students finding it overwhelming with ‘too much to learn’.
  • Lack of blended learning: The units relied heavily on lecture slides and practical notes, offering limited opportunities for interactive and online learning.
  • High cognitive load: Learning anatomy involves understanding complex spatial relationships between anatomical structures and mastering a new language, which significantly increases cognitive load for students.
  • Overcrowded curriculum: The overcrowded curriculum and misaligned learning outcomes were negatively impacting student learning and overall well-being.
  • Limited revision resources: Students had insufficient resources for effective revision and exam preparation.

Redesigning for student success

I encourage my students to understand rather than memorise and to study continuously in smaller chunks. My lectures are concise and focus on major concepts. I arrange classes into stations with clear learning outcomes, explicit guidance and feedback. Each week has a routine sequence of activities that are stratified and linked vertically and horizontally across the curriculum. This creates an adaptable environment for building confidence and knowledge gradually.

1. Aligned curriculum with learning outcomes

Irina believed that addressing an overcrowded curriculum with misaligned learning outcomes would enhance student learning and well-being by helping students navigate major concepts and learn more efficiently. She began by examining the role of each unit in the overall course and how each unit’s learning outcomes contributed to the intended graduate capabilities. This led to a redevelopment of ANAT1001 (Introduction to Anatomy), constructively aligning anatomy content, assessments and learning activities with learning outcomes. This ensured that students progressing through the units would have the foundational knowledge crucial for success in subsequent units.

Irina’s tips for redesigning curriculum:
* Formulate your teaching philosophy and reflect it in the educational design and delivery of your units.
* Imagine you are a student studying your unit – consider what you would like or dislike about its design.
* Be selective with your unit content, mindful of the cognitive load on students, and deliberate about how you facilitate their learning.
* Regularly review learning outcomes to ensure your assessments and learning activities are structured to allow students to achieve the desired outcomes.

2. Chunked content to reduce cognitive load

To make the learning process more manageable and enhance retention and understanding, Irina broke the curriculum into smaller, more digestible chunks. Her lectures and activities focused on major concepts without overwhelming students, significantly reducing their cognitive load.

The learning was structured and scaffolded so that each step built on the previous one. Students were provided with measures of their progress along the way. Each week featured consistent, targeted activities covering the intended outcomes, which students could complete at their convenience, attempt multiple times, and learn from immediate feedback.

3. Developed innovative resources and blended learning opportunities

Recognising the need for a more interactive learning environment, Irina introduced blended learning opportunities, giving students the flexibility to complete activities at their convenience. She developed online revision modules aligned with weekly learning outcomes that provided immediate feedback. A variety of learning tasks were offered, ranging from image-based to theory-focused, and progressing from simple to challenging. This approach provided students with flexibility and choice in their studies. The tasks included formative quizzes and activities focused on active recall of anatomical terminology. Additionally, specific resources were created for students to use for revision, consolidating learning, and practicing exam-style questions.

4. Provided effective and empathetic guidance for students

For me, being empathic means to remember what it was like when I was a student and how I would like to be treated if I was my own student. I care about my students, and this is why I ensure that they have the most logical, well-constructed inclusive design and delivery. This approach is congruent with maintaining students’ well-being, while students still know they must put in effort to achieve desirable results.

Irina believed that a supportive learning environment was essential for student success. She incorporated team tasks and group work to foster a sense of connection and belonging. Additionally, Irina provided individual study advice and regularly checked in with students who were falling behind.

Recognising the link between student well-being and academic success, Irina set clear expectations for success in the unit and outlined the steps to achieve it. She offered flexible learning options with formative tasks aligned with unit learning outcomes, ensuring students could manage their workload without feeling overwhelmed. She regularly reminded students to reach out for support.

Remember that simple things like reminding students about the importance of good sleep and exercise during test times can make a huge difference.

A postive impact on student learning

Irina’s efforts led to a significant improvement in student learning outcomes. Her students expressed their appreciation for the structured and supportive learning environment she created.

What her students say:
“The best structured unit I have ever seen”.
“A huge amount of helpful resources made available to us in a well-organised way”.
“Irina has gone above and beyond in providing as many resources as possible every week to help students solidify and understand concepts”.
“Never fails to make difficult content digestible for everyone”.
“Your passion for anatomy was inspiring”.
“Your support enabled me to achieve this grade”.
“All the feedback and support helped me work hard and want to do as well as I possibly could”.

It’s award application season at Macquarie

Interested in applying for a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Education in 2024?

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

Read about our other award winning teachers

Banner image: Created by Kylie Coaldrake using Copilot
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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