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Learning to teach by osmosis

This Unit Coordinator learnt the role by being immersed in it, and to teach by osmosis and stumbling across approaches that worked. He advises tutors to provide an environment that enables students to develop their own mastery. More...

I have been coordinating a first year physics unit for eight years and have only felt in control for the past four. Another unit I coordinate has more than 400 students. When I started I received no induction, the role was never explained to me and I did not know what questions to ask. I learnt my role through being immersed in it. An induction program would have helped prevent me from falling into the many pitfalls along the way. Fortunately, I took over the coordination from someone who still works here and who has been very helpful

In developing my own teaching style I have learnt by osmosis and by stumbling across approaches that seem to work. I have almost completed the graduate certificate in higher education and, although I am learning concepts and the background to certain approaches, I do not know the extent to which they have moulded my teaching.

I realised soon after I started here that I was not happy with the way sessional lecturers and tutors were teaching. Their approach was didactic and the focus was on them, rather than on the students. I approached the previous coordinator and was open with him about my desire to change the pedagogy. He supported me and we organised workshops and developed a teaching document that has now been accepted by all, including the older, experienced sessional staff. I don’t know what I would have done without his encouragement.

I tell my tutors that they are facilitators and guides and, only when necessary, are they to demonstrate their subject mastery. Their job is to create an environment and provide resources that enable students to learn and develop their own mastery. This shift is an important one and it seems to be working. I pass by classrooms now and there is a buzz of activity and energy from students who are engaged in problem solving. The tutor poses the questions and the students work on them. Tutors refer students with administrative questions to our School website but, if students are unable to find what they are looking for, they are referred to me. If arguments or disputes arise, I draw people’s attention to our educational responsibilities which, to me, are defensible.

I do not spend as much time on research as I should, although I have won a number of grants. I employ PhD students, a lab manager and several post doctoral researchers who do most of the work. I see my most significant role at the university as ensuring my units are running well while also improving and refining them. My organising skills were poor but I feel they are now improved. Being better organised has also improved my confidence and my creativity. My focus is on students achieving the best possible outcomes and I find that fun. While I know there are things that have to happen for a university to run well I am more than happy for other people to do them.

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