Great teachers don’t tend to pace dramatically around the classroom, giving inspirational speeches and changing lives in a flourish of chalk. In fact, these mythical figures are not helpful at all in shaping how we think about practical teaching in our classrooms and learning spaces (see this recent Economist article for some insightful analysis on this point). In real life, the teachers who make a difference are often quiet achievers, and their stories rarely make it outside the classroom or staffroom. They’re busy teaching!
One such teacher is Natalie Morrison, who has worked in mental health as a clinician, researcher, and teacher for over 15 years, and is currently a lecturer and course coordinator for the Bachelor of Psychological Sciences at Navitas’ Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP). She is this year’s winner of the NPI Award for Teaching Excellence in Higher Education, which among other criteria was judged on the basis of her approaches to teaching that ‘influence, motivate and inspire students to learn’.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Natalie to talk about her work and teaching practice. Below are just a few highlights and some practical insights from a wide-ranging and inspirational conversation.
Give students drive and motivation, not content
This deceptively simple approach underpins Natalie’s teaching philosophy. With much of her teaching focussed on first-year students, Natalie sees perhaps the broadest set of learners coming into our institution, from those returning to education to others coming straight from high school. It can take 6 years to become a fully qualified Psychologist, and Natalie wants to ensure that whatever their background, her students start off with the right motivation and engagement to want to continue their learning.
Practical insight: Spend more time on those ‘getting to know you’ activities at the start of the course than you might think necessary, particularly for those studying online (up to 2/3 of students in this part of Navitas). Make the most of any face to face class time you have, allowing for different interactions through small groups, larger groups and at a whole-class level.
Be present, and plentiful with feedback
This is especially important in online and blended learning environments, where you need to work hard to create a feeling of involvement in both synchronous and asynchronous contexts. If there’s an online discussion going on, you need to be part of it – even if it’s just a short comment – to show each student’s comments are valued. Natalie sets high standards by aiming to answer everything her students ask; even when she can’t personally teach everyone, as course coordinator she tries to visit as many classes as possible, so students know they haven’t been ‘lost’. Giving feedback on students’ abilities at different points along the way (via formative assessment) is also important so they can understand where their weaknesses are and take action before any high-stakes assessments.
Practical insight: In live online sessions, make time to check the chat box at certain points. Comments can be missed as sessions are underway, so students may feel their point has not been acknowledged. In the absence of face to face contact, these small details become all-important.
Embrace technologies for better engagement
The big challenge for teachers in online and blended learning environments is to find new and different ways to engage students. Natalie draws out the learnings from weekly 1 to 1 tutorials, creating interactive versions of lectures and tailored feedback based on areas she knows students are struggling with. Recordings are available for students to access in their own time, but Natalie goes the extra mile, also offering synchronous online ‘drop-in’ sessions for additional support.
Practical insight: Natalie records her lectures like many of her colleagues, but whilst many stick to showing just slides and voice, she also includes the ‘webcam’ view of herself and turns the camera to the class too, so viewers can see others participating. Students have responded positively to this simple additional consideration of the need to feel more involved in the learning experience. As Natalie says:
Perception is everything; if students feel they get more out of seeing me pace up and down the room, that’s fine!
Seek feedback and keep learning
Natalie is aware that students’ skill sets are shifting and teachers need to question their practice continually to maintain engagement and relevance. She is currently working with colleagues in ACAP to trial polling technology for live feedback during lectures, which in itself is prompting a re-consideration of the content of established lecture sessions to allow for more interactivity. She is also continually learning herself, attending workshops and conferences, staying connected and collaborating with others in the profession, as well as undertaking a Masters in Clinical Psychology.
Being a student again myself helps me understand what works and what doesn’t work. It’s important to put yourself in that position and think about the challenges you face as a student. Exposure to different teaching environments means you’re constantly reflecting
Practical insight: Don’t wait for the results of student evaluations to understand how things are going; there are so many opportunities to observe what’s happening in your classes, so engage students directly in discussions, polls and forums and open up channels for student feedback during the course, when there is time to take action.
Natalie shared many more insights during our conversation which echoed the learning and teaching strategies we know have impact on students’ learning experience. Seeing examples of these being put into practice and clearly valued by students is inspiring; hopefully we can encourage many more quiet achievers to share what they do in future.