Dr Job Fransen, winner of the 2019 Early Career Teaching Award.
Dr Job Fransen, winner of the 2019 Early Career Teaching Award.

The Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Awards and Citations acknowledge and celebrate the many ways that teaching and professional staff at UTS are creating the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for our students. We chatted with 2019 Early Career Teaching Award winner Dr Job Fransen to learn about his approach to prioritising self-discovery as a vehicle for more focused student learning and knowledge acquisition.

Please tell us a little about what your Early Career Teaching Award was given for

I was given the Early Career Teaching Award for my application of guided self-discovery learning in my subject Skill Acquisition. In Skill Acquisition students explore how humans learn motor skills using self-discovery, through self-discovery.

Self-discovery learning is definitely not a new approach, and has been used extensively in primary and secondary education, as well as in sport pedagogy, with excellent student outcomes. Students who engage in self-discovery learning report higher levels of autonomy, greater academic achievements, and improved self-perceptions. They also retain knowledge for longer, and are more inquisitive and critical thinkers…however, its implementation in tertiary education contexts is rare, and has not been without its fair share of challenges.

For example, it is common in self-discovery approaches to use messy learning environments from which knowledge or practical skill self-emerges, without necessarily being taught explicitly. Yet, students are often not familiar with these messy learning environments, where knowledge or practical skills still have to be assembled rather than merely absorbed.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated that acute assessments of student satisfaction (for example, student feedback scores) suffer as a result of engaging in self-discovery learning, even though students report better learning outcomes over longer time spans.

I have applied self-discovery to all aspects of student learning in Skill Acquisition, from building assessments where students are free to choose their own path towards the assessment goal, to developing laboratories that allow the students to learn about self-discovery learning by engaging in self-discovery learning.

I will illustrate this with two specific examples:

  • In one of the assessments in Skill Acquisition, students spend 20 hours learning a motor skill of their choice, while rigorously documenting the process. However, the aim of the assessment is not to demonstrate how much students improved their motor skill performance, but to use knowledge and practical skills obtained from the class to explain why their program was or was not successful. The student is given complete freedom on which practice program to use, or how to document and present their progress. As a result, the student is not necessarily focused only on the outcome (the performance of the motor skill) but also on the process used to achieve that outcome by reflecting on it critically. Ultimately, I feel these methods that emphasise students’ assembling of knowledge and practical skills at an individual level, provides them with critical reflection skills and a good sense of curiosity, which are more likely to keep them engaged in learning for a lifetime.
  • During another one of my classes, where students study the way in which the central nervous system controls the complexity of the human body in highly coordinated actions, I challenge students to play along to Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ on the drums. Many of the students have no experience with drumming and this laboratory is ideal for them to discover how the central nervous system succeeds in producing rhythmic and coordinated behaviour, and how that behaviour looks entirely different for every single student. Through this lab, students assemble knowledge on the complexities of organising the human body to produce purposeful movement, and the variability of the produced behaviour among learners.

What’s something new you are hoping to try or explore in learning and teaching in 2020/21?

This year has not been without its challenges, of course. In 2020, I have set myself the task to provide students with the same level of education, without forsaking the pedagogical approach I am used to, despite classes running mostly online. Furthermore, I am exploring better and more engaging ways in which to individualise students’ learning experiences, so that a student’s passion for one of my subjects invites them to engage more, go deeper and expand their knowledge further while students who struggle with the content receive individual approaches that can help them master the requirements for this subject in a way that suits them. This is extremely challenging, especially in ever larger classrooms, but I have found some interesting ways to implement this along the way, which I am now testing.

What’s one trick or tip you wish you’d known when you first started out in university teaching?

It is not about teaching, it is about learning. I wish I would have known that university teaching is insignificant if learning is not achieved. By that I mean that earlier in my career I had the feeling I had to be a good teacher. Now I do not even consider myself a teacher anymore, more a designer of learning environments. I have realised that I am insignificant in the learning process, it is the environment I create that fosters students’ learning.

What’s your approach to keeping students active and engaged in a large group situation?

Individualised learning. When students understand that they are not in your class to follow guidelines, use a rule book, or follow a blue print for learning, they are much more likely to be engaged. Students take ownership over the learning process when they feel that are in control of it. That is why I have placed so much emphasis this year on creating environments for learning that can challenge every student, regardless of their perceived or actual competence levels.

What’s been your most memorable learning and teaching moment – as a teacher, or as a student?

The most memorable moment for me is when one of my former students emailed me after three years to thank me for how what she had learned during class had influenced her work life significantly. She indicated that she now realised that learning is not an acute measure, it is an enduring quality. I really like receiving these emails from students. It not only validates in some way that my teaching matters (something that is difficult to gauge in today’s rapidly changing society), but it also shows that at least for one student what we did in class had long-lasting effects.  

What’s the most challenging aspect of teaching in universities today?

The most challenging aspect for me is that we often forget what learning really is. Through learning, students develop adaptable behaviour, and we sometimes forget that this is what we are intending to achieve through our teaching. In today’s rapidly evolving world it is difficult to develop and assess adaptable behaviour. We are so focused on preparing students for the workplace by developing specific skills and knowledge, that we forget that the workplace itself changes constantly. Therefore the true learnt skill is not the specific bit of knowledge or the specific practical skill students acquire at university, but the adaptability to use that skill anywhere, at any time, while the world around us changes rapidly.

Do you think teaching practices in your discipline area have changed a lot with the introduction of new technologies?

To some extent. Many colleagues are using more technology than they did a few years ago when I joined UTS. However, technological advances or other assistive technologies in teaching can never replace pedagogical approaches that truly foster learning. Sometimes I am worried that the introduction of new technologies blinds us to the pedagogical work required to provide students with excellent learning environments. I am lucky however, I have had great mentors, peers and role models in sport and exercise with whom I have shared many conversations about teaching and learning, and from whom I have learned a great deal. Some of these lecturers have several decades of teaching under their belt, including some pretty challenging times in a not so distant past. They have always been an inspiration to continue to challenge myself to become a better lecturer, even when at times I felt like coasting for a little bit. So thanks to all of my great colleagues in sport and exercise!

Watch the L&T Awards ceremony livestream

You can watch Job receive his Early Career Teaching Award at the 2019 Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Awards in the video below.

See the full list of Award and Citation recipients here

Feature image by Christopher Burns on Unsplash.

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