When it comes to student learning, direct instruction doesn’t equate to quality facilitation. You can avoid re-teaching the same content by having some self-awareness and trying different techniques to open up the possibilities for students to learn for themselves.

Know yourself and your learners

The danger of ego

Have you ever felt the smug afterglow of being on a winning trivia team and ‘knowing more’ than others? Or had a similar feeling from being the expert in the room in your profession? Doesn’t it feel good to know people are looking up to you and relying on your insight and experience? Or maybe, just like me, you’re a tall person and people just look up to you. 😂

The thing that all these situations pander to is your ego – your sense of professional knowledge or understanding. And that is a very dangerous thing when it comes to teaching. When I recruit student leaders, I’m always looking to avoid the person who wants to show how much they know. When you want to show it, you talk and explain. If you’re trying to help students learn by facilitation not direct instruction, that can be a dangerous pathway.

The danger of expertise

In U:PASS, we hire novice learners. One of the reasons for this is that novice learners remember what it’s like to learn something. If, like me, you’ve been working a long time in a field, you are no longer a novice. You are an expert. The best university teachers, in my opinion, are the ones that keep going back to what it feels like to learn as a novice and to learn something new for the first time.

If you are struggling to get that feeling back, why not try learning something new yourself? A language, a sport, a hobby, a craft? Maybe a workshop that connects you to your teaching in a new way? Guarantee you’ll feel frustrated, maybe lack motivation and not be sure you’ll ever master it. Those emotions: they’re what novice learners feel.

Don’t be a saviour 

I hire emotionally intelligent, kind and perfectionist student leaders. These leaders desperately want to do a good job, so often I have to remind them it’s down to the learner to learn. Their job is to facilitate that as best they can, but if the learners aren’t doing any work, they won’t pass. Sometimes people are manifestly in the wrong place – I think back to my struggles with second-year organic chemistry (which was reliant on visualising ability, of which I had none).

Know your techniques

Each year, I run a workshop on mentoring for midwifery students. It’s always a huge buzz for me. I remember when I first ran it, the academic in question was so happy to see students engaging in the content, so here are some strategies to get students to learn and think in your classroom, not just sit there.

Use competition and comparison techniques

If you’re in a classroom and you want students to take responsibility, allocate them something they will then present to other groups. It means they will need to present to peers, which drives their motivation. It also creates a group of shared responsibility if you break the topics up amongst the groups. Competition is also often effective – the prize doesn’t even need to be more than a pretend certificate or Oreos. Often the glory is enough!

Remember how you learnt

Cast your mind back to when you were learning something difficult. Maybe it was Foucault. Maybe it was biochemistry. Maybe it was constitutional law. Whatever it was, how did you learn it? Did you sit there and passively read? How did you make it active and recall it? Use those techniques in your classroom.

Know where to go

At U:PASS, we often have the challenge of providing effective student learning without retreading the same content. A really effective strategy is to be familiar with the content being taught, and direct students to lecture notes, course materials, online readings, or even ChatGPT. AI might be worrying in many areas, but it’s pretty good at summarising a complex topic. Don’t forget some of the key services at UTS as well, such as HELPS, the library and the Maths and Science Study Centre for support with literacy, writing, referencing and information finding.

Know how to reduce the anxiety

Have you ever been called to speak up in front of others, with little understanding of what to say? What has helped you? Does it help to talk to others first? Use the same principle: Think, Pair, Share is a classic for a reason. Sharing your knowledge with someone else before saying something in public is a good way to reduce anxiety and check accuracy. 

Know when to shut up

Related to the above, sometimes the best way to get others to speak is to not. We call it ‘holding the silence’ in U:PASS. I did it just recently in a group interview, waiting for someone to start talking. It can feel like forever, but it’s a solid strategy that often works.

  • Wow, Georgina. Very insightful and will surely be of great help to many! Thank you for your compassion and always trying (and succeeding) in drawing out the best in your leaders.

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