Techniques for Effective Tertiary Teaching

Angela Carbone      Damian Conway      Graham Farr

School of Computer Science and Software Engineering
Monash University


We present a loosely integrated set of teaching techniques that we have found effective in improving our own performance as tertiary educators. These techniques emphasize the central role of communication in the teaching process and cover preparation, delivery, and the use of feedback. We conclude with a brief discussion of some important pedagogical issues that appear to be beyond the control of the individual academic.


There is a prevailing belief that great teachers are born rather than made. We disagree. We think that highly effective teaching is within the reach of all academics. It simply requires time, effort and organisation.

Increasing political and economic pressures to deliver quality education, coupled with a (slowly) growing recognition of the value of teaching, are shifting attention towards the role of academics as educators. Teaching well is finally becoming an acceptable career choice.

This paper reports on a range of teaching practices (and a framework for their use) which we have found effective in our own teaching of Computer Science, and which we feel might be readily adapted for use in many disciplines. These techniques will be presented in approximately the same order as they would be used in the preparation and presentation of a course. Few of them are individually remarkable or particularly innovative, but together they represent an approach to teaching which we believe is quite unusual.

Our approach is grounded in the belief that most students do want to learn and to understand, and that it is the teacher's role to exemplify, nurture, and facilitate those desires. We view teaching as a specialised form of bidirectional communication, in which the students are active (and interactive!) participants in the process of exposition.

Most obviously, teaching is the communication of the facts, ideas, skills, and techniques particular to a discipline. Less obviously, it is the communication of a mind-set, an attitude, a methodology, an outlook, and an enthusiasm; in other words, the spirit of that discipline. Least obviously, teaching is the act of communicating the "comprehensibility" of the subject matter - demonstrating a mastery that reassures the students that they too can understand and master the material.

Section 1 discusses a number of techniques that are helpful in preparing for various modes of effective teaching. This section divides the task of preparation into strategic (overall, long-term) goals and tactical (focussed, immediate) objectives, and also addresses the separate issue of mental preparation.

Section 2 presents ideas which may be of value in the actual delivery of teaching, covering issues of language use, presentation techniques, lecture theatre logistics, and interaction with students, as well as the deeper issue of the teacher's attitude towards their subject and their students.

Section 3 addresses the use of feedback and review to further improve teaching performance. We identify six significant types of feedback available to all teachers and discuss how they may most profitably be evaluated.

We conclude with a brief discussion on a number of educational issues which, whilst beyond the direct control of the individual teacher, will affect all teachers to some extent.

1. Preparation

Any enterprise is only as good as its planning, and that includes teaching. We divide the preparation of a course into three (overlapping) areas:

Strategic preparation of the course and subject as a whole.

Tactical preparation of specific lectures.

Mental preparation at both strategic and tactical levels.

Each is critical to the eventual success of the course delivery, but each requires a different approach.

1.1. Strategic Preparation

It is often observed that the best way to learn is to teach, because the teacher needs to become thoroughly familiar with the material beforehand. This filling of any gaps and polishing of rusty areas in the teacher's knowledge of the subject can have benefits beyond their mere necessity. For example, grappling with new or unfamiliar aspects of the material has the useful side-effect of helping a lecturer build empathy with the students, who are shortly to face the same challenge.

It is natural, and valuable, when teaching a subject for the first time, to immerse oneself in it: not just in the syllabus content, but in the material surrounding it, its history, the state-of-the-art in the discipline, current thinking about its future, and links with other fields. It is more challenging, though just as valuable, to do the same prior to presenting an already familiar course.

It is possible to capitalise on such an effort by including some of this ancillary material in the course. Although these aspects may ultimately comprise only a very small part of the lecture material, they often engage the students' interest out of proportion to the time spent on them.

In most cases, a lecturer's thorough grounding in their materal leaves them with an embarrassment of riches, making it necessary to distil from the vast sea of available information a very few significant points. Care is needed in this process to ensure that presentations are planned and structured so that those distilled essentials are clearly distinguished from the mass of supporting material. Most students are fortunate to leave a lecture retaining one tenth of what is presented. The true skill of good lecturer lies in ensuring that it is the important tenth.

In planning a course, it is important to consider the background and experience of the students. This is particularly critical in a computing subject where individual students range from complete novices who have never touched a computer to veteran hackers with a decade of experience. The course design problems posed by this range of abilities are compounded by the high proportion of international students in many courses. Such students are often very bright and dedicated, but face linguistic and cultural obstacles which must be taken into account when preparing a course. For example, a running metaphor based on cricket or Australian Rules football may be an excellent teaching tool for Australian students, but will serve only to confuse those from most foreign countries.

It can also be invaluable to re-prepare an existing course, especially when taking over from another lecturer. For example, it can be instructive to sketch out a tentative structure for a "new" course before examining the existing material. Whilst the existing course structure may be perfectly acceptable overall, these sketches often offer insights and opportunities to improve the design and delivery of specific topics.

1.2. Tactical Preparation

Once the overall structure and sequence of the course material has been decided, the process can be repeated at the next level down, to produce a lesson plan for each lecture. But tactical preparation goes well beyond the preparation of lecture material. The actual exposition of the material can also benefit from careful preparation. This might take the form of some sort of run-through, noting particular points that need emphasis, just prior to giving the lecture. A private and slightly accelerated rehearsal can be of great benefit, offering insights on the presentation of the material.

Another possibility, where time and resources permit, is to stage a full rehearsal and have it recorded, either on audio tape or full video. This provides the opportunity to review a presentation from the students' perspective.

The actual lecture delivery is not the only area which can benefit from rehearsal. Practice in drawing diagrams and sketches, working proofs and exercises, performing physical demonstrations, and wording important statements and questions, can lead to smoother, more confident presentations, and hence less trauma before and during lectures. The practice and preparation of wording is particularly valuable, as it ensures that important concepts are conveyed unambiguously and with precision.

Tactical considerations are also important when preparing for the specific delivery-related techniques described in Section 2 below. For example, the selection and procurement of physical props, the choreography of demonstrations and other interactive activities, and the formulation of humour elements all require careful planning.

1.3. Mental Preparation

The task of giving a lecture is complicated by the need to mentally play two roles at once. Firstly, and obviously, the lecturer is in front of the class, familiar with their subject and explaining it systematically. At the same time, however, it is valuable to attempt to mentally hold the perspective of someone in the audience, trying to perceive the presentation with the critical but inexperienced mind of the novice student. The same sort of "split position" can be very useful in preparing a course with the student's point of view in mind.

A lecturer's attitude to their students is a vital factor in the success of their teaching, and a surprising amount of that attitude appears to be formulated well before the first lecture begins.

A classic mistake that some lecturers make is to confuse their attitude towards their students with their attitude towards the skills of their students, or towards the secondary education system in which they acquired those skills. Any disenchantment with the system which spills over into a lecturer's attitude towards the students can quickly become a serious impediment to effective communication in the classroom.

It can help to recall one's own student days, to reflect on past teachers, and consider what may be learned from their examples (or counterexamples). Characteristics that commonly appear in the behaviour of the best teachers include: a deep understanding, a straightforward (ego-less) style of presentation, enthusiastic delivery, and a genuine love of a subject.

One of the most important responsibilities of all educators is to try to engender a love of learning and scholarship in their students. The sort of immersive preparation and "re-learning" described above can be particularly valuable in generating and sustaining a level of teacher enthusiasm which will encourage the students themselves to feel the intellectual excitement of being a member of a true University, rather than just a product of some educational assembly line.

2. Delivery

Just as no battle plan survives contact with an enemy, so no amount of preparation can ensure a successful lecture. There is an abundance of information [1,2,3,4] on the basic presentation techniques that all lecturers need to master, such as clear, well-paced and audible speech, the competent use of overheads or boards, etc. This section concentrates instead on some less obvious factors that can contribute to a successful lecture.

2.1. Enthusiasm

Boredom is a contagious disease in the lecture theatre, and many students catch it from their lecturer. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is not something that can be faked, because students are particularly sharp at spotting an act. As suggested above, treating preparation as an opportunity to learn something new (perhaps the historical development of an idea, or an unexpected connection between two concepts) can renew one's own interest in a subject, as well as generating useful parenthetical material to stimulate students' enthusiasm.

Of course, a genuine love for the subject and for teaching itself is a real advantage, as it tends to ensure that a certain energy is maintained throughout the course. Such enthusiasm flows on to the class, arousing their curiosity and interest. From our experience, students give significantly more weight to enthusiasm than most lecturers would expect when forming an opinion of (and attitude towards) a lecture course.

2.2. Relationship with the class

The relationship that a lecturer develops with their class depends in part on the atmosphere they create. Some obvious factors which can help teachers create an environment conducive to learning include:

Students respond best in an environment in which they can develop a sense of belonging and therefore feel comfortable making a contribution. In such an environment students become better able to exchange their ideas, to reveal their lack of understanding, and to put forward suggestions without feeling embarrassed or humiliated.

2.3. Demonstrating and encouraging competence

One of the subtlest ways in which to communicate with students is by example. Many of the intellectual attitudes and habits that they will acquire are picked up by emulating (or reacting against!) their teachers. Consequently, it is important to maintain both the appearance and substance of deep understanding, modelling the level of competence and professionalism to which the students should aspire. The approaches to strategic preparation described above can assist in this task.

Of course, there will almost certainly be times when a lecturer simply doesn't know the answer to a particular question. In such cases modelling competence consists of candidly admitting ignorance or uncertainty and pointing out that the lecturer does know how to find the answer.

Rewarding competence in students is another valuable practice. This already occurs in the formal assessment processes, but can be profitably brought into the lecture theatre. One approach is to give students the opportunity to answer questions (either our own or those posed by other students) and to acknowledge good answers (or good, but incorrect, attempts) when they are offered. A slightly subtler technique is to verbally reward good questions, particularly questions based on inference ("So that means...", "What if you did this instead...", "But didn't you previously tell us...", etc.) which indicate that students are thinking about the material being presented.

2.4. Clarity

Experienced teachers are well aware that a clear ten minute explanation backed by well-designed instructional materials can save hours of subsequent remediation, especially when teaching students with inadequate language or comprehension skills. In working towards this (sometimes unattainable) goal, it can be useful to keep in mind that the typical student will probably not have seen the material before and may well not even have a firm grasp on the concepts those materials extend.

Hence it can be valuable to attempt to evaluate planned instructions, overheads, notes, diagrams, etc. from the perspective of the student who is seeing them for the first time, perhaps by asking a fellow academic, a member of the administrative staff, or even a family member to look over the material with an unjaundiced eye. They may also be able to suggest ways in which written materials can be structured and formatted in a manner which is more coherent, logical and consistent from the student's perspective.

When designing assessments, the front-line tutorial staff can be particularly helpful in identifying and eliminating ambiguities and verbosity in questions, as well as ensuring that the marking scheme for the assessment is clearly indicated. Where resources are available it can also be useful to have practical exercises "play-tested" for feasibility and length, so that any problems can be ironed out well before notes are distributed to students.

2.5. Humour

Humour is a good ice-breaker and an even better memory aid, but conscientiously reeling off three jokes at the start of each lecture is rarely an effective teaching technique.

Except for those few with a genuine talent for comedy, it can be much more effective simply to put a humorous or "off-beat" slant on some appropriate course material. The aim is not to entertain per se, but rather to effectively communicate an important idea in a memorable fashion.

For example, when introducing the programming concept of a record data structure, a lecturer might talk about the (supposed!) criminal records of the students in the back row, asking them to describe what types of information (name, number, mug shot, fingerprints, etc.) might be found in their prison dossier. This can then lead on to discussions of fields (the named blanks to be filled in on the prison forms), composite data types (the diversity of data stored), arrays of records (for the cell block they were in), etc.

2.6. Jargon

An typical conversation with an experienced academic may be meaningless and incomprehensible to a novice student (who may also be loath to admit this fact!)  Students, who are not yet familiar with the common terminology used in the discipline, can become overwhelmed and distressed in lectures if they can't even understand the language used.

Student learning can often be greatly enhanced by a lecturer's efforts to avoid unnecessary jargon, and to prefer simple non-technical explanations. This is, of course, much harder than it sounds, because experts in a field naturally tend to forget just how many of the terms and expressions they regularly use are jargon.

Eventually, of course, it becomes desirable and necessary to communicate using more sophisticated and appropriate terminology. A technique that can facilitate this transition is to carefully define all new terms as they are introduced, and then briefly define them again the first time they are used in the next few lectures. Thereafter their use can be incorporated into the tutorial and lab exercises, so that students become familiar and confident using them.

2.7. Understanding the students' context

The use of jargon is not the only linguistic barrier to communication in the lecture theatre. Aristotle lamented that his students belonged to a sub-culture very different from his own, and so it is today. To bridge that gap it can be useful to listen to students' language, become aware of their beliefs and values, and then choose examples, referents and assumptions that are meaningful to them.

It is sometimes surprisingly easy to find common ground (for example, talking about The Rolling Stones instead of The Doors, The Simpsons rather than The Flintstones). It can be more challenging to venture wholly into their context (for example, to talk about The Smashing Pumpkins or Ren and Stimpy.) Such an approach requires a deep and ongoing familiarity with the youth sub-culture, which needs to be constantly updated (for example, The Smashing Pumpkins are almost certainly already passé even as you read this!)

Ultimately, what seems to be most important is to demonstrate respect for one's students and their cultural identity even in the absence of understanding it, in order to merit their respect in turn.

2.8. Linking

"Structural links" assist students to process incoming information. In some respects they are analogous to the structural features of a piece of writing (chapters, sections, paragraphs, sentences) which help readers to orient ourselves and to "navigate" a text. Just as the lack of such structures in a text makes in considerably harder to read (imagine a book written as one enormous unbroken paragraph), so the absence of explicit structuring mechanisms can reduce the comprehensibility of a lecture.

The average undergraduate student will be attending lectures, tutorials and practical classes for at least three or four subjects. Hence, they may need to have the correct context re-established at the beginning of each lecture in a subject. This may take the form of a quick recap of preceding material or simply a throw-away line: "You will remember last week we discussed...."

Navigational aids are valuable to students throughout a lecture. Visual and verbal "signposts" can help students understand the structure (whether linear or hierarchical) of the material they are receiving. Perhaps the simplest such signpost is the common use of progressive "current position in the lecture" slides at the start of each topic.

Verbal signposts are also useful, and usually appear in the form of context-setting phrases or sentences. These might supply an explicit description of the high level structure ("To understand franistats we must consider their individual components: widgets, gizmos and doohickeys..."), or introduce specific lower levels of structure by describing their relationship to the whole ("The most visible component of a franistat is its widget..."), or may act as sequencing cues ("Now that we understand widgets, we can consider the critical function of a gizmo in the operation of a franistat...").

2.9. Metaphors

Structural links provide the student with cues to the internal relationships of the material being presented. Whilst necessary, these cues are not sufficient to facilitate effective learning of the material. It is also vital to provide links to the students' existing knowledge.

One view of learning [5,6,7] is as a process of augmentation of existing cognitive structures. In this view, students accrete knowledge and understanding by forming cognitive links between new material and previously mastered information, concepts, or skills. Teachers can assist their students in building such connections by explicitly providing these links as part of their lesson.

Metaphors are an extremely powerful way of helping students to mentally connect with a particular concept by forming analogies to other (technical or non-technical) domains. For example, when trying to explain a particular computational technique (such as pipeline processing), it may be useful to "misapply" it to a well-known example in another domain (such as vehicle assembly) or to an everyday experience (such as assembling lunch in a cafeteria).

Inventing analogies is one activity where humour can be particularly effective in enhancing learning (as opposed to its occasional use to reduce tension). Many people find amusing analogies far more vivid and memorable than more pedestrian comparisons. Thus, for example, one might illustrate pipeline processing not just by assembling are vehicle or a lunch, but by assembling a vehicle with many humorous optional extras, or a lunch consisting of some highly improbable ingredients.

Providing analogies for new ideas can be a powerful teaching tool, but it also requires great care. In presenting a metaphor, it is critical to indicate clearly which aspects of the new and the known are being equated, and (even more importantly) where the analogy breaks down.

For example, it can be useful to introduce the concept of a variable as a container or box which is used to store values rather than objects. One can then extend the analogy by observing that boxes may have labels (variable names), may be of specific shapes that prevent them from storing dissimilarly-shaped objects (type systems), may be stacked (arrays and records), may be used to transport objects (parameter passing), and so forth.

However, it is critical to point out that, unlike boxes, putting something new into a variable automatically "destroys" the previous contents. Failure to point out this fundamental difference can lead students to draw inaccurate or contradictory inferences and may, in the short term, significantly impede their acquisition of understanding.

2.10. Teaching inductively

Lecturers and researchers are experienced in the "linking" phase of learning, and adept at connecting a new concept into existing cognitive structures in such as way that it becomes meaningful to them. Their need to have most connections explicitly pointed out has passed.

As a result, some lecturers tend to present their material in a very abstract fashion, expecting students to easily perceive their meaning and automatically make their own connections. Unfortunately, most students have neither the experience nor the sophistication of existing cognitive structures to successfully make such perceptions and connections.

This mismatch between lecturers' expectations and their students' ability can have serious and ongoing repercussions, as students become intellectually stranded and fall further and further behind, having been unable to build the necessary mental foundations which are the stepping stones to understanding subsequent concepts.

This problem may often be avoided by teaching inductively (from the concrete to the abstract), rather than deductively (from theory to instance). Presenting concepts via simple examples and then describing how those examples instantiate an underlying abstraction, can provide students with appropriate similes or metaphors with which to link the new concept to their existing understanding.

2.11. Physical props

The use of physical props can also be valuable teaching technique, and need not be restricted to simply showing relevant devices or conducting in-lecture experiments. All kinds of props can be used to add variety and interest to a lecture. Many students also find it easier to grasp a concept or metaphor if it is linked to a physical object that has a familiar purpose and meaning. Finally, physical props provide students with a clear mnemonic through which to later retrieve a concept.

All manner of everyday items can be adapted to this purpose. Vacuum cleaner hoses and labelled table-tennis balls can be used to illustrate the concept of the input/output streams of a computer program, envelopes and paper can represent variables or disk files, a ScrabbleTM board can be used to discuss character strings and memory allocation, and playing cards are excellent for demonstrating sorting and searching algorithms.

2.12. Setting realistic goals

All lecturers are faced with a serious "packing problem": in the average course, the material to be covered will not easily fit into the time available to cover it. The temptation therefore is to bombard the students with everything they are supposed to learn, in the hope that the most important material will be discerned and retained.

Realistically, no matter how much (or little!) material is covered in a lecture, students will leave retaining only a small amount of what was presented: perhaps three or four "Big Ideas" and a similar number of "Little Facts". This being the case, it can be beneficial to reduce the material covered in each lecture (relegating less important topics to assigned reading) and aim for a deeper exposition of few points.

It is also worth bearing in mind that students' enthusiasm and understanding will only grow when the goals set for them are achievable. Tutorial staff can be particularly helpful in filtering assignment tasks so that the majority of students will be able to complete them successfully in laboratories, tutorials and outside of normal class hours.

2.13. Variety

Doing the same activity for long periods of time bores most people, and sitting in lectures is no exception. There are, however, a large number of activities [8] that can be used to provide diversity in the lecture theatre. One possible rule of thumb is to avoid maintaining any one activity (talking on a single subject, giving a demonstration, fielding questions, etc.) for more than 20 minutes.

We believe students learn best when they are having fun. Their engagement in a task is not only determined by the task but also by the way it is delivered. In tutorials there is ample opportunity to bring life to the subject by using role plays, games, a range of drawing activities and a combination of group work, where the group might be the whole class, a team of three or four, or a set of pairs.

The larger class sizes found in lectures need not preclude the use of many of these types of learning activities. It is possible to use the audience members as participants in demonstrations or get them to play act the behaviour being describing. Alternatively, individual students can be engaged in Socratic dialogue (although care must be taken to establish beforehand that the particular student will be comfortable in the role).

Short "discussion breaks" can be introduced, giving students the opportunity to discuss a particular problem or idea with their immediate neighbour for (say) two minutes. As suggested above, when soliciting questions from the class, other students can be invited to offer answers and a controlled discussion initiated.

Nor is it necessary to feel bound to the lectern or the overhead projector. Unexpectedly walking up into the seats can profoundly alter the pace and mood of a lecture, if only by challenging the students' preconceptions about lectures.

2.14. Interaction

Whilst it is important to keep a lecture close to its planned timing, few students respond well to a teacher who simply plows ahead through a predetermined discourse, oblivious to the response of the class. Keeping alert to the state of the class (both as individuals and as a group) can make the difference between merely giving an address and achieving genuine communication.

The opportunities for interaction in a teaching setting will vary considerably depending on the size and purpose of the class and the nature of the students, but they will always be there. Even in a large class, questions can be solicited or posed, and discussions subsequently initiated.

However, the degree to which these kinds of activities will succeed depends very much on the atmosphere which the lecturer creates. Here again, the teacher's attitude plays a significant role in the success of a lesson.

For example, the reaction a student receives when asking a question is just as important as the answer they get, for it is the lecturer's reaction (including body language, tone of voice, and the phrasing of the answer) which will largely determine whether the student will ever raise their hand again. Similarly, the way in which lecturers pose questions often sends a louder signal than the questions they choose to ask.

One practical way to build an atmosphere of student participation in a lecture is to interact with them by name. Of course, for large classes it is almost always impractical to learn the requisite hundreds of names, but fortunately this is rarely necessary. In most classes only a dozen or so students actually ask questions on a regular basis and it usually suffices to learn the names of these individuals.

Technology can also be of considerable benefit in improving interaction within the lecture theatre. There are few more significant barriers to effective communication than the preoccupation of one of the parties in some complex activity. Yet "preoccupation in a complex activity" is an accurate description of some lecturing styles, which involve continual shuffling of overheads, scribbling of information, and juggling of demonstrations in various media.

We have found [9,10] that the use of electronic (computer-mediated) presentation can be of considerable benefit, freeing the lecturer from many of the tedious mental and physical tasks involved in presentation.

3. Review

Feedback of all types can be invaluable in assessing one's teaching, although care must be taken to separate fact from opinion. Both formal and informal feedback mechanisms can be important sources of information.

Questionnaires and surveys are the commonest form of "formal" feedback to which a teacher has access. These often provide a numerical rating of various aspects of the lecturer's performance. However, because students tend to "grade" lecturers partially on the basis of their own feelings towards a subject, such aggregated numerical measures are only a very rough guide to the actual quality of one's teaching.

Of far more value are the comments that typically students add to their survey sheets. Often it is possible to discern recurring themes in such comments. In particular, they provide an opportunity to obtain feedback on "unmeasurable" quantities, such as the perceived approachability of a lecturer or the effectiveness of their use of language, analogy, or humour.

Feedback from students is a necessary but not a sufficient measure of teaching performance. Students are very good at identifying "positive" successes and failures (things that were done well or poorly), but considerably less astute at picking up "negative" aspects (beneficial or detrimental things that could have been done but weren't). Furthermore, younger students may be able to identify what they did or didn't like, but less able to explain why they felt that way.

The use of non-student observers can be of value in overcoming these limitations. Fellow lecturers will often be willing to sit in on the occasional lecture and subsequently discuss (constructively!) the lecturer's performance. Finding and using suitable observers can be challenging, but benefits both the teacher, who is afforded another perspective on his or her performance, and the observers, who have the chance to quietly compare their own approaches to teaching with another's, without any performance pressure.

Peer observers can offer useful feedback on content, organization and presentation issues, but often suffer from their own experience when evaluating pedagogy. Put simply, they are sometimes unable to spot ineffective teaching because they themselves are too familiar with the material being taught. Hence, a "lay" observer (either a professional from another discipline, or a mature individual with no involvement in education) may be able to offer unexpected insights into the effectiveness of one's communication of ideas and knowledge, because they are in the same position as a student (in that the material is unfamiliar), but unburdened by the pressure to master that material.

A less formal, but equally valuable form of feedback is anecdotal information from tutors and demonstrators. In computing, as in many other disciplines, most of the student's learning occurs outside the lecture theatre, much of it in practical classes. Hence the observations of class supervisors can provide important insights into the ways in which students are (mis-)learning lecture material.

Consultations provide yet another opportunity to gauge one's performance as a teacher. This may be done implicitly, by keeping track of the types of remediation students require, or explicitly, by asking the student to informally evaluate their own learning experience.

4. Other Issues

Universities are accepting many more students, with a wider range of abilities, than ever before. In order to cope with an increasingly diverse pool of students, there is the natural temptation for lecturers to pitch our material at a lower level to prevent weaker students from failing or discontinuing. However, doing this can also lead to a reduction in overall academic standards and risks not properly engaging and challenging the brightest students. We see this as a serious problem.

To assist those students with language or learning difficulties our Faculty has employed a Language and Learning Officer who runs both group workshops and individual consultation sessions. Students can be referred to the service by their tutor or may take advantage of it on their own initiative.

To encourage our top students, our School has established voluntary First Year advanced projects. These projects aim to provide high achievers with the opportunity to tackle interesting and challenging problems that will extend their current skills. Project groups are supervised informally by nominated postgraduates or academics and the resulting work is outside the formal curriculum and is not assessed. We see these measures as first steps rather than full solutions to the problem.

Another serious problem, albeit not a new one, is the inadequacy of many students' study habits: leaving things to the last minute, cramming, disinclination to put in study time outside lectures and labs, superficial learning. While some of the approaches described above can encourage students to remedy this, in the end lecturers must treat them like adults and not regiment them like school children. We have no easy answers to this problem and suspect that it is too large and deep for a single lecturer to make any real impact. Perhaps it derives from the education system as a whole, or indeed from our very society and culture. It is however the biggest single impediment to our own teaching and we would like to deal better with it.

Although teaching is beginning to gain acceptance as a valid and important academic activity, rewards for excellence in teaching are still few and far between. Because effective teaching does require significant effort, it also requires that institutions provide the incentive of commensurate rewards. Salary and promotion are obvious areas where rewards are possible, but there are others.

Such rewards need to be structured so that the average academic is motivated to pursue them. It is generally accepted that the most successful researchers should have the best access to research resources and opportunities. By analogy, it would seem fitting that the most successful teachers should have best access to desirable opportunities in teaching. This might take the form of grants for teaching-related projects, although an interest in good teaching may not translate into a desire to do research in that area.

A more attractive incentive might be to offer the most effective teachers preferential choice of the subjects they teach. The allocation of lecturers to courses is a very important matter to all academics, and giving selection priority to the best teachers would have a highly motivational effect on all staff.

We also feel that it is an important, but neglected task to teach presentation and teaching skills to students and young researchers. Though only a few will go on to lecture, many are engaged in some form of undergraduate teaching (tutoring) and most will eventually have to give presentations in their jobs. One current effort by our Department to address this is our Tutor Training Scheme. The programme was jointly designed by Education and Computing staff and, in part, focuses on improving the teaching practices of tutors and demonstrators (who are mainly postgraduates and honours students.)

The scheme consists of a targeted pre-semester 12 hour training program with on-going meetings throughout the year. The meetings give tutors and demonstrators the opportunity to participate in planning sessions, brainstorm teaching approaches with the help of educational staff, and reflect on their current teaching practices. Although the programme still requires fine tuning, the scheme is a step towards improving the quality of "front-line" teaching within our department.


In this paper we have offered a loosely integrated set of techniques and approaches which we have used and found effective in improving our own teaching. None of them is "free" -- in the sense that every one costs both time and mental effort to implement and use. Some of them are restricted in their applicability or their appropriateness to a given teacher or subject. But all of them can and do work for us and for many of our colleagues who have chosen to try them.

In closing, we observe that good teaching is not easy, that we certainly do not have all (or even many) of the answers, and that there remains plenty of scope for improvement in our own teaching.

If it achieves nothing more, we hope that this paper will provide an impetus and a resource for increased awareness and discussion of the problems and opportunities of teaching at the tertiary level.


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