Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Crumbs from my table: Anecdotes from 11 years of tertiary teaching

Margaret Giles
Faculty of Business
Edith Cowan University
When I started sessional tutoring at the (then) WA College of Advanced Education in 1984, I was armed with previous experience as a full-time undergraduate, six years of research in government, confidence in my knowledge of things mathematical and statistical and not-so-slight trepidation at being out the front of a class instead of behind a desk. By 1994 I had completed further study as a 'mature age/part-timer', my time as a tertiary teacher outweighed my years as a bureaucrat and I realised that the learning curve of subject knowledge was forever shifting. However, I could step up to a podium with or without prepared notes and mostly without sending up a silent plea for a hole in the ground to swallow me up!! What has happened in the intervening years has been a mix of on-the-job trial and error training, informal collegial brainstorming and formal how-to-teach sessions. My presentation captures examples of this teaching and learning mix and concludes that there is no end to this process as long as subjects are evolving and society and the students it sends us are changing.

Introduction

As an economist, I will in this paper invoke the economist's favourite tool[1] - a mathematical model - to present my anecdotes. That is, I will treat teaching and learning outcomes as a function of four inter-related entities - myself as the 'teacher'; the students as the 'learners'; the environment which includes both the classroom and the 'system'; and the subject matter.

The 'teacher'

Back in 1984 I had been working full-time in the Commonwealth and State (WA) Public Services for six years as an Economist-cum-Research Officer. I had completed my Bachelor of Economics full-time seven years earlier. I had no teaching experience although I did in the course of my work have to present information or papers to colleagues and senior management.

I was offered sessional tutoring at the (then) WA College of Advanced Education (WACAE) on the Mt Lawley campus with tutorials for the Bachelor of Business Foundation (compulsory first year) unit which is now known as Business Statistics. My familiarity with this subject derived from both my undergraduate study and my work experience. Nonetheless, it had been some time since I had gone back to basics with the statistics I was to have been teaching, so my preparation time for the tutorials was quite long (up to 3 hours). I also attended the lectures as an observer which I thought was necessary to ensure I was teaching the unit in a fashion consistent with the lecturer's style. However a few weeks into Semester, one of my students misinterpreted my attendance at lectures, suggesting that I was learning also!! Naturally I stopped attending the lectures. As it happened though, my teaching style did comprehend the lecturer's priorities. Now however I don't see this as being necessary as students can benefit by having differing teaching approaches delivering the same subject matter (Race and Brown 1994).

In 1994 I was into my eleventh year of teaching including periods of sessional tutoring and full-time contract lecturing. In the intervening years I had successfully completed a Masters by course work programme in which I had to attend 'seminars', write dissertations and sit exams as a 'mature age/part-timer'. I had also attended an in-house teaching and learning seminar series and conferred irregularly with colleagues both within and outside Edith Cowan University.

I had also moved on from first year Business Statistics to the daunting heights of third year Taxation Theory and Finance, undergraduate and postgraduate Economics and honours thesis supervision. I was also running my own units - selecting texts, setting assignments and exams, deciding course outlines and objectives. I was overwhelmed by such autonomy, until I read the fine print - handbooks, re-accreditation guide-lines, exam and result time-lines, timetabling, pre-requisites and so the list goes on. In one unit I decided that the objectives I had inherited did not appeal so I merrily rewrote them to better reflect the way I was teaching the course (Pasch et al 1991). In particular I was keen to make them more realistic and pragmatic. A few Semesters down the track I was advised that objectives can only be changed in the re-accreditation process. So I had to dig out the old objectives and try to massage my course content and assessment to fit.

My priority in 1984 was to ensure that during the allotted tutorial time, I covered the answers to all the set tutorial questions. I wrote in detail the answers on the board and followed these set questions methodically. It never occurred to me that the students might only need detailed answers to some of the more difficult questions. Although I made a point of getting to know all their names by the third week, I did little with this information other than marking the attendance register. In 1994 my priority was for most students to understand most 'things'. I tried to cover what I thought was necessary for the course in the contact time, be it tutorial or lecture. If we ran out of time I would either try to slot in the information later in the course, get the students to read up on it or forget about it altogether. I understood finally that some students will just not make the grade and others I may have trouble keeping up with. I have found some Semesters are fun, and others just hard work.

The students

In 1984 I was allocated early evening tutorials so my students tended to be 'mature age/part-timers'. This necessitated a slower approach to the tutorial work with lots of repetition.[2] Also the students were coming into the Statistics unit with minimal mathematics buried in their respective dim and distant pasts. Those who were studying full-time may have been working but only on a casual basis. Generally I was always the youngest person in the room.

Some of the students had English as a second language. Nonetheless I recall only one student in those early days whose English comprehension was so poor that she translated her work from English into Chinese, performed the mathematics in Chinese and then translated her results back into English. She asked for a longer examination time which I pursued on her behalf. Not surprisingly, this was knocked back on the basis that students coming into the degree should have the necessary language competency.

In 1984 I did not come across any plagiarism or students minimising their study efforts through collusion, etc. Students in 1994 were more various, probably because I was teaching across a broader range of units at different times in the day. A major change I've perceived is the greater variation in English language competency for overseas students. Still, this may have been the case in 1984 with the assessment requirements of the Statistics unit not exposing such difficulties.

In 1994 I came across my first case of 'cheating'. Two students handed in almost identical 400 word assignments. I say 'almost identical' because most phrases in the sentences and sentences in the paragraphs were rearranged. However the nature and ordering of paragraphs was identical and the final paragraphs which held some unusual phrases and commentary were exact replicas. I decided to award the original paper full marks and the copy 'zero'. To his credit the 'copier' then went on to complete an exemplary exam paper which could have earned him a distinction in the unit. Ours is not to reason why, or is it?

The environment

In 1984 I was taking tutorials in small tute rooms and the number of students after the first three weeks usually settled down to a manageable single figure. By 1994 I had taught in a range of room sizes and types - Case Studies, lecture theatres, seminar rooms and claustrophobic tute rooms. The Case Study rooms I have found are suited to anything but Case Study presentations! Although the lecturer can be heard by the students, the acoustics are such that the lecturer cannot hear the students responses or questions. Moreover, in certain dead spots the lecturer is treated to an echo of her own voice. This is an awkward problem for those of us who move across and around the room during the course of a lecture (something I would not have contemplated doing in 1984). Lublin (1991) refers to the importance of the environment for learning.

Whereas in 1984 as a sessional tutor I was uninvolved with course setting or university affairs, the move to a full-time contract exposed me to the not inconsiderable range of non-teaching responsibilities academic staff have thrust upon them. These include voting for Department Chairperson, preparing re-accreditation documents, sitting on committees (at University or Faculty level), attending and contributing to Department and School meetings, filling out forms (Research Activity Index, Staff Profile, etc), advising students on majors and minors and attending graduation ceremonies. On the teaching side of course there are the requirements of setting courses, ordering textbooks, preparing course outlines, organising teaching assistance, marking assignments and exams and meeting Student Administration deadlines.

Since the granting of University status we also need to "publish or perish" (Sadler 1992) so in our spare time, we are all to some degree doing research, be it funded or unfunded. We do this with one eye on the value of points from our Research Activity Index and another eye on University and Faculty research objectives, particularly if we intend to request funding assistance. For those of us braving the New World of Competitive Grants, we need to get a handle on terminology, priorities and the potential for collaboration. The time and effort that goes into these grant applications is unacknowledged, particularly if the grant is unsuccessful.

In 1984, we taught with our own instinctive style, tempered by any teacher education both formal and informal we may have done. By 1994, there were innumerable constraints intervening in this approach. For example we need to ensure the language, content and presentation of our teaching is not racist or sexist (Gilbert and Taylor 1991). We know that freedom of information legislation applies to our assessment marking guides. Now students can and do question not only the application of the marking guide to their work but also the construction of the marking guide itself (Chadwick 1985, Gaze 1990, Cannon 1992).

There is also an awareness of comparable courses and staffing arrangements at other tertiary institutions in Western Australia and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of Australia. The funding constraints imposed by DEET, in particular, have seen us competing for students across institutions, Faculties and Departments (DEET 1994). We've introduced full fee and bridging courses, and Summer School to shore up Departmental funds so that research funding and time release for academic staff can be financed.

The subject

The Statistics unit I was teaching in 1984 has changed to the extent that it now includes topics from a now extinct Quantitative Methods unit. This necessitated the deletion of some topics from the original unit. The textbook has changed a number of times in the eleven years as has related reading material (Watson et al 1975, 1980, 1986, 1990). The accompanying workbook has been revised and the allowable calculator list has both changed and grown. The depth of the course I believe has lessened due I believe to the wider reach of topics and the diminished mathematics entry skills of the students. I see these changes as essential and not contentious.

Economics on the other hand has undergone an exciting revolution (Rogers and Neal 1994). Not only have theories come and gone, and economies disappeared and/or re-organised, but there has been a phenomenal growth in textbooks of all shapes, sizes and emphases. The course structure for the Economics major has undergone a transformation in unit labels and content to mirror the diversity and breadth of the genre in relation to the Business degree generally and economics training specifically.

Such is the case for the Economics major overall. Less can be said for the compulsory introductory Macroeconomics unit. In an attempt to accommodate the perceived lower quantitative skills of first years, this unit has been thinned. However it has benefited by contemporary economic experience such as the 'recession we had to have' and the end of socialism in Eastern Europe. From a theoretical perspective, advances in economic thinking have generally been divulged well beyond the first year units due to their innate difficulty. To some extent this short-changes our first year students, but the inclusion of this material on top of the economists' peculiar bundle of fundamentals could be too ambitious.

Conclusions

Throughout the past eleven years I have noticed differences. I have highlighted some of these as probable irreversible changes and others as just differences due to the changes in my teaching assignments. There is a difficulty in identifying which is which as in some cases both are occurring! Just as none of us are immune to life's lessons, neither can we avoid the lessons our teaching or academic experience affords us. The frustration is knowing that although there may be an Everest in our search for 'better teaching', we are forever stuck on the ice floe, making sometimes major and many times minor forays up to, but short of, that peak.

References

Cannon, Robert (1992). Lecturing. HERDSA Green Guide No. 7, 2nd Edition. HERDSA: Campbelltown.

Chadwick, P. and The Age (1985). F.O.I.: How to use the freedom of information laws. Melbourne: The Age and MacMillan.

DEET/HEC Working Party (1994). Resource Allocation in Higher Education.

Gaze, B. (1990). Dealing with the Government. In Wallace, J. and Pagone, T (eds), Rights and Freedoms in Australia. Annandale: The Federation Press.

Gilbert, P. and Taylor, S. (1991). Fashioning the Feminine: Girls, popular culture and schooling, North Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Lublin, Jacqueline (1991). Conducting Tutorials. HERDSA Green Guide No. 6, 2nd Edition. HERDSA: Campbelltown.

McTaggart, D., Findlay, C. and Parkin, M. (1992). Economics. Sydney: Addison-Wesley.

Orr, Fred (1987). How to Succeed at Part-Time Study. Sydney: Unwin.

Pasch, M., Sparks-Langer, G., Gardner, T.G., Starko, A. J. and Moody, C. D. (1991). Teaching as Decision Making: Instructional Practices for the Successful Teacher. New York: Longman.

Race, Phil and Brown, Sally (1994). 500 Tips for Tutors. Kogan Page: London.

Rogers, C. and Neal, P. (1994). Macroeconomics and the Australian Economy: Recent Performance and Challenges of the 1990s. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Sadler, D. Royce (1992). Up the Publication Road. HERDSA Green Guide No. 2, 2nd Edition. HERDSA: Campbelltown.

Watson, C. J., Billingsley, P., Crofit, D. J. and Huntsberger, D. V. (1975, 1980, 1986, 1990). Statistics for Management and Economics. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Footnotes

  1. McTaggart, Findlay and Parkin (1992 page 27) may argue that "graphs have become almost more important than words" but even these visual tools have a mathematical foundation.
  2. Orr (1987) relates this to the clutter and anxiety of older students rather than a dearth of grey matter.
Please cite as: Giles, M. (1995). Crumbs from my table: Anecdotes from 11 years of tertiary teaching. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p106-110. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/giles.html


[ TL Forum 1995 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/giles.html
Last revision: 16 Apr 2002. Edith Cowan University
Previous URL Feb 1997 to 15 Apr 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf95/giles106.html