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WATE PGR 2018 commendee: Steven Day (WMG / Physics)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

My mother is a very passionate teacher, so I was exposed to this passion quite early in my life. The real reason why I started to teach as a PGR student was less grand however; it was more that experienced academics argued that to find a job in academia after my doctoral studies publications would not be enough. I initially followed this advice and thus became involved in teaching to make myself more employable.

Now I have invested more hours and energy than necessary to become employable but have luckily found the passion that my mother spoke of – teaching can make a real and immediate difference to how students experience their time in university and seeing my students progress and grow is incredibly satisfying. In teaching you can have a much more direct impact on improving people’s lives or experiences than you do in research, and although I enjoy my research very much, I would not want to miss the balance provided by teaching.

What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?

The following advice has been very enlightening and helpful to me, and luckily I received it at an early point in my teaching career (it has been roughly paraphrased):

While it may be possible for a new teacher to deliver a session based on PowerPoint slides to an acceptable degree, being involved with the design of a session and its teaching materials, as well as ideally the whole module, is necessary to truly understand how a session fits together, how it fits into the module, and how it fits into the degree. Assisting in session planning therefore helps with session delivery.

Not all students will be completely satisfied with everything you teach and how you teach it. There are preferences among students for certain subject topics and teaching methods, which may depend on previous experiences, learning styles, or other factors. Attempting to reach all of your audience is always the goal, but this may not always be possible and may not always be dependent on your abilities as a teacher.

Try to keep an eye on new developments in your subject area. As researchers we are exposed to new thoughts and ideas constantly – including some of them in your teaching can prepare your students better for the future they will face. Even in the most controlled curricula there is scope to go beyond subject orthodoxy if well-argued and backed up by research.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

It would have been interesting to me that most the time a teacher spends is not actually spent on delivering sessions, but rather on the design of sessions and teaching materials, acquiring resources, marking assessments, or administrative duties. This back-end was largely invisible to me but determines the quality of teaching very much and there are many opportunities to become involved here for subject experts that may be less excited about the prospect of delivering lectures or seminars themselves.

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?

Initially I would recommend that while teaching can make you more confident as a person, being confident is also a soft requirement to start teaching in the first place. Regardless of whether one is in front of 300 students in a lecture theatre or delivering a tutorial to a group of 10, some degree of confidence is required to stand up and expose what you say and how you say it to the scrutiny of others. There are courses on public speaking and a variety of other methods that may be useful, because starting to teach while being terribly uncomfortable in front of crowds can make your first session a traumatising experience.

Secondly, I would say that while sessions are designed by the teacher, assuming that the person delivering the session will always be in control of what happens in the classroom is not realistic. A number of things can and will go wrong – technology will not work or be missing, a classroom discussion will overrun significantly for whatever reason, or there may be conflicts about room allocation. Trying to prevent these issues is time well spent, but regardless some of them will happen at some point – and that is okay. Moving on and adapting (or having a backup plan) is valuable and allows you to work through difficulties in the moment, and then later reflect on what the root cause of the difficulty was.

Lastly, I would recommend doing teaching observations – both being the observer and observing a colleague. While you may be apprehensive to expose your subjectively shaky practice to someone more experienced, the feedback is generally valuable, and if it is not, you can find somebody else to observe you the next time as even non-subject teachers can have valid opinions on your delivery for example. Similarly observing someone more experienced can teach you a lot; you may have been a student yourself before, but in those cases, you likely focused more on the content of the sessions instead of the teacher. Seeing how others deal with common issues like the one mentioned above can save you a lot of time figuring them out yourself.

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

I believe some more experienced teachers have been using the same materials in their sessions for a long time. While this may not be an issue in itself, students can tell if a lecturer has delivered the same session with the same slides dozens of times by the way they are delivered. If the university strives to enable ‘cutting edge’ education, the students will rightfully see some kind of discrepancy between decade old material and ‘cutting edge’.

Keeping the session plan and material fresh would help keep the delivery fresh – also as the teacher is forced a bit out of the comfort zone. I think it would be valuable for more experienced teachers to once in a while attempt to develop a completely new session plan that is significantly different from the one they normally use, just to see how else a session might be structured and what new material or teaching methods may be incorporated. Even just reflecting on this activity may bring new ideas and sight and even if the old session plan and materials are retained, at least a new angle could be developed out of this exercise.

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

I am using a number of computer-based simulations in my teaching. As they are based on Microsoft Excel, hardware requirements are low – any desktop computer with Excel can run them as intended. Nevertheless, especially when groups of students work on one simulation together, a larger screen increases participation as then all students can see and discuss the simulation together, and also have reliable access to enough working desktop computers may be a challenge. Apart from this simple hardware requirement, another consideration from the very start of designing a session making use of such technology should be that the technology is there to support the students in achieving a specific, predetermined learning outcome. It should not be the case that a particular technology is picked for example to increase the ‘innovativeness’ of a module or session, and then the learning outcome is determined by the constraints of that technology – if a pre-determined learning outcome cannot be achieved with the use of computer-based simulations, I would not try to force it but rather look for other tools in my toolbox. There is a danger with new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) that we try to fit what does not fit naturally.

What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?

There is tremendous potential in AR for a variety of subjects, for example medicine, mechanical engineering, architecture. Unfortunately, my subject in business management is not likely to benefit from this technology a great deal, but I believe more immersive and complex business management simulations will be used more and more.

There are already a variety of off-the-shelf video games that couldhave teaching potential because they allow students to experiment and observe dynamics as they occur – I only truly understood the Forrester effect of supply chain management when I replicated it accidentally in Factorio, which is a video game in which the player designs virtual production lines and factories. The benefits of gamification and game-based learning are well documented and as the underlying software becomes easier to use, more focused simulations with specific learning points will emerge (if universities are prepared to assist in development and pay for them).

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

I am very happy that the time and energy I have invested is appreciated by my students and the University at large. For my future I believe that being highly commended in the awards will further improve employability as it acts as proof of my teaching competency. Most importantly I think it validates my passion for and interest in teaching as I would not want to engage in an activity that I was not deemed to be good at as I have suffered at some points in my doctoral studies from imposter syndrome.

Thinking beyond, while I do enjoy teaching, there is less ‘fame’ (as one of my more research-oriented colleagues expressed it) in teaching well than in publishing in highly-ranked journals for an academic. I think for academia to remain relevant in the greater scheme of things (as evidenced by the Teaching Excellence Framework) this needs to change and raising the profile of teaching among doctoral researchers is one avenue to do this. Both are important and are core competencies of a university and should be core competencies for academics as well – facilitating this mindset through awards and recognition is important and I think the WATE award was conceived with this in mind.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

There are many small things that I enjoy about teaching, but the best thing is that teaching rarely feels like work to me, but more like an enjoyable challenge. While I have taught on more than 30 groups in the WMG MSc module Logistics and Operations Management (about 600 students!), no group has been the same and this requires you to think on your feet and adjust to your group within the parameters of the module and session. I have learned so much about myself and more generally how people learn and work together in groups because of this; the sheer diversity of challenges and experiences that you make as a teacher makes teaching worthwhile.

Arguably the best part of teaching is when you can observe the moment when a student understands a difficult concept - I would compare it to a candle being lit in a moment of sudden realisation or understanding. I think this moment condenses the philosophies and purpose of both teaching and learning and summarises why I enjoy teaching.

What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

I think the single biggest challenge overall is the matter of assessment. While there are numerous different methods aimed at assessing students, many have shortcomings that make me personally categorically opposed to them. An example is peer assessment, that may measure your ability to influence other’s opinion of yourself or your work (which is an important skill but measuring this skill may not be what was intended to be measured). As such there have been few instances in my life where I felt that an assessment given to me actually measured what it was supposed to measure.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer easy solutions here, except maybe increasing the variety and number of assessments to arrive at more valid judgments – but then the discussion moves to whether we should assess learning (i.e. progress made over a module) or knowledge (which an individual might have before the module began). This matter is clearly tied to resource constraints and as cohorts become larger, this problem will continue to grow. Ultimately it has the potential to comprehensively undermine the validity of academic degrees and so is something that we will have to think about – recent cases of ghost-writing in some of the leading universities in the UK confirm this.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

The most important lesson for me would be to be patient.

To engage with your students sometimes it is necessary to let a student develop an argument as she/he speaks or to let a classroom discussion go on beyond the time you have allocated – holding back in that moment was initially difficult for me as I was eager to move on. Moving on too quickly however undermines the students’ learning and confidence and feels rushed; from my own experience as a student I remembered that the sessions of the better teachers I had never felt rushed but rather calm. I was aware that I had this problem to some degree, but when it was highlighted by a more experienced colleague I made a more conscious and deliberate effort to change my behaviour, and now I am more at ease with letting people expand on ideas themselves even if it takes time. There is of course a balance here, but in the future I aim to design a bit of spare time into session plans.

As a person I have learned to be more patient and hold back what I want to say more. This also helps me with engaging with the members of my research group – I am quite active during discussions about research and had a habit of interrupting people when I had understood the gist, but the other person was not finished speaking - now I am able to be more patient and let people expand because it might be the case that I have not actually understood the gist at all before they have finished speaking.

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

I think this is by far the most difficult question here because I have not yet met the perfect inspiring teacher. Personally, I think the most valuable trait to have when teaching is adaptiveness. I would imagine a great teacher is able to engage a large diversity of students in a variety of ways with different purposes – during the design of teaching materials, during delivery, during assessment, etc., and even when things go wrong. Teaching your favourite subject to your ideal group of students is a manageable challenge, but I would imagine a great teacher can adapt sessions seamlessly to the students and resources that are available in practice to achieve the best outcome possible.

I believe some of the more frustrating student experiences occur when students believe that a teacher is trying to force her/his ideal type of a lesson onto a group of students or an individual that is either unwilling or unable (for whatever reason) to respond in the way the teacher expects. It is most unfortunate to witness a teacher attempting to squeeze a square-shaped class or individual through a triangle-shaped session design and I believe nothing good can come of it (I distinctly remember my high school maths teacher telling me that I do not have the aptitude to continue onto higher education). In that situation I believe the teacher has the duty to adapt and cater to the needs of the students without compromising the learning objectives, especially in a monetised environment. The adaptiveness both in skill to observe those needs and pick the appropriate reaction, and the mindset of not being too married to their own preconceived plans and ideas are therefore what makes a great a teacher for me.

Undoubtedly this is a major challenge, but it is still what comes closest to teaching perfection as I understand it, and which is also something that is connected to the WATE award from my perspective. The funds offered through the award will help me receive training to recognise what student needs are faster and how I can best respond to them while minding the course curriculum and session learning objectives.

Enjoyed hearing from Steven? See the full list of 2018 winners and commendees and read other interviews.