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Celebrating our People: Robert Spooner

The University Awards are a great opportunity to show appreciation of the hard work that goes on day to day, here at Warwick! Find out more about our award winners in our series of interviews, highlighting their roles and achievements. We start with Robert Spooner, winner of the Student Experience University Award 2017.

Tell us a bit about your role:

I'm a Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Life Sciences. My key areas and priorities include teaching Biology in a context-led, challenging, research-led engaging fashion: key co-workers and other TFs, but also other experienced scientists."

How would you define your project?

My aim is to break down the intensely modular thinking of Undergraduates, so that they can think in contextual fashion, providing an opportunity to get the best education that they can.

Science is real-life and should not be taught as a list of facts to learn parrot-fashion and regurgitate at examination. Unfortunately, some subjects have been taught, traditionally, in a monotonous desultory manner.

Some modules have been presented as a year-long list of fact, fact, fact. It feels like a student has to learn the full contents of a telephone directory before being allowed to use a phone. But there is history behind these facts – who thought of the approaches, how did they do it, why did they hide things from their collaborators, why were they so competitive, why were physicists who studied the Big Bang instrumental in unravelling the genetic code?

Best of all, which approaches failed? And why? There are clear human stories of fallibility, idiocy, academic theft, brilliance and vicious rivalry behind these facts, and strange links – such as that between a cardiac treatment, horse chestnut conkers and the formation of the State of Israel – and peculiar similarities between control of the cell cycle and cooking a classic French stew, which bring the facts alive. I include them all.

My approach seems to be appreciated by the students, and I hope one of the outcomes is our latest ranking in the Guardian tables - fifth ranked Biology course in the country (find out more online)."

Going above and beyond your role:

The key challenge is breaking the modular thinking that students arrive with: a desire for simple facts that can be quoted at examination, and desire for model answers that can be learnt, and a lack of recognition that a fact learned in one module may also apply to another.

The approach is exhausting, but worthwhile: linking labs with lectures, linking modules, and trying to keep those links intact, continual monitoring. It requires creativity, undergraduate focus groups, and very good rapport with the students."

How does it feel to have won the Student Experience University Award?

At a personal level, personal prestige. But it is also good for the School of Life Sciences, raising our profile. Best of all, it raises morale amongst the students - they can be proud of their contribution."

What would you like to say to the person(s) who nominated you?

To the key student who organised this, the (I'm told) 250 undergraduates who promoted this, and to the staff who supported me: I feel honoured, and frankly, touched by this."

Extract from Robert's nomination: ‘Clone Spooner’, ‘by far the best lecturer/asset to the Life Sciences Department, both inspiring and fun’. (second year student). Robert is an outstanding teacher who has made an enormous contribution to the student learning experience in the School of Life Sciences. His teaching style is challenging, research-driven and engaging. Robert’s rapport with students and his willingness to share his research knowledge and background in clear and engaging ways have made him a firm favourite with undergraduates, who have come together to put in a joint nomination for Robert for a staff award this year. Robert is also an outstanding role model among his colleagues, therefore we as a School wholeheartedly support his nomination.”

Why do you think people should nominate next time (for the 2018 University Awards):

Nominations are important: they can raise the profile of a Department, and boost student morale.

We hope you enjoyed the University Awards Evening on 12 May. Did you have any highlights?

Seeing the sheer joy on the faces of the Café Library team when they found out they had won the Service Excellence University Award!"



Take the chance to learn from Robert's experience; spend the day with him as part of our work shadowing programme.