Enriching the experience of a PhD tutor through active teaching

Image credit: unsplash, Dylan Gillis, CC0

John Godlee shares his experience of completing his Associate Fellowship through the Edinburgh Teaching Award, and how it helped him develop as a teacher. John is a PhD student in the School of GeoSciences. This post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme:  “Gaining recognition for teaching: The Edinburgh Teaching Award”.

I followed the path to Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy with the Edinburgh Teaching Award (EdTA) in 2018-2019 during my PhD. My original motivation for doing the EdTA was simply as a means to an end. I wanted some recognition for the effort I put into teaching that would hopefully make me stand out from the crowd when applying for academic positions further down the line. Thirty years ago it might have been enough to float into a teaching position on the back of research success, but there has definitely been a growing awareness of the importance of teaching as a skill in higher education. In my department of the School of GeoSciences, for example, there are now a number of “University Teachers” who devote the majority of their time to developing and delivering teaching to the School’s growing undergraduate population, while maintaining their role as researchers in their own right.

At the time, I was teaching on undergraduate courses for Ecological and Environmental Sciences. My teaching mostly revolved around the subjects of experimental design and statistical programming. Both of these – but especially statistics – are notoriously hard to teach effectively. Put simply, these subjects are just a bit dry and abstracted from the ‘fun’ part of ecology. Being centred around skills rather than content, they require a different approach than the usual combination of a lecture series followed by an essay assessment. The students have to be doing stuff, making mistakes and learning from the process, or the knowledge doesn’t solidify.

All PhD students are encouraged to try teaching at some point in their journey. But it seems too easy to do just the bare minimum, going through the motions of delivering the content and nothing more. I found that the EdTA enriched my teaching experience by making me conscious of the decisions I was making when teaching a particular skill.

One particular example comes to mind when I was guiding a small group of first year ecologists in designing an experiment that would form their main assessment for the class. An important part of the process was getting all the students to sit down together and decide, as a collective, what the focus of their study would be. I had read previously in a brilliant blog series entitled “53 powerful ideas all teachers should know about”, that it’s important to set students’ expectations for a discussion early. So, prior to the class, I brainstormed what the goals of our discussion should be: defined hypotheses, narrative of the research question, time-frame, etc. Most importantly however, I told the students what these goals were and why they exist before we started our discussion. I made the choice to be an active teacher rather than just supervising from the outside. With this advanced planning and communication, neither I nor my students went into the discussion unprepared. We had effectively bypassed the awkward quiet that can occur in these contrived group discussion situations, which meant that we could then leave the sterile classroom behind, go outside, and test our ideas in the real world.

John Godlee

John Godlee is a PhD student in the School of GeoSciences, where he studies the effects of tree species biodiversity on canopy structure and carbon fluxes in southern African woodlands. Outside his PhD, John enjoys building low-cost equipment for ecological fieldwork, and is working to reforest and diversify his family farm in the Yorkshire Dales.

Staff profile: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/johngodlee/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *