Making a difference: Dr Iain Murray on learning and teaching

EUSA Teaching Awards

A previous Teaching Award winner, Dr Iain Murray, shares his thoughts on the EUSA Teaching Awards and on learning and teaching.

The EUSA teaching awards are a great initiative. Each year I’ve received a nice surprise through a nomination in my pigeon-hole, reminding me that some of my students appreciate what I’m doing. It’s harder to know how teaching is helpful in the longer term though: what difference does my teaching make across a whole undergraduate degree, for example? How does my teaching equip students with skills and tools for the future?

I was an undergraduate in physics, and have now moved to Informatics. Back as a student, I felt lost in most of my lectures, which was no fun. I still have some of my physics notes on my shelf. Pulling them down now, I find two things:

  1. It’s my handwriting, but I have no recollection of most of it;
  2. It doesn’t actually seem that complicated, I could probably pick up the material again quite quickly.

I don’t know much physics any more. But what I have learned are tools for exploring and communicating new ideas, and solving problems. Most importantly I’ve learned that it’s normal to feel lost when approaching a new topic, but that I’ll probably have the skills to figure something out.

I aim to share some amazing results from Computer Science with my classes. But I’m realistic: like me, most of them will probably forgot the specifics. To me, good teaching is primarily giving people the skills and confidence to tackle new problems, and share their results. I tell students that, hoping they’ll understand why they’re asked to do uncomfortable things, like explain where they’re stuck in tutorials, or give presentations.

I’m also still learning, so expose myself to uncomfortable feedback wherever I can. Talented teaching staff have sat in my lectures and have given me great advice. I also interact with students as much as I can; I hand out short specific questionnaires, or simply wander around the theatre and chat with small groups. Students can tell me where I’ve been confusing, and hopefully I can point them towards figuring things out.

Given my own experience, I try to do what I can to make my students feel happy in their studies. However, worthwhile learning is hard work and, whatever I do, exams can be stressful. At times it can feel like I must be the students’ enemy, rather than someone helping to prepare them for the future. Then I get that EUSA nomination in my pigeon-hole. Actually someone noticed that I’m really trying! It makes a world of difference to be appreciated, and motivates me to invest more effort into teaching. Thanks EUSA!

Read more:

EUSA Teaching Awards

Teaching winners honoured – The University of Edinburgh website

Iain Murray

Iain Murray is a Lecturer in Machine Learning at the University of Edinburgh. He won the Van Heyningan Award for Teaching in Science and Engineering in 2014-15.
Read more about Iain

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