What makes for great university teaching?

iain-hayWhen Professor Iain Hay, himself a winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Award for University Teaching, decided to investigate what constitutes the best in university teaching, he went to the source – 22 winners of major tertiary teaching awards and honours in Australia, the US, Canada and the UK – and asked them to reflect on their own teaching practices.

The result is his new book, Inspiring Academics: Learning with World’s Great Teachers.

Professor Hay (pictured) said there are already many excellent “how to” guides for teachers.

“With this book, I was trying to get away from providing teaching tips. I wanted to try to get into the heads of these people to gain insights into how they approach teaching,” Professor Hay said.

As well as drawing on a gamut of disciplines that included geographers, physicists, pathologists and creative writers, Professor Hay sought a balance in gender and stage of career.

Professor Hay said that in the past he has characterised the keys to good teaching as being enthusiastic, being organised, and being engaged, both with the students and with the material.

And while some of these fundamental skills can be acquired by all teachers, he said that the book demonstrates that there isn’t a single winning formula: approaches and styles among the contributors varied widely.

“One of the things that comes out of the book, and one that we need to come to terms with, is that there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all model of really good and effective teaching,” Professor Hay said.

Teachers are cut from different cloth, and their teaching practice needs to reflect that: “It’s a matter of working out who you are, who your students are and of playing to your strengths,” he said.

Professor Hay said that many early career teachers subject themselves to unnecessary pressure, and the contributors concur that the target of presenting the “perfect, seamless” lecture or of achieving complete mastery of a field is not a useful, or even an achievable, aspiration.

“Even Carl Wieman, a Nobel Laureate, admits that he gets questions from first-year physics students that he can’t answer from the floor,” Professor Hay said.

“As some of the contributors suggest, it’s a matter of learning with your students.”

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