Dr Angus McIntosh - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Dr Angus McIntosh (Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2007
Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury
Angus is a highly effective leader in his field of freshwater ecology. He is fully committed to lifelong learning and advanced thinking in ecology, and conveys this commitment through his teaching and interactions with peers and professionals. His teaching style is engaging, he always strives to include everyone at their own level and encourages them to achieve to the best of their abilities. Angus has played an important leadership role in the amalgamation of the Zoology Department with the Plant and Microbial Sciences in to a single School of Biological Sciences.
Teaching driven by passion for the environment
I'm an ecologist. Teaching freshwater ecology is a natural extension of a youth spent exploring the wilds of Stewart Island. I was captivated by an amazing natural world, but appalled at how it was being destroyed by pests and other impacts. I'm not an angler, and streams were not a childhood passion. Instead I was convinced to work on freshwaters by some inspirational teachers. The benefit of not only expanding knowledge, but encouraging others to use the knowledge was obvious even as a laboratory teaching assistant. Moreover, I experienced the pleasure gained from seeing others better understand the natural world.
Professionalism - A responsibility to the students and society
My commitment to teaching was driven by a personal vision to change the way humans treat the world, enhanced by the rewards of helping students learn, but taking on a University faculty position carries a higher-level responsibility. Education and society are always linked and although university teachers have a responsibility to their individual students, the contract is ultimately with society.
First, teachers must decide what to teach. They need to focus on the needs of the individual students and their eventual role in society. For me this value judgement is closely linked to research. Carrying out research ensures my teaching is state of the art because I'm actively involved in the generation of knowledge. There is a reciprocal relationship between teaching and research, and separating the two in universities is bound to reduce the quality of tertiary education (and research).
Teachers must also be exemplary practitioners. Students are astute judges of integrity. Gaining respect does not mean students shouldn't question a teacher. Tertiary teachers need to create an atmosphere where the pursuit of understanding is the ultimate goal, and questioning and investigation are integral parts of the process. Moreover, everybody learns by watching and following to a certain extent, so demonstrating the role that science should play in society is critical. I present details of how knowledge was generated, how reliable it is, and encourage well argued student views. As a teacher, I don't just want ‘students', I want ‘learners'. Like most relationships, the best ways to develop positive learning relationships are through effective communication, mutual respect and hard work.
If there is one absolute certainty in teaching, it is that every student is different. I use a number of techniques to try and ensure every student participates:
- Generate enthusiasm and interest
Grab student attention. It can be asking questions or having a class discussion. The most important thing I do is set the tone. Student reaction to the teacher determines the level of participation. Students also learn effectively if they enjoy the experience. They can derive enjoyment from hard work, participation, achievement and discovery. I build enjoyment into courses to encourage successful learning.
- Get students out of the lecture theatre
Taking students out of their normal environment is a great way to engage a class. The University of Canterbury has four field stations. Here students get engrossed in the natural environment, and learn effectively and independently if they are pointed in the right direction. At first year they work through exercises where the methods and questions are prescribed. By the end of a third year field trip enquiry-based learning is being used where the students are challenged to formulate the questions and methods.
- Offer a range of learning options and get feedback
I mix delivery methods to ensure students are thinking, are challenged and avoid passive note writing. Different approaches often throw new light on an issue or allow them to fully understand a concept. Some students learn from asking questions and some learn from listening to answers. Asking them to fill in feedback cards is an effective tool because it means their knowledge is tested and they are forming the concepts in their own minds. I use images to promote discussion, illustrate points, and give students a deeper insight. I intend to purchase underwater camera equipment with the award to extend the types of images I am able to present. I always have an outline which details the main points and have places to go for additional information (textbooks, literature and websites). I give them important detailed figures and tables in full, but remove some key points. Thus, I'm encouraging them to come to the lecture and actively participate in their note taking. Moreover, by leaving out key points I'm encouraging them to think about what the crux of a question is before we get there. I keep my eyes, ears, door and ‘approach' open to facilitate communication. If a class has switched off, it will be obvious from the sound and their faces. The most important part of obtaining feedback is being approachable. I chat to students informally and actively engage in conversations wherever possible.
- Focusing on concepts and skills, not facts
Many students are obsessed with the information they think it will be necessary to regurgitate. It's essential that they know what they must do to be successful in a course, but they should focus on gaining understanding and learning skills and concepts. Thus, setting the learning outcomes for a course and getting student buy in for them is paramount. To be useful in society I want graduates who can solve problems, apply knowledge and create new knowledge. Once I realised it was impossible to cover everything, students appreciated my lectures more because they were able to concentrate on the key concepts and ideas.
- Match assessment to the learning outcomes and make formative assessment useful
Assessment tasks play a key role in the education process because they are hurdles that require learning to pass. I make sure formative assessments are well matched to the learning outcomes, and that they really do encourage and guide student learning. For example, in the first year exercises we are looking for an association between a practical situation and a concept indicating they understand the concept. In third year the goal is to be able to apply an appropriate theory or concept for a particular practical situation.
- Risk management in setting teaching goals
The best way to ensure the majority of students are capable of dealing with the level you are teaching is to be certain about their background and preparation. Here developing careful and considered views that are student-centred and earning the respect of colleagues enables a coherent and organised pathway through the curriculum to be negotiated. Making sure struggling students keep up with the class and the high calibre students don't lose interest involves some special strategies. Giving special invitations for students who are having difficulties and tutorial groups are useful. I label some reading as extra for experts, but they are often looking for more challenge, not more work. Here spending a few minutes in a lecture discussing the new cutting edge developments in a topic can keep them on board. For postgraduate students I offer advice to help them manage the trade-off between feasibility and outcome, and assist students secure funds for their own work. This has led to a group of postgraduates working on highly diverse projects in freshwater systems where their original input is maximised.
Teaching Development and Improvement - Reflecting on practice (and practise)
In the beginning I spent a large amount of time researching and preparing the most comprehensive lectures possible. Students liked my communication style, but weren't learning as I expected and many indicated they were being swamped. Since then
I have shrunk the content of my courses, and moved more towards concepts. The students find learning easier because I avoid ‘overcomplicating' the material. With a young family I also found it wasn't possible to keep up the intensity of preparation and revision. The process of improving teaching should be continuous, but it's not possible to revise everything each year. This is a major part of dealing with life as a university academic. Passing through this stage involved encouraging independent learning, focusing on students who most need attention, blocking out time for teaching development, prioritising and anticipating course revision, and training postgraduates to use my time effectively.
Other significant steps have involved taking advantage of the opportunities for peer review. All the courses I teach are team-taught so there are many opportunities for discussion and evaluation of delivery, content, assessment and student achievements. Visiting the ecosystems and field sites I'm teaching about has also been essential in developing my ability to convey the essentials to students. I intend to extend my breadth of experience by visiting some tropical locations using the award funds.
The student-focused approach adopted for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching has been enormously rewarding. Without doubt the biggest thrills from my career have come from student achievements. The management of freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand is and will continue to be a critical issue. I'm excited about helping them learn effectively to ensure they are up to the challenge of managing our freshwater resources effectively.
Peer and Student Comments
"In my opinion, Angus is a highly effective leader in his field of freshwater ecology. He is fully committed to life long learning and advanced thinking in ecology, and conveys this commitment through his teaching and interactions with peers and professionals such as myself."
Rachel Barker, Waterways planner, City Environment Group, Christchurch City Council
"Angus is an inspirational teacher; his teaching style is engaging as he always strives to include everyone at their own level and encourages them to achieve to the best of their abilities. Furthermore, through interaction, discussion and questioning, Angus encourages us to extend our boundaries, leading us to our own discoveries and realisation."
Helen Warburton, Rebecca Neumegen, and Nicola White, Undergraduate Students, 2004-6
"The confidence and passion for science that Angus helped to engender during my MSc degree played an integral part in my decision to continue to work in the freshwater science arena, and to build EOS Ecology; an aquatic science research and consultancy business. His conviction of the role quality science and research must play in achieving sustainable management of our freshwater resource has reinforced my own beliefs, and has become central to our company's work ethos."
Shelley McMurtrie Former student, now director of EOS Ecology
"Angus' undergraduate teaching leaves lasting impressions on his students. His infectious enthusiasm, attention-grabbing energetic lecturing style, and the occasional gimmick, like whistling to demonstrate kokako mimicking other birds, leads to entertaining and memorable lectures. He places much emphasis on undergraduate fieldwork, which is invaluable in stimulating interest, reinforcing lectures, learning skills to conduct independent research and also provides an avenue for informal discussions. Angus has a reputation for asking difficult undergraduate exam questions, as they integrate material from several lectures. This forced us to understand the material and led to assessments that were a learning tool, rather than a hoop to jump through."
Hamish Greig and Michelle Greenwood Ph.D. candidates University of Canterbury
"I was [also] struck with the respect that the students in the class expressed for Professor McIntosh and their appreciation for his commitment to facilitating their learning and growth. He is a highly approachable and fair individual, and it was clear that the students took advantage of their opportunity to interact closely with him."
Barbara L. Peckarsky Honorary Fellow & Emeritus Professor Department of Zoology University of Wisconsin Madison