Marc Wilson - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington – a Sustained Excellence winner 2008
Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington
Marc has captured the “magic of learning” to inspire students to achieve. Over his 14 years of teaching, Marc’s approach has evolved from trial and error, to the development of a personal teaching style and philosophy, to teaching based on the scholarship of pedagogy. Most of Marc’s undergraduate teaching occurs in a paper with the largest number of students in the school (over 800 students). That paper is one of the foundation courses required for continuing study in psychology. Despite the size, nature, and, for many, the complexity of the subject, Marc has developed a framework for course design and delivery that overcomes these potential barriers. Displaying strong leadership both within and beyond the university, Marc has had an integral involvement with Victoria University’s Te Ropu Awhina support programme for Ma¯ori and Pacific Nations students in the Faculty of Science. He is regularly involved in school visits, on-campus visits, and presents or teaches at the invitation of outside organisations. Marc’s summary is that learning should be “challenging but enjoyable, not taken-for-granted but intriguing and fresh, sometimes unexpected but always intellectually satisfying”.
Good teaching is like good parenting – we want our charges to leave and make their way in the world able to effectively and independently do what we teach them, and ideally to exceed our hopes and expectations of them. To achieve this, teachers and parents must allow those in their care the opportunities to push the boundaries of the world around them, to learn where those boundaries are, and where their own boundaries lie.
Providing supportive opportunities can be harder than denying them or pretending that they’re unimportant. Opportunities can lead to failures (important lessons about what not to do) and skinned knees, but they allow for defining experiences and memorable triumphs. The triumph and enjoyment of riding without training wheels can only happen if one has the opportunity in the first place, and there should always be the possibility that just this sort of triumph can come from good teaching.
“Students who haven't seen a film on sexuality and communication prefer it to a lecture on history they haven't heard...”
(Reynolds, 1977, p.82)
Apparently students may not enjoy learning about disciplinary history or research methods, particularly if they are required to, and in large classes. Yet history and methods are two foundational areas that define disciplinary boundaries. Psychology students, on the other hand, want to learn about brains, and schizophrenia, and relationships – the psychology that intrigues them. Add to this that the classes in which these topics are taught tend to be both required AND large. The trick, then, is to take important disciplinary content that students may find unappealing, in a context they find unappealing, and present it in an engaging, fascinating and interactive manner. This is exactly the context and manner in which I try to teach – required classes of up to 800 students.
I love learning and teaching, so I want to facilitate the best learning context that I can, and to develop the knowledge and skills that help me. Learning should be challenging but enjoyable, not taken-for-granted but intriguing and fresh, sometimes unexpected but always intellectually satisfying. My own teaching has evolved and developed, first through trial and error (natural selection in teaching!) then as I started to develop an actual teaching philosophy in my search for a personal teaching style. Recently I have been influenced by research on the scholarship of teaching, and there I’ve been pleased to find support for at least some of the naïve principles that drive me.
At first-year, I teach Social Influence, History and Research Methods - one ‘fun’ content topic (an incomparable opportunity to teach students about the studies that had first inspired my own interest) and two topics that are foundational for understanding what follows (considered by many as not an incomparable opportunity, or at least not incomparably good). Yet research skills, and the ability to critically evaluate research, continue throughout our programme – through compulsory second and third-year papers, to a well-developed understanding of the role of science in contemporary psychology. This provides a scaffold for appreciation and evaluation of more recent critiques and alternatives that have developed in response to traditional methods.
Without the ability to critically evaluate research, student researchers risk being ‘hoodwinked’ by the more analytically sophisticated (i.e. me). An essential step on the path to independently and confidently evaluating one’s own, and other’s, research is to actually do research. Engaging in an activity makes it personally relevant, and personal relevance is a strong predictor of quality learning. This offers me opportunity, inspiration, and plain old fun, in dealing with the difficulties and triumphs of teaching.
My goals of teaching then, are to facilitate a learning experience that produces students who can
- appreciate the context of philosophical and ideological issues associated with different ‘ways of knowing’ in psychological research.
- implement the methodologies taught appropriately and to a high level.
- critically evaluate their own and others’ work.
Above all, I really want people to find and enjoy their own place in my discipline, including confidence and self-efficacy to find out what they need to know and where to get it even after they are no longer part of my classes!
These goals occupy two levels – the aspiration to provide a context for learning about the doing and understanding of psychological research that assists people in actually continuing on to their own independent psychological research, but firstly to enthuse them with the desire and motivation to do so. Among the major principles that drive my teaching are:
One could prepare the perfect learning experience without that necessarily translating into effective learning if one doesn’t respect and show respect for one’s audience. I have always sought to remember my own student experience and to treat those who come into my class as individuals with their own histories, competencies, and interests. In large classes, students can feel like ‘just another face in the crowd’ so I always arrive at lectures early to chat, and explicitly invite them to introduce themselves to me before or after the lecture, during a weekly public lunch on the Kirk Overbridge, or in my open-door office hours. It’s hard to remember 800 names, but I always ask the name of a student when they come to see me, or ask a question in class.
Horses only drink if there’s water and only if they can be drawn to it, and learning is predicated on first engaging student interest. Students hope to be engaged by what they are taught, and it falls to us to live up to that expectation, and reflect when it isn’t happening. Enjoyment is a strong motivator; I approach my teaching as a performance specifically designed to develop engagement through appropriate but entertaining illustration and a range of exercises, large-scale experiments, and demonstrations to hold student attention and illustrate lecture material. In-class demonstrations serve multiple positive functions, including attracting and holding attention when they might otherwise be drifting and creating active learning experiences that memorably bring to life demonstrated principles - course highlights that students and teachers can enjoy.
A framework for learning
Most of what I teach is novel, so I draw on the experience people bring to the classroom to illustrate my teaching, in effect hanging new material on the coat hooks of existing knowledge. Personal relevance is a powerful learning aid. I work to establish the relevance of new concepts by using topical analogies from everyday life and popular media - we know that such analogies function as aids for understanding, recall, and encouraging critical thinking. Psychological material is my narrative; I see my role in the classroom as a narrator, and I deliberately construct my teaching persona around this. Classes are an interactive story, not about ‘transmitting facts’, but an apparently casual storytelling performance that is a part of the framework for learning. These stories have protagonists and antagonists, with motives and modus operandi, gravity and/or humour, all to be fleshed out as part of the story that is the meta-framework for course material.
Learning through doing
We learn better when we interact with course material. Classes include demonstrations using volunteers, think-pair-share and active listening exercises, and inquiry-based learning opportunities where students are invited to predict experiment outcomes where possible. We always discuss the outcome and its potential causes, because that is when demonstrations are most effective. My favourites include an apparent demonstration of mind-reading in which I predict the name (from a phonebook) that a student has selected, and dyeing my hair for the first class as an example of experimental manipulation that affects the way students perceive me. I always include significant empirical research components, wherever possible giving choice of research topic. As students advance, it is important that they are not simply guinea pigs for the ‘research’ they are required to summarise, but are the researchers – to ‘own’ their data. While it involves a lot of work, thirdyear students choose a cutting-edge topic to research and we collaborate to produce a manuscript that can be submitted for publication in ‘real’ journals.
Organisation and integration
Effective teaching starts before the students and teacher meet in the classroom for the first time. Courses should display integration and consistency across lectures, laboratories, and assessment. Ultimately, learning outcomes (grades, knowledge, etc) should reflect the capabilities developed and learning experienced, rather than an artefact of course dis/organisation. Even my use of humour in classes, though it seems spontaneous, is designed to address specific teaching goals such as illustrating a point, breaking the tension or routine, or as a cue for later recall. I strive to be a competent and organised educator, while trying not to look too organised – it’s only a good performance if nobody realises it is one! Ultimately students’ success must be their own, but… the best teaching efforts facilitate students towards their own learning, and provide them with the tools and self-efficacy to continue to learn long after they are no longer a part of our courses and institutions.
Next year I’m looking forward to consolidating my teaching. That will involve attending the APA Teaching of Psychology, and HERDSA conferences in the US and Australia next year - meeting some of the people whose work has inspired and equipped me in my own teaching. More than that though, I’m really just looking forward to the start of the year, when I get to enjoy once again the thrill of performing for my large class and the opportunity to show that the world isn’t always how we think it is!
Peer and Student Comments
“I thought I would write to thank you for what I learned from you in the advanced research methods paper. What an excellent paper that was! It was by far the most useful paper of anything I took at an undergraduate level. I frequently find myself turning to the workbook we were required to compile (an inspired inclusion in our assessment!), both for my own purposes and to help others. It is an invaluable resource. Who would have known I’d end up actually using Cohen’s Kappa?”
2006 email from a 2004 student
“I have looked to Marc as a role model in regards to pedagogical strategies for teaching and approach Marc as a ‘first-port-of-call’ whenever I am in need of some expert advice. His ability to keep challenging himself in the ‘how to’ of teaching means he continually tries to improve and while doing so, motivates me to do the same”
David Gittings, Senior Tutor in Psychology
“Marc’s overall manner and positive attitude toward students has helped to create an atmosphere where they are comfortable asking questions and seeking further guidance.”
Dr. Andrew Robertson, tutor