Rick Bigwood - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Rick Bigwood (Faculty of Law, University of Auckland) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2006
Faculty of Law, University of Auckland
Rick has been teaching his law students for over 11 years, and is well known for using his neighbour's cat, Russell, for many hypothetical examples of legal contracts. This is just one of the many examples Rick uses to try and engage students to think beyond the classroom. His main area of teaching is contracts, and he has turned it from a not-well-liked compulsory subject into a class that students take with enthusiasm. He mixes his style of teaching depending on the context and opportunity and believes that effective teaching requires an intellectual challenge, as well as participation from students and a deep engagement with the subject.
From humble ("disastrous") beginnings
The first lecture that I ever delivered at a university was, frankly, an unmitigated disaster - and the students let me know it immediately after the class. I cared enough about my dreadful performance in the classroom to want to do something about it. Not only did my students deserve it, it was also my professional responsibility.
So marked the beginning of a personal journey of conscious self-improvement in such a vital area of the academic function. It was the start of my fascination with learning about teaching and learning. Twelve years on, I am still learning but I appreciate much more fully now what I began to understand from that very first day. Education is a two-way process, one in which our students learn from us, and we from them.
How did I improve as a teacher?
Tertiary educators universally agree that our own favoured teachers have influenced or dictated personal teaching strategies and styles. It is only natural that we should want to model ourselves on those we respect and admire, which has been true for my own teaching development as well. Many educators also confess that their own teaching growth has been more by way of trial and error than through systematic evidence-gathering, critical reflection, and responsive modification.
I didn't begin to develop my teaching strategies and skills effectively until I properly understood that the exclusive aim of teaching is simply to make learning possible. Only then did I begin to reflect critically upon my approach to teaching from the perspective of the learner rather than from that of the teacher. My focus shifted away from what I was doing to what the learner did, and why the learner thought she or he was doing it. Today, my teaching is driven first and foremost by the impact on my students' learning experiences and outcomes. It is, as it should be, student-focused rather than teacher-focused.
Quite early on in my teaching career I began to study teaching and learning. This was to inform and develop teaching strategies, skills and activities to promote student learning in law. I began by reading literature on orthodox education theory and teaching methods, and soon after pursued professional development opportunities relating to teaching and learning (organised seminars, workshops, teaching symposia, etc). I have joined a community of law school and university colleagues who are skilled and/or trained educators, and I have grown much through regular, informal exchanges with them.
What I have learned, and what I always try to do now, is constantly monitor and evaluate my students' experience of their learning, with a view to making appropriate modifications to my teaching. This process of informed monitoring and critical self-reflection has, perhaps better than anything else, improved my teaching over the years.
My primary aim as an educator: to effect deep learning in my students
Whatever else legal education involves, my students quickly learn that it's not simply "training to pass final examinations". As a tertiary educator, my responsibility is to inculcate in my students a deep, rather than a surface and purely instrumentalist, approach to their learning. Although "deep learning" is a message that I seek to impress on my students from the very first class, I am routinely disappointed by the number of students that I encounter who do not even understand what "deep learning" means, let alone grasp its importance, and consequent benefits, to them.
An even larger group seems not to be trained in the learning skills necessary to achieve a deep learning experience. On the contrary, many of my students seem to view their learning activities (such as assessment tasks) as "chores" imposed on them by their teachers, rather than as genuine learning opportunities that the student has chosen (and should intrinsically value) for him- or herself.
I am constantly struck by the general lack of student awareness about the learning process and their vital role in it. As I tell them in my classes, in order for students to learn deeply, it is important for them to understand why and how they are learning, and not just what they are learning. Tertiary educators especially should be trying to create learning situations in which their students are able to manage (plan, monitor, evaluate) their own learning, and for many teachers this will involve supporting students to take a more self-reflective approach to their learning.
My basic approach: getting students to study smarter rather than harder
In my experience, most students don't under-achieve in their law studies because they omit to put in the time required. Time and effort can never compensate for the poor learning methods and strategies that I have witnessed in countless law students who are new to university study.
At the start of each year before saying anything about the substantive content of the course, I dedicate at least two classes in my large second-year compulsory course to "Teaching and Learning in Higher (Legal) Education".
My aim is to make students aware of how they learn, with a view to getting as many of them as possible to explore more effective approaches to learning as early on in their university studies as possible. An important part of this process involves urging students to reflect on their own commitment to learning. In my experience, students possess quite varied motivations for studying law and some are even unsure about their educational interests or what "the law" might hold for them.
Essentially, I want to use those formative classes to:
- communicate high expectations and standards (while assuring students that those expectations and standards are realistic and can be met)
- demand involvement and participation by all students
- instill in students a commitment to the ideals of a university, and a sense of individual responsibility;
- demonstrate respect for diversity and different ways of learning
- establish and maintain students' clarity of purpose.
My pedagogical practices
The following summarises my "Top-10" characteristics or "pedagogical practices" for effective tertiary educators. I use these to plan my course design, management, and content, as well as my specific methods for facilitating student learning in law.
Effective tertiary educators:
- encourage and assist students to improve their abilities to learn (eg by discovering how they learn and then by working to expand their approaches so as to become better learners)
- are thoroughly "at home" with their subject, and enthusiastic about sharing a love of that subject with their students
- encourage students to engage deeply with subject matter and the task at hand (appropriate to level), and avoid forcing students simply to rote learn or reproduce detail
- make teaching and materials genuinely interesting and understandable so that learning is a pleasurable, meaningful, and useful experience for students
- are available to students, and willing and able to show concern and respect for them and their learning
- offer intellectual challenge and communicate high standards and clear goals to students (while reassuring students that those standards and goals are achievable)
- give timely and high-quality feedback on student work
- demand participation and engage students actively in their learning, as well as giving them control over learning and independence (eg by assisting them how to self- and peer-assess)
- identify, create, and exploit every opportunity to reinforce student learning, both in the classroom and during other teacher-student interactions (eg office consultations)
- constantly monitor what students are experiencing in their learning situations and are able and willing to learn from students.
And lastly: make learning fun!
Learning ought to be fun. If learning is fun, students are more likely to attend class. If they attend class, they are more likely to engage actively with subject matter, their teacher, and their peers. And if students actively engage with subject matter, their teacher, and their peers, the learning experience is certain to be better for everyone involved. All good teachers, and probably most students, know instinctively, as well as from experience, that "learning is not a spectator sport!"
Consequently, I'm not afraid to have fun in the classroom. I like to joke around. Self-deprecatory humour especially seems to be an effective way of humanising the teacher in the students' eyes while simultaneously avoiding boredom. I routinely use humorous hypothetical examples or amusing real-life case studies to illustrate important concepts and principles. In my experience, students are much more likely to be motivated to learn effectively, and to retain knowledge, if their interest is captured by relevant and useful material and if their learning is a pleasurable experience. I try to make it as pleasurable an experience as possible, both for student and teacher.
Peer and Student Comments
As a teacher, Rick is a complete inspiration. Faced with large and small classes comprising some of the best and brightest students in the University, and others of considerably less ability, Rick manages to engage the interest of them all while making it plain that they also shoulder certain responsibilities in respect of their own learning.
Julie Maxton, Professor of Law, University of Auckland
I saw what thousands of law students have seen since: a consummate communicator with a deep knowledge of the law who is able to communicate complex and difficult ideas to students of varying abilities so that they all benefit. This is a rarely encountered skill.
Michael Taggart, Professor of Law, University of Auckland
A characteristic of his teaching style was the use of simple (and nearly always humorous!) examples to expertly illustrate complex ideas. This use of practical examples helped me realise the relevance of contract law to everyday life and to develop an interest in the theoretical underpinnings of the subject.
Eevan Krishnan, former student
Over the years I have witnesses, along with countless other law students, Professor Bigwood's constant enthusiasm to convey contract law principles through thoroughly considered lectures, handouts, overheads and carefully selected cases materials; through his open-door policy; through his willingness to go the extra mile for his students - all in order to assist his students to acquire a deeper understanding of contract law and general respect for learning.
Tina Barclay, former student