Stephen Hickson – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Stephen Hickson (Department of Economics and Finance, University of Canterbury.) – Award for Sustained Excellence in tertiary teaching 2012.
I’m having far too much fun to do anything else.
I’ve never lost the joy. The joy of that moment where the lights go on in a student’s eyes and they see something they haven’t seen before. Or they see the world in a different way. Or the time when you try something different and it works. These are the rewarding times.
I’ve never lost the challenge. There is always something more that I want to do, something I want to improve or tinker with or develop.
Ultimately, though, it is about “the journey” (with my apologies to a previous All Black coach): the journey that I undertake with the students I come into contact with. At the end of our time together our journeys continue – usually on their separate ways of course. But we are changed by each other. How have I impacted on their journey? What will they take from our time together into the rest of their life? What have I learnt from them? How will I change what I do in the future? Learning is a shared activity.
Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi
With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive
It’s a journey I probably could not have anticipated but it is one I wouldn’t trade
The things that matter to me
It is easy to produce wonderfully written paragraphs with words like “passionate” and “inspire” appearing in just the right places and in just the right amounts. Which tertiary teacher would wish to be uninspiring or boring? Asking a tertiary teacher if they would like their students to reach “deeper levels of understanding” or be “critical thinkers” is like asking someone if they would like a pay rise.
What matters is not the statement of reasonably self-evident things we could all sign up to but what happens to make those wonderful statements come to pass. How will I go about getting students to think critically? How will they gain an in-depth understanding? What can I do to enable students to walk their journey? Learning is a change in behaviour – they are different at the end.
Now just so there’s no doubt – I am passionate about what I do. I love teaching economics. It really is the most fun anyone can have in a classroom or lecture theatre (and to my colleagues in other disciplines who really think their subject is in fact more interesting – I am sorry to burst your bubble but there’s just no hiding the truth). There are many lenses through which we can see the world and understand why people do what they do. Economics as a behavioural science is just one of those lenses but it is a valuable one.
Some students will naturally love the subject and want to go on even if they didn’t know it before they started. They are usually easy to inspire and they usually do well. Watching these students on their journey is a joy.
I also understand that many students take economics courses not because they love economics but because they have to take it for other reasons (accounting, marketing etc). Many of these students arrive at tertiary level economics with some pre-conceived notions formed by their exposure to the subject at high school or from their peers. They often believe economics will be boring or hard or irrelevant or all three. I aim to turn this around. One of the most rewarding things to hear from a student is “well I won’t be taking any more economics but I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would and I got a lot out of it”. That’s probably only beaten by “well I thought I would hate economics but now I’m going to do more of it”.
Just how can I make this happen? There are a number of strands to weave into the basket to make it effective – it is not one thing alone (“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” said The Teacher in Ecclesiastes 4:12).
- We all relate better to things we already understand or have experienced so let’s speak to the experience of the students. Relating to their lives and what they care about will provide the hook to which their learning can be attached.
- We don’t expect that children will learn to swim by being shown once and we should not expect students to learn difficult concepts any differently. So let’s provide multiple learning opportunities for the same material.
- Students need a meaningful sense of their progress and their mastery of the material. We need to provide feedback to students on their progress.
- Assessment drives behaviour and learning. What is assessed is more likely to make it up the list in terms of importance. So we should structure assessment so that students are guided into the behaviours that enhance learning.
It is these fundamental ideas which drive what I do. It is these ideas that sparked my interest in the learning / assessment nexus and the subsequent publication of research papers. The results of this research allow me to better understand the students themselves and how assessment drives learning and outcomes, all part of the continuous improvement process.
Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe, me he maunga teitei
Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain
Bringing what matters to me to the table
I am a strong believer in continuous improvements. How I teach and deliver today is different from 10 years ago in many ways but the changes have usually been gradual, with new ideas tried along the way. There’s been the odd “big idea” as well.
The aim is always to improve student engagement with the material and provide opportunities for learning. Some changes are “small and helpful” while others are more “major”.
There’s also a great deal of pleasure for me in finding ways to enhance learning and engagement. Some of these ways are simple, such as several years ago pushing to have “videos” of lectures shifted from being available via the library to having them available online. Others have evolved over time. I’ve become increasingly aware of how assessment drives learning. I still believe it is essential to have invigilated assessments – they perform a very useful function. However, smaller formative type assessments require students to continuously engage with the material in the course rather than wait and “cram”. Such assessments do need to be worth something or they will not be done (at least not done by a significant number of students). A small number of marks will be sufficient.
In my MBA class I have shifted the focus of the course from a “textbook” type of approach to one where the focus is on “economics in everyday life”. Students write a journal where each short entry starts with an interesting question that usually focuses on the behaviour of people. After all, understanding human behaviour is what economics is all about.
Onwards and Upwards
Some of the most rewarding parts of what I do are not what you might expect. It’s the time in the supermarket check-out line when the operator says “hey – you were my economics lecturer last year. That was my favourite course!” It’s when a student stands in your office and is delighted to have wrestled and struggled with the material and made it through. It’s when a student sheds tears (of happiness) because they can now graduate when they weren’t sure they ever would and you know you helped them get there.
Peer and student comments
There are many lecturers; many merely communicate their material. In stark contrast, Stephen teaches and truly educates – there is a profound difference. We are truly fortunate to have Stephen available to teach in our Programme. Mind you, our students are actually the fortunate ones.
Assoc Prof C Piet Beukman FIPENZ FNZIM
Director: Engineering Management Programme
University of Canterbury
I went into the course expecting it to be about numbers, much like accounting or finance. I believed economics was the study of money. What I was surprised to find was that it was the study of behaviour. The... course was challenging, both intellectually as well as personally.
MBA student, 2011.
Stephen is just simply ‘outstanding’ as an educator and advocate for the subject. Not only does he inspire those with a natural interest in the subject, but those who are sceptical or even antagonistic.
Professor Les Oxley
University of Waikato (formerly at University of Canterbury).
Works hard to make lectures interesting and FUN! Who thought economics could be fun??!!
2008, UCSA Lecturer of the Year Awards
His enthusiasm, humour, direct application to the real world current occurrences. Wonderful!
MBA student 2009 (commenting on what aspects of the course helped learning).
Passionate teaching meant an interesting look at potentially otherwise dull topics.
ECON 105-student 2010
He is passionate about his discipline, dedicated to his students and highly effective in terms of his organisation and delivery. His dedication and effectiveness is recognised by our students who year after year express appreciation for his contribution and rate him as one of the very best teachers on our programme. In short I regard Stephen as a major asset to our programme. He takes a difficult subject area and makes it enjoyable, accessible and mind-expanding for our students.
Dr Peter Cammock
Director Executive Development
University of Canterbury.