Murray Skeaff – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Murray Skeaff (Associate Professor in Human Nutrition, University of Otago) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2004
Associate Professor in Human Nutrition, University of Otago
Murray Skeaff has made significant contributions to developing undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the Department of Human Nutrition at Otago University that are regarded as world class. His use of active learning includes having students conduct dietary intervention experiments on themselves to investigate the link between diet and health as well as getting them to run active case studies on issues such as the use of folate to prevent neural tube defects. His approachability, friendliness and skill at teaching complex subject matter have earned him consistent and fulsome praise from students and colleagues alike.
Teaching: principles, practice and perspectives
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.
Mírzá Husayn-‘Alí, 1874 (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh. Translated by Habib Taherzadeh. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978, p 162.)
These words open a world of meaning about the purpose and potential of education. They are important to me because the stuff of motivation begins at the level of principle, and having a vision of what is possible serves to inspire, guide and focus one's efforts. To realise a level of competency that helps to achieve these ends is the idea that has motivated my efforts as a teacher. Applied in an academic setting, my experience of education is that it is the act of helping others to acquire knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that can be used to understand and discover the reality of things. Teaching and learning in this context are not the final products; they are the means to ensure the transmission of the indispensable discoveries of the past and to foster the generation and application of new knowledge and the expression of creativity.
But how can this be achieved? To this question I have but one certainty; the methods of effective teaching are as diverse as the number of effective teachers. The following is an attempt to describe some of the journey I have taken so far.
Balancing roles: the interdependence of teaching and research
I took up my lecturing position in the Department of Human Nutrition in 1988, determined to make excellence in teaching a priority. However, I found myself during the first few years of scholastic life struggling to find a balance between the considerable and sometimes conflicting demands of research and teaching. Being research active can and does inform teaching, but most of what I had read and experienced questioned the extent to which excellence in research necessarily leads to excellence in undergraduate teaching. My early views were that a shift in the balance of commitment towards research output might compromise the quality of my teaching. However, over the years I began to appreciate that the challenge was to create a learning experience for undergraduate students that engaged them in learning and developing the same skills, attitudes and knowledge that I was trying to gain as a researcher. In this way research could inform teaching, not just in modelling scholarly and expert knowledge (i.e. ‘learning the newest stuff'), but in engaging students in a process of inquiry, of formulating questions and evaluating evidence. Striving to make research inform teaching became the objective.
The discipline of nutrition: a need for critical thought and research skills
The science of nutrition is the human endeavour to understand how what we eat affects our health. What kinds of diets are best to prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes? To what extent can good nutrition reduce stress, prevent memory loss or even promote longevity? What diets are best for infants, toddlers and children to develop their optimal physical powers and mental faculties? Fuelled by overwhelming evidence that a significant reduction in the global burden of disease must be nutrition based, new discoveries are being generated at an explosive rate and are producing major shifts in understanding. Thrown into this mix is a daily barrage of miraculous health claims and counterclaims presented by the media and those with vested interests. In this environment not only is it important for nutrition graduates to master a coherent body of knowledge about nutrition but, more importantly, to have the skills and ability to learn new knowledge, to see things from different perspectives, to evaluate critically new knowledge, to judge what is useful and what is not, and be able to communicate and apply this knowledge. Without these skills of critical evaluation and thought, one's knowledge will become dated very quickly. It is this latter task that has focused my efforts in teaching and learning.
"The methods of effective teaching are as diverse as the number of effective teachers".
Becoming experts: a case study in folate and neural tube defects
Careful selection of topics for case-study can engage students, particularly when the topic has some direct relevance to them and has no definitive answer or solution. An example I use in my teaching is the link between folic acid and prevention of neural tube defects (e.g. spina bifida). The learning occurs over several weeks in small self-directed groups in which students critically evaluate the scientific and epidemiological evidence and then role-play as the Ministry of Health having to decide for or against a mandatory folic acid fortification policy. What is immensely useful about the learning exercise is that student confidence increases as they begin to appreciate that their scientific knowledge is expert. They begin to appreciate that the gap between themselves and the ‘experts' is not as large as they imagine. Unmotivated or reluctant learners respond to this particular case study because they are surprised by the extent of their specialist knowledge.
This approach to learning the topic engages the learner in achieving considerably more outcomes than would have been possible by didactic delivery of the facts during a 50-minute lecture. Part of its success drew on my contribution to generating knowledge in this area of research. These experiences helped me to design and refine the learning in a way that students had the potential to become experts, and were challenged to make ‘wise' and informed decisions.
The use of the dietary intervention experience has been an innovative and ambitious approach of my teaching practice. The dietary intervention experiments create ‘real-life' learning situations that enable students to experience the link between diet and disease risk factors. It engages them in discovering and generating knowledge by involving them as participants, analysts and authors.
The dietary regimen used in the intervention changes from year to year. A new experiment each year is a major administrative challenge, but is more engaging for the learners and myself. It ensures a sense of anticipation and excitement at generating novel results. The variety of dietary interventions chosen over the years include: fruit and vegetables to improve antioxidant status; a wide range of dietary strategies to lower blood cholesterol levels; using blood measures of fatty acid to predict dietary fat intake; nutritional effects of fish oil and flaxseed oil supplements; and folic acid supplements to lower cardiovascular risk factors.
The dietary interventions grew out of my own fascination, interest and experience in nutrition research. I could not have developed the learning activity into its present form without the insights of being an active researcher. Most of the peer-reviewed publications I have authored are based on research using the randomised controlled dietary intervention to investigate the effects of diet on health.
"The nature of being a good teacher is to be plagued by incessant doubt. Can I do more? Can I do it better? Always!"
Learning how to and developing the confidence to read research remains an important part of unlocking and giving expression to a student's natural sense of curiosity. Moreover, the plethora of available information requires an ability to distinguish between the meaningful and meaningless. ‘Journal discourse' is a small group-learning exercise that is student-centred and engages students in reading, evaluating, interpreting and communicating the results of the latest and most influential nutrition research discoveries. Students describe journal discourse as ‘deep learning', and praise it as having the greatest relevance to what they had hoped to get out of a university education. It is a method that engages students to exploit their existing knowledge, gives them an opportunity to apply their reasoning and skills of critical thinking, and makes them realise that they can be ‘experts' too. Why wait for a future age of maturity? The enthusiasm with which students of all abilities approach the exercise and the quality of their written editorial comment is remarkable. Through activities such as journal discourse it is my experience that students want to challenge their minds, they want to understand the most recent scientific discoveries and have informed opinions about the latest controversies.
Thoughts on teaching evidence-based nutrition
The previous three examples of my teaching design are student centred, involve virtually no didactic teaching, set clear objectives and high expectations and challenge students to call upon and improve their intellectual abilities. They are research-informed learning activities that enhance students' ability to understand how knowledge is generated and can refine the skills that are required to understand, evaluate, interpret and communicate it to their peers and others. They foster a sense of intellectual independence through discovery of knowledge and critical evaluation of it.
The foundation for excellence in tertiary education is an unquenchable love of knowledge, a conviction in the power of education to unlock the potentialities of the human mind and spirit, and a sense of respect for the knowledge, skills and attitudes of others. These are the values that have motivated my efforts as a teacher. Success is when students and I - as well as other parties - are convinced that something worthwhile has been learned; when students several years after graduating say, "I can't believe how useful it was to learn how to do those things". But in the end, it seems to me that the nature of being a good teacher is to be plagued by incessant doubt. Can I do more? Can I do it better?