Place the students first

September 3, 2009

João Magueijo's opinion article caused me great concern regarding the self-awareness of some of our leading academics ("Dummies' guides to teaching insult our intelligence", 20 August). Good lecturers are sometimes born naturally self-reflective, responsive and sensitive to the needs of their students. Sadly, however, this rarely occurs instantly or automatically - most of us have to learn how to be effective. Given that every student deserves the best teaching we can provide, is it morally right to allow someone to continue to make all their learning mistakes on their first few cohorts, or should we do all we can to advance the development process and make them more effective as swiftly as possible?

If used well, "teaching games" can accelerate the learning process and produce more improvements in half an hour than "lecturing" over a far longer period. The focus is on learning, and there is more than enough evidence to support the argument that almost any teaching method leads to more retention over time than just listening to a speaker, no matter how eloquent. Increasingly, our learners need more encouragement, more support and more confidence building; providing a wider array of delivery strategies helps in all areas and also encourages dialogue, which later becomes academic debate and discussion if used effectively.

The weakest teachers I have seen over my 30-year career have been resistant to the potential benefits of thinking more laterally about how they teach and how their students learn best. As teachers, we must all remember that our students come from a different educational background than the one we had and that they therefore have different expectations and experiences. It is our job to respond to them in the best way possible.

Like Magueijo, I am a scientist, but I am also seriously concerned about any academic who pulls down the shutters on a potential learning experience and believes the rhetoric about its potential value. As our students get one chance to succeed when they study with us, the quality of their experience must be our central focus. A truly great teacher will embrace every opportunity to provide the very best experience possible, and this may well mean stepping out of one's comfort zone and employing techniques and strategies that one personally does not find useful but that students do - and they are why we are here.

Jo Pickering, Head of education studies, University of Derby.

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