Students campaigning to raise the status of teaching at a Scottish university have rewarded the institution’s most inspiring lecturers at their own awards ceremony this week.
The Edinburgh University Students’ Association was concerned about the University of Edinburgh’s relatively poor ratings in the National Student Survey when it came to the feedback students received from lecturers.
It said there was a perception among the student body that many academics prioritised research over teaching.
Eusa decided that launching the student-run teaching awards would be a positive way to campaign for Edinburgh to reward good teaching more systematically, and to call on the Scottish Government to increase pedagogic funding.
“There are academics who deliver great teaching despite the many demands on their time and the incentives to concentrate on research,” the Eusa website says. “These awards aim to recognise such people and to demonstrate that students appreciate the value that good teaching adds to their learning.”
Students were encouraged to nominate staff who communicated a passion for their subject, who were willing to communicate with students outside lectures and who provided a high standard of feedback.
A total of 2,704 nominations were received for 621 staff, 191 courses and 60 departments, and the winners were announced at a ceremony on 22 April.
“The awards night was really professional. I had no idea there would be quite so much razzmatazz,” said John Simpson, senior clinical lecturer in medicine at Edinburgh and winner of the Best Feedback award.
“The students were so full of enthusiasm – they made it such an enjoyable evening. It was like the Baftas,” said Tonks Fawcett, senior lecturer in nursing studies, who won the award for Commitment to All-round Teaching.
The results for the 2009 Eusa Teaching Awards were:
- Best Department: Classics
- Best Course: Criminal Law
- Best Director of Studies: Tony Gilbert, senior lecturer in mathematics
- Teaching Employable Skills: Kenny Pryde, senior lecturer in design and technology
- Innovative Teaching: Richard Milne, lecturer in plant science
- Best Feedback: John Simpson, senior clinical lecturer in medicine
- Commitment to All-round Teaching: Tonks Fawcett, senior lecturer in nursing studies
- Outstanding Communicator: Ian Campbell, professor of Scottish and Victorian literature
- Best Dissertation Supervisor: Yew Ming Chia, senior lecturer in accounting
- Overall High Performer: Elizabeth Bomberg, senior lecturer in politics and international relations
John, Paul, Kirk, Spock and plants: Edinburgh’s most innovative lecturer explains his approach
Students recently complained to a committee of MPs that there was nothing worse than lectures that amounted to “death by PowerPoint”.
But instead of sending students to sleep, the slides Richard Milne uses have helped to inspire them and generate interest in the origins and diversity of life.
“My speciality is PowerPoint presentations,” said Dr Milne, a lecturer in plant science who has just been chosen by students as the University of Edinburgh’s most innovative teacher.
“It is like all these things – if you use it well it is a brilliant tool, if you use it badly it is terrible.”
Lectures that rely on endless slides of written information and bullet points can be “dry as a desert”, he said.
His trick is to use words sparingly and to focus instead on graphics, animations and photographic images.
“Images stay in the mind and can convey ideas very quickly,” he told Times Higher Education.
Dr Milne can get through as many as 120 slides in a 50-minute lecture. One lecture features a sound clip from The Beatles, another a spoof of Star Trek, and a third is based around a murder mystery.
“I try to put it all in the context of an evolutionary story, much the same way as Sir David Attenborough might.
“Say ‘plants’ to most people – especially those straight out of school – and they will stick their tongue out at you and say, ‘Gosh, how boring.’
“But I want to attract students to plant science, to make them think: ‘Actually, there is something interesting about this subject – plants are not just these dull things animals eat.’”
Students, it seems, have been won over. One of those who nominated him said: “He completely turned around my attitude to plant biology: previously I thought it the dullest area of biology, now it is the most interesting to me and I plan to continue its study next year.”
Dr Milne said he “almost jumped up and down with glee” and felt “ecstatic” when he learnt of the accolade while studying plants in China.
“I’ve been trekking across mountains on the back of mules, jumping off and looking at orchids, magnolias and hundreds of other fantastic plants, all to learn a bit more about plant evolution. I have a deep passion for it,” Dr Milne said, whose post is a joint appointment between the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and the university.
“Most lecturers have that passion, but I don’t know if they all put it into their teaching. I think students respond to teachers who make an effort, who have energy and who care about them.”