Star Turn

May 26, 2000

Scripting lectures like a playwright has won him accolades, such as Australian lecturer of the year, but the best prize has been motivated students. Julia Hinde reports

It is graduation day at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and economics lecturer Geoffrey Waugh poses for photos with students. The 56-year-old is in demand. He has twice been voted the university's star lecturer, and he won this year's prime minister's prize as university teacher of the year. The award, in its third year, nets him A$75,000 (Pounds 30,000) to be spent supporting teaching. He plans to help fund a student project to cut waste at this year's food and wine festival - environmental economics students will look at the financial viability of a washing-up facility to replace paper plates.

"Teaching has become the most important part of my university life. I would not have been promoted without research as well, but teaching is where the pressing need is," says Waugh, who has spent 26 years researching fishery economics and teaching at UNSW.

He has spent the past year reflecting and writing on teaching. He is keen to understand what makes a lecture work: "In soap operas, 90 seconds is the most they spend on one scene. That's the way these students have been brought up. So you have to break up a lecture in a similar fashion."

Waugh interrupts lectures with pop songs and anecdotes on the economics of the music business or his family. He organises someone to ring his mobile phone. He has got a few people with him, he tells his caller as 1,000 students listen in, could he ring them back?

It all seems unplanned, but Waugh takes up to a day to meticulously plan a lecture - breaks and all - even when he knows the material thoroughly. He will then spend an hour and a half before a lecture preparing, briefing a technician on when to play music and on when to interrupt the flow.

"Each time you break the flow, their attention heightens," Waugh says. "After that, you put in the important point they need to remember. I will watch their soap operas. Never the whole way through, but I know the characters, and will bring bits in. They laugh and their attention goes up."

Waugh emphasises delivery and timing. "If you look at an orchestra, it develops rhythm and tempo that create atmosphere. In a lecture, tempo is a function of the number of points you make and how fast you go. You blur points if you go too fast. If you slow down, they become clearer. When I plan lectures, I think about connectiveness and threads I can weave between lectures. It's like a plot."

Waugh tailors his lectures to the group. "I get them working together," he explains, adding this is contrary to much education philosophy, which concentrates on the individual and on ensuring each student follows.

This term he is lecturing in environmental economics. He divides his weekly three-hour session into a lecture and a tutorial. But even in classes of 1,000, he has a personal touch.

"Every one of those students has my home phone number," he says. "They only ring if they have a problem. Over the phone you can sometimes solve something in two or three minutes, which would perhaps take them an hour."

"For many of the environmental scientists here, economics is a compulsory but boring subject," says Waugh."But they are drawing the diagrams, they are thinking about it. They want to learn. They come along expecting to be bored, but I don't think they are. The reward is seeing them staying back at the end, asking questions."

Student Bianca Smith, 20, is certainly not bored. "He's a fantastic explainer. It's a complicated subject, but he gives relevant examples, and uses heaps of humour. Everything is very humanised."

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