Teaching: on the front line

March 21, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name : Mary Davies

Age : 48 Job: Study/dyslexia support tutor at Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

Salary : £22,948

Qualifications : BA (Hons) English; PGCE (Swansea).

Experience : I went to college via an access course as a mature 30-something and found my way into study/dyslexia support through further education, while teaching English part time. I was attracted because you work with students one-to-one on their problems. In further education, I worked in a strong team that shared ideas and strategies. I brought all that with me into higher education.

Hours spent on teaching : 25 a week. I teach anything from foundation to postgraduate students - sometimes in the space of an hour. I learn a lot from my students, who often have original and inventive study-skills strategies. My approach is based on the premise that dyslexia-friendly teaching is good for all students. For example, creative strategies such as "concept mapping" help students to make lateral associations, something dyslexics are often very good at, and to synthesise strands of thought.

Hours on research : I work best early morning, so usually do an hour or two before work. If I'm on an intense spurt, I do the same in the evening. I am studying for a PhD in English and Italian poetry and philosophy.

Work-related projects are on staff development, study skills and dyslexia support.

Hours on red tape : I "lose" hours on e-correspondence.

Teaching bugbear : Students are frustrated by the gap between how they expect to be taught and the reality. Mature students, for example, come from further education colleges where they are used to small-group teaching and receiving hands-on guidance; those who have taken general national vocational qualifications are unaccustomed to lectures. If universities want to attract students from diverse backgrounds, they cannot expect them to learn easily through traditional teaching methods.

How would you solve it? By encouraging teaching staff to try more innovative strategies. At our college, there is strong support for staff development. This year, we have focused on large-group teaching. The lecture is teacher-centred and students treat it as a passive activity.

Seminars for all are logistically impossible so, if there is a lecture, it must be made accessible and interactive. Lecturers can use tactics such as getting students to brainstorm the topic before the lecture starts or giving first the big picture, then the smaller parts so that students get a framework to structure their notes.

Other tactics are breaking students into small groups to get them talking; leaving space in handouts for students' own notes, questions and responses; and asking questions that pull the material together.

Teaching pleasure : Students who like playing with words.

Outside interests : T'ai chi. It's based on Eastern philosophy that takes a holistic view of the person. This fits in with the way I teach. The reasons for students' study skills difficulties are often to do with their emotional baggage.

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