Teaching: on the front line

August 22, 2003

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

Name: David J. McGarvey

Age: 41

Job: Senior lecturer in chemistry, Keele University

Salary: about £38k

Qualifications: Graduateship of the Royal Society of Chemistry, PhD (Paisley), CChem MRSC

Experience: My first taste of lecturing was as a research fellow at Loughborough University in the early 1990s where I gave an eight-lecture course on "intermolecular forces". Those unfortunate students have probably not written so much in so short a time since. In 1993, I was appointed lecturer in chemistry at Keele and, in 1999, senior lecturer. I have taught science and non-science students from foundation level to specialist options in the final-year chemistry degree courses. I also like working with schools to improve public understanding of science and to encourage pupils to think about going on to higher education.

Hours spent teaching: About 150 formal undergraduate contact hours a year.

A lot more with preparation and assessment.

Hours on red tape: Averages out at two to three a week. I try not to let the tail wag the dog.

Hours on research: The remainder. This includes postgraduate supervision/ administration, writing and reviewing papers, attending conferences, giving talks and trying to obtain funding. I am active in research, having recently looked at the rates and mechanisms of free radical reactions of biological and medical relevance, with a particular emphasis on dietary antioxidants. I try to be effective in teaching and research, and for me each benefits and informs the other.

Teaching bugbear: Espousing the importance of laboratory work while not being clear about why students are doing what they are doing. The predominance of traditional prescriptive (recipe-style) laboratory experiments is a manifestation of this. Students spend a lot of time in the lab and we should make better use of it.

How would you solve it? No easy answer, but I experiment and disseminate the results. I have changed to a more problem-based approach. This places the onus on students to work things out while linking in other activities - teamwork, library work, IT, presenting a poster or talk - that are peripheral to the experiment but are what all research chemists do.

You need to be realistic, however. Students need strong support and there's little to be gained by watching them flounder. I told my colleagues what I was doing and this led to new approaches in other modules at Keele. I have publicised it via the Learning and Teaching Support Network.

I'm not arguing for the demise of the traditional prescriptive style of laboratory experiment but for a variety of styles. For the student who has experienced other styles of laboratory work and has developed a capacity to think critically about experiment design, a traditional prescriptive script has the potential to become a different animal- no longer a passive exercise but a further opportunity for critically evaluating how experiments are done.

Teaching pleasures: The teaching lab, if used to its potential, is a really stimulating learning environment. There is plenty of time in a lab session and ample opportunity for interaction with students.

Tips: Experiment and talk to colleagues. Many of my ideas have been stimulated by conversations over lunch. They may not always be successful, or even used, but, questioning the purpose of what you are doing, and thinking about its effectiveness, can lead to real improvements. It shows students that you take teaching seriously and that you are interested in improving their experience.

Outside interests: Walking in wild areas, particularly the mountain landscapes of Scotland. Radio. Listening to music. Playing and watching football. Nice food, nice wine and good company.

Career highpoints: The award of a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust for research into the free radical chemistry of carotenoids and an award for teaching excellence (jointly with my Keele colleague Vladimir Zholobenko) from Keele's learning and teaching committee.

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