Teaching: on the front line

December 5, 2003

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

Name : Chris Willmott Age: 36 Job: Lecturer in biochemistry, University of Leicester.

Salary : £24,121 Qualifications: BSc biological sciences, PhD biochemistry, PGCE (Leicester).

Experience : While completing my PhD I became increasingly involved not only in practical class demonstration but also in running seminars on Christian Union weekends away. This led to a first job as a staff worker with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, a role that offered excellent training in a variety of teaching styles, from one-to-one work and small group settings to addressing larger audiences. After four years with UCCF, I took a postgraduate certificate in education and taught in secondary schools before moving into higher education.

Hours spent teaching : The emphasis in my job description is heavily on the teaching end of the research-teaching balance, which was a bit of a departure from previous models. I think this arrangement is holistic and realistic - few people can really excel at teaching, research and administration. Diversification of roles allows all staff to play to their strengths, with benefit for all. It is a fundamentally different pattern, however, from that suggested for teaching-only and research-only universities. As a "teacher" I value being in a department where cutting-edge research is being done and where colleagues and visiting speakers keep me up to date. Equally, while teaching specialists can carry a large part of the teaching burden, a student still needs the opportunity to hear the latest findings from staff experts.

Hours on red tape : It depends on what you classify as red tape. I'm on various teaching committees and also an admissions tutor - but that can't count as red tape since without student recruitment there wouldn't be anyone to teach. The role in which I feel I make least impact is, ironically, as a member of senate.

Hours on research : I carry out a number of research activities, but these tend to be focused on developing teaching resources and/or assessing the impact of our teaching. I was awarded a university teaching fellowship last year.

Teaching bugbear : Students who will engage meaningfully with an exercise only if it has credits. The question "Do we need to know this for the exam?" is another manifestation of the same philosophy.

How would you solve it? Not easy. I think it goes to the core of what education is for. Is it for understanding or for qualification? The system seems skewed to the latter.

Teaching tips : I'm a big fan of sitting in on other people's lectures. In addition to formal peer review, I also try to sit in on the lecture programme of at least one full module each year. This develops my subject knowledge in areas outside my specialisms and gives me an opportunity to see how other staff approach the job. But most importantly, it gives me a clearer overview of what students are learning in the different components of their degrees. There is a danger that staff and students can tend to see modules in isolation. Having an accurate knowledge of what is in other modules allows for "joined up" education -we can cross-reference with confidence to material that students will have studied in a previous module or will study in future.

Best teaching moment : When the "penny drops".

Worst teaching moment : I remember the days when a year nine class in secondary school could make me despair for the future of the country.

Outside interests : Beyond family and church, I play hockey. I organise a hospitality programme for international students. I am recorder for the British Association's biological sciences section and on the steering team for the Learning and Teaching Support Network's bioethics group.

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