Upside-down logic puts the facts in perspective

June 20, 2003

A good tutor dares to turn traditional teaching on its head to help students understand their subject better, according to two winners of £50,000 fellowships for teaching excellence.

They are among the 20 university lecturers who will pick up awards in the fourth round of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in London on July 15. Emma Baker, a clinical pharmacologist, and Amanda Chetwynd, a statistician, prefer to give students examples of real-life problems before moving on to the theories that might solve them.

For Dr Baker, an honorary consultant at St George's Hospital Medical School, London, this means breaking with a long tradition whereby medical students are expected to master dry facts about health conditions and treatment before dealing with patients.

Dr Baker said: "As a student, I found much medical teaching a turn-off because it was so impersonal. Medics teach big classes, often of about 200 people. I try to engage people as much as possible. I take patients as the trigger and feed in facts later."

Dr Baker plans to use her prize money over three years to get more clinicians into teaching. She is worried that funding cuts are leading to a loss of expertise as senior staff take early retirement. "That has huge implications for teaching medical students. People feel insecure and that affects forward planning on the curriculum," she said.

Professor Chetwynd, who teaches maths and statistics at Lancaster University, turns classes "upside down". She said: "Traditionally, you state the theorem, give proof and then examples. It is logical but students don't understand what's going on until you give the example. I give the example first."

She draws on topical medical and legal controversies, such as cot-death statistics, to demonstrate the power of probability, for example. "Lots of my classes are with first-years who need maths and stats for something else they are going on to study. Teachers have to help students realise that statistics is a useful tool for life."

She gives skeleton notes to free time to work through examples in class.

"It means I can wander round and help them," she said.

Professor Chetwynd intends to use her fellowship to develop teaching materials to bridge the gap between school and university. "The big concern is that many school maths teachers are not mathematicians. I am hoping my work will be useful to them."


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