January 31, 2007, by Teaching at Nottingham

In conversation with Lord Dearing Award winners: Martin Luck, Biosciences

Video >>
Kate: “In a subject such as yours, what do you think are the main purposes of running practical classes for your students?”

Martin: “The main purpose in this case is to reinforce the material that we’ve dealt with in the lecture. The lectures are good for describing concepts and explaining principles, but in a physiological course we have to relate the descriptions of how things work with seeing how the animal is in real life.

“So the purpose of this particular practical was to show them dissections of chickens and illustrate the particular organs and features that we had spoken about in the more mechanistic, systems type approach in the lecture.”

Kate: “And when you’re helping your students learn in this environment, you’re acting as a demonstrator, a tutor, what’s your main role there?”

Martin:“Well, my main role is to make sure they’re getting sufficient information out of the session, but also to make sure they are making the connections between what we’ve dealt with in the lecture course and what they can see in front of them in the dissection.

“So my approach is to go and ask them questions: What’s this? What’s that? What does that do? And to try and engage them in an active process, not just get them to do the dissection, but to understand the processes that are represented by the tissues that they’re looking at.”

Kate: “And in terms of the skills that you need to draw upon in working in that way, in a discursive way, what skills do you feel you’re using when you’re working as a demonstrator?”

Martin: “You have to be prepared to think on your feet. You also have to be prepared to bring your own knowledge forward very easily. It would be hopeless to have to refer to a book or a diagram at each stage, so you have to have a certain amount of knowledge.

“But I find that over the years, the more familiar I am with the practical then the better it goes, because you get to know the sorts of things that students are going to ask, and I suppose you subconsciously prepare for those.”

Kate: “Other people who are working with you, maybe postgraduate students or postdocs or colleagues, do you do any kind of briefing or support for them before the practical?”

Martin: “Yes, we will as a matter of habit get the demonstrators and other colleagues together before the practical, make sure they understand what the purpose of the practical is, make sure that they are familiar with any techniques that they need to demonstrate to the students. We accept that some of them don’t necessarily have a background in the subject, simply because of the diversity of postgraduates.

“So sometimes we have to, not run through the practical entirely, but at least go through the essential points and point out the things students have asked, point out where the pitfalls are, just to make sure that when they’re on the spot, they can respond effectively to questions and point students in the right direction.”

Kate: “Running these practical classes is a lot of work, and it’s a lot of planning and preparation. What do you actually get out of it personally? What do you enjoy about doing it?”

Martin: “I enjoy the contact with the students – the direct contact. I think giving a lecture is a different sort of contact. Moving into the lab then takes us away from the formality into a more informal situation.

“By the time the students have got to the second year I already know some of them as individuals, and I begin to see which are the leaders in the class, which ones will hold back, the relationships going round between the different groups of students, and you can build on that to try to encourage them, to try to get people working. It’s an interesting process to see.

“So, I suppose what I get out of it is the enjoyment of working with them as individuals rather than just as a sea of faces in front of the class.”

Kate: “The students are doing something quite interesting behind you as we’re talking, which is that they’re doing a multiple-choice test in class and you’ve asked them to talk to each other. Why do you ask them to do this?”

Martin: “Because the test is formative as well as summative. We need to have some kind of discipline put on them to make sure they’re learning things, but at the same time it’s nice if we can turn the assessment process into a learning process. So the questions are straightforward, but they need to discuss with each other to make sure they’re getting them right, and many of them learn during that process.

“Now, the MCQ makes up a small proportion of the module mark, because in a couple of weeks time they have a formal exam, but I know from past experience that the marks from the MCQ will be quite high. They will be in the 60s, 70s, 80s range and that’s what I would expect, but that comes, I think, because they’ve learned something in the process of being assessed.

“The test is not there to find out which ones have learned enough and which haven’t, the test is there to try and stimulate reinforcement of the issues that they’ve dealt with in class.”

Kate: “Just before your practical class, we came and visited your lecture. How do you try and link the theory and practice of the two aspects of your discipline?”

Martin: “Well, we have the problem of the practical class always coming at the wrong time in the lecture series. That always happens. But I give them pointers during the lecture course to the things we’re going to pickup on later on. So for example, when we were dealing with the digestive system of the chicken, I showed them the diagram, I pointed out the important regions and told them which bits of the system they needed to understand.

“But I also told then when they got into the lab we would be looking at these particular parts of the gut, and we would identify them and find out what their function is. So it’s a process of reinforcement, albeit sometimes over a period of weeks, but it normally seems to work.”

Kate: “In the lecture, you were using a number of different audio-visual and other teaching resources. What do you use and why do you use those particular kinds of resources?”

Martin: “Science courses are very content-laden. In some ways that’s a strength but in some ways it’s a problem. There’s often a lot of material to deliver. In this particular course there is a fair amount of material but there’s also some concepts which need to be understood.

“So I decided, in this course, to use an overhead projector because I could illustrate the concepts freehand as I went along. I find that’s is a good way of engaging with the students – measuring their rate of attention as well as my rate of delivery and trying to match those two as I go.

“In other courses I might prepare a PowerPoint presentation but I find that much less flexible as a teaching method. It works for different reasons in different subjects. But for this particular one I think the freehand method works, so I carry on with that.

“I backup my freehand delivery with a sheaf of notes which I give to the students at the beginning of the course and they contain the key diagrams and key references and perhaps a few articles that they need to read. So they’ve got the solid material in front of them on the desk. They can read that and they can look at it, but at the same time they can concentrate on what I’m saying in trying to deliver ideas and concepts and getting those ideas fixed.

“My approach here has changed a little bit over the years, but I go very much on the idea that “less is more”. I think if you try to pour lots of facts into students only a very small proportion is retained. But if you give them concepts that they can latch on to and hold on to, then they can fill in the details later. That gives them a bedrock on which to develop their knowledge and their interests.”

Kate: “If you were talking to a new junior colleague joining the department and you had to give them the “top tips” from your experience for lecturing, “less is more” may be one of them?”

Martin: “Yes, I’m not the first person to have said that, but I think it’s certainly true. And certainly my lectures have much less content now than they did when I started. Somebody told me when I started that “less was more” and I didn’t believe them, but I now do believe them and I pass it on.”

Kate: “Is there anything else that you think is helpful in a formal delivery of material in a lecture that helps.”

Martin: “I think you have to be prepared to be flexible, because classes go at different rates. You have to set your objectives for the session, of course, and you have to get through those objectives, but the amount of detail that you bring in and the pace that you go I think needs to be adjusted for each class.

“It might be a Monday morning, it might be a Friday afternoon – you can tell by watching their response how well things are going. Sometimes your own explanations might be better on one day than on another, but you have to make adjustments. If you want to do it that way, you might as well record everything and just show the videotape, which would be pointless.

“The point about a lecture is that it’s an interactive session. Even if it’s being delivered from one side, it’s still interactive because of the information that’s coming back to the lecturer about the rate of learning of the students. I think if you take account of that you can adjust the pace and make some effective progress.”

Kate: “Something I’ve just thought to ask you about in terms of that adaptiveness of teaching is maybe about there’s been a lot about SENDA and about the disability legislation that’s been introduced. Have you had to modify your teaching in the sight of that legislation?”

Martin: “We have to make occasional modifications, I know we have some students who have an amanuensis to take notes for them, we have to take account of where they are positioned in the room so they can lip read if that’s what they want to do.

“We occasionally have students that are not happy in the session, like in today’s practical there were a couple of people who were not happy working with animal tissues, we have to make allowance for them to go out. These things do occur, it doesn’t have a large effect on our work, but we do have to be aware of it.”

Kate: “Adaptability, flexibility issues, any particular difficulties or problems in teaching that you feel are issues for a new lecturer joining the university now. There may be issues of late arrivals, people coming late for lectures.”

Martin: “Yes, I think it takes a while to build up an armoury of methods for dealing with these situations. How do you deal with a mobile phone when it goes off? How do you deal with late comers? How do you deal with somebody suddenly getting up and going in the middle of a lecture?

“To somebody venturing out in teaching I think it takes a little bit of confidence to deal with those, but with a bit of experience it can be dealt with and I think on the whole I would tend to ignore those kinds of disturbances.

“I like to treat students as adults, they are in lectures, I assume because they want to learn something, or hear me talk to them. If they don’t want to be there, then I would prefer that they weren’t. If they want to turn up late, then that is really their problem and not mine, provided they don’t disturb the rest of the class and they are reasonably discreet about it.

“Mobile phones are a big problem and sometimes I ignore it, and sometimes if I’m feeling really bright I make a snide comment about it, but that just depends how it goes. I think on the whole disturbances are something that we just have to live with, but show by your demeanour that you are not being swayed by it.

“That there is a discipline that goes on in the session, and the students have to go along with that discipline if the session is to be effective.”

Kate: “One last question which again I suppose is more a personal driver. How do you find ways of linking your own interests in research and the things that you do in your teaching and the classroom and lecture – how do you find links between teaching and research?”

Martin: “We do that a lot here, all the lecturing staff at Sutton Bonington are researchers, and we bring research material into our lectures as a matter of course. I am constantly updating my lectures with things I have heard at conferences, things that I have read in papers, interesting tit-bits I’ll include them.

“That’s on the one side, on the other side all the students here are going to do a lengthy research project themselves so it’s quite right that we should introduce them to the fact that the things we are studying are not known for certain.

“All the science we deal with here is at the edge and the things we tell them are only right for now, later on it might be changed, something else might be found, there are lots of areas we don’t know about and it’s perfectly OK to bring those into lectures.

“It provides an air of uncertainty into the lecture, which I think can be constructive; it enables you to develop a questioning mode to teaching.”

Martin Luck (School of Biosciences)

Martin was a Lord Dearing Award winner in 1999. See highlights from other LDA winners. Produced January 2007.

This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Awards