DIY workshops

Sometimes your staff or students could really benefit from a workshop on a particular topic. Here is a template for creating workshops for any aspect of academic development for staff or students. I have used this successfully for workshops about teaching and supervision.

  1. Pick a topic you want a workshop on: quality supervision, teaching international students, writing journal articles….
  2. Get practitioners for a panel (students or staff). They need to be excellent at the topic, and also reflective; they should have thought about and articulated what they do. Choose diverse practitioners to give different points of view. 3 is a good number for a 1 hour workshop, and you can increase the amount of time for each of the activities listed below if you want a longer workshop
  3. Develop some questions related to the topic, and tell the panel that you will ask them to start by responding to some or all of these questions. The questions should be about the sort of issues the workshop participants will be grappling with (see the example below)
  4. Write a blurb for the workshop which includes the panel members and the questions, and use this to advertise the session
  5. I use a whiteboard to list each idea that is suggested by a panel or audience member. As an option, this can then be compiled into a word document that lists the answers to the questions, or a list of tips and techniques.
  6. Timing of the session: I use the following schedule for the workshop. If you have a longer workshop give longer for each stage.
5 minutes Have audience introduce themselves to someone they don’t know and chat
5 minutes Ask the audience to thank the person they were talking to and introduce themselves to someone new. Finish the 10 minutes by asking them to thank the person they were talking to.
Introduce the session and the panel
20 minutes Give around 5 minutes per panel member for initial response to questions, then ask the audience to talk to someone beside them and share what they took from the panel comments.
10 minutes Q&A from audience and general discussion
5 minutes Ask the audience to talk with the people beside them: What is the most important thing you take from the session? What will you take away? Have a few people share with the whole group
2 minutes Finish with the panel: What is the main advice you have for the audience about the topic?

Example 1: Teaching failures, blunders and catastrophes: Learning from our mistakes

We all make mistakes when we teach but we rarely talk about them. We may even think of failures as a mark of a bad teacher, even though we can’t enhance or improve our teaching, or try out innovative practices, without making teaching mistakes. In this highly interactive session, three award-winning teachers will share experiences of their teaching failures, blunders and train wrecks. Participants will discuss these experiences and what they tell us about teaching and learning. This will be a fun and stimulating session where we can talk about our failures and how to deal with them. Our aim is to collaboratively develop a kinder approach to teaching, where we acknowledge mistakes as necessary to our process of professional learning.

  1. What is one major teaching failure you can share with staff?
  2. What have you learned from your teaching failures? How have they enhanced your teaching?
  3. What is the best way to approach ‘failures’ in teaching? Eg do you try to see them as a learning experience? Do you seek them?

Example 2: Teaching Challenging Topics

Our students sometimes are challenged and confronted by the topics we teach, not because they are academically difficult, but because they raise sensitive issues that might be upsetting, disturbing or distressing. What we teach might remind them of upsetting incidents from their past (eg abortion, adoption or sexual violence), or it might confront their ethical or religious concerns (eg dissection), or even confront a deeply held assumption or prejudice (eg indigenous approaches to the Law or Planning). Sometimes we know our topics are likely to be confronting for some of our students and we can prepare for this, but often we cannot predict when a topic might be challenging, and so we also have to have a plan to deal with unexpected upsets.

Join us to hear the panel share their strategies for teaching challenging topics, and then join the panel for further discussion.

  • How can we plan for our teaching when we know we might be including challenging topics?
  • How can we teach challenging topics so we support students who might be upset?
  • How can we maximise learning despite, or perhaps because of, the challenging nature of what we teach?
  • What do we do when we have students who are unexpectedly upset?


Posted in Uncategorized

Different kinds of teacher knowledge

One way to understand what is required for good teaching is to analyse the different kinds of knowledge a teacher needs. This analysis then allows a teacher to identify the areas where they are strong and the areas in which they need further knowledge. For example in another blog post I pointed out that a teacher needs to know their particular students, and this knowledge can only be developed while teaching the students (or just before you teach them).

A teacher needs a wide variety of different kinds of knowledge. Imagine we were teaching Rob algebra. What knowledge would you need?

  1. First you need to know algebra or you can’t teach algebra.
  2. But this is not enough, as you don’t yet know what Rob already knows or doesn’t know, and so you don’t know where to start with teaching algebra to Rob. This means you also need to know about Rob.
  • But knowing where Rob starts from is not enough, if you don’t know how learning happens. You have to know how learning occurs in order to foster Rob’s learning about algebra. This means you need to know how learning happens.
  1. But this isn’t enough if you don’t know how to make that learning happen, so also need to know how to teach (which is understood as how to make learning happen).
  2. But it may be learning algebra is different from learning to be a physio, so also need to know how to teach algebra. You need to know how to explain the concepts of algebra so that rob can learn them, and how to foster the particular skills of algebra.
  3. Finally, you will be teaching in a context, maybe home tutoring or teaching a mathematics course, or giving background for some other university course, so you need to know the educational context.

This framework is very useful for understanding your own teaching. What do you need to know for your teaching in your particular context? Which knowledge do you already have, which do you lack, and which can you enhance?


Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.


Posted in Learning to teach

The devil is in the detail

Sometimes we think we have a profound understanding of teaching, when actually our ideas are so vague and abstract that they are practically meaningless. For example, we might think that we have a deep understanding of teaching because we have changed our conception from a teacher as merely sharing what he/she knows, to a conception of a teacher as student centred, aiming to foster student learning. However, when we then consider what this means in practice, we realise we don’t really understand at all. Our understanding needs to be refined and enhanced by making it concrete, applying it to our particular situations and contexts, and giving examples to illustrate.

To illustrate this in more detail, I might think that I can help my students to be independent thinkers by asking them to justify their answers. But this is still a very vague insight because it is not concrete about what is said and done, in what situations, and why. Although all the following teaching practices count as “asking students to justify” only some are good teaching practice, and some are much better than others.  I don’t really understand what I mean until I distinguish which of these following concrete practices I mean when I say “I want students to justify my answers”.  There is a big difference between:

  • Just start asking my students “why do you think that?” vs. first explaining to them why I am going to ask them to justify themselves, and modelling how I justify.
  • Asking them “why?” once, vs.asking them regularly and frequently, so they get in the habit of justifying themselves.
  • Requiring an immediate answer from my students, vs. giving them time to think before answering.
  • Asking in a sarcastic tone as if their answer was stupid and wrong, vs. asking as if I am genuinely interested in their reasons
  • Dismissing their answer as incorrect, or leading them to what i consider to be the right justification vs. guiding them to elaborate their reasons, and asking the rest of the class how they might strengthen the justification.


Golding, C. (2017) For example? A philosophical case study of some problems when abstract educational theory ignores concrete practice, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(2), 476-490.

Posted in Reflection and improvement

Teaching failures, blunders and catastrophes: learning from our mistakes

I recently organised a panel session on teaching failures. Three teaching award winners—Roslyn Kemp, Anthony Robins and Clinton Golding—shared some major failures in their teaching with a group of c.25 academics, and then we discussed what we might learn from these mistakes, and how best to relate to failures in teaching. This blog post summarises some of our ideas.


The failures we shared each involved trying something new, a major teaching innovation, that did not go to plan. Ros wanted to have all her students use I-Pads, Anthony redesigned the entire first year course for computer science (a course which fed into all the other papers offered by his department) and Clinton attempted to translate his face-to-face, discussion based teaching into distance learning and video conferencing. In each of these cases the students did not learn what we intended, hated it, or did more poorly than we expected.

Some underlying causes of the failures:

  1. Overconfidence in what we could achieve. We thought, “How hard can it be?” but underestimated what we could do. For example, Clinton underestimated how hard it was to manage the video conferencing technology while also facilitating learning.
  2. Assumptions about what students wanted or needed, or what would appeal to them, or what they could handle. For example, Anthony tested his new course content with demonstrators, on the assumption that his first years would respond in a similar way, but he underestimated the struggles of first year students with no programming experience.
  3. Assumptions about what will work based on past experiences, but which did not adequately reflect our current students. We all thought, “This should work!” but we failed to think about how we were teaching new cohorts of students and we could not assume that what worked for other cohorts of students would also work with this cohort.
  4. Mismatch of expectations between teacher and students. We often expected one thing from the students, while the students expected something else. For example, we expected critical thinking from students, but they expected to just be told the answers.
  5. Overreliance on a particular piece of technology or method with no backup plan

Different kinds of failure:

  1. Unexpected failure. My first time teaching via video conferencing was an unexpected failure. I thought it would be no problems as I had been teaching for a very long time and had won a number of teaching awards. But I had no idea of the cognitive demand of trying to manage the content, manage the class dynamics, and manage the technology all at the same time. I ended up rapidly exhausted and went into auto-pilot teaching where I said things but I didn’t really know what I was saying, just trying to get through it. This sort of failure is inevitable in your teaching as you can’t predict everything that might happen, and you can’t tell how your teaching will land until you have taught it.
  2. Failure that is invisible to the students. Sometimes we see our teaching as a failure but this may not be apparent to students. For example, after my initial unexpected failure with teaching via video conferencing, I ensured I had a number of backups in my teaching such as extra readings, and times to meet with me, so that even if my new teaching methods went badly, my students would still get valuable learning. This was one of the strategies for dealing with failure: have back-up plans that mean that even if you fail it won’t be an epic failure. For example, if the technology doesn’t work, make sure you have printed handouts as back-up.

Ways to manage and mitigate our teaching mistakes

  1. Plan for failure, and have back up strategies available, so you make sure you provide a great learning experience for students (while realizing that unexpected mistakes can and will happen).
  2. Realise that the first few years of teaching something new will be sub-optimal. But you can make sure they are not sub-par. In other words have a backup so the students have a decent learning experience while you experiment with giving them a great learning experience.
  3. Simplify your teaching: The panel members gradually simplified their teaching so we only use essential methods with fewer and fewer ‘frills’. For example, I often only use a whiteboard without a powerpoint, and I send extra notes to students afterwards. The simple methods have fewer distractions which mean the teacher has more cognitive capacity to listen to students and help them learn. This allows for maximum flexibility and reduces the threat of failure.
  4. Don’t make assumptions about what will work for your students, what they will be excited by, or what they can and can’t do. Ask your students, ask colleagues who know your students (eg who know first year Physics students at Otago), and test the methods to see what does and does not work for your particular students
  5. If a teaching methods fails, collect evidence about why it didn’t work and use the evidence to inform what you do next. Take a scientific approach to your teaching where you collect data and make changes to your teaching based on the data. You often will have incomplete evidence and so you have to hypothesise about what will fix a problem (sometimes the evidence doesn’t make it clear what the real problem is), then try a solution, evaluate whether it worked, and try a different solution if it failed.
  6. Look for feedback early so you can detect an imminent failure before it is a disaster. For example, find out if students are struggling before they hand in their assignments rather than while you are marking them. Then you can reteach what they misunderstood before it is too late.

How do you relate to failures?

  1. No blame. It is not the students fault, and it is not your fault (unless your teaching was irresponsible or reckless where you ignored issues that you knew were likely to lead to problems). If you planned well, based on good ideas about what good teaching is, based on knowledge of your particular students, and with a plausible plan for assisting them learn, then the ‘failures’ are a necessary part of learning how to teach well.
  2. Be kind to yourself: Everyone makes mistakes.
  3. Think: There are no failures, just possibilities for getting better. Essential for my academic development
  4. Think: How can I fix this? How can I provide a better learning experience next time? I call this taking an improvement or enhancement approach which is very different from blaming yourself or the students which does not allow for any improvement.
  5. Expectation or perception management. Find out what your students expect and if it deviates from what you expect, convince them that what you expect is better. For example, convince them that even though it is harder for them to come up with the answers, they will learn more and be better prepared for careers if they think independently.
  6. Develop self-efficacy as a teacher so you can ride out the mistakes confident that you are a good teacher, even though it is not going well right now.
  7. Persevere/persistence. Change takes time. Don’t give up because of an initial failure.
  8. But, occasionally run away and abandon a strategy that was a hopeless failure
Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement

Meta-blog: Blogging as academic development



This blog is inextricably intertwined with my academic development practice. It is the result of my previous academic development work, it is my current personal academic development, and it leads to further academic development work for others.

  1. The blog summarises what I have learned from years of academic development. By working with many staff on many different issues of academic practice, and by reading the literature and conducting formal research on empowering academics, I have learned what the common problems are, and the fruitful solutions. The blog summarises the results of this informal, iterative, research into academic development.
  2. As I write the blog, I engage in my own academic development. As I write, I reflect on my practice as a teacher and academic, and I clarify, refine, elaborate and illustrate what I do, then I systematise this in a personal and useful theory of teaching and learning. What I end up with in the published blog is (I think) clear, well-illustrated, complex, informative and (hopefully) insightful accounts of different aspects of academic practice. Putting this another way, the blog is my informal micro-research about academic development. In the blog I develop and refine new ways of conceptualising academic development practices, and test how clear and informative they are.
  3. When I share the blog, it can facilitate and inform academic development for others. If I am consulting with a staff member about designing their course, I can share my blog posts about course design; if I conduct a workshop on supervision, I can send participants a link to my blog posts about supervising and postgraduate learning. What’s more, the blog allows for wide dissemination of this academic development advice and support. I don’t have to be personally involved in the academic development.
  4. Finally, the blog is also a model for how others can engage in reflective academic development about their own practice.
Posted in Higher education

Tips for writing a convincing thesis

Here is a blog I wrote for Times Higher Education on writing a convincing thesis.


Posted in Postgraduate education

Learning to write is like learning to play tennis: written feedback is not always useful

Sometimes giving feedback on student writing is straightforward. They have missed something important, so we tell them what they didn’t know, or we tell them to do what they missed: for example, “criterion is singular and criteria plural”, or “You need to put the reference in brackets.”

But written feedback telling our students how to write is not always so useful. Sometimes our students need to learn things that cannot be conveyed by written feedback. Leaning to write involves developing very complex skills – for instance, knowing how to make a clear point, or how to link one idea to the next – and these skills are learnt in the same way we learn to play tennis. Giving written feedback on these writing skills is like reading a book to learn how to swing a racquet. Instead, the skills can only be learned by isolating them and then practicing, using regular feedback from an expert coach to improve our performance.

The process of learning is something like this:

  1. Teacher gives instruction about what the aim is and how to achieve this
  2. Student attempts it
  3. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  4. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim and tries again
  5. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  6. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim, and tries again
  7. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  8. Keep repeating until student has met the aim, and is at the adequate level of performance


An example of this process for writing might be something like this:

  1. Teacher explains that a paragraph should only make one main point, and gives an example
  2. Student writes one paragraph, attempting to only make one main point
  3. Feedback from the teacher: “I can’t tell what main point you were making. What is the main point? Tell me out-loud and then write this down.”
  4. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to make it about the main point they said out-loud
  5. Feedback from the teacher: “I can see that you have included this main point in the paragraph, but you have also included this point and this point. Can you see that they are three different points, where each is about a different topic? You need to break this into three paragraphs, one for each point.”
  6. Student re-writes one paragraph, attempting to isolate only the first main point
  7. Feedback from teacher: “Great, it looks like you are only writing about the one main point. However if I didn’t know your topic, I couldn’t tell what the main point is in your paragraph because you have hidden it as the third or fourth sentence in the paragraph. Re-write the paragraph so the first sentence is the main point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates this main point.”
  8. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to put the main point in the first sentence.
  9. Feedback: “Great, you got it! Now try this again on a different paragraph, and I’ll give you some feedback.”

This process is effective for several reasons. First, it isolates a specific skill needed for academic writing which the student can concentrate on, rather than swamping them with vast amounts of feedback on multiple different skills. Second, it is quick and easy to do for a student. The student only has to complete a small task which takes very little time (much less than writing a whole chapter), and so they can quickly repeat multiple iterations (sometimes during a supervisory meeting), improving each time. Third, it is quick and easy for the teacher. Rather than having to struggle through an entire chapter where there are problems in every paragraph, the teacher is able to give quick feedback just when the student needs it to improve. Lastly, it allows the student to adjust their performance of the writing skill. It is never enough to tell them how to write a good paragraph – they can say “I get it” but their performance indicates they do not. Students need to try it, find out where they are going wrong, then adjust and try again, find out how to get better and then adjust, etc.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing