are you a risky teacher?

Post & photo by Kylie Budge.

Are you much of a risk taker in your teaching?

By this I mean do you like to step out of your teaching comfort zone very often? Are you happy to try out new ideas with your students, or new ways of doing things to see if a different approach with something will re-energise and engage everyone (yourself included)?

Or is risk taking something you’d rather avoid?

This is a topic I found myself discussing with a group of teachers recently and it led to range of interesting places. We talked about what level of risk we felt comfortable with in our teaching and the kind of situations where it felt too scary to go further.

Let’s be honest, it takes courage to try something new in teaching. And there are lots of reasons why. Things can go horribly wrong, for one. Your students might not like what you’re trying out on them either. And then there’s the not-so-small issue of student feedback surveys – what if your students hate the new approaches you’re trying out so much that they rate their experience in your class very low? All of these are real possibilities. Most (if not all) teachers who’ve been brave enough to take a risk in trying something new with their students have faced these issues (and probably more) squarely in the face.

But what if we were to understand risk taking in a different light? What if we were to accept that at it’s very core teaching is a creative endeavour, and that like all creative endeavours worth their salt, risk taking is part of what happens to get to the brilliant, beautiful stuff? And what about if we allowed ourselves some room to experiment, explore and create the new approaches in our teaching without putting ridiculously high pressures on ourselves to get it right the first time?

Give yourself permission to sit in this space for a moment and see how it feels.

And then, if you’re feeling in the mood to try something new in your teaching, here are some useful guidelines I’ve accumulated from my own teaching and risk taking adventures that you might like to consider:

  • take a risk with a colleague (or 2 or more). You don’t have to do it alone.
  • think about why you’re making the change to your teaching. Be sure you’re convinced of the reasons.
  • establish realistic expectations and goals.
  • tell yourself it’s alright if things aren’t perfect the first time you try. You’ll learn from trying, fine tune your ideas and do it better the second time.
  • talk to your students about what you’re doing and why. The why part is important because they also need to understand why things might be suddenly different. This way you’re more likely to get them on board and face less resistance.
  • prepare and plan as much as you can. But don’t over-do it.
  • read and learn from others who may have tried similar approaches to the one you’re considering.
  • talk to your colleagues. See if anyone else has tried your risky idea. How did it go for them?
  • ask a colleague who uses a similar approach if you can observe one of their classes or even team teach with them so that you can get a better handle on the idea before you try it in your own class.
  • when things get a bit tough, don’t give up too easily. Keep persisting. You might be surprised where the tough patch leads you.
  • when the risky period in your teaching is over evaluate what happened – evaluate it yourself and seek feedback from your students.

Have you taken any risks recently in your teaching? How did they work out?

Do you have any other tips for those who might be thinking about taking a leap and trialing something new? If so, do share. We’d love to hear.

Peer assessment at work

Guest post by Lucy Adam

Our first guest post is by Lucy Adam who teaches textile design and development at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

Anna Sassi at the RMIT Fashion and Textiles graduate show, Moonee Valley 2010

One skill we would probably all agree is important for our students to develop while they’re with us is the ability to successfully work with others. It’s a highly regarded skill in the professional world. The reason for this is that seldom in a work place all planning and decision making is left to one person. It’s more realistic that tasks are undertaken by a group of people who provide a framework which increases the ability of the group to achieve its’ goals.

In this post I would like to address some of the benefits of group work and peer assessment and draw on my experience as a teacher on how to equip a group of learners with the ability and confidence to assess their peers.

Firstly, why do we carry out assessment? One answer may be, to provide feedback on the learners’ performance. So my next question then is: is the teacher always the best person to carry out assessment? I believe the answer is no, especially in the case of group work. In saying this however, the teacher is heading into dangerous territory if the group is not invited to participate in identifying and agreeing on the assessment criteria and methodology.

My example of teamwork and peer assessment takes place in a TAFE unit of competency (for those of you not in Australia, as part of a vocational education and training program) I team teach with Julia Raath titled Exhibit Textile Designs or Products. Students are required to work in groups to undertake fundraising, design and organise the production of a catalogue, and prepare and plan for the graduate exhibition and opening night.

The various tasks to be carried out by the groups are identified and students are asked to name what sort of skills may be required to do these specific jobs – for example to design the catalogue it’s always identified that strong computer aided design skills are needed. Then students are asked to write down what they think their strengths are in relation to the tasks at hand. This is done to help the class realise that everyone has skills, knowledge and experience that will be valuable to the overall success of the project and the importance of diversity.

Then we discuss teamwork, what is it? Why do we do it? What are some of the components of working successfully in a team? At this point it’s highlighted that teamwork is about the bigger picture; even though you may have a specific function, you are united with the whole group to accomplish your goals. Discussion points centre around:

• Clear expectations – goals, timelines and deadlines
• Context – does everyone understand why they are participating
• Commitment and contribution – are all team members committed to accomplishing the mission? Is everyone willing to contribute equally?
• Competence – having the skills and knowledge to complete tasks
• Collaboration – how people work together
• Communication – what is the established method for communication, dispute resolution and the importance of showing respect through honest and clear communication.

This discussion is the catalyst for enabling students to set the criteria by which they will assess each other. The whiteboard soon becomes full of all the attributes the group feels are important to carry out the teamwork. Typically they list: listening, asking questions, honesty, encouragement, diplomacy, constructive criticism, goal setting, task management, meeting deadlines, problem solving, reliability, respectful, calm, compromise, commitment……. Inevitably another long discussion follows about definitions and categories. For example someone usually points out that if you are honest and listen then you are respectful, so the attribute of respect covers many criteria and that if you meet deadlines and contribute then you are committed…. It’s a long class!

The narrowed down criteria is then turned into a rubric and given to students for approval. Once finalised, the rubric is given to all students and levels of performance are clearly described. Students have been engaged and the terms of assessment are transparent and been agreed upon by all. This task in itself instills a sense of accountability, commitment and ownership. See the rubric here.

Camilla Stirling at the opening of Fuse at The Counihan Gallery, Brunswick 2010

The following are what we’ve found (and others have too) to be some of the benefits of peer assessment and group work through experience with students in my teaching:

• Allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning
• Peer assessment is possibly the only way of obtaining accurate information about the individual contributions made within a group
• Facilitates the development of communication, team work, problem solving and self management
• Encourages students to develop a greater understanding of standards of work (Bostock, 2000)
• It involves students actively using their skills and knowledge of subject matter (Bostock, 2000)
• “Studies consistently report positive responses to peer marking from students (Bostock 2000; Orsmond et al. 2000; Black et al. 2003) who claim it has made them think more, become more critical, learn more and gain more confidence.” (Bloxam & Boyd, 2007, p 23)

At the end of the year we raised enough money for two extraordinarily successful graduate shows and a beautiful colour catalogue. It was wonderful to see the students so proud of their achievements on the opening nights!

Have you had any experiences of using peer learning and/or peer assessment in your teaching that has worked well?


Bloxam, S. & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing effective assessment in higher education: a practical guide. Berkshire: Open Link Press.

Bostock, S. (2000). Student Peer Assessment. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from

“Guess what I want!”

Posted by Ruth Moeller.

Just like that, I was taken back to my first year of university –  when I thought you had to be very clever to be at university (and not sure that I was) and I had no idea what was expected and how I would give the lecturer what she wanted in my essay. 

Quite a chilling moment really – what brought about this flashback I hear you ask?

I was working with an academic on the subject she teaches to first semester, first year students.  Reading the assessments she was setting her students, I was confused and didn’t understand what was wanted, in fact I felt stupid. I could guess what was required but I really wasn’t sure and I have many years of academic study behind me.

I asked about assessment criteria, was there a rubric, were the students given samples of what was expected?  The answer was “No”. She agreed that these could be helpful but didn’t really know how to go about setting this up. Also as an aside, she did mention that there were several tutors who marked this subject, 10 in fact, and they all had their own ideas – imagine the students in the tutor/assessment/marking lottery!

I was struck by the fact that here was a dedicated teacher, looking at her subject, and particularly assessment, through the lens of many years of academic experience and a high level of academic literacy. Her student cohort, on the other hand, first semester, first year students, most of whom would find being at university daunting, let alone assessments that were framed with the underpinning premise of “guess what I want”. 

I need to say that this academic wasn’t ‘bad’, in fact she was concerned about the struggles of her students, without realising she was contributing significantly to them.

A starting point was to think about these students as transitioning into the university coming from school, work and range of experiences and backgrounds, all converging at the one point. Here is an opportunity to establish good academic practice and help develop their confidence.

So, what do students need when they move into tertiary study? When I think about me as a school leaver and even as a mature age student, I wanted to know what was expected of me, how to pass and how to fit in. Surprisingly, or not, I am not alone, these expectations are common for students transitioning to all aspects of tertiary life. (For more about student transition see the work of Sally Kift.)

With this in mind, the first thing I encourage teaching staff to do is make students feel welcome, learn names (use labels or name plates), give a clear overview of what they will be learning and why, and also how you will be teaching and the best ways to be ‘successful’.  With regards to knowing students names, others may have different opinions: in discussion, with a colleague, I was surprised, if not horrified, to hear that he deliberately doesn’t learn names, believing students prefer to be anonymous!

As you know universities have a range of student services available – they usually have a high profile for students during campus orientation but to be effective, transition should go beyond the sausage sizzle, show bags and information session and be integrated into your semester’s teaching. I have involved the academic support services in my classes to give a presentation on how they could assist students in the first assessment task. Another colleague cunningly incorporates a library session and annotated bibliography into the first assessment task to ensure students engage with services that can support them in their further tertiary education.

On the matter of assessment, (the prime focus of students), they want to know what, how and whyWhat is required, how it will be judged (ie. assessment criteria) and why this assessment (ie. its relationship to their learning). With regards to the what, not just from a content perspective, but also in the presentation of that content – the academic literacy. Once completed, they want to know a further how – how they did and how they can improve. This is why feedback is so important.

To help students, something I have been using in my own teaching for a wiki based assessment is an example of what ‘good’ looks like; a sample of the product and standard required for a task at the level they are studying. I have to say that this has reduced many of the questions and anxiety around the task as the students don’t have to guess what good looks like.

Back to my starting point, if you put students into the position of “guess what I want”, they will, with differing levels of success, high levels of frustration and the odd bit of ambivalence. Perhaps then, it’s better to not put them in this situation at all by providing some clarity around what we do want and how they could provide it.


Why write a blog on teaching and learning?

Good question!

The idea came from a Speed Geeking session where I met The Thesis Whisperer; a colleague who runs a blog to guide, support and inspire PhD students. She told us that about 6 people have read the journal articles she has written, but 1200 have accessed and continued to access her blog!

This was a light bulb moment!

Working in teaching and learning (T&L), my office mate and I bemoan the fact that there is so much material ‘out there’, how can we engage and share it? Likewise, teaching staff often comment, “I didn’t know about…, how do you find out about …?” So, the blogisphere was a way of linking to other T&L practitioners in an easily accessed and safe environment.

Recently, I have been using Youtube video clips as tasters, to spark interest in my students on topics (eg. there is a series explaining constructive alignment ). If this is all they do, they have had a taste, are now aware and that adds to their knowledge palate or it may pique their interest and they may research further. That is the aim of this blog, not to provide “The Answer”, but rather to share ideas, information and frustrations and ultimately to enhance all our teaching practice – the idea is to provide a starting place, a source for ideas and information on teaching and learning in the tertiary education environment – The Teaching Tomtom is to give us the portal to do this.

Another part of this blog is its link to the Twitterverse. The purpose of this is two fold, firstly to engage with 21st century communication in a meaningful way; I don’t want to share what I had for breakfast (porridge), how cute my cats are (very) or where I am having a drink (never you mind); but this can be a way of engaging in concise and focussed communication around T&L. Secondly, I don’t know what you think, but another possible benefit is to see how (or if) we could use Twitter in our teaching. If you join us in Twitter, this is something we could talk about.

As the aim of TTTT is to be a collective space, we ask that if you are inspired or motivated or have a burning T&L issue that you want to share, discuss or just get off your chest, write a post or comment. Comments are easy – just see the link at the top of the page. To post, have a look at the About section as this will tell you how to do it.

So, after talking about what a good idea a T&L blog would be for several months now, the time has come to take the plunge and actually do it.