A principled approach

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

A three level model of teaching practice

A three level model of teaching practice © Dr John Reece, RMIT

It’s hard to imagine a great lecturer or teacher who doesn’t work from a set of principles. My goal in this post is not to have you sign up to a particular set, but rather to encourage you to devise a set of your own. Principles (as I’m using the term) can be seen as a sort of checklist that converts your educational philosophy (be it lofty or pragmatic) into a series of more concrete subroutines.

While we’re often called on to reel off our teaching philosophy, a recent presentation by Dr John Reece at the RMIT Learning and Teaching Expo highlighted to me that it’s the set of principles – a kind of exploded view drawing of that philosophy – that lets other people in on what you really think is important. John shared his own principles with the audience and is happy for me to share them here:

1. Recognise, appreciate and foster knowledge and understanding of “deep” learning.
2. Make learning enjoyable without being trivial or flippant.
3. Enthusiasm and passion on the part of an educator positively influences student learning.
4. Educational approaches should be evidence-based and reflective.
5. Teach because you have a genuine love of helping students to learn.
6. Actively involve adult students in the learning process; empower their learning.
7. Win the “battle of hearts and minds” when teaching challenging material.
8. Foster an appreciation of the real-world relevance of learning.
9. Be reflective and self-critical of your own practice; always strive for improvement.
10. Have respect for students, regardless of how challenging they may be. Listen
and learn from students. Seek and value their input.
11. Incorporate educational technologies that will effectively enhance learning.
12. Self-knowledge: know what you’re teaching and why you’re teaching it.

An explicit set of principles, preferably self-derived, is key to reflective practice. Each of your principles can serve as compass, rudder and yardstick- before, during and after a teaching activity. Listening to John it was clear that this document lives for him at all of these stages and that it interacts with his model of student learning and the requirements of his own discipline of psychology. Along with other materials from the Expo, you can see the full presentation ‘Grounding teaching practice within a functional model of teaching and learning excellence’ here.

Drawing primarily on his experiences teaching statistics to psychology students – the alternate title of John’s presentation was: ‘What to do when you have to teach terrified students something they hate?’– the principles remind him of what to focus on in preparing a course; they guide him through stretches of educational ‘heavy weather’ and they describe his own criteria for his performance after an educational engagement.

Do you have something similar? Have you written something recently in a PD activity, a strategy document, a teaching course assignment or a promotion application? Do you feel a strong agreement or disagreement with items on the list? John would be the last person to try and push this as something definitive or even transferable; the principles represent his conception and are the working parts of his teaching ‘mechanism’.

You will have to devise your own!

Checklist being marked off

(cc) from MorgueFile.com

But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow or adapt from John’s or revisit an instance when you have done this thinking. I’ll be sharing my own set in an upcoming post.

The point is that a framework should not simply stay as a document in your mind, or something you dust-off to leap an institutional hurdle. There’s too much evidence from writers, poets and philosophers who have said they only found what they knew through the act of writing it down. Added to this is a new wave of thinkers and theorists espousing the benefits of checklists and statements of purpose as tools to really clarify behaviour and to make change and improvements in individual lives, in professions and in workplaces. See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Atul Gawande’s 2007 article in The New Yorker: ‘The Checklist’ for examples.

Another source for RMIT staff looking to reflect on their practice is the DSC’s 12 Guiding Principles. This project identified that leading tertiary educators:

1. Encourage and develop contact, cooperation and reciprocity between students,
staff and industry.
2. Foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing.
3. Encourage critical reflection and recognise how values influence learning.
4. Foster imagination, innovation and creativity.
5. Promote ethical and sustainable practice.
6. Encourage active, self directed learning.
7. Plan and assess for deep learning.
8. Communicate high expectations.
9. Respect diverse knowledge(s), talents and ways of learning.
10. Give timely feedback.
11. Encourage appropriate use of learning environments and technologies.
12. Recognise the time it takes to learn.

The two sets of principles can be seen as broadly sympathetic but I’m sure you can see the individual streak that runs through John’s document; it is his and it serves him after all. The list above is the exploded view diagram of what we can say about great teaching across the College of Design and Social Context. You can find out more about each of the principles and what they look like on the ground (including case-studies in the context of RMIT) here.

What both sets of principles do is provide a background and rationale for the choices we make as teachers and lecturers. It’s the right time of year to review your own performance and set routines in motion for the next. Principles can be our checklist for how we’re doing and they don’t have to refer to an institutionally imposed model. They can help us choose between two competing goods or decide on the types of activities we want to pursue while acknowledging the opportunity costs of doing so. A new learning technology may satisfy one or two of your principles. But if it goes against another principle or takes your time away from one that you know you need to concentrate on, how can you integrate it into your practice and still keep that integrity with your principles?

If done well, designing a set of principles is an example of doing the thinking beforehand so that you’re more capable in the moment.

Share your thoughts about principles and frameworks in the comments below!

Active learning strategies

Sketch of students around a table

© Jacinth Nolan, RMIT University

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Have you ever handed out an assignment to students and heard the response: ‘But how do I go about doing it?’

Part of any assignment or project students undertake is the thinking involved in how to break down the tasks and how they might approach each of these sub-tasks. There are always students who can do this very well. They are the ones who get the good grades. However, there are also many who struggle to conceptualise what is required. So how do you help students to be able to do this?

I have come across a number of learning and teaching tools or strategies that can be used to actively engage students in their learning and to engage them in higher order thinking, both individually or as part of a group. They can help students to do things like organise their thinking, analyse ideas, problem solve, brainstorm, develop creative ideas, plan, reflect and evaluate, collaborate and make decisions. They are thinking routines which students will internalise if they use them regularly and they can be used both individually and in a group.

Many of these tools or thinking strategies can be done online or with pen and paper, for example, brainstorming or Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI). Brainstorming can be introduced in class and then students can develop concept maps from this. Alternatively, PMI is a useful strategy for analysing and creating new ideas. Given the new collaborative learning spaces being designed in universities, these strategies (which can be online or on paper) enable students to work together to create their understanding.

Another example is the KWL Chart which is essentially a graphic organiser that allows the student(s) to discern their learning needs. The process allows students to record what they know about a topic (K); what questions they have (W); and ultimately what has been learned (L). The KWLH Chart adds another question, how can we learn more (H).

Students draw a chart with three or four columns:

What do I/we already know? What do I/we want to find out? How can I/we learn more? After appropriate research, what have I/we learned?

I have also discovered a number of other nifty tools online that you might like to use with students too, especially if you are lucky enough to be teaching in a new generation learning space, which are designed to encourage group work, collaboration and active learning.

The Ingenium tool is one such example. Whilst this tool is still in development, it does offer a creative problem solving process guide for students and has many other resources, including online mindmapping software and idea generation tools. This tool is part of an Office for Learning and Teaching collaborative project led by the University of South Australia. If you are interested in trialling this tool with your students at RMIT in Semester 1, 2013 there is still opportunity to do so. Please contact thembi.mason@rmit.edu.au for more details.

Technology offers great possibilities for active learning. Blogs and wikis enable students to talk with each other outside of class and to connect with and build their prior learning before they come to class. Other tools where students can collect information or ideas that they might like to use for a project on a particular topic (over time) are Pinterest (pinterest.com) and Wallwisher (wallwisher.com). Pinterest allows students to ‘pin’ interesting sites or images to a pinboard and can be done both individually or as a group. It is a bit like an online scrapbook or pinboard. Students can add comments too to remind themselves why they have selected that particular site/image to pin. Other students and you can comment on and critique those choices.

Wallwisher is a site that allows students to put up sticky notes related to a topic and can be good for brainstorming – especially for online classes. These notes can also be moved around or bundled by theme or idea. You might ask students to brainstorm ideas for a particular problem and then get them to bundle them into concepts or themes in class. Perhaps then each group could take a theme to research in more detail and report back to the rest of the class?

The important thing about all these ideas is that thinking is documented and that these explicit strategies enable all students to develop the thinking routines which the ‘very able’ have internalised and are performing automatically. It is important therefore when reflecting on the completed work that students look at the learning strategy or tool they used including the purpose of the strategy/tool and the thinking focus it encouraged. When students have increased their knowledge, competence and confidence in using these strategies/tools they can then independently begin to use them in other contexts.

Share your thoughts about other techniques to make thinking visible in the comments below!

Healthy Minds, Healthy Institutions

Posted by: Spiros Soulis, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Mental Health issues among the student population are likely to escalate” (Throunson, 2012).

Researchers have found mental illness among Australian university students is five times higher than the general population” (Kerin, 2010).

Recently there has been a lot of media as well as research around mental health and how it is impacting upon our student population. As a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor and having worked with young people exhibiting mental illness I understand how vulnerable this group is and also the debilitating effect mental illness can have on being able to carry out day to day tasks.

A number of national studies have been conducted to gauge the impact of mental illness on the student population.  One recent study by Dr Helen Stallman, Clinical Psychologist, University of Queensland, screened more than 6,000 students and found 84 per cent were suffering psychological distress and almost one-fifth showed signs of mental illness bringing her to state that  “what we do know is that mental distress has a huge impact on student learning” (Kerin, 2010)

For a large number of teachers, mental illness is a great unknown, perhaps even an area of taboo.  As with the wider community, a stigma continues to be attached to it, despite that in the last two to three years, great inroads have been achieved to break down some of these misconceptions.  Mental illnesses have their major impact on disability and medical experts rate them amongst the most disabling illnesses (Stouthard et al, 1997) “Disability refers to the amount of disruption  a health problem causers to a person’s ability to study or work, look after themselves, and carry on relationships with family and friends” (Kelly, Kitchener & Jorm, 2010, p4)

So as educators and teachers what can we do?  The University of Western Sydney has an excellent website highlighting a number of resources for recognising and dealing with mental illness for both staff and students.  I found the following particularly useful:

Recognising students in trouble:

  • Progressive or sudden deterioration in attendance, attention, participation or quality of work
  • Progressive or rapid deterioration in appearance (sad, ill, unkempt, dramatic increase or decrease in weight)
  • Deterioration in social behaviour. Unusual behaviour or appearance
  • Dramatic swings in expression of feeling or social engagement
  • Flat or exaggerated emotional responses that are inappropriate to the situation
  • Concerns expressed by peers
  • Seemingly outrageous claims or personal statements
  • Inappropriate or untimely responses
  • Something odd or unpredictable about their manner which makes you feel concerned or uneasy.

Communicating with students who may be experiencing mental health difficulties:

  • make sufficient time to talk to the student
  • talk in a private space
  • have a non-judgemental attitude
  • make sure you are actively listening and taking in what the student is saying
  • use open-ended questions and clarify anything you are unsure of.

(Mental Health and Wellbeing, n.d.)

If you are witnessing some of the above in a student, I strongly suggest you get in contact with the counselling team at RMIT http://www.rmit.edu.au/counselling to seek advice and assistance.

Personally I have used the service of the Counselling team in a number of ways, namely:

  • delivering presentations to new as well as returning students at the beginning of the academic year and particularly during the exam period
  • Involving the counselling team in the School’s Planning Days as a way for them to run specific workshops and address certain concerns that may be arising from your student cohort
  • Using them as a referral service for students who may be “in trouble”.

If you wish to further extend your knowledge and skills around managing mental health in the classroom and workplace, consider enrolling in a Mental Health First Aid Course offered by RMIT through the DevelopMe portal (there is a course scheduled for October/November 2012).  “Mental health first aid is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis, until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves” (Mental Health First Aid, 2012).

At the recent Student Mental Health Summit a Melbourne University student Melissa* described her experience with mental illness: “No one wants to admit they have a problem because of how people perceive it.  You can be anyone you like at university. You will be accepted for being a little bit weird or abnormal.  But when it comes to mental health the same social stigma is carried into the university environment.”

She said the key to tackling mental illness was to make students more aware of the issue. She said counselling services needed to be more widely promoted as most students didn’t know they existed.

*Melissa asked for her identity to be protected.


Kelly, C., Kitchener, B., & Jorm, A. (2010). Youth mental health first aid: a manual for adults assisting young people (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Orygen Youth Health Research Centre.

Kerin, L. (2010, November 23). Mental illness running high among uni students, The World Today, ABC News, Retrieved on September 6 2012 from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-11-23/mental-illness-running-high-among-uni-students/2348772

Mental Health First Aid, (2012). Retrieved on September 6, 2012 from http://www.mhfa.com.au/cms/

Throunson, A. (2012, August 10). Mental health issues among students to escalate, The Australian.

Mental Health and Wellbeing, (n.d.) Retrieved on September 6, 2012 from University Western Sydney, Student Support, Web site: http://www.uws.edu.au/wellbeing_mentalhealth/wbmh

Stouthard, M., Essink-Bot, M., Bonsel, G., Barendregt, J., Kramer, P., Vande Water, H., Gunning-Schepers, L, & van der Mass, P. (1997). Disability Weights for Diseases in the Netherlands. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.

‘Feed forward’ – reframing feedback

Posted by: Ruth Moeller, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

When you think about it, ‘feedback’ is a funny term.  What are we feeding and why is it backwards?

Word cloud generated from words used in this post, courtesy of www.tagxedo.com

Word cloud generated from words used in this post, courtesy of http://www.tagxedo.com

Feedback is essential to improving performance. Whether it is having a teacher correct a student’s hand position so that they can play the cello better or a tutor commenting on an essay and showing how to integrate quotations into the flow of a piece of writing. We continue to seek feedback from our peers as adult learners. At work, a colleague might make suggestions on how my design could be made stronger through the application of different styling. As tertiary educators, feedback is considered so important that it is included in the Good Teaching Scale (GTS); the survey that students complete to rate our teaching performance. I wrote a post discussing the feedback we get from students last year on the tomtom. You can read it here.

But back to my original point, what are we feeding? It’s obviously the student- but what is the food?  Food supplies us with many things including sustenance and nutrition and a little comfort. This is what we should be giving our students to support and help them grow both academically and in their discipline.

I think we would all agree that ‘Well done!’ or ‘HD’ is a bit like a Tim Tam, nice but not sustaining. So we need to provide our students with comments and ideas that they can actually use to build their knowledge and skills. Being specific is the key: describe the issue and provide a corrective response.

Now the other part of the term is the ‘back’ part. Why back and not forward? Yes probably it is ‘back to the student’ but if we reframe it and think about ‘feed forward’ the focus becomes future application not backwards reflection.

This was brought to mind by a presenter at the recent HERDSA conference. Iris Vardi spoke about ‘feeding forward’ from one assessment task to the next. The model she used was in a course (subject) with three assessment tasks, each built on the next so the guidance and comments that students got in the first assessment could be (and was) assessed in the next and so on.  This meant that students could use their tutors’ input, not just see it as an acknowledgement of work done.

It may be too late to implement this in your course as the assessment may have to be amended or re-aligned but there is a simple ‘feed forward’ strategy that you could implement in the next task you assess. The technique is to summarise your comments by:

  • Identifying three positive aspects of the work
  • Identifying two areas of improvement for next time, with suggestions on how that could be achieved
  • Making a general comment.

I find this strategy to be simple and effective as it focuses on the positive (that’s why there is one more point to begin), it gives specific positives and negatives, and then points a way forward with constructive suggestions. As a student, I could repeat the three good aspects and work on the two negatives in my next task and if I did that for each assignment I would be doing well.  Note: you can use more than three/two but keep it manageable, too many things can become overwhelming.

This is also a technique that can be used in giving feedback to peers. It is structured, students know exactly what is expected of them and it removes the opportunity for ‘It’s all good’ or worse, a huge list of negatives.

Iris inspired me to reframe the concept of ‘feedback’ into ‘feed forward’. I doubt that the GTS will be amended to reflect this but changing my frame of reference from past to future, will enable me to help students grow their knowledge and skills, not just maintain them.


Vardi, Iris 2012, Effective feedback for student learning in higher education, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, Milperra, NSW

Share your thoughts about feedback and ‘feeding forward’ in the comments!