Dr Abi Brooker Interview

You are one of a growing number of School academic staff who have completed a formal teaching qualification, in your case the Graduate Certificate of University Teaching (GCUT). In brief, how did the certificate enhance your teaching practice?

In brief, it gave me an appreciation of the elements that constrain and support good teaching, and an appreciation for peer reviews. A longer answer is that the GCUT introduced me to many of the theories underpinning good teaching, and many of the factors in the university that constrain and support our teaching practices. The peer review tasks were unsettling at first (especially the tasks where we had to film ourselves), but ultimately they were among the most useful tasks for reflecting on teaching practice – as a reviewer and as the person being reviewed.

Is there a growing culture of teaching innovation and professionalism within the University in general and the School in particular?

I’d say there is a growing culture within the School, because there is now a Director of Academic Innovations [Dr Meredith McKague] and a growing number of teaching specialists and teaching fellows. I’d also say there is a culture of teaching and innovation across the University. But I don’t think that’s the biggest challenge – the bigger challenge is preparing students for the uncertainties of unemployment post-degree, and fostering a culture of scholarship in student cohorts, and especially among undergraduates.

You have conducted a variety of research projects focused on teaching and the student experience, including recent articles on learning outcomes in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and on the difficulties that first year university students face. Can you briefly describe what you found in one of these recent projects?

The study regarding first year students found that students experienced multiple difficulties at once – with time management, work load and others’ expectations of them as their biggest difficulties. The size and number of their difficulties was a reminder that the transition into university isn’t necessarily an easy time for young people: it’s complex and chaotic and it involves more difficulties than those in the academic context. At the same time, students who saw their difficulties as challenging or benign were happier with how they engaged with their difficulties than students who saw their difficulties as threatening or harmful. So while it is useful to be aware that students face many difficulties, the task for students is not necessarily to avoid those difficulties but to find ways to change their appraisals of them.

There is an increasing focus on student well-being at the University. What are a couple of things that teaching staff might do to enhance it?

Yes there is (hopefully on staff wellbeing as well), I think partly because improved psychological wellbeing is associated with better learning, productivity, and empathy. Self-Determination Theory says that a person experiences wellbeing when they experience a sense of competence (or ability to further their competence); relatedness (belonging to a group, being known by others, being protected and responsible for others); and autonomy (volition, sense of purpose). A teacher who provides opportunities to experience those things will more than likely be enhancing students’ well-being. A Faculty that provides opportunities to experience those things will more than likely be improving staff well-being. I’ll plug our project website here too: for more information about student well-being, people can visit http://unistudentwellbeing.edu.au

Has your training as a developmental psychologist influenced how you approach your teaching and your development of teaching-related initiatives?

Yes. University is all about transitions – whether students are transitioning from school to professional life, or from one career into another, their experiences at university must have an impact on that trajectory. Lifespan developmental psychology makes me mindful of the diversity of those transitions – and those trajectories. From a developmental systems perspective, university teachers can facilitate long-term change in our community. But I imagine every psychologist sees a link between their discipline and their teaching.