Dr Matthew Brookhouse

Australian Award for University Teaching - Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning
Lecturer, Research Fellow
Fenner School of Environment and Society
Research School of Biology
ANU College of Science

Dr Matthew Brookhouse is a lecturer at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society and research fellow in the Research School of Biology. Matthew's teaching activities are principally focussed on a research methods course in which he has transformed the learning experience of first-year students. Since taking on the sole convenorship of the course in 2015, Matthew has re-shaped into one that offers students an engaging experience, immersing them in emotionally charged content and transforming the way they feel and respond to what is traditionally a much feared subject.

Matthew's teaching has a strong real-world focus, and this is reflected in the learning activities and resources he designs for students. His creative use of online learning platforms has resulted in College-based awards, and he is renowned for equipping students with skills and knowledge that will prepare them for the real world. Matthew's excellence has been recognised with an ANU Colleges of Science Award for Excellence in Teaching (2010), an ANU Colleges of Science Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning in 2016, 2017 ANU Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Education and 2017 Australian Award for University Teaching.

Matthew's teaching is aimed at breaking down the traditional barriers between researchers, teachers and students. He achieves this by paralleling student-based learning with open displays of his own research practice in the fields of dendrochronology, silviculture, wood anatomy and plant physiology as well as collaborative research activities as part of course curriculum.

Q&A

Q: What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?

Much of my teaching revolves around statistical methods - one of the most anxiety-inducing subjects for students. That anxiety reflects my own experience as a student and is a major barrier to learning and makes statistics one of the most difficult subjects to teach. I am motivated by the challenge of overcoming that barrier and transforming the perspective student have of statistics. Each year I am inspired by the transformations I witness as students openly and enthusiastically engage in learning. The feedback I receive from students that reflects on the positive contributions I've made to their learning also inspires me to continue developing teaching strategies that motivate engagement and stimulate learning. I am also inspired by the teachers that surround me - their passion for teaching and innovation provides a foundation for outstanding learning outcomes.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

Each year I meet a new class of passionate and intelligent students. I enjoy the energy they bring to the campus and my life. I appreciate the opportunity teaching gives me to be part of my students' lives and share in their learning adventure. I enjoy contributing to the confidence they gain through learning and a growing sense of personal achievement and empowerment as students advance through their degrees. I enjoy the fresh and unique point of view each student brings to their learning that challenge me to reflect and develop both as a teacher and researcher. In that respect, I greatly enjoy the positive learning outcomes that flow, both for the students and me, from the collaborative experience of teaching.

Q: How do you motivate, inspire and engage your students in and out of the classroom?

I believe that a key to transforming the student experience lies in understanding the motivation of researchers. That is, while researchers can seem superficially dispassionate towards their research subjects, they are, often driven by deep emotional investment. I inspire learning engaging students in a genuine research environment that focusses upon controversial and emotionally charged socio-environmental issues as the basis for experiential and problem-based learning. For most students my teaching offers a first taste of research that fundamentally changes their perceptions, stimulates curiosity and motivates learning. I also aim to overturn student pre-conceptions of statistical methods by embedding content within data- and story-rich environment in we live. My students discover a living world of statistics populated, for example, by ongoing feuds over hypothesis testing and hidden statistical elements of world-shaping elections and referenda and our personal interpretations of our own personal experiences. This approach personalises and animates the content and converts statistical learning into a highly relevant tool for understanding the world.

Q: What qualities do you need to be an outstanding teacher in higher education?

Higher education is a time of transition and transformation for all students. This is especially true for commencing students regardless of whether they're in the first-year of an undergraduate degree or PhD and irrespective of whether they're living in their home town or far from family. While immensely exciting, this transition can be a period can also be a stressful experience that places many students at risk. While great teacher are enthusiastic and engaging, I believe that outstanding teachers are empathetic towards the unique experience of each student and embed that empathy in all aspects of the teaching practice. I, like many teachers, reflect fondly on those whom inspired me as a student - outstanding teachers whom openly displayed their passion for learning and, in turn, inspired that same passion in me. Beyond passion, those teachers were open about their uncertainties and questions, were eager to collaborate with students as equals and approached their teaching and research with humility and a sense of humour.

Q: What are the ongoing challenges in developing your teaching practices?

Responding to performance extremes is one of the greatest challenges in statistics-based teaching. Students, for example, enter my course from an array of educational, cultural and language backgrounds affect their self-perception and informs their interaction with, and expectations of, course content and support. For example, while I aim to deliver key skills outcomes in data manipulation, summary and display as well as academic writing and referencing, student skill levels in these areas varies immensely creating a pedagogical tension associated with simultaneously meeting the needs and expectations of all students. An additional challenge lies in the changes I'm navigating in my interaction with students as my course grows. In recent years enrolment in my course has doubled. While this is wonderful, it also creates the risk that I lose the personal contact with each student that I value so highly and, I believe, fundamentally shapes their learning experience. Meeting this challenge is an ongoing struggle.

Q: Tell us about an approach you have taken in the classroom of which you've been proud.

Research and teaching are, to me, indivisible. Both informs the other and I believe we need to emphasise that connection at both individually and institutionally. Like many teachers, I seek opportunities to engage undergraduate students in my research practice. Recently first-year students and I have collaboratively developed datasets and completed analyses that have simultaneously supported learning and research outcomes. These collaborative activities have, for example, led to an innovative dating technique for a 16th century panel painting that is not only the basis of a co-authored manuscript including students, but will also feature in major exhibition in the Art Gallery of NSW during 2018. This, and a host of activities like it, not only deliver real-world outcomes but helps break down what students too often see as an aloof academic culture. This approach also give me a greater opportunity to model the full spectrum of ethical academic practice, ranging from practices of co-authorship, reproducibility through to the fundamental place that equity and inclusion plays in research and teaching.

Q: If the VC asked you how you would change teaching and learning at ANU, what would you say?

The ANU is home to leading researchers and teachers whom are increasingly reliant upon flexible teaching spaces. While there are a range of flexible spaces around the campus, there are few flexible digital learning spaces that allow independent and collaborative computer- and discussion-based learning activities. Further, all of the digital learning spaces on campus are too small to deliver cater for large courses. An increase in the availability of both flexible and large digital learning spaces is desperately needed on campus. My belief that research and teaching are indivisible also extends to our PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. While these early-career academics rightly focus on their research outputs, they too frequently do so at the cost of gaining teaching experience. Subsequently, they face an insurmountable task of demonstrating their potential as course convenors in an extremely tight employment market. We need to increase the relevance of teaching for our early-career academics by exploring opportunities for genuine co-convenorship to increase their competitiveness.