Training and Inspiring Educators in Research (TIER)

Australian Award for University Teaching - Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning
Research School of Biology
ANU College of Science

All successful researchers had great teachers guiding them along the way, but more often than not this happens serendipitously, begging the question of whether there is a way to enable the continuous development of good researchers and teachers. Ten years ago, an enthusiastic group of early career academics, utilising an undergraduate Biology course and research group, set about answering this question. The subsequent result has been the evolution of an organic, self-sustaining mentoring program 'TIER' - by Training and Inspiring Educators in Research - which empowers students through the unprecedented independence and self-learning experiences it offers them. By implementing a model of distributed leadership that spans multiple academic stages, TIER promotes excellence in research-led education. Its evolution over the past decade has led to student and early career researcher retention, and a comprehensive set of research, education and professional skills for participants and those taught by members of the program.

This program has been running since 2007 under the supervision of Professor Barry Pogson; it constitutes active postdoctoral researchers, enthusiastic postgraduates, passionate Honours students and undergraduates. Some of the recent team members include Kai Chan, Peter Crisp, Su Yin Phua, Xin Hou, Diep Ganguly and Estee Tee.

Q&A

Q: What motivates and inspires your team in their teaching?

While there has been many different motivations and inspirations for each of us in our teaching, one we all share is the motivation to engage young bright minds in current research that we are passionate about. Indeed, we all have had supervisors that used to say that "the best way to learn is by teaching". By being involved in teaching the concepts to undergraduate students that we are actively researching, this has repeatedly helped in reinforcing and critically evaluating our own research. However, the biggest inspiration is having the chance to empower the next generation with a broad set of skills and tools, and the confidence to make an impact across a broad range of disciplines and contexts, in whatever the student feels most compelled to pursue.

Q: What does your team enjoy most about being teachers?

Being able to inspire and support future researchers and educators in developing their own set of learning skills is the most satisfactory achievement for us as educators. Over the years we have developed our teaching philosophy that is highly recognised by students and peers: inspire independent learning and deliver best practice learning advice. Especially at all tertiary levels, teaching "how to learn" and improving students' career prospects are more valuable than teaching "just knowledge". As a self-sustaining program, TIER inspires independent learning of students and encourages them to apply the skills that they have developed to research and teaching. As research intensive educators, we not only have opportunities to support the active learning of undergraduate students, but also peer-mentor junior TIER members, facilitating their self-learning on their way to becoming successful researchers, educators and other valuable roles in the community.

Q: How does your team motivate, inspire and engage their students in and out of the classroom?

Motivation and engagement is one of the key aspects of our program. We motivate students by entrusting them with responsibility and leadership in teaching and learning, using a distributed leadership model with both 1-on-1 and group mentoring support allowing the opportunity for all participants to lead course development. Empowering students and giving them a sense of independence in this way is a fantastic motivator and we find students engage so much more when they are a stakeholder in their own learning experiences. Furthermore, providing intellectually stimulating challenges, by utilising our own current research paired with systematic guidance, is a fantastic way to engage students by involving them in hypothesis testing without an "expected formulae".

Q: What qualities are needed to be an outstanding teacher in higher education?

To be an outstanding teacher in higher education, patience, dedication, flexibility, open-mindedness, and motivation are the key traits. Higher education constitutes people from all walks of life, and it is commonly multicultural and multinational. In order to effectively educate students and work with other teachers of such diverse background, a good teacher needs to be able to communicate and understand the students and fellow teachers. Additionally, new knowledge and discovery is happening everyday, particularly in science and technology, and teachers need to be able to keep track on these advancements and incorporating them into their teaching to ensure the students are kept up-to-date.  

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

From our experience, there are two main challenges. The first is the need to adapt quickly and efficiently to the constantly evolving student needs and expectations, whilst ensuring that our teaching is always inclusive (i.e. delivering content and assessments that are challenging and stimulating to the brightest students, yet still engaging for the less advanced students). The second challenge is keeping track of the latest developments in educational research and incorporating these best practices into our teaching; all while balancing an active research load! That said, the self-regenerating and dynamic nature of our TIER team means that we are constantly receiving new ideas and support from new team members, which helps with developing our teaching in creative ways.  

Q: Tell us about an approach your team has taken in the classroom of which they've been proud.

One influential approach we have taken in the classroom is the effort to empower our demonstrators, which has flow on benefits to our students in our course. By giving honours and PhD students the support and mentorship to become fantastic leaders, as well as responsibility and autonomy for them to impact and develop the course themselves, a number of initiatives have arisen. For example, our demonstrators have led novel higher-level practical two day workshops based exclusively on their own unpublished research - this is a great example of engaging undergraduates in research, and has contributed to publications in two peer-reviewed journals. Another initiative is the creation of the 'Biology Research Project Workshop', which informs undergraduate students about the skills they can develop in research, by drawing on the TIER team's own experiences. Most of the undergraduate students who have participated in this workshop have continued in research training through Biology Honours, and some have become part of our TIER team. This approach to mentorship for our demonstrators has been a great example of how our organic, self-sustaining mentoring program works, as it empowers students through the unprecedented independence and self-learning experiences, and we are proud of how this approach has positively influenced all our students.

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

Teaching and learning at the ANU needs to be more dynamic than before, shifting from the traditional one-way information transfer to a multiway, reciprocal and simultaneous teaching and learning model. We have been and will continue to promote the idea that teachers should respect and be inspired by those they mentor, and to empower their students to supervise and teach others. For example, having recurring student-led discussions helps to foster rapport and better understand students' needs. Through consultation and mentoring sessions with other senior and junior TIER members, we have been able to formulate strategic plans to address these needs. An example of this is how we identified the need for challenges that stimulate later year students' minds leading to an alternative approach in designing a higher level practical component (Honours Pathway Option; HPO). TIER senior demonstrators take initiatives to design and continually update the HPO to run exclusively on unpublished research, thus allowing undergraduates to participate directly in hypothesis testing on current research. Unsurprisingly, students were highly engaged, and the HPO has since consistently gained positive recognition and has been effective method for brewing research interest. Imagine if we could undertake such approaches in every undergraduate course, from biology to social studies and economics - what new paths can we lead our students to?