Learning and teaching
Tips and tricks to teaching under lockdown
Dr Isaac Gross and Dr Gordon Leslie have been awarded the Department of Economics Teaching awards for 2020. They were awarded for their willingness to try innovative approaches to engage students and the impact their innovations had on other colleagues in the department.
EcoNews caught up with them to talk about what is instrumental in their teaching and what it takes to engage students in online learning during a pandemic.
Dr Isaac Gross received the highest award with the following motivation: "For developing online lecture techniques that engage students and implementing inclusive strategies to inspire students to seek future careers in economics."
He teaches the second-year elective unit called 'Crashes and crises in macroeconomic policy' (ECC2300) – a very timely unit given the macroeconomic crisis associated with COVID-19.
"It has been tricky as things keep changing week-by-week. Something may be happening in week 1 which has totally changed by the time we get to week 12 and exams," he explains.
"This is what it was like last year and now it just keeps on changing. One way I have tried to get around the problem of the content constantly changing is having online discussions of COVID-19 informed by new research being conducted in the area," he says.
Dr Gross has utilised the simple technique of using a green screen to superimpose himself onto his slides, creating the classic 'television weather presenter' illusion. It gives the students a more personal lecture experience, while enabling Dr Gross to point and explain the slides more clearly.
"It's quite a simple technique but it makes it more enjoyable for the students. I have shown other colleagues how to do it so now there are a few of us using it which is good."
He also runs a newsletter informing students of job opportunities within the Economics field.
"There's always a strong demand for people with skills in Economics in consulting and policy. I just want to prompt the students to apply and get a foot in the door and show them where they should apply if they want a career in the field," says Dr Gross.
Are there any advantages with teaching 100 percent online?
"It has forced us to really up our game when it comes to recording lectures and it does seem easier for students to ask questions in the online chat room rather than raising their hands in a lecture theatre. But I can't wait to get back to having students in class and being able to respond to how they react. It is so much easier to tell when a piece of information is understood when it's in person rather than me just talking on zoom," he says.
Dr Gordion Leslie was awarded a commendation for the new unit created in 2020 called 'Energy Markets and Policy' (ECC2460). The motivation reads: "For designing classroom content and activities that motivate, inspire and engage students to apply critical thinking skills and economic knowledge outside the classroom."
Dr Leslie is keen to use daily news in his teaching and assessments. The energy sector, especially in Australia, provides many opportunities for students to practice applying theory and contrasting best practice to what they see in reality. In fact, he believes 12 weeks isn't long enough to fully critique the many federal and state energy and environmental policies Australia has pursued over the years.
Dr Gordon Leslie has a very strong emphasis on applying theory into practice.
He uses an electricity market simulation game as a core teaching tool in his class. Students participate as managers of power stations who experience competition by playing with a goal of generating energy to maximise profit, learning along the way how market-based environmental policies (for instance, carbon taxes) impact markets and working to achieve policy goals.
"The electricity market game is really important to my class, and toward the end of semester I give students the opportunity to immortalise themselves in a final challenge," he says.
"The winners get their name on a trophy that will be displayed in my office whenever lockdown ends. This seems to sharpen focus but also lead to a few laughs as there are always a few students that put their game faces on and get very serious!"
What do you like most about teaching?
"To my surprise, I have found the best part about teaching is not when my students demonstrate they've learned something, but instead I get excited by some questions that get asked. When a student asks the "right" question or applies critical thinking to try to answer new questions, it makes me feel like the lessons from my classroom might extend beyond the end of semester and beyond energy policy contexts," he says.
"My unit has students across different faculties, so I find that teaching how to critically think is a way that I can provide value to all students and get productive interdisciplinary discussions going."
Adapting to the 100 percent online teaching environment has been very challenging and he sees very few advantages with purely online teaching. But the Department of Economics Learning and Teaching team as well as the faculty education support team have been very helpful and supportive.
What do you look forward to when we go back to real life teaching?
"I actually got to teach hybrid in the first semester of 2021 and it was wonderful. You can read the room and just move on to the next slide so much easier when it's in-person. I also found multiple students asking for job application tips or career advice – just a lot of enjoyable, organic conversations that do not occur as easily, if at all, when teaching online," says Dr Leslie.
Reaching out to colleagues
A desire to collaborate more effectively with colleagues has been the impetus for the introduction of a new research group structure within the Department of Economics.
When Professor Sascha Becker first joined the Department of Economics, he already knew several of his future colleagues.
But with a department split across two locations, he struggled to see the full breadth of interests across the department.
"I found it hard to understand what other strengths in the department were and who else in the department was interested in similar topics to me," he says.
So Professor Becker approached his colleagues with an idea: the introduction of research groups, each with a coordinator and a deputy coordinator.
"After various discussions in the department's Research Committee we decided to give it a try. We used the existing research interests as cited on the website. There were over 100 terms to describe what people do, and we tried to group them into eight research groups," he explains.
The result has been a better overview of what people in the department do and formalisation of existing informal groups such as Experimental economists and the Macro group, says Professor Becker.
"It turns out all groups are of roughly similar size and no one felt that there wasn't a group to match their interests," he says.
The idea of everyone belonging to at least two groups is to avoid fractionalisation and encourage cross-cutting research and a higher level of integration.
Anyone in the group can suggest ideas for activities. The coordinator of the group is a more senior researcher and the deputy coordinator is more junior.
"This is an opportunity for junior colleagues to be in charge of something they are excited about without it being too burdensome. It ticks boxes for future promotion and shows they have taken on leadership responsibility," Professor Becker says.
For Professor Becker, a key goal is to make sure all Post-doctoral fellows as well as PhD students belong to the groups and to boost mentoring as partly a group activity.
"The research groups will give PhD students more of an identity and hopefully make them feel more comfortable approaching senior academics because they are all part of the same group," he says.
The different groups will be described on the website and have a dedicated URL where all the members are presented along with their different activities.
Job market candidates will find it easier to see where they might fit in and the groups can be consulted for recruitment.
"In the Development, Growth and History group, we started by taking stock of what we're already doing, such as reading groups, annual conferences and seminars, and we are already doing a lot of activities which are now more transparent for everyone to see. In the future, we can build from there and add more activities, so people can mix and feel they belong," Professor Becker says.
All change: New blood in the Learning and Teaching Committee
As Senior Lecturer Dr Jaai Parasnis takes over from Associate Professor Simon Angus as the Director of Teaching and Learning, they discuss what has been achieved so far and what the future holds in the field of teaching.
A/Prof Angus has held this position since the Learning and Teaching Committee (LTC) was established in January 2018, as the successor to the IQEG (Innovation in Education and Quality Group).
A/Prof Angus had established that original group in 2010, together with Senior Lecturer Gennadi Kazakevitch, A/Prof Vinod Mishra and Associate Dean George Rivers.
Whereas the Education Committee focuses on what we teach (units, courses, programs), the LTC concerns itself with the how of our teaching. During A/Prof Angus' time as director, the teaching community in the Department of Economics has truly thrived.
"I think we have built a broader culture in the department that teaching matters," he says.
"With the support of grants, awards and mentoring, and other initiatives, the IQEG and now LTC has been key to supporting the Head of Department's message to all staff that teaching is really important, both for each of us professionally, and collectively for the Department."
For the last three to four years, students have consistently awarded the teaching in the Department of Economics ‘first' in student satisfaction ratings for the Business School.
This held in 2020, despite COVID-19. Several staff received awards at the faculty, university or national level in recognition of their hard work.
"Seeing my colleagues grow in confidence to tackle new ways of teaching, find success in the classroom, and be awarded so well has probably been the highlight of my time in the role," says A/Prof Angus.
On a University level, ideas that stemmed from the Department – such as centralised mid semester tests – have become best-practice.
"People said it would be too expensive and no one would want them, but now we almost take them for granted."
"The fact that the University is taking teaching more seriously when considering someone for promotion, that helps us too."
The role of Director might be new for Dr Jaai Parasnis but she has been involved in the LTC along with A/Prof Angus for a number of years.
She describes A/Prof Angus as "a pioneer" who has pushed for more prominent recognition of the role of learning and teaching with the Department.
She hopes to build on that. "Learning is fundamental to everything we do. It's the essence of being a human. It is lifelong and has no limits," says Dr Parasnis.
She hopes to support and promote learning in the department and on a broader scale through engaging in innovative pedagogies and translating them into practice.
"As researchers we engage in lifelong learning and we need to transfer this to our students.
"Authenticity is at the core of great learning and students respond to it. It's not hard because we are learners ourselves and trying to capture that with our students is the key."
What further developments would both like to see in the future?
"I think we are very well placed to be a hub of Economics teaching nationally through innovation, pedagogy, techniques and so on. I would like to see us become the leading department in the country," says A/Prof Angus.
"It has been great to work with the LTC team and I wish Jaai Parasnis all the best for the future. I really look forward to seeing where she will take things. I will still be around to help out but it's a good time to change leadership."
This year is turning into a hybrid year for teaching, with innovations and adaptations in both online and face-to-face delivery. Dr Parasnis thinks an important first task will be to assess the learnings from last year.
"I want to consolidate all the accumulated knowledge from 2020 to see what we want to keep doing, what we want to develop further and what we want to bring back from the pre covid-19 era," she says.
"It's important that we keep talking about best practices broadly with our internal colleagues and with external colleagues.
"I very much look forward to the conversations about the learning process with both colleagues and students."
In spite of the tough conditions on the job market this year, three PhDs from the Department of Economics obtained academic positions.
- Vy Nguyen has a post-doctor position in RMIT for three years; Kushneel Prakash has a Research Fellow position at the Melbourne Institute, University of Melbourne and Justin Mckinley currently works as a Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Population And Global Health, University of Melbourne.
- Congratulations to Justin for formally being conferred the PhD in recognition of his thesis Three Essays On Agricultural Decision-Making In Changing Environments.
- A big thank you to their supervisors for their great contributions. Also, many thanks to our PhD placement coordinator Chengsi Wang for organising mock presentations and interviews and to Sascha Becker, Andreas Leibbrandt and Erte Xiao for their contributions.
Mita Bhattacharya invited Richard York (ACCC) and Michelle Hall (Alumni, Deloitte Access Economics) as the guest speakers in ECF5040 Industry Economics.
Mita Bhattacharya created a video clip to include in her presentation during the Graduate Expo. This short video clip includes a talk by Paul Raschky and two of her current students sharing their learning experience. The presentation summarises our new offerings within the Masters program.
Jaai Parasnis (BCom co-ordinator) and Laura Puzzello (BBus co-ordinator) partnered with ESSA in developing these videos about Economics at Monash.
Please use them to answer students' queries about economics units, courses, and careers and to publicise opportunities in Economics at Monash.
Staff in the Economics Department have excelled at dreaming up new and appealing ideas for online teaching. Here come some tips and tricks:
- The weather man
- A hands-on approach
- Passion is key
- Success with games and quizzes
- Flipchart for formulas
- Speed dating and study buddies
Zac Gross teaches Current Issues in Macroeconomic Policy and his course contains a lot of graphs showing macroeconomic data. To enable students to understand which parts of a graph he is referring to, he resorted to using a green screen. Very much like the weather report on TV.
“This year with the transition to pre-recorded lectures I wanted to make sure that people could see what I was pointing at while at the same time engaging with something more than a disembodied voice,” he says.
“It allows students to focus on your face while talking which improves engagement, while at the same time allowing you to interact with slides when required. I suspect that having both slides and a separate box for your face risks driving attention between two sources.”
For the "weather trick”, Zac used two different programs to record the videos, both of which are free.
“I used OBS which is a recording program which lets you record videos, including the ability to combine webcams with slides as well as removing green screen backgrounds. To create the green screen effect, I used ChromaCam which digitally adds a background (much like Zoom) - in my case I chose a plain green background which could be easily filtered out by OBS.”
It is still early days but the response from students so far has been positive and he will keep using this method in the future.
“Any course which uses a lot of graphs and figures benefits from the ability to point to different parts of the slide and this seems like the easiest way to achieve that online.” Zac says.
Here is an example of Zac Gross in action:
Paul taught Applied Microeconomics for the first time last semester. Straight away he replaced a lot of studies and data examples with new tasks related to COVID-19.
“The majority of the students liked the 'hands-on' approach to the course. The students spent a good portion of the class analysing data, interpreting, and presenting the results. I was available on slack every day and at almost every hour except 1am - 8am (I had to sleep at some point). The students really appreciated everything but it came at very high costs because I spend a good portion of my time on consulting students via Slack.”
Claudio taught Labour Economics last semester. He mixes theory models with mainstream empirical applications.
“For each topic in my class I first provide students with a theoretical framework to understand a certain aspect of how labour markets work. Then, l go through the most recent empirical evidence on the topic, with the aim of testing whether the model accurately describes the reality or not. If the model fails to describe the reality we analyse the possible causes for such a failure,” he says.
This year students could engage live during class through Q&A forums on echo360 and work on groups during tutorials.
“What always works is to be passionate about what you teach and patient. Students are very sensitive. They perceive your general mode and any variation of it.
"Thus, if they perceive that you are teaching something that you like then, in my experience, they tend to like it too. If you also show that you understand and respect their needs, then they will respect you.
"The final touch is to provide students with mainstream material that has practical applications. For this reason, it is important to always keep the slides updated with the latest studies and/or empirical techniques used to study a certain topic, and to provide real world applications possibly based on settings that are familiar for students.”
Student satisfaction is high in this class. According to Claudio, one reason is that students understand how relevant the content is to develop their knowledge of important public policies such as the minimum wage, migration laws and changes in tax rates.
“Students appreciate the fact that in this class they acquire empirical skills of policy evaluation that can be used in other settings and that are in high demand in the labour market. One comment I often get is ‘Before taking this class I didn’t think Labour Economics could be so useful’,” he says.
Gordon taught Energy Markets and Policy to a small group of 25 students. The semester centred around an interactive online electricity market game where new components were added each week as they were taught new concepts (such as market power and carbon trading).
He mixed readings of academic papers with podcasts, government reports and news articles. Five moodle quizzes were distributed throughout the semester and these proved particularly successful.
“Each quiz had some 'easy' concept-checking questions followed by at least one set of questions derived from a real-world application of the concepts taught in class.
"Where possible I tried to find two interpretations of the same policy or event so students could understand the importance of critical thinking and how two different conclusions could be derived from the same set of facts.
The quizzes were very popular, as was discussing them in the next class. They were a touch labour intensive to grade, but I think it helped them learn and made them think hard. I think it also encouraged them to ask questions in class, where they’d try to translate what was being taught to what they’d seen or heard in the news, helping with participation and interaction. This is obviously a blessing of small class sizes, students appreciate getting comments on their written answers from a lecturer," he says.
Ten percent of the final grade was given for participation. Gordon made a roster of three or four students each week who had the opportunity to lead the discussion on the readings. This was not mandatory and some students gave feedback that they appreciated being treated like adults and not being nagged to participate.
“I was very clear that students needed to be accountable for their own learning. I tried to communicate that studying online under uncertainty would help their resilience and general job and life skill development.”
Zhijun taught Microeconomic Theory in semester one. It's a unit with lots of technical theories - not the easiest for keeping students engaged during online learning. He demonstrated the formulas and computations during the lecture recordings.
“I feel that the existing electronic equipment like WACO is not ideal for my purpose. Instead, I bought a whiteboard covered with flipchart papers, which avoids the problem of reflection on the white board. And I used the black and red pens to make sure they are well highlighted on the paper.”
The pre-recorded lectures were uploaded two days before the lecture and students were requested to go through the content before attending the Zoom lectures.
“In the Zoom lectures, I use about 30 minutes to summarize the main contents of the lecture and highlight the difficult points, and then give the floor to students for questions and discussions. A common problem is that one or two students may occupy most time for their questions, and other students are not happy about that.
"This issue may not be significant in the classroom because other students are watching them and they may stop asking simple questions. Therefore, separate consultation zoom meetings are also needed for a small group of students,” says Zhijun.
Wayne teaches first year Microeconomics to cohorts as large as 1,000-plus students. Making sure they feel welcome and interact with other students is not easy in an online environment. To help students connect with each other and increase engagement, he organised a large “meet and greet” event at the start of the semester.
“The response has been incredible. Some 226 students from my Microeconomics course registered for the social event during week one of term and 146 students participated. Now they want regular social events, so we are running another one right before the mid-semester break,” Wayne says.
Wayne organised the social event with his TA, Nicola Thomas. This is part of a broader project on student engagement with Jadrian Wooten from Penn State University. One of the goals of the welcome event was to increase student connections and encourage the formation of study groups or study buddies at the start of the semester, so that students would feel more connected with the course.
“After a formal introduction, students were told that the evening would proceed similar to a speed dating event, where they would be participating in a series of breakout sessions with different icebreaker questions for each iteration.
"When the time expired the students were called back to the main room and there was a second and third round of breakout rooms with different groups of students, so they would meet new people. At the end of the event, students used the private chat feature to exchange social media contacts with each other,” explains Wayne.
Wayne has already started planning new social events to increase student engagement while studying online: a pop culture trivia quiz and a Netflix watch party, where the facilitator can stop and start the show as they wish and participants can interact through a chat box.
If you want to get inspired or share your teaching tricks with a wider community, here are a couple of useful Facebook groups: Teaching Economics Online (Coronqvirus2020) and Econ Professors Unite.
Big ideas and intellectual discourse are the foundations for Vai-Lam Mui’s teaching
Vai-Lam Mui has been teaching Public Economics to Honour and Master’s students at the Department of Economics for the last ten years. Previously he taught a second year unit called 'Current issues in applied microeconomics'.
He consistently attracts high scores for his teaching, even if some students find his units difficult. He believes the high scores and his recent Dean’s Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning is due to the fact that he teaches something he is deeply passionate about: fundamental ideas.
“I’m genuine and I talk about things I am passionate about. I can share my intellectual journey with my students. It’s very exciting. What I think about, what I do and don’t understand and questions I struggle with,” he says.
About 70 per cent of his unit is about teaching the necessary models and concepts to truly grasp Public Economics. The remaining 30 per cent are discussions with students about applying the ideas and concepts they learned to current policy questions, and challenges to the existing theories. That’s when it gets really interesting for Vai-Lam.
“I learn so much from my students. We start off the term by me teaching them what they need to know. And as we progress, I teach less and listen more to what they think. It’s very good, also for my research.”
Vai-Lam uses a mix of research papers, real-life examples and movies to get his messages across. Many of the articles he teaches come from top research journals, which can be very complicated, so before a lecture he will simplify models for the students and give them background material to study.
He always thinks of examples that show the intuition of a particular question as well as something that may be useful for the students in their future life. He is also a big science fiction fan so is eager to incorporate some sci-fi examples into his teaching.
But these days he can see the generation gap.
“I like Star Trek but fewer and fewer students know about it so that doesn’t work as well anymore,” he laughs.
Vai-Lam considers teaching Honour students a privilege. While the group is small – perhaps 20 students – they are motivated and he doesn’t have to fight to get them to class. Their grasp of economic concepts is good enough for him to challenge their intellect and focus on the more profound questions. Many of which are still the same.
“In Public Economics we are always looking at how we motivate the government, our leaders, to do the right thing. And what is even the right thing? We are essentially looking for different ways to live together," he says.
"The answers to these questions will change, especially with technology, but the questions don’t.”
Every semester he tries to plan according to what the main questions are for that particular semester, taking into account current events. Keeping his syllabus up to date he is always teaching something new and staying interested in his own subject.
He encourages students to share what they are reading with him and to discuss their essay ideas. Students get graded on both an essay and an exam. After the essays are marked, Vai-Lam will spend an entire lecture on anonymous feedback on the essays to ensure the students learn from each other’s achievements as well as oversights. This is a popular part of his unit.
Although there are so many distractions for students these days, Vai-Lam still believes students have an appetite for discussing big ideas and they generally respond well to his teaching.
“I’m very humbled and grateful for the Dean’s Commendation and I think it shows that students are very excited about ideas and intellectual dialogue. I’m an old-fashioned academic. I still believe ideas matter. So I’m happy when I see from the students’ response that they are still excited about these things.”
The South Lecture Theatre at Clayton is packed. Wayne Geerling is handing out lollies to students a few minutes before the scheduled start of class. An animated lyric video of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” that his students created is pumping on two big screens at the front of class. This is obviously not a random choice. A lot of the success behind this “superstar educator” is due to preparation – and passion.
Today’s lecture is on supply and demand, one of the most important topics in Microeconomics. “To understand economics, you need to understand how markets work,” Wayne tells his students.
Important, yes, but his style of teaching means this topic is far from boring. Wayne exemplifies his messages by using popular culture and simple everyday objects: smart phones, beer, sports cars and designer labels. He moves around the lecture theatre, asking questions and rewarding students who answer with lollies. Yes, incentives matter!
“Teaching, in general, is not difficult but teaching at a high level to a large class certainly is. There is a good reason why few people are willing and able to teach large classes effectively. They are bloody hard work!”
And this is his own speciality. The hardest part is both controlling and being in touch with the audience. The aim is to create an environment where the students want to learn and to keep their attention.
“In any given lecture, you might need to play multiple roles: parent, security guard, game show host, social worker and psychologist. You need to be able to read the mood of the audience and act accordingly.”
But he’s used to it. In a career spanning 15 years, 30,000+ students, across four universities in Australia and America, he’s had plenty of practice.
Wayne’s teaching style is very much influenced by his own studies as an undergraduate in Modern History. He encourages interaction and discussion, moderating student’s group work rather than teaching at students. The old-fashioned dominant teaching method has no place in his teaching style. That is not to say there is no role for a traditional lecture.
“To keep lectures relevant in the 21 st century, you need to add value; to give students something they can’t get online or through reading a book. The first rule of learning is engagement. Enthusiasm is the hook whereby you get students interested in learning. This starts with the lecturer. If you don’t care about your teaching and show little passion, why would or should the students care?
In S1 2019, Wayne taught Microeconomics to 1,700 students across six streams at Clayton and Caulfield. That must have been exhausting. How did you cope?
“That was the hardest semester of my career. I spent 70 hours a week on teaching. When you’re that busy, it’s difficult not to go into survival mode. I have taught large classes in every semester of my career; sometimes multiple streams of up to six, so when things get tough, I have the experience and know-how to survive. Teaching has been very kind to me over the years, providing me with recognition, reward and the opportunity for career advancement. So I believe it is only right that I continue to give something back to teaching.”
Throughout his career, Wayne has thrived on new challenges. His SETUs at Clayton in S1 2019 were the highest of any 1 st year course in the Monash Business School since SETU data was collected. He won a university purple letter, awarded to Chief Examiners with median SETU unit satisfaction scores in the top 5% of the university.
So how does he do it? the assessments in such a way that there is not one model answer.
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. Ninety per cent of his work is done before the semester even starts. His entire course is uploaded to Moodle in week one; by this time, the mid-semester exam has already been sent to the printers.
Throughout the semester, Wayne fine-tunes and adapts the content to any global changes. He uses a lot of pop culture references and many different forms of technology in his teaching. His 1 hour 50 minute lecture is broken up into shorter segments.
In any given lecture, Wayne would use classroom experiments, poll everywhere, media clips and YouTube clips alongside typical lecturing to illustrate his message. His lectures are very structured but he is always flexible, able to mix things up depending on the mood of the audience.
“You have to be able to think on your feet, adapt to what’s going on around you, to succeed in large classes. What works in one class may not work in another; sometimes students are active; other times they are quiet. It’s always difficult to predict how things will unfold. But when you are in that zone where the students are engaged and participating actively, run with it.”
Back in the South Lecture Theatre, Wayne is illustrating the law of supply by showing a video of a Karaoke experiment where he got some of his students - and himself - to sing in front of the class. General laughter ensues and he goes on to explain the fundamentals behind the experiment.
For Wayne, passion and enthusiasm is so important in teaching. Wayne has always thrived teaching in front of a large crowd but is not a natural extrovert outside the classroom.
“You set the standard when you walk into the classroom. If you’re not a naturally confident person, you need to work on your public speaking skills by watching the best lecturers, rehearsing, or going to Toastmasters. You can learn so much about teaching by observing others teach, by attending seminars and workshops. But always remember to be true to yourself.”
There is also an essential off-field component to teaching large courses.
“Most students have no idea how much time and effort it takes to run a large course successfully. Developing teaching notes; setting up assessments and activities; writing, coordinating and grading exams is incredibly time-consuming. You also need to make yourself available to students through email and office hours.”
You spoke about the challenges involved in teaching large courses. Are you worried about burnout?
“Large class teaching is more difficult in Australia than America, where I taught for six years, for two reasons. First, a lecturer in Australia is a Chief Examiner with many additional responsibilities. Second, Australia universities, in general, provide less admin support. I have seven tutors this semester for a class of 600 students, one of whom is paid to provide four hours admin support per week. But the demands of large classes are much greater than this. It’s not fair to ask my tutors to do several hours of unpaid work per week, so I do most of the admin work. One of the real dangers of this is that you run the risk of burning out the best classroom performers.”
What mistakes do others make when it comes to teaching?
“The most basic mistake is lack of preparation. You need to understand how students learn; how activities align with learning objectives and assessment. There should be a clear road map from start to finish, so students know where everything fits in.
Another mistake is not knowing your audience. Many early career academics fall into the trap of teaching at the level they were taught at in graduate school. That’s fine if you are teaching a graduate level course, but if you’re teaching first year students then it’s way above the level required and your message will be lost.”
Wayne is keen to adapt to technological change in future, but is wary of an over- reliance.
“Technology in education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Used in an appropriate manner, it facilitates better learning. But it can also make lecturers and students lazy.”
What factors make a great teacher? Is there one factor, in particular, that stands out?
“Ultimately, there are several contributing factors, so it’s hard to isolate any one factor. So many things go into making a great teacher: design, planning, peer review and self-reflection all matter. Let’s call these the tangible or scientific factors. Understanding how people learn is important. But teaching is not a science; it’s a social science. We are teaching humans, not robot. Being able to connect with an audience lies at the heart of great teaching. Student engagement is the key that unlocks the door to learning.”
Feedback and independent reflection have changed the nature of teaching macro
Jaai Parasnis teaches first-year macro across all campuses at Monash for more than ten years. Although her research is in microeconomics, she has always taught macro. Jaai was awarded the Dean's Citation for Teaching Excellence in 2018. For the last three years she has also overseen all the 40 Teaching Assistants in the Department of Economics.
"I love teaching macro, it's about big questions. It's what students come to learn when they think they want to learn economics.
"It's messy and less structured than micro, but it's so interesting to show students what economics can do and how it is a social science about human behaviour."
Every semester more than 500 under graduate students take macro. For many it is an elective so they come from all fields, from law to engineering. At first Jaai found this challenging, until she realised they were all learning in different ways.
"For law students, macro will mean one thing; for the engineers, they might be good at maths but solve everything very mechanically. It's about explaining to them what we are looking for and recognising their background," she says.
The structure of the course has changed over the years as Jaai discovered a lot of students were doing well in mid-term exams but floundering in their final exam.
The requirements in the final exam were higher and the students didn't always understand what they were expected to write and how.
Reflection and discussion about assessments ensued. Jaai soon realised the assessment process was dated and had to change.
First, multiple-choice was scrapped and replaced by more frequent assessments with shorter questions so students could receive more frequent feedback and even bring with them to the final exam. While three questions were given in advance for the students to prepare, only one was actually tested on.
"It's one of the big skills we should provide students – to teach them how to articulate their argument. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to do that, as we teach on such a scale. It's less important how they get to the answer as long as they learn along the way."
After this success she went over the curriculum again with her teaching team and made more adjustments to allow time for feedback and other key changes. Now she meets up with her team of Tas at the beginning and end of every semester to decide what to improve. The next step was to construct the assessments in such a way that there is not one model answer.
"Students look at the subject in a very deterministic way, as if there's one right policy, one right state of the world. Whereas, there are always ifs and buts in economics. We wanted to show them there are many different ways of doing things."
Participation marks have been replaced by group work focusing on two different countries where the students analyse data, place their country in the models studied so far and propose monetary policies which are then presented to the rest of the class.
"It is so interesting to see that there can be completely different propositions for the same country depending on where they want to take it. This shows them there is no one right answer."
After all the group work with theory and models, the students are asked in week 12 to work individually to choose one action for the government of the country and explain why.
"We want them to decide what is the most pressing problem in their country and how they hope to solve it. I tell them it's a chance to show off everything they've learned. I look for analytical skills, argumentative skills. I tell them they need to use what they've learned during the course to make their own judgement and defend it."
The challenge is to show the students that what they know is not always how it works. Also, many students do not really understand concepts such as exchange rate, money and income, which have very specific meanings in the subject.
"You have to pull them back from what they think they know and teach them what we mean specifically by these familiar topics. I use the lectures very much for this," she says.
It has been a difficult transition for some students; but also very rewarding. Younger students just out of high school especially find the method difficult as they are used to learning in a more mechanical way and it takes time for them to develop their own judgement.
Others thrive in the environment and are happy to explore the possibilities of their own thoughts and reflections.
But Jaai doesn't only focus on student satisfaction. She believes it's important to experiment and try new things. If students are not happy she changes the approach or tries to explain it.
"If you just focus on student satisfaction you are not going to change anything. It's a learning process for all of us and generally people give you good ideas if you ask for feedback. You try your idea and see how it goes. That's academics!"
Jaai has also done a lot of work with the 40 teaching assistants (TAs) in the Deaprtment over the last three years. During a semester there are about 300 tutorials over three campuses. For the student, TAs are the main point of contact.
Screening and matching the TAs is the key to them being as efficient administrator and teaching aide as possible.
"These are the soft skills we use in trying to find what they enjoy teaching as well as working well with the chief examiner."
It is also important to work with their development. There is quite a high turnover of the TAs used every year. People move on to other things and new enthusiastic Honours students take their place. Jaai works on identifying the gaps in their skills and how to improve those. But the most successful training is very simple. It is just a matter of getting them together to share their experiences.
This is done twice a year and they are encouraged to ask each other for help when they are struggling.
"Another great way is to attend each others tutes to see how others do things. I do it myself from time to time to learn new things. Its very useful especially for new TAs."
She points out that it's important to acknowledge the power imbalance between the TAs and the other academic staff at the department. Therefore she always encourages two-way communication between the chief examiner and the TAs and value their input.
"The TAs are a great resource to find out what the students think and what the feedback is in general about the course."
She is very proud of her team and has worked hard to make sure the TAs aren't just treated as casual workers but very much feel they are an important part of the department.
"If anything, this is my contribution." she says.
The idea behind the reading group is that a discussant chooses an interesting paper that applies new/alternative data and methods, and discusses its essence so everyone gets to share and be updated on the colossal amount of new knowledge that is being generated by scientists around the world.
We meet twice a month on Thursdays from 10.00-11.00 am, at H9.07 Caulfield. Everyone is welcome to attend, discuss, recommend research papers and be part of this stimulating conversation. Specific details, including the expanding list of potential papers to be discussed, can be found here.
If you want to know more about SoDa Labs, who we are and what our current projects look like, visit our website.
Q&A with Simon Angus
The last 12 months have featured some great achievements in the teaching and learning space at the Department of Economics. Simon Angus runs through some of 2018’s highlights, as well as his vision for the future.
What were you most pleased about when it comes to teaching and learning in 2018?
“Along with a terrific year across many units, the two biggest gains in 2018 were around Jaai Parasnis who won a Dean’s Citation for Teaching Excellence, the only one awarded last year. For Jaai this is a terrific first step towards a potential citation at the University level (in the VC’s citations). We haven’t had someone awarded at that level for a while; this is a great outcome for Jaai personally, but also for the Department. Jaai worked hard to provide rich feedback and learning activities for our first year macro students.
“The other individual gain from last year was Wayne Geerling, our new education-focused senior lecturer. He taught some of our largest classes, typically introduction to microeconomics, with hundreds of students. When you look at student satisfaction for the unit he taught he received an adjusted SETU of 4.7, which is the best in the faculty in an equivalent unit for the last few years.
“This semester he’s taken on a very large load, teaching intro micro at both Clayton and Caulfield in S1 and most likely also in S2, so over the year he’ll be teaching about 2500 students. He has brought his characteristic very high standard of himself and his teaching teams, and has a very strong sense of commitment to serving students. They clearly love his approach, and he’s a wonderful asset to the Department.
“More broadly, if you look at average student satisfaction across the faculty, our aspiration is to be the No 1 teaching department in the faculty. Currently we are in equal first position with two other departments, namely the Department of Business, Law and Taxation and the Department of Banking and Finance.
“Other great things that happened in 2018 was that our fantastic TA Marco Lecci again won the outstanding teaching award from the Monash Student (undergraduate) Association which he’d also won in 2014. In addition, I was a finalist for the postgraduate student association award for lecturer of the year. ”
What are your plans and goals for 2019?
“In learning and teaching we handle teaching innovation grants, prizes and awards, mentoring just in the matter of course and we assist the Head of Department with strategic plans in teaching. We are also looking to grow and replicate the success of Wayne Geerling’s teaching economics masterclass for other universities in the city in the second semester.
“Our aspiration is not only to be number one in the faculty but also to become a beacon nationally and internationally for teaching economics. We are starting to pursue that more outward-focused strategy. Wayne will take his material to tutors and lecturers from Melbourne institutions teaching economics and to teachers in senior schools.
“We look to grow and build our online presence and particularly around a public website where students can get an idea of what it is like to learn economics at Monash. We would also like to grow our social media presence for our Teaching Economics beacon project.
“More broadly, we are very actively trying to improve the faculty’s learning and teaching approaches, specifically when it comes to centralising mid-semester testing. We are also very involved in improving learning technology. At the faculty level, we all fight to keep learning and teaching on the agenda since so many resources are taken up with the paperwork and policies around units changing, new courses, and so on – important stuff, but it doesn’t leave much room for driving impact in the actual quality of learning and teaching going on. But as ever, there’s always more to do. This building is never finished!”
How do you see the future when it comes to online lectures versus face-to-face lectures?
“Our approach is to back the educator and where they have their comparative advantage. For instance, some are very good at live face-to-face lectures, such as Wayne Geerling. The best thing we can do for Wayne is support him to teach in the largest lecture theatre in Clayton as often as he can to as many students as he can because he can hold the room and is captivating and impactful in that space. Students really enjoy the experience. Where we have other gifted educators, such as Vai-Lam Mui, who are wonderful on a small scale with the deeper, intellectual interaction. We want to encourage everyone to develop and use their gifts in the context they are best suited.
“Zooming out, the University wants to accommodate as many people as possible who are willing to go down the active learning workshop style, which is the style I prefer; but it only works with a maximum of around 150 students. Of course you can’t get as many people in as you do in a lecture of 900 people so I think this is where we will see the digital shift. A number of students will still attend lectures but the others will consume them by digital means. So I think those two components (workshops, lectures) will be with us for a while.
“The real hiccup is how the digital component is delivered. You can’t afford to have technical problems where the recording doesn’t function if you do the lecture just once a week and a lot of students depend on watching it online in real time or later. It puts the onus on the university to make the recording technology fail-safe. In addition, teachers and TAs need to get proper training in how to produce all this content that is delivered online pre-and post class for workshops. Most of us are happy teaching in a workshop style in the classroom.
“We love the interaction and the freedom but you only get to that point if you can provide a lot of material online before and after the class and there’s not at all enough support, in my opinion, from the University to make and deploy these elements effectively. I don’t think it makes sense to have to train people to use video recorders or how to post-produce video material once it has been captured. We have wonderful thinkers and teachers in the department, I want them to focus on the ideas, and someone else to focus on these other elements. But unfortunately, to this point the university sees us doing it all, and unsurprisingly, very few are going down this path.”
Do you have a role model when it comes to learning and teaching?
MIT do a great job. A few years ago, they started to take seriously algorithmic thinking. Workers of tomorrow weren’t anymore using computers as word processors but for data visualization and coding so they made all their students take these courses in algorithmic thinking to develop their muscle for computational, numerical and data-rich environment. I think it’s a step we are close to taking with the new Dean, Simon Wilkie.
They’ve also done a great job at creating partnerships with large IT companies to invest in the teaching resources and students. They have classes being sponsored by large tech companies which leads to the student experience being very rich and beautiful, which is a new way of thinking about our art. It would be great if we weren’t restricted, if I could say to any of my colleagues, ‘don’t worry about resource limits, how would you like to teach this material?’”
The secondary school visit program initiated by the Department of Economics in collaboration with the Monash Business School has been progressing well. It is in its sixth year now and we receive several requests each year from secondary schools. The sessions are held at the Monash Laboratory for Experimental Economics (MonLEE), Clayton campus and students participate in experiments to learn how to apply economic theory to real-life situations. The lab is used to simulate the behaviour of people in everyday situations, and analyse their actions for economic development and growth.
There were four different activities offered this year by academics in the program: Klaus Abbink, Nick Feltovich, Phil Grossman and Matt Leister. These activities were an economics auction experiment; an experiment on household consumption and saving; an experiment on the provision of public goods; and lastly, an experiment on trading and intermediation in networks. These activities are aligned with the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Year 11 unit study areas.
Schools nominate activity and timing and depending on the availability of the academic and the Lab, every attempt is made to satisfy the requests.
This year we have conducted experimental sessions with secondary school students from Caulfield Grammar School, Loreto Mandeville Hall and Westbourne Grammar. These were very well received by both the students and their teachers.
I would like to thank the academics associated with the school visit program. If you have any questions about the school visit program or would like to be part of it, please feel free to contact me.
(Coordinator, School Visit Program)
Why doing a PhD at the department is so great
The PhD Economics Students’ Society offers activities outside of the books and contributes to the friendly atmosphere amongst the PhD students in the department of Economics.
It all started very informally back in 2017 with a couple of sessions initiated by first year Econ PhDs Kushneel Prakash, Justin McKinley and Ratul Das Chaudhury where everyone got together and brought plates of food to share. Once they informed the department what they were organising they received some financial support as encouragement and the society was formalised with Kushneel and Ratul taking charge of the activities since the middle of last year.
- The department was very supportive. I think they like that we get together and do stuff outside of our studies, says Kushneel Prakash.
The PhD Economics society also received financial aid from Monash Postgraduate Association which paid for some of their activities, most of which have centred around food. Lunches, barbecues, a Christmas party and an in-house 2018 World Cup soccer predictions.
PhD Economicss students' society
-It’s always a good place to start, says Kushneel.
This year has started off with a roof top barbecue hosted at Kushneel’s apartment where partners and kids were invited.
- It is very important to involve the partners and kids of the PhD students as they are part of our journey, he says.
Kushneel feels that the support of the society is very helpful for his academic progress and his sense of inclusion at Monash.
- There is always someone to discuss the seminars with or ask questions. The exchange of ideas is good.
The reason Kushneel himself ended up at Monash is rather random. In 2017 he attended a workshop and met Russel Smyth who encouraged him to apply to the PhD program. Kushneel had done all his undergrad studies at the University of South Pacific in Fiji, but for his PhD he wanted to go abroad.
- Monash ticked all the boxes in terms of ranking and it was also closer to home than some other options, he says.
He only has one more year left. His research focuses on microeconomics and development. More specifically home ownership, fuel prices and subjective wellbeing.
The best thing about doing a PhD at Monash department of Economics is the welcoming culture.
- I like the kind of open door policy we have with staff here. You can easily talk to anybody and ask for help.
He believes this has assisted him greatly. If there are times when he doesn’t understand something but feels he ought to know, he’ll go ask some of the younger researchers for help so he doesn’t have to disturb his supervisor. His advice is to others interested in doing a PhD is clear and simple:
- Just go for it and have a crack. You may have to change your initial idea, I did, but it will only make it better. Be passionate and Monash Economics is a great place to do a PhD, says Kushneel Prakash.
If there is anything more he would wish for from the department it would be a stand-up desk.
-I think it would improve my productivity even more to be able to stand up and work, he says.