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.