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.”