2 April 2024

What makes a good teacher? It's no real surprise

| Dione David
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what makes a good teacher is the care and prioritisation of students

A/Prof Tam Ha says teachers need to prioritise their students. Photo: File.

What makes a good teacher? It’s a question University of Wollongong (UOW) Associate Professor Tam Ha gets all the time, and in a nutshell the answer is fiendishly simple.

“When people ask this question, they expect tips, tricks and techniques to learn from, but it can’t be reduced to that,” she says.

“For me, what makes a good teacher is the care and prioritisation of students; it’s putting them at the forefront of any teaching strategy you may develop.”

This deceptively trite principle is an easy one for busy educators to misplace, according to A/Prof Ha, who has kept it at the core of her own strategy and app.

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The strategy named Hybrid Team Based Learning-Personalised Education (HTBL-PE) and app named “Real Time Quiz” is available to all UOW educators and is a systematisation of personalisation, allowing students to adopt independent learning principles.

For example, take a multiple-choice question presented to medical students on a fairly common medical issue – seasonal allergies.

Associate Professor Tam Ha from University of Wollongong

A/Prof Ha believes Australia needs a “Renaissance” in learning education, with the prioritisation of the students in its foundations. Photo: Ryan Huang and Helen Jamieson.

“If the question is simply ‘What is the most appropriate line treatment for allergies?’ and the answer options are antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids or oral contraceptives, we’ve given them all feasible answers and one that has nothing to do with allergies. That kind of question relies only on knowledge recall. That won’t serve them well in the real world, where the answers to many questions are a Google search away,” A/Prof Ha explains.

“If instead, you gave them all plausible answers, and asked them ‘What’s the second most appropriate option?’, then you have them testing their understanding and application of that knowledge. That’s when you’re inspiring thinking; that’s where the heutagogy – the self-determined learning – happens.”

A/Prof Ha’s rationale is equally simple – the key to a better society and future is to believe in the potential of our students. After all, they’re the ones who will be solving the world’s future problems.

“We have to believe they can achieve so much more than they themselves perceive they can,” she says. ”That’s the best gift you can give students – it propels them forward. And only when the next generation is so much better than the current one will the state of the world improve.

“That’s important because the problems of the future are not yet known. Five years ago, we knew nothing about COVID-19. Leadership had to do something but they didn’t know what. How do we equip our students – in all disciplines – to deal with COVID-30, or COVID-100? How can we train them to deal courageously with an unknown problem, and give them the confidence to know what to do when they don’t know what to do?”

A/Prof Ha’s teaching strategy and app allow her to quickly adapt questions and activities in the classroom, allowing students to identify gaps in their understanding so they can take a targeted approach to studying, revision and reflection.

It’s one of the reasons she was one of four exceptional UOW academics recognised for their leadership, support for students, and passion for teaching in the annual Australian Awards for University Teaching last week.

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A/Prof Ha was joined by head of academic development and recognition Associate Professor Bonnie Dean, director of academic programs for marketing, public relations, sports marketing and entrepreneurship Dr Mercedez Hinchcliff and lecturer and career development fellow in the School of Law Dr Pariz Lythgo-Gordon in receiving the prestigious Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning.

The citations recognise and reward the diversity of contributions made by individuals and teams to the quality of student learning.

UOW deputy vice-chancellor (academic and student life) Senior Professor Eileen McLaughlin says the university was delighted with the recognition of the academics creating dynamic teaching environments for future generations.

“I am delighted to see our incredible academics receive national recognition for their dedication to and passion for their subjects,” she says.

“We are proud of our exceptional teaching and learning at UOW. Our academic staff make a true impact on the lives of students, guiding them through their degrees and providing support that often goes well beyond the classroom.”

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