Louise Dennis: Teaching Portfolio

Reflective Statement

The whole process of preparing this portfolio has been one of intense reflection on the many and various teaching related activities I have engaged since I arrived at Nottingham in 2001. Individual conclusions and resulting intentions can be found scattered throughout this web site but it seems appropriate here to make a few additional observations and to draw out some points that have made themselves particularly forcefully.

The past three years have taught me a number of hard lessons about teaching in a university context. I have discovered that I held three central assumptions about students that were false, namely:

  • Students have the same background, in terms of material covered at High School, that I do.
  • The level of complexity of thought and understanding students are willing and able to invest in coursework and investment is the same as mine.
  • Students find things interesting for the same reasons that I find things interesting.
Identifying these false assumptions is relatively easy but it is much harder to compensate for them, especially given the resources available. Although in principle it is straightforward to make sure basic material is covered in more depth, that details and complexities in material are made more explicit, and to be more generous with marking criteria and set tasks which are more incremental in nature, I find that this process robs the subject matter of much of the energy and entertainment that I personally derive from it and I worry that I am engaged in a process of making my teaching more dull and uninteresting than it already is. In this regard the last assumption is particularly difficult to compensate for since, while it is easy to know what I find motivational it is less easy to work out what the students may find motivational.

On a more theoretical level I have been exposed to a wide range of ideas about teaching methodology, many of which, while I find them interesting I have not attempted to implement. One of the reasons for this is the relatively poor success I have had with the implementation of some techniques - such as question breaks in lectures. Obviously another is inertia and lack of resources - while it might theoretically benefit the students to, say, replace all the lectures with problem classes, I do not have the resources available to ensure that each student will, nevertheless, still experience the same number of contact hours. Moreover the novelty of the experiment would make it risky in terms of the various mechanisms for assessing teaching quality unless I were convinced that it would be a success. Many other innovative ideas about teaching require considerable up-front investment of time in terms of the preparation of materials, once again time is a precious resource in higher education and the pressure is not to invest it in teaching unless there is a guarantee of success.

I remain convinced of the importance of practical exercises in the teaching of Computer Science though I have yet to find a really satisfactory mechanism for encouraging a wide range of students to attempt formative exercises. As a result I invest a lot of my teaching time into developing exercise sets and this is one of the reasons I tend to use formal exercises in first year tutorials as well as within the context of individual modules.

I do not think that I am a natural teacher and, as a result, can still see many problem areas within the context of my own teaching and recognise there is still room for a great deal of improvement. However, my experience so far suggests that this will be achieved more through a process of trial and error than through the emulation of any particular methodology advocated in the literature although such methodologies will obviously inform such a process.

These thoughts lead on to my Statement of Intent.