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How to Cut Onions without Crying: Michael Gillings on Teaching

Macquarie’s own Professor Michael Gillings is no stranger to the winner’s circle of the Unijobs Lecturer of the Year Awards. His students have voted him amongst the top four lecturers in Australia for each of the past five years. Admittedly there are a lot of potential voters – Michael’s first-year Biology unit has over a thousand students. So is his success just down to sheer numbers?

What’s your secret to consistently doing so well in the Lecturer of the Year Awards?

Michael Gillings
Professor Michael Gillings (image: E. Hagan-Lawson)

“It’s true that I have over a thousand students a semester in my unit, but when I first started teaching it, it had 250. Having large numbers of students helps, but in order to get those numbers in the first place you have to be doing something right. The secret is getting students engaged and interested – and I guess that translates into votes!”

What’s your best teaching tip?

“I regard first-year biology almost as performance art rather than education. If I can entertain and amuse, then students accidentally get a little knowledge at the same time without realising they are learning. I spend a lot of time talking about the practical applications of what they are meant to be learning, how it is useful to them in their everyday life.”

“For instance, take the process of diffusion, where molecules spread out through space. I teach this by showing my students how to cut up onions.  There is actually a way of doing it that doesn’t make you cry.  I bring onions into class and cut them up and I ask the students “Who can smell onions?”. When I first start it’s just the front row, by the end of the lecture the people right up the back can smell onions. It illustrates the concept of diffusion and teaches them something practical at the same time. I also demonstrate cell membranes by blowing soap bubbles and try and fuse bubbles together. And I have a full scale model of the human digestive system made out of red velvet that I unroll in the class and push billiard bills through it.”

What was your first experience of teaching at Macquarie like?

“I started teaching at Macquarie well before I was employed here in 1997, as a guest lecturer for various Honours units and specialist seminars. At that time everything was on overheads – there were printed notes, but no iLearn or Blackboard, and no recording of lectures.  If you missed out you missed out!”

What’s the biggest challenge for academics teaching in universities today?

“It’s my opinion that the online revolution has failed, in that it generates a population of students who think that getting a university degree is about knowing the answer to specific questions that they can google. It is amazing how many students don’t come to lectures or listen to them. The more we cater to students by giving them multiple sources of information, the less independent they are and the less likely to try and find out information for themselves. There is a difference between learning individual facts and regurgitating them, and understanding the connections between facts. True learning is about understanding how the information connects together.”

At this point Michael reads out what sounds like a random string of words and asks me to repeat it back: “the pleased it secret played heard Lord chord a I was David that there and”. I fail miserably, but I’ve illustrated his point: the random string is actually the re-ordered opening line of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, a song I must have heard a thousand times.

“I say to students, you’ve got five things to remember, but you can forget four of them, because you’ve understood the connections between the five things.”

 

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