Professor John Croucher

Professors Profess:
John S. Croucher

We’re asking eminent Professors about teaching – what they love about it, what they don’t, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they wish someone had told them when they started.

This is what Professor John S. Croucher said.

I began teaching at Macquarie as a lecturer in the School of Economic and Financial Studies (now FBE) in March 1974. I had only arrived three weeks before from the US where I had completed my PhD at the University of Minnesota. As a ‘new person’ I was given four different subjects to teach with almost zero preparation time and I wished that someone had told me my teaching allocation before I came. This was my first time as a lecturer, although I had taken many smaller group tutorials as a teaching assistant in Minnesota.

One of those initial subjects here was 05120, now STAT170, Introductory Statistics, and I was not really prepared for what might be called ‘large group teaching’. My first lecture was to 500 students in a jam-packed Macquarie Theatre that had only opened a couple of years earlier. It was quite a sight to walk onto the stage with such a sea of faces, most of whom did not want to be there as they had only enrolled in statistics because it was compulsory for their major.

“I had 13 weeks to convince them that this was indeed an exciting and useful course.”

I knew of their lack of interest because I asked them whether they would be doing statistics if they didn’t have to, and very few hands were raised. I then asked who would rather not be doing it and masses of hands shot up. And so I had 13 weeks to convince them that this was indeed an exciting and useful course.

I lectured on a giant stage which also doubled as a movie theatre and had a grand piano in the corner. There were two overhead projectors spaced about ten metres apart and I had to go from one to the other as I wrote my words of wisdom on them. I soon became very fit! On occasions, the electricity would go off or the air conditioning would break down, with improvisation being the order of the day. Despite such setbacks, these were some of my most enjoyable teaching years and I still encounter students from that era, then teenagers but now often retired.

“One of the essentials for any lecturer is not to look bored or be boring…it is the first time they have heard these topics”

One of the essentials for any lecturer is not to look bored or be boring, even though you may have taught exactly the same material many times over. I always remember that, for my audience, it is the first time they have heard these topics and so it has to be presented in a fresh, meaningful, exciting, useful and challenging way. As far as possible, it is essential that students be a part of the lecture, either by encouraging questions or by asking for opinions on a variety of matters to do with the topics.

In the many student surveys I have seen conducted at Macquarie, it is instructive to note the presentation attribute that most highly correlates with students rating you as a good teacher. It is not having a good knowledge, being well prepared, punctual or even being enthusiastic, although these are all important.

“It is the ability to explain the concepts clearly. If you can’t do that, and students don’t understand what you’re talking about, then nothing else really matters.”

It is the ability to explain the concepts clearly. If you can’t do that, and students don’t understand what you’re talking about, then nothing else really matters. This can often mean repeating what you have just said in a different way if you sense that it hasn’t gone down all that well the first time.

In 1974 there was little educational technology available. Electronic calculators had not quite arrived, desktop computers were very crude and almost nobody had one. There was no Internet, Wi-Fi, PowerPoint, YouTube, mobile phones or even whiteboards. What you had at your disposal was a blackboard (with several sticks of chalk and a duster) and an overhead projector if you wanted to write on a continuous roll of plastic acetate sheeting that was cleaned, sometimes not very well, at the end of each day.

In the late 1970s, calculators began to appear and they were a blessing to the beleaguered students who, up to that time, had to master logarithm tables to perform even simple calculations. The following decade saw the introduction of the PC, although they were quite expensive with the original models having a 20cm (8 inch) floppy disk. Faculty computers had a staggering 640K of RAM and I recall being denied permission to get one that had 1MB of RAM on the grounds that I didn’t need it. Now I have 8000 times that on my work computer.

Today there is a bewildering array of technological devices at the lecturer’s disposal and the one I cherish the most is the visualiser. A modern day version of the overhead projector, it has a camera that beams everything I write on to a large screen behind me. In this way students can see what I am actually doing while I am facing them and not with my back to them while writing on a board. I much prefer this technique to PowerPoint as it is much more alive and dynamic.

In my subject area of statistics it is important that an ethical component be included in the curriculum. This includes the dangers of ‘adjusting’ your data to obtain a significant result that might see your work have a much better chance of being published. Or removing people from your experiments simply because they do not fit in with a hypothesised model.

“honesty and integrity are an essential part of conducting any business.”

History is littered with cases of scientific fraud and I mention these in the form of case studies as important examples of what not to do. There can be a great deal riding on statistical outcomes, including the effectiveness of medicines and decisions made in the courtroom. These also extend to every walk of life, where honesty and integrity are an essential part of conducting any business.

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