Australian Award for University Teaching – A reflection on the journey

Recently I was fortunate to be one of four recipients of an Australian Award for University Teaching Excellence (2020). This was a great honour, and testimony to the support and encouragement I have received from innumerable colleagues over the years. As a means of giving back, I’d like to share some reflections about learning and teaching award applications, in case they are useful to others.

Firstly (and primarily to keep my own ego in check), it important to recognise that teaching awards are not necessarily awarded to the best teachers. I have been teaching for over 25 years, in schools and universities, in Australia and overseas, and during that time I have been fortunate to meet so many outstanding teachers with indisputably better teaching characteristics and qualities than I. No questions asked. Many of these were the sort of teachers who wouldn’t be driven by, or give second thought to, applying for awards. They were getting the job done, and intrinsically valued the satisfaction derived from inspiring their students and helping them to learn.

To be accurate, teaching awards are awarded to people who have been perceived by a judging panel to have written the best application. Don’t get me wrong, those applications need to represent the activities of the applicant, but winners of teaching awards need to a) choose to apply for an award, and b) write a persuasive application. In fact, on my more cynical days, I have ruminated that my teaching awards are actually recognition that I am conceited enough to spend voluminous time self-indulgently writing about my own teaching. But perhaps that’s going too far, because I think it is wonderful and important to have schemes that attempt to recognise great teaching. More on that point at the end of this post…

Understanding that teaching awards are awarded to people who have submitted the best applications is important, because it focuses attention beyond teaching activities to also consider how to best showcase teaching performance – a necessity to be successful in teaching awards. In the same way that researchers become better at writing journal articles over time (or people become better writers in any genre through practice), people should expect that their teaching applications improve through successive iterations and attempts. In my experience, the application needs to be easy to read and provide concrete examples, in order to have the greatest impact. It should provide a compelling narrative, written in the same careful way a that an author might write a story, but of course, based upon truth and extensive evidence. And it should provide illuminating insights into what great teaching is all about within the discipline in question.

The application needs to showcase evidence of teaching performance, arranged according to the criteria. Understanding the criteria of the award scheme is absolutely essential, because each application will be evaluated by each judge according to those criteria. If applicants make it difficult for judges to distill performance against the criteria, then they shouldn’t expect to be successful (even if the underlying performance against the criteria or other standards is exemplary). So always organise the application according to the criteria being used to assess your accomplishments.

Think broadly about what might constitute evidence throughout the application. For me, it was solid student evaluations of teaching (always useful), teaching scholarship, leading University and cross-institutional projects and communities of practice, and creation of teaching resources that are used nationally and internationally. For other people it might be different (e.g. creating a popular podcast series, or leading a university teaching innovation centre). Some people advise not to use too many student quotes as evidence in their applications, as these can easily be cherry-picked from student teaching returns. Actually, I used quite a lot of quotes, but made sure they were selected purposefully to demonstrate the cause-and-effect relationships that I was claiming in my application (so they weren’t just “oh yeah great teaching” quotes). As well, the quotes were only used to provide descriptive quality to the application, amongst other more objective evidence of impact such as student ratings of my teaching, citations, feedback from project stakeholders, and use of my teaching resources.

For my 10 pages of appendices, I used:

  • A statement from two senior leaders of external bodies with whom I have worked
  • A statement from a local principal who was familiar with the impact of my work
  • A statement from two academics outside the university who use my work in their teacher education courses
  • Excerpts from several unsolicited student emails over two pages
  • A statement from my Head of School
  • A past teaching return (compressed onto one page!)
  • A page of publications and references cited in my application

For my 3 minute video, I used footage from a Blended Synchronous Learning innovation that I had used in my pre-service teacher courses, and that related to a national project that I had led: https://youtu.be/OaSD8KaLD9w . I’m not sure the video was the best choice, but it was the best I could do under the time constraints. The video and appendices were then all referenced from the application body.

Draw upon expertise and feedback from advisors and mentors. Macquarie provided me with great assistance for my application, setting me up with past recipients and judges, who offered excellent advice. They helped me to identify places where my application was unclear, bland, or could be seen as over-claiming. They constantly returned me to a focus on “evidencing how what was done impacted on student learning”.

And finally, I think timing is important. After having won an ALTC Citation Award (predecessor to the AAUT awards) in 2010, a Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011, and a Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2012, I decided to go for a Teaching Excellence Award in 2013. I really put lots of time into it, had great support, received lots of positive feedback, and despite my best efforts to not get my hopes up, felt confident I was going to win. With excitement I opened the notification email, only to find no cigar enclosed. So, discouraged, I put the aspiration aside, and got on with work.

It was only several years later, after having operated extensively beyond the bounds of my institution, that I realised that I had a lot more to offer and write about in a teaching award application. So, with immense support from within the University, and beyond in terms of the people who were willing to vouch for my contributions, I applied again in 2020. And then, on 15th of February 2021:

Dear Associate Professor Bower,

I would like to congratulate you on receiving a 2020 Award for Teaching Excellence as part of the Australian Awards for University Teaching (AAUT) program….

Tremendously gratifying and a great honour! It is something I will value in perpetuity, and use to remind myself how generously people have supported me over the years.

Accordingly, if anyone reading this post should like feedback or advice about teaching or teaching applications, please don’t hesitate to contact me at matt.bower ‘at’ mq.edu.au.

Postscript:

On 11th of May 2021 the Australian Government budget announced that they will no longer fund the Australian Awards for University Teaching. The failure to fund the AAUT in the recent budget is a huge loss for our nation. By recognising excellence nationally, the Australian Awards for University Teaching motivated people to contribute beyond their institution, for instance through sharing of resources, leadership of projects and provision of professional learning. They also encourage educators to strive for excellence, and catalyse important conversations about what constitutes best practice in university teaching. By removing these schemes and providing no mechanisms to promote inter-university teaching excellence, the quality of education in the sector will undoubtedly suffer. I strongly encourage all academics to agitate for the reintroduction of Australian Awards for University Teaching funding.

About matthewbower

Professor at Macquarie University.
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