My story: award-winning tertiary educator Andrew Eberhard
29 November 2019
Andrew Eberhard answers a few questions about the secrets to his teaching success.
Why did you come here, 20 years ago?
I came from a small town called Darling in South Africa, of around 500 people. I got a scholarship to the University of Stellenbosch, but I fractured my neck a week before I was meant to start. I was running around a swimming pool and dived in and hit the bottom. I had to wear a neck brace for quite a long time so I didn’t go to university there. That was in the early 1990s and nobody was sure how the new South Africa would work out, so I came to New Zealand to study. I wanted to be a chartered accountant. I loved it here, but found that I hated accounting.
What makes you an excellent teacher?
One of my favourite evaluation comments from students is, “he tells you the truth about your work and that helps”. The feedback from teachers to students is so important. We have to tell them how what they’re doing may fall down, but also tell them where it’s really good.
You do this differently from most, don’t you?
Yes, I use video-based feedback so they can hear my voice. I teach data visualisation so I have a big monitor and camera with a high-quality microphone. I bring up the students’ work, talk about what I’m looking at and where I think they could improve and I record that through my screen, pointing to different things. Feedback’s the main part of my teaching – not lectures. I spend at least ten hours a week on feedback during the semester.
Do you have a bit of advantage because you know how to use this technology?
I think being comfortable experimenting with technology is an advantage and I’m aware that’s a big hurdle for some people. When I started, a lot of the stuff I bought was because it solved a problem for me. Nowadays I try to use tools that everybody can use. You have to make it easy for people to engage with tech. I have a colleague in commercial law who has no tech background at all. But he’s using a tool through which every student gets a feedback email – you put in rules, but it’s a highly simplified drag-and-drop. It pulls data from [learning management platform] Canvas, personalises it and integrates with the University email system. It’s accessible for everyone and invaluable for students.
How do you improve your practice?
The reason I’m successful is because I’ve bounced ideas off really good people. We also have a coffee group and everybody in it is a teaching excellence winner and we talk about teaching ideas. I run with some of my colleagues too, what we call edu-runs, where we just chat. Sharing ideas helps everyone get better. I haven’t been so good at running this year because I crashed my scooter and was injured. It’s amazing how quickly you lose your fitness, but I know if I stick at it I’ll get it back.
At the start of the semester, I’m thinking why the hell am I here? What do I know? I wear a smartwatch and I can track my heart rate and two minutes before my first class my heart rate goes up over 100.
What do the students teach you?
All sorts of things! Last semester a student just did a short URL for her presentation. She just typed it in and her presentation came up so quickly. No messing about with PowerPoint, slides and a USB drive! Now I do that for all my own presentations.
In your speech at the Awards ceremony, you spoke of imposter syndrome. Really?
Yes, for every lecture I give. Especially at the start of the semester, I’m thinking why the hell am I here? What do I know? I wear a smartwatch and I can track my heart rate and two minutes before my first class my heart rate goes up over 100. As soon as I start, I’m fine. I’m like that with almost every talk I give. I’m thinking, what the hell do I know? I’m just someone who’s keen to learn and muck around and try things.
Have you had many failures?
Failures are a key to my success. I’m not particularly afraid of failing. I’ve done lots wrong, but I hope I’ve done more that’s gone right. People don’t mind if you’re trying to be innovative. I think if you keep making the same mistakes though, then there are problems.
Who do you admire?
Those mentioned in my speech were Associate Professor Don Sheridan, Professor David Sundaram and Dr Peter Smith. But the person who got me interested in the visualisation side of data was Swedish physician Hans Rosling, who died in 2017. He has a book out called Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He did a really good TED talk showing “200 countries, 200 years, Four Minutes” and it’s driven the way I want to be – entertaining and informative. You hear the term edutainment, but I think it’s more about engaging. I want to inspire students to dig deeper.
Is there a mantra you live by?
I would say, don’t be so hard on yourself because we’re all learning. Be kind to others and yourself. Teaching is highly personal and sometimes you get negative feedback from students. Sometimes they’re not kind and that can be hard to deal with. But nobody’s perfect ... I still doubt myself so I have a folder on my desktop called “In Case of Emergency” and it’s just some positive student comments.
The other thing is to think about it from your student’s point of view. Occasionally enrol in a course and see things from their perspective. If the presenter’s late or the slides are wrong, to me that means the teacher’s not taking it seriously, so how can we expect students to take it seriously? We should always be professional.
You’ve chosen the professional teaching route rather than the professorial, why?
I love being a teaching fellow. Teaching is what really floats my boat. The research side of it, not so much. I read heaps of research and go along to seminars and conferences as I think it is important to be research-informed, but actually doing research is not really what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s making an impact on students and my colleagues that drives me.