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Lessons in teaching excellence

Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff
Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff (Department of Nutrition) holds a bag listing food messages dated 1914: buy it with thought; cook it with care; use less wheat and meat; buy local foods; serve just enough; use what is left. She says the same basic messages still apply a 100 years later.

It’s been a big year for Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff. The Department of Nutrition academic received an Otago University teaching award followed by a national Tertiary Teaching Excellence award in September. She shares insight into her prize-winning teaching practices with Guy Frederick, the sciences Communications Adviser.

Did you always want to teach?

It was more fortuitous than planned. In 1989, shortly after I arrived from Canada with a Masters degree, I started a part-time teaching role in the Department of Nutrition. So teaching was always an important focus of my job. My research started in 1996 when I began my PhD.

How has your teaching changed over time?

In the beginning it was more content and fact driven, but over time there has been a transition to a more concepts and ideas based approach, and developing the skills students need when they finish.  There has also been a growing emphasis on the science underpinning the learning, and teaching students how to use, interpret and critically examine research. I teach skills to find and evaluate the scientific evidence to inform an answer which takes time and hard work, but the student gains a sense of satisfaction and owns the answer.

How has the subject of Human Nutrition changed over that time?

Many of the key messages haven’t changed, for example, recommendations for people to eat more fruits and vegetables, to eat a varied diet, and to eat in moderation. The bag in the photo has the following food messages dated 1914: buy it with thought; cook it with care; use less wheat and meat; buy local foods; serve just enough; use what is left. The same messages still apply a 100 years later, although now the focus is global rather than national, and there is recognition that the health of the planet and of people are inter-linked.

What is the approach of Sheila Skeaff that makes her an award winning teacher?

I credit most of this to three things. First, listening to student feedback rather than fighting it. Second, leaving my ego at the classroom door. Third, building on some really simple things that foster a positive learning environment such as learning names, asking questions, getting personal, working one-on-one, being enthusiastic, and using humour, because our complex and sometimes confused relationship with food is often funny.

It takes times to foster an in-depth teacher-student relationship, so I make sure I deliver most of the lectures in my core papers, a contrast to other science papers that can have over 10 people teaching into them. The better a student knows me, the more they trust that I will help with their learning.

I also share personal anecdotes but I just as often ask students for their stories. In a lecture on food hypersensitivity, I tell them about my children vomiting on their grandparent’s rug and developing an aversion to macaroni and cheese, which sparks stories from students about their dislike of porridge after being forced to eat this as a child. People learn better when it’s relevant to them and their lives, and personal stories make the material more memorable.

What inspires you about teaching?

“I credit most of [receiving the awards] to three things. First, listening to student feedback rather than fighting it. Second, leaving my ego at the classroom door. Third, building on some really simple things that foster a positive learning environment.”

Every year there’s another group of enthusiastic people who are here to learn. My philosophy about teaching is to foster an enthusiasm for the topic of nutrition, which fuels a desire to acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills needed for their future study, their career, and their health. The nice thing about food and nutrition is it’s a very relatable subject as we all eat every day.

What does receiving the Teaching Excellence Awards mean to you?

Writing the portfolio for the award was a unique opportunity to evaluate and reflect on my teaching and re-examine how this has influenced my students. Stepping back it was clear the topics I am most passionate about, can also have the most impact on the students. Sustainable nutrition is one such topic, and I plan to use my award to identify teaching programmes and methods that improve both knowledge and behaviour, fostering better health for people and the planet.

Any final words?

Embrace change! A few years ago, students requested that I podcast my lectures but I held back as I thought that would deter them turning up to class. After I did begin to podcast however, to my surprise students still came, and because they could review the lectures in their own time, they got a deeper understanding than from the lecture alone.  What I have come to learn is being more flexible and creative in my teaching will ensure the interaction, engagement, and social contact will continue to happen.