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Dr Ding Ding – Triumphing against change

Dr Ding Ding SFHEA spent much of her formative years trailing her university teacher parents around classrooms, transfixed by the process of knowledge transfer taking place around her. Perhaps it was a fait accompli that she herself would go on to not only be a university teacher, but one with an abundance of courage, creativity and adaptability – all qualities which have seen her succeed in the face of uncertainty, and contributed to her 2018 Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning.

A Lecturer within the School of Finance, Actuarial Studies and Statistics, Ding Ding’s teaching skills were put to the test in early 2017, when just two years into her teaching career she was faced with a significant challenge. University-wide redevelopment had resulted in her economics classes being pushed out of their usual fit-for-purpose classrooms and into the cavernous environment of Llewelyn Hall. While the situation was daunting, she approached it with her characteristic positivity and zest, in the process becoming a trailblazer for her colleagues.

“I think the first concern I had with the move to Llewellyn was ‘Wow, I’m really far away from the students now,’ because I really love to be with them, and in the midst of it all, and to talk to them face-to-face,” she recalls.

“It just seemed like a really big physical challenge had been presented to create this distance between me and the students.”

Adding to her unease was memories of her time at the University of Toronto, where she witnessed classes of more than 1000 students. These were characterised by lecturers lost among the crowd, unable to be seen, and students as anonymous faces, unable to be heard.  Determined not to see a repeat of that situation, Ding Ding started devising ways to remain in-tune with her students in a 1335 capacity concert venue that is perfect for performing arts, less so for teaching.

“The biggest thing was to stay connected with my students, and to keep inspiring them to stay interested in the course despite everything, including the dark lighting, and the comfortable chairs that make it easy to fall asleep – if I could sing, I probably would have tried, but I’m terrible,” she laughs.

Operatic fantasies aside, she went about implementing numerous adaptations to her teaching. Small things, such as continual ‘checking in’ to gauge student frustration levels, and modifications to her class presentation materials, helped form the foundations. She went about making the teaching ‘theatre’ experience fun through the implementation of games, with her school chipping in through the donation of some school tee shirts to give out as prizes. Role plays, and a conscious attempt to ‘co-mingle’ with students by moving from the stage and into the crowd were additional strategies she used. The most transformative technique, however, was her integration of PollEverywhere, the live audience participation tool she creatively used as a mechanism of overcoming the tyranny of distance and space within the hall. While she had initially sought to lessen the distance between student and teacher, a pleasant bonus was an increase in interaction between students.

“I could see that when they were in the process of responding to the polls, they were discussing things amongst themselves, which is really important, because in a big theatre, often people file in and they file out – the interaction is limited,” she says.

“With PollEverywhere, I could see that people were speaking within their rows, in the back rows, in the front rows, and there was a lot of buzz going on when I was putting a poll on. It also offered a moment where they could rest for a little bit, and take their attention away from pretty intense material.  PollEverywhere has inspired me into thinking about really good uses for it in other classrooms in the future.”

Ding Ding laughingly refers to herself as the College ‘Guinea Pig’. Hot on the heels of becoming the first ANU teacher to teach in Llewellyn Hall, early this year she was among the first cohort of ANU teachers to teach in the new Kambri precinct. While this resulted in yet another adaptation of her teaching, the resilience and skills gained from her Llewelyn Hall experience has proven invaluable. She continues to make heavy use of PollEverywhere, namely for in-class games, and quizzes to help ease students into the class, recall the learnings from the previous class, test understanding, and acquire feedback.

“At the end of the day, I think the baseline lesson is just to stay connected with your students by talking to them, thinking about their needs, using methods that have previously worked, and then incorporating new ones to try and engage them,” she says.

“It’s about thinking about things from the students’ perspective as to what might work if I was a student – what would inspire me? And also trying to understand the new students these days, as there are already generational gaps – trying to understand where they are coming from by talking to them.”

While talented and adaptable, Ding Ding is also the most gracious of teachers. Any conversation with her is peppered with appreciation for all those who have played a part in her journey. This gratitude extends to her teaching career, something she was drawn back to in 2015 having previously ‘wandered away’ to put her financial economics PhD to use in a career as an economist.

“I feel really lucky to be working at something I enjoy,” she reflects.

“To wake up every morning, whatever happened the day before, I wake up the next morning really refreshed, and ready to go back into the office. I feel really blessed to work in an amazing institution with wonderful people and working with really good students, and doing what I really love to do.

“It’s amazing, to recall back to the moments where I saw my parents teach, and then back to myself being able to stand on the podium to do the same thing – I think that’s a magical thing.”