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2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 1-7
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.47A2001
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 1
Approaches to Improving Teaching
Shang Gao, Jo Coldwell-Neilson, Andrzej Goscinski
School of Information Technology, Deakin University, Waurn Ponds, Australia
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org du.au, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received May 29th, 2013; revised June 28th, 2013; accepted July 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Shang Gao et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This paper discusses a few issues related to teaching improvement that are commonly found in tertiary
education, such as curriculum development, student engagement, and ethical considerations. Scholars re-
search on resolving these issues are investigated. Corresponding approaches to improving teaching of a
year one information technology unit are proposed and experience is shared. The importance of teaching
scholarship is also emphasized at the end of this paper.
Keywords: Tertiary Education; Curriculum Development; Teaching Improvement; Student Engagement;
Scholarship of Teaching; Ethical Considerations; Teaching in Information Technology
In the past few years, we have been teaching a first year In-
formation Technology unit “SIT104 Introduction to Web De-
velopment” at Deakin University. It focuses on how to build a
dynamic website by using hypertext markup language, Cascad-
ing style sheets, Client side and Server side programming over
the WWW framework. Student s explore on-line Web pages and
use a variety of HTML tags taught in practical labs and classes
to organize and publish information.
Every year we have new student cohort which might be
slightly different from those of previous years. We attempt
different teaching approaches every time and always find new
issues. In this paper we would like to share our teaching ex-
perience and approaches effectively used throughout these
years and hope they are helpful and beneficial to other teaching
The issues found are mainly relevant to curriculum develop-
ment and student engagement.
Issue 1: Curriculum Development
When initially developing teaching materials for SIT104, we
aim at providing a unit which helps students not only develop a
basic understanding of website design ideas, but also situate
those ideas within a broader portrait of advanced web-based ap-
plication. It should not focus on particular web authoring tools
(e.g. Dreamweaver, or Frontpage) nor even on isolated “skills”
(e.g. how to write a conditional program), but rather on the
ways in which these technologies have impacted Web design
The unit includes topics such as:
1) A variety of examples demonstrating what are good web
design and what are not;
2) The notion of a “language” and basic ideas of procedural
3) Computational models of generic web-based applications,
and how they have affected the choice of language, platform
4) How computational models enable us to create many com-
plex web applications as a collection of interactive entities;
5) The notion of “communication” and “information shar-
The practical materials we provide each week are quite in-
formative. For some students, reading such a “lengthy” practi-
cal is time consuming and boring, especially when they have
attended lectures and sometimes the important concepts have
been emphasized. At the sa me time, however, for some st ude nts,
especially these off-campus students and these who do not usu-
ally attend lectures, the detailed practicals provide much infor-
mation about the basic and important elements of web devel-
opment. They appreciate such kind of “lengthy” practicals and
feel like they were sitting in a classroom while reading them.
The first question raised is how to balance between being too
“lengthy” and being too “concise” when developing teaching
materials for different cohort of students?
Issue 2: Student Engagement
It might be a common phenomenon that there are always
some students who prefer sitting at the back of a classroom,
talking to each other or doing something else during a lecture.
This situation might frustrate teachers to some extent. Is it be-
cause the content is not attractive enough? Should more exam-
ples be provided to attract students’ attention? Or should teach-
ers try to eye contact these students to “remind” them? Are
there any effective ways to improving student engagement in
class and practical lab?
Before answering these questions, first we need to find out
what other teaching scholars have done, what good approaches
have been investigated and proposed. Then based on the proved
teaching improving techniques, we propose our own solutions,
while combining our actual situation.
This paper is organized as foll ows: Introduction section ra ises
S. GAO ET AL.
two teaching issues, followed by literature review relating to
the above issues and current practice. A description of adopted
methods is included in methodologies part, followed by a con-
Literature on the Scholarship of Teaching
There are quite a lot of teaching scholars have been investi-
gating and proposing the answers to these above questions.
Grenert, Judith (Judith Grenert, 2006) suggested that every
course we develop is a lens into our fields and our personal
conceptions of those disciplines. We need to give careful thought
to the shape and content of our course.
Before the development, we would better ask ourselves the
How does the course begin? Why does it begin where it
does? How does our course fit within a larger conception of
curriculum, program, and teaching?
How do we lecture about or lead discussions around?
What are the key assignments or student evaluations? ( What
are the main points of the argument? What are the key bod-
ies of evidence?)
What do we want to persuade our students to believe? Or
question? Or do we want them to develop new appetites or
Are there distinctly different ways to organize our course-
ways that reflect quite different perspectives on our disci-
pline or field? Do we focus on particular topics while other
colleagues might make other choices? Why?
How does our course connect with other courses in our own
or other fields? To what extent does our course lay a foun-
dation for others that follow it? Or build on what students
have learned in other courses?
Where will our students encounter the greatest difficulties
of either understanding or motivation? How does the con-
tent of our course connect to matters our students already
understand or have experienced?
Where will it seem most alien? How do we address these
common student responses in our course? How has the
course evolved over time in response to them?
Professor John L. Falconer from University of Colorado at
Boulder found that teaching could be improved in an effort to
increase the understanding of the concepts and engage the stu-
dents more in class (John L. Falconer, 2005).
Professor Bill Briggs at University of Colorado at Denver
has been studying student engagement with his colleagues since
2000. They tried to define and measure student engagement and
proposed six components of engagement.
Here lists each component and one or two representative
items (Bill Briggs, 2005):
Skills Engagement. e.g. “Sitting toward the front of the
class, where it’s easier to pay attention.” “Taking good
notes in class.”
Emotional Engagement. e.g. “Applying course material to
my life.” “Really desiring to learn the material.”
Performance Engagement. e.g. “Getting a good grade.”
“Doing well on the tests.”
Participation Engagement. e.g. “Asking questions when I
don’t understand the instructor.”
Interactio n Engageme nt. e.g. “Helping fellow students.”
Fun Engagement. e.g. “Having fun in class.”
Professor Bill also suggested that important aspects of en-
gagement are not necessarily observable, but they are related to
other aspects of the learning process.
For instance, emotional engagement, interaction engagement,
and fun engagement are not easily observable by teachers. How-
ever, they (and the other components of engagement) are re-
lated to the following (Bill Briggs, 2005):
Self-reports of engagement were related to emotional, in-
teraction, and fun components of engagement. The self-re-
ports were NOT related to the other, more observable,
components of engagement.
If this is true, it is not surprise that sometimes students and
teachers may have different understanding of students’ en-
Incremental and entity self-theor ies.
Carol Dweck (1999) classified students according to whether
they hold an entity or incremental theory of learning. Entity
theorists believe they have a predetermined capacity for learn-
ing; the “container” may be large, but it is limited. Incremental
theorists (who do better at various learning and life tasks) be-
lieve that the capacity for learning can be extended and that the
container can be stretched in various directions.
It is probably much easier for us to understand emotional and
interaction engagement than the other parts of engagement and
Learning and performance goals.
Dweck (1999) also proposed that some students set learning
goals that are related to increasing their competence, and that
other students set performance goals that are more concerned
with gaining favorable judgments of their competence (but ac-
tually hinder learning).
It was found that engagement is related to goals: Students
whose primary orientation was performance were more perfor-
mance engaged, while students with a learning orientation were
higher in emotional, participation, interaction, and fun engage-
Is engagement related to grades?
The answer is Yes. It was found that skills and participation
engagement were related to grades on homework assignments,
performance and fun engagement were related to midterm
grades, and participation engagement was related to final exam
Students in upper-division courses were more interaction
and fun engaged than students in lower-division courses.
Clearly, engagement is different in different courses.
It may also be seen evidence of a developmental process
whereby students master the more elemental aspects of en-
gagement (e.g., participation, skills) in lower division courses,
and develop other levels of engagement (e.g., their ability to
relate to other students, relate to teachers, and derive more fun
from their courses) in more advanced courses.
We also found similar phenomenon from our experience of
teaching master units, undergraduate year three units and un-
dergraduate year one units. Year one units are the hardest to
teach mostly because first year students are still building up
their independent learning skills and trying to get familiar with
university life. Fun engagement is seemed a good way to help
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
S. GAO ET AL.
Some Other Thoughts
Engagement is not a characteristic of an individual. It is a
common mistake for us to over-attribute behavior to stable
personality characteristics (in psychology, this is called the
“fundamental attribution error”) (John L. Falconer, 2005). If
engagement is not a personality characteristic, what about if we
think it as a relationship between both internal and external
factors, for instance student, teacher, unit subject (teaching
materials), other classmates and the learning environment.
These factors affect each other. For instance, well-developed
teaching materials would definitely improve student engage-
ment. And better student engagement would also trigger teach-
ers’ enthusiasm of better teaching and course developing.
If what the students are engaged with and what the teachers
are engaged with is not consistent, non-optimal learning takes
place. For example, some teachers are very engaged with the
course material, and they expect students to be as well. But
some students are engaged with other students in the class or
the class atmosphere, and are relatively less engaged with the
material. Other teachers are engaged on many levels in their
teaching: with content, students, and methods. That is also what
we are trying to do.
Ethical principles are conceptualized here as general guide-
lines, ideals, or expectations that need to be considered, along
with other relevant conditions and circumstances, in the design
and analysis of university teaching (Murray, H., Gillese, E. et
al., 1996). Teachers are recommended to follow the following
nine principles while conducting teaching activities. We found
these principles VERY useful for everyday teaching, guiding us
what is more appropriate, what is not and reminding us do the
right thing in a proper way.
Principle 1: Content competence
A university teacher maintains a high level of subject matter
knowledge and ensures that course content is current, accurate,
representative, and appropriate to the position of the course
within the student’s program of studies.
Principle 2: Pedagogical competence
A pedagogically competent teacher communicates the objec-
tives of the course to students, is aware of alternative instruc-
tional methods or strategies, and selects methods of instruction
that, according to research evidence (including personal or self-
reflective research), are effective in helping students to achieve
the course objectives.
Principle 3: Dealing with sensitive topics
Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discom-
forting are dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way.
Principle 4: Student development
The overriding responsibility of the teacher is to contribute to
the intellectual development of the student, at least in the con-
text of the teacher’s own area of expertise, and to avoid actions
such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from stu-
Principle 5: Dual relationships with students
To avoid conflict of interest, a teacher does not enter into
dual-role relationships with students that are likely to detract
from student development or lead to actual or perceived favour-
itism on the part of the teacher.
Principle 6: Confidentiality
Student grades, attendance records, and private communica-
tions are treated as confidential materials, and are released only
with student consent, or for legitimate academic purposes, or if
there are reasonable grounds for believing that releasing such
information will be beneficial to the student or will prevent
harm to others.
Principle 7: Respect for colleagues
A university teacher respects the dignity of her or his col-
leagues and works cooperatively with colleagues in the interest
of fostering student development.
This is very important for people working in a teaching team,
especially when teaching team is cross multiple campuses and
does not meet regularly.
Principle 8: Valid assessment of students
Given the importance of assessment of student performance
in university teaching and in students’ lives and careers, in-
structors are responsible for taking adequate steps to ensure that
assessment of students is valid, open, fair, and congruent with
There is an argument in our teaching team about what kind
of marking guide and feedback should be returned to students.
Not to mention the requirement proposed by Teaching and
learning Committee, we should provide students valid, open,
clear and fair assessment from ethical point of view.
Principle 9: Respect for institution
In the interests of student development, a university teacher
is aware of and respects the educational goals, policies, and
standards of the institution in which he or she teaches (Murray,
H., Gillese, E. et al., 1996)
Based on the above scholarly findings and recommendations,
we use the following methodologies to investigate the raised
teaching issues, propose new solutions and experiment with
Development of Resource Materials
The teaching materials of the year one I.T. unit are enriched
in several ways.
1) More historical background knowledge is introduced to
help students better understand the origin of key networking
Recorded interviews with the network gurus found on You-
Tube, as shown in Figure 1, reveal the exciting stories on the
invention of the networking concepts/technologies. e.g., the pro -
totype of Internet, the problems overcome by packet-switching
technique, the TCP/IP communication protocol, and so forth.
2) An easy-to-understand database design case is integrated
into the study of server side programming.
Step-by-step instructions for the design and implementation
of an online product ordering site are demonstrated (in Figure
2). It focuses on the creation of dynamic Web interfaces and
interaction between front-end user forms and back-end data-
3) A have-fun pratical is introduced to teach students design
and insert a clip of multimedia animation (e.g., embedded audio
and video), and apply cascading style sheets to change its pres-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 3
S. GAO ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Video screenshot of internet history documentary.
Screenshot of step-by-step database design case.
S. GAO ET AL.
entation on screen.
4) Multiple choice question (MCQ) quizzes are created to
encourage students’ performance engagement.
We create a few sets of 50 multiple choice question (MCQ)
quizzes to test students, collecting statistical data about their
learning performance, as shown in Figure 3. The quizzes are
carried out anonymously in class. Students are encouraged to
take notes on the quiz sheets and keep them for later unit revi-
sion. Quiz answers are gone through right after the in-class quiz
so that students know where they make a mistake and the rea-
son. Since the results are released right after the test, the stu-
dents have motivation to participate. The score ranges are sta-
tistically collected so that we teachers know the score distribu-
tion used for future content adjustment. For instance, how many
students get more than 40 (out of 50) questions correct; how
many achieve between 30 to 40, and 20 to 30, etc. The ques-
tions that most students failed are also highlighted, and revised
into another form of question for next quiz, to track the im-
provement of students’ understanding of the same topic.
As the quizzes are anonymous and only used for locating dif-
ficult knowledge points and improving teaching, but for pun-
ishing or other purposes, students are active to participate and it
is encouraging to see the improvement that students make
throughout the teaching periods.
We accompany the development of the unit with both inno-
vative resource materials and experience to encourage the crea-
tion of other units in this area elsewhere.
Making Lecture More Visual and Engaging Students
in the Classroom
To improve the students’ engagement, we use the method
proposed by John L. Falconer (2005) with some modification.
1) Visualizing important concepts
To make the important concepts more visual, a list of impor-
tant, difficult and easily confusing concepts are identified. Tho se
error prone questions found in in-class quizzes are also added to
The visual representations of these concepts are presented in
the form of color slides, PowerPoint animation presentations,
and Java applet live demonstrations. The representations are
uploaded on the unit teaching web site. The creation of these
visual representations is also a good candidate for honors thesis
or final year students’ project, such as animated representations
of package-switching process (in Figure 4), and domain name
2) Applying fun-engagement
To engage students more in class, periodically during class,
we use “fun engagement” technique. For instance, play relevant
video/DVD about Internet history, classic hacker stories or le-
gend of network gurus/company in class. After the video, “in-
teraction engagement” technique is applied to give students a
time frame to freely discuss their thoughts. The main objective
is to involve the students more in the classroom and engage
them more in their learning. It is proved that our class can be an
exciting and enjoyable place for students learning and our
Screenshot of in-c lass MCQ quiz.
Video screenshot of packet switching animation.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 5
S. GAO ET AL.
The only ethical issue might be the selection of video media.
We try to select videotapes without sensitive and religious top-
ics or examples. Usually it would be all right if sticking to these
published materials for education purposes.
All the unit lectures are recorded with iLecture facilities in-
tegrated in lecture theatres. Students who missed lectures and
off campus students are benefiting from lecture recording (Fig-
Even though it is only audio record but videotaping, we re-
view our lectures and discuss observations within teaching
groups. We also observe other good teachers’ class and enrich
our understanding of good teaching for further improvement.
By experimenting with the above discussed techniques and
teaching improving approaches in practice, good and solid
teaching outcome are achieved. It is encouraging that our teach-
ing performance is improved step by step, reflected by students’
unit evaluation scores and positive feedbacks on our teaching at
the end of each trimester.
As an academic, we are suggested to think about the ways
how our course and syllabus represent acts of scholarship (Shu l-
man & Hutchings, 1994). We can use the ways how we conduct
discipline based research toward our teaching and learning
practice, seeing our teaching practices always need further in-
vestigation and improvement.
Scholarship of teaching is a very interesting topic that many
academic have never thought of before. Most of the time, we
focus on the “traditional” and “classic” discipline based re-
search and almost neglect that we can also combine teaching
and research together and treat pursuing better teac hing as sc ho l-
Teaching and research can be seen as mutually reinforcing.
Usually the best scholars are the best teachers: the best teacher
is a scholar who keeps updated with new content and methods
Screenshot of iLecture recordings.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
S. GAO ET AL.
of a field through continuing involvement in research and who
communicates knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject to stu-
dents. Plenty of examples have demonstrated that excellent
teaching can also be pursued as scholarly activities.
We hope our experience benefits other teaching scholars.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personal-
ity and development. P h i l a d e lp h i a : T h e P s ychology Press
Falconer, J. L. (2005). A measure of college student course engagement.
Grenert, J. (2006). S c ho l a rl y r e f le c t io n a b o ut t ea c hing.
Murray, H., Gillese, E. et al. (1996) Ethical Principles in University
Shulman, L., & Hutchings, P. (1994). Excerpt from Peer Review of
Teaching Workshop sponsored by AAHE.
Tytler, R., & Smith, P. (2006) “The scholoarhsip of teaching” study
guide. Waurn P o n d s : D ea k i n U n i v er s i t y.
Tytler, R., & Smith, P. (2006) “The scholoarhsip of teaching” CD.
Waurn Ponds: Deakin Unive rsity.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 7