Learning at Ormond

We all remember our great teachers. They are the people who brought a subject alive, made the complex clear, passed on their passion or simply cared about us. Great teachers really matter. They transform our education. They change our lives. That is why, in the contemporary higher education world, colleges are so important. With campuses of 50,000+ students, vast lectures and tutorials that average 20 or more, universities are challenged to create the personal connection between student and teacher.

At Ormond we have been working to increase the opportunity for students to have that experience of a great teacher. Some years ago we realised that, given the number of tutorials we provide as a larger college, we could move from having a great many casual tutors to having a smaller number of permanent academic staff who could cover much of that teaching. So we began hiring Leading Tutors.

The strength of Leading Tutors starts with the fact that they are great teachers. As permanent staff, they are available not just for formal tutorials but also for individual consultations with students. At this busy end of the semester they are in near constant demand from students who really appreciate such timely and personal assistance. Being around the College, our Leading Tutors can often be found in conversation with students in the JCR Café or at lunch in the Dining Hall. These many connections mean they get to know students well and play in an important role in identifying  pastoral issues.

We have further expanded our permanent academic staff by ensuring that all the College’s endowed fellowships are filled and that they contribute to the teaching program. We have the Seymour Reader in Classics, the Thwaites and Gutch Fellow in Physiology, the Alexander Scott Tutorship in Medicine and the George Scott Fellowship. We also have the Freemantle Fellowship to support our Indigenous students.

The tradition of a residential component to our teaching team remains important because it creates a wider range of opportunities for students and staff to connect, and we know these informal learning opportunities are often some of the most memorable. To ensure we attract great people in an age when Fringe Benefit Tax laws mean we can’t offer discounted accommodation, we have followed the path of Oxford and Cambridge colleges in appointing Junior Research Fellows (JRFs). We have four JRFs this year. These are young, highly engaging academics who bring their fields alive for students. We are also fortunate in having a number of distinguished senior members of the University as non-stipendiary fellows.

While we have been building a good team of permanent academic staff, our focus has also been on continuous improvement in their teaching skills. We follow many of the practices found in schools committed to developing outstanding teachers. We have a clear framework of what we know good tutoring to be and it guides the development of the team. Twice a semester tutors meet to discuss and share best practices. Each semester tutors observe each other while tutoring and provide feedback. Students also give regular feedback, which is provided to our tutors along with coaching if needed.

We supplement this team with two learning specialists, who help those students who are struggling. Sometimes they help students to redirect their studies, if they have ended up in the wrong course, or to find their passion for what they are doing. But much of the time, if students are struggling for non-pastoral reasons, it is because they haven’t developed strong skills as independent learners at school.

We find ourselves dealing with the growing gap between the highly structured and supported approach of an increasing number of schools committed to getting students the results they need to get into university – an approach the data tells us does work – and the ever-growing scale of universities, which places an ever greater premium on being a strong independent learner. Our project is to bridge that gap to create strong independent learners.

Integral to our learning team are our library staff. Our three staff do a great job of maintaining a library dedicated to making readily available the physical and online resources students need for their courses, while presenting engaging material to encourage broader explorations.

The results of this very dedicated team are exceptional. Without any change in our admissions and for a population where we don’t select on marks, we have seen the number of students achieving first class honours nearly double and just on half of all students now achieve first class or second class division A honours.

In today’s university, doing well academically from the start of your degree really matters. With undergraduate degrees only lasting three years and professional degrees requiring high averages – often first class honours – students need to do well. Even for those not going on to a professional degree, the competition for good graduate jobs is intense and good results are just an expectation, rather than an advantage.

The more leisurely age of the university is now well behind us. Our task is to make sure the opportunities available in that age are still available now. The College’s challenge is to create an environment where students can fulfil their academic potential while still enjoying all that has always made College life special. It is just as important that the social, sporting and cultural life of Ormond flourishes as its academic life.

There is no doubt that having good teaching staff makes a big difference to this task, because they can help make sure that students maximise the returns they get for the effort they put into their learning. This frees up time for the rest of life.

That model is working for the Ormond of today because academic success has not come at the price of engagement in the rest of College life. Indeed, it has been during this period of increasing academic success that we have seen a return to dominance in many sports. And the range of cultural activities is as great as ever.

This balance was well symbolised this semester when, in the two weeks following a formal dinner where students celebrated their peers’ academic success, they won the men’s soccer, three of the four divisions of the rowing (including victories for both first crews) and then the women’s hockey. Amid these successes was also a more important story of participation, as Ormond was able to field a third Eight in the rowing because of the sheer number of people keen to row. And there on the bank were Leading Tutors, JRFs and Fellows cheering on their students.


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