At the upcoming Vice Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Showcase, Alex Belli, PhD student and casual academic, will receive a High Commendation for ‘Teaching by a Casual or Sessional Staff Member’. Nominated for his ability to “engage and inspire students, and a passion for marketing”, we chat to Alex to hear what’s he’s doing in his classes and online, his advice for other casual tutors, and top tips for engaging with millennials.
Before we jump in, meet Alex.
[pictured in black – middle front row – among his students in his subject ‘Applied Marketing Research’]
Italian-born and raised, Alex moved to Sydney in 2013 to commence his PhD in consumer behaviour. He started teaching at UTS when one of his lecturers tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to lead a tute. He’s been a casual tutor here ever since. He teaches both PG an UG classes in marketing research and strategic marketing services, and will finish his PhD in a few short months (“Yes, finally!”, says Alex:).
Alex likes: learning foreign languages, travelling and busting out dance moves. His guilty pleasure? Cheesy 80s and 90s pop music.
5 questions with Alex
1. What was it that nabbed you a nomination?
In short, I created and implemented a number of tools that improve subject delivery and maximize student engagement. Coming from a marketing background, I apply the principles of the content I teach in services marketing directly to the experience my students have in my classes. You know, practice what I preach.
2. What sparked the changes to your teaching?
Being a UTS student and a millennial too, I’ve been able to experience what works and what doesn’t in the tute environment for students. This helped me to think of ways to maximize students’ learning and engagement. In a nutshell, I’ve been able to use my own learning experience to enhance the learning experience of others.
3. Any tips for engaging millennials?
Try to understand where they are – not physically, but mentally. Be an ethnographer of your own customers. Where are they online? What do they like? What’s happening in pop culture?
[Memes and gifs can drive home a message pretty quickly. For more on this, see ‘How to use memes in teaching: without turning into Steve Buscemi‘]
Think about how they consume content. They are visual. They like videos. They’re on social media. Long form case studies just don’t connect.
We learn a lot from our teaching team members but also, and especially, from our students. Times change and new generations are stimulated through different types of media. We need to make sure we keep track of these stimuli in order to optimise our time in the classroom with them.
4. How have you improved the student experience in your subjects?
I try to create a learning environment that’s relaxed and motivating. Some ways I do this:
- Discuss content that’s happening now: I source industry news, consumer news, recent events etc. to get students engaged with the discipline and show them how close the content they are learning is to day-to-day life. For example, we had a tute focussed on ‘customer experience’, so we used a Coldplay concert, which many of the students had attended to discuss how all aspects of the event were catered to improve the customer experience. We looked at everything from the merchandise to the entry bands (that pulsed in time with the music!). I also source content from popular culture (music, TV, film); the closer and more relatable the content is to the students’ lives, the more it sticks in their mind. I avoid using case studies, they can be boring and long and students like quick digestible content. But when a case study is needed, the students can act it out. For example, we had one that was ‘service failure in a cinema’ – so I brought in props and each student had to personify a character from the case study – that way rather than reading, they were engaged with the content. Plus, the result was hilarious!
- Social media: I use social media as a space to discuss current marketing problems; to source ideas; to have polls and share information and tips on the subject. For each class I have, I create a Facebook group where students who want to be part of a discussion after hours could be. We post interesting industry content that had come across our feeds, run polls on say ‘what do you think of this advertising campaign?’, with the results of the poll being discussed in the next tute. Currency is key, I want to be online in a space that seems less academic and lives where the students are. The result is much higher online engagement.
- Create a killer classroom experience: In class, I’d play music in the background. But rather than just putting on any playlist, I decided to create Spotify playlists for our classes based on the topics we were focusing on. So say for ‘Services pricing’ the playlist included songs like ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ by Destiny Child and Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’. The songs may not correlate directly to subject outcomes but they create that engaging student experience. It connects with the students, it relaxes them. Plus I’ve read that music brings us back to memories, so I’m hoping that if I create a connection for the students between these songs and the content then they might retain the information better. Plus, I always use humour! This made me seem more approachable.
- Make assessment tasks engaging: I’ve found that when students have to do an in-class presentation, they can often do the minimum amount of work required of them. They can rely a lot on aids. Plus, the presentation takes up a lot of time in the tutorial itself and many students said they didn’t enjoy sitting through them. So for one subject, I asked students to submit their presentations as 10 min video ‘pitches’ instead. This made them more engaged and active – students like to consume information in video form. We even had our own Oscars for the best-submitted pitches – there was a ‘best director’, ‘best lead role’, ‘best concept’ etc, and the winners received prizes.
- Continual feedback: I’ve always valued feedback and ‘feedforward’ as a learning strategy. I try to be as thorough and detailed as possible with assessment feedback so that my students know where they can do better in future assessments.
5. Finally, any advice for casuals looking to improve their classroom experience?
As casuals, we’re often time-poor. I think the biggest challenge I had was to balance my duties as a PhD student and my teaching!
However remember you are part of the teaching team, so you’re entitled to tell the lecturer you’re working for if something works and something doesn’t in the classroom. And there are small ways to improve the experience. My top tips:
- Don’t be afraid to personalise your tute in ways where your experience and personality come through. The more genuine you are, the more students will trust and look up to you
- Never be complacent with what you’ve done. Question your classes and think, could I make that one better? And make sure you find the class interesting. If you’re not engaged they definitely won’t be
- Listen to colleagues, other tutors and students. They can help you build a better subject and in-class experience
- Use humour, technology and relatable content to connect with your students
- Treat your students as active participants in your class and allow them to co-create knowledge
- Smile 😊 A positive attitude goes a long way!
Meet Alex, and others like him, at the upcoming Vice Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Showcase on Wednesday 6 June. It’s open to all UTS academic staff, including sessional academics, plus professional staff and students. Families, colleagues and the general public are also welcome. Register now.