Associate Professor Kevin Brooks.
Associate Professor Kevin Brooks.

The penny drops moment

Department of Psychology’s Associate Professor Kevin Brooks says he always spends the first week of teaching being deliberately grumpy. So how come his students keep voting him amongst the top lecturers in Australia? Is it just because he makes them watch The Matrix?

What subject area do you teach?
I teach a core Psychology unit in perception that everybody has to take if they want to qualify as a psychologist. My students who want to be, say, counsellors ask, “how is learning this going to help me solve people’s problems?” I tell them that how we sense and perceive the world affects everything. The senses are the only way to get information into a brain.

I try to bring in links with actual clinical disorders the students might be treating when they qualify as psychologists. I’m currently conducting a research project on body dissatisfaction, looking at the extent to which body image issues can be explained through perception. I try to connect these things, and say: “if you want to treat people with these problems, you need to understand a little bit about perception.”

Perception deals with physical stimuli and therefore physics, and that scares the hell out of my students. A lot of them are doing psychology because they hated technical sciences, and they freak out when I show them a sine wave. I have to find a way to present it to them that is engaging and not too intimidating, and pitch it at the right level.

So how do you do that?
The word ‘scaffolding’ gets used a lot. You start from the basics and build up from there. Given I have 560 students, there will be some who did really like physics – so you don’t teach to them, at least not at first. But you try to keep them engaged nevertheless, otherwise by the time you get to the material that’s new to them, they’ve fallen asleep.

As much as possible, I try to link to things students might have seen in their daily lives, outside of the lecture theatre. For instance, these days when you watch sports on TV you see those advertising logos which appear to be standing up on the field.? I explain how that works. [It’s done with an optical illusion called anamorphosis, similar to these amazing 3D pavement drawings].

I also try to link to popular culture, but I’m running out of references because of the age gap that is increasing every year. 15 years ago it was awesome to bring up The Matrix in my lecture! Everyone had seen it.  These days I ask who has seen it and it’s the minority.  So that is actually my students’ homework for the first lecture – go watch The Matrix.  It’s perfect for someone as geeky as me, because the first bit makes you think about perception and the second bit makes you want to learn kung fu.

You started at Macquarie back in 2007. Has much changed since then?
There is now more emphasis on smartphones, devices, and pretty much every student has a laptop.  Many students are not used to writing with a pen, which is actually a bit of a problem come exam time.  I now make my students do practice exercises where they answer exam questions with a pen in a quiet room so that the marks don’t just reflect their anxiety and lack of practice.  Until we revolutionise Macquarie’s way of doing exams they are going to have to cope with this.

What do you get a kick out of the most in teaching?
The ‘penny drops’ moment is the one that as a teacher I live for.  When you see a student who is struggling, and they come up to you and ask a question, and you manage to find a way to present the information in a different way, you see their face light up and you know they’ve got it.  That is the rewarding bit to me. But that in itself is a challenge – figuring out what it is they don’t understand, which piece of the puzzle isn’t fitting for them.  You have to try to take the student’s perspective and put yourself back in their shoes: what didn’t I know when I was in the equivalent lecture as an undergraduate?

You’ve been a familiar face in the Lecturer of the Year Awards in recent years. Why do you think that is?
Having a lot of students! I’m very flattered to have been voted for but I do take it with a pinch of salt. I’m sure there are many many lecturers at Macquarie that are much better than I am, but they don’t have any opportunity to get these awards because they have too few students.

I don’t know if you should say this, but I actually spend the first week being deliberately grumpy. 560 students is too many for me to spend the first week fielding individual emails.  So I set up a communication structure with tutors as the first port of call, and I impress on students that 99.9% of all their queries are already answered in the unit guide. Usually in week two or three I will congratulate them on not emailing me and voice my appreciation.

Original story written by Lucy Arthur, published on Teche.