In the classroom with Mark McEntee

1 May 2014

Dr Mark McEntee knows it can be hard to sit through a lecture, which is why he is always searching for ways to keep his own students engaged and excited - and awake.

"I've always had a strong emphasis on being a good teacher, purely for the fact that I know bad teaching can be so boring," says Mark, a senior lecturer in medical radiation sciences. "I always try to look at it from the students' perspective: how are they going to experience learning?"

Mark was one of eight individuals or teams to recently win a Vice-Chancellor's Award for Teaching and Learning, announced in May's Teaching@Sydney. He has been commended for using technology widely and thoughtfully in his lessons, as well as his leadership in the Faculty of Health Sciences. He also won the faculty's Outstanding Teaching award in 2013, two years after he moved from Ireland to join the University.

"I believe it's very significant that the University of Sydney values teaching so highly, as shown by initiatives like the VC awards. It's a really positive thing to be rewarded for good teaching - it encourages you to constantly try to improve and innovate in the classroom," he says.

Mark plans to invest the $10,000 prize money from his award in new hardware for his teaching as well as conferences and workshops, where he will work with educational designers and technologists to further develop immersive online resources for his students.

He recently chatted to Staff News to share how technology can be used to enhance learning, the challenges of his role, as well as his advice for other teachers. Here's an extract from the interview.

Staff News (SN): How do you keep your students engaged?
Mark McEntee (MM):
The most important thing is that students are discovering the answers. You're guiding them, but you can't put the words in their mouths - they'll only understand it if they come to that understanding themselves. I use activities to keep them interested and focused. For example, rather than just provide an abstract, I'll get them to use their laptops, phones and tablets to do a search of literature in class to find multiple answers to the same thing. It means they're finding out, they're looking up, they're reading, they're answering questions in class - at no point are they just sitting there. If I look down and I see somebody flagging in the class I react to that immediately. I'll get more questions up or I'll get them to stand up and move around or put some music on.

SN: It sounds fun …
It should be fun! And it really does come from my own selfish perspective that I could not sit there and listen, I just cannot physically do it - I'd have to put my head down and go to sleep. If I am not engaged I am not learning. So I try to keep it fun and interesting, and use technology to do that.

SN: What kind of technology do you use in class?
I always use a variety of different technologies like Turning Point and the Wiki function, but at the moment I'm quite into Google Docs, which I use to design in-class tests. Students will write their answers on their own devices and then I will show the answers up on the big screen. To see that they're the only one in the class who got an answer right - or wrong - can be a powerful thing, and I can also adapt my teaching to what they do or don't know and create new questions on the fly. Also, to help support students' transition from teaching to practice, our faculty's brilliant educational design team (Sonya Corcoran and Phil Goody) and I have produced over 150 different videos of various practical techniques for students to access at any stage of their study, even during their clinical placement.

SN: What are the challenges of your role?
One of the most challenging things is to explain complex things in a simple way to your students. To overcome this, you have to understand it yourself - read up, study it and get to a point where you can explain it. Then you have to look at from the perspective of the student - ask yourself, "If I explain it this way, what will it mean in the context of what they already know and what they don't know?"

SN: What advice would you give to other teachers?


  • Engage your students - make the subject matter fun and engaging, ask them questions, make it active, get them doing things.
  • Test students in class to see that they actually understand what you've taught - you'll get immediate feedback as to whether or not your method worked. Sometimes it's devastating to find that it has actually not worked at all! But if you know that, you can go back and explain it in a different way.
  • Remember that you're not alone. Talk to more experienced teachers to get some tips. There are also really good educational courses and resources run by the University's Institute for Teaching and Learning, such the Principles and Practices of University Teaching and Learning.
  • Don't be afraid of feedback - that's a big thing. All feedback is very positive. It's important information that tells you how you're doing, it's not negative criticism, it's information. Get feedback from students and other teachers and reflect on your own teaching yourself - then you'll be heading in the right direction.