Dr Ding Ding, from the ANU College of Business and Economics, was two years into her teaching career when faced with her first big challenge. University-wide redevelopment in 2017 resulted in her classes being pushed out of their usual fit-for-purpose rooms, and into the cavernous environment of Llewelyn Hall.
“I think the first concern I had with the move to Llewellyn was ‘Wow, I’m really far away from the students now,’ because I really love to be with them, and in the midst of it all, and to talk to them face-to-face,” she recalls.
“It just seemed like a really big physical challenge had been presented to create this distance between me and the students.”
Adding to her unease was memories of her time at the University of Toronto, where she witnessed impersonal classes of more than 1000 students. Determined not to see a repeat of this, she started devising ways to remain in-tune with her students in a 1335 capacity concert venue that is perfect for performing arts, less so for teaching.
“The biggest thing was to stay connected with my students, and to keep inspiring them to stay interested in the course despite everything, including the dark lighting, and the comfortable chairs that make it easy to fall asleep. If I could sing, I probably would have tried, but I’m terrible,” she laughs.
Operatic fantasies aside, Ding Ding went about implementing adaptations to her teaching. Small steps, such as checking in to gauge student frustration levels, and modifications to her class presentation materials, helped form the foundations. Role plays, embracing the ‘theatre’ experience, and a conscious attempt to co-mingle with students by moving from the stage and into the crowd, were additional strategies she used.
The most transformative technique, however, was her integration of PollEverywhere, the live audience participation tool she used as a mechanism of overcoming the tyranny of space. While she had initially sought to lessen the distance between student and teacher, a pleasant bonus was an increase in student-to-student interaction.
“I could see that when they were in the process of responding to the polls, they were discussing things amongst themselves, which is really important, because in a big theatre, often people file in and file out – the interaction is limited,” she said.
Ding Ding laughingly refers to herself as the College Guinea Pig. Hot on the heels of becoming the first ANU teacher to teach in Llewellyn Hall, in early 2019, she was among the first cohort of ANU teachers to teach in the new Kambri precinct. While this resulted in further adaptations to her teaching, the resilience and skills gained from her Llewelyn Hall experience proved invaluable.
“At the end of the day, I think the baseline lesson is just to stay connected with your students by talking to them, thinking about their needs, using methods that have previously worked, and then incorporating new ones to try and engage them,” she said.
“It’s about thinking about things from the students’ perspective as to what might work if I was a student – what would inspire me? And also trying to understand the new students these days, as there are already generational gaps – trying to understand where they are coming from by talking to them.”
While talented and resilient, Ding Ding is also the most gracious of teachers. Any conversation with her is peppered with appreciation for all those who have played a part in her journey. This gratitude extends to her teaching career, something she was drawn back to in 2015 having previously ‘wandered away’ to pursue a career as an economist.
“I feel really lucky to be working at something I enjoy,” she said.
“I feel blessed to work in an amazing institution with wonderful people and working with really good students, and doing what I really love to do.”
Dr Ding Ding is a lecturer in the School of Finance, Actuarial Studies and Statistics in the ANU College of Business and Economics.
Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).