Thoughts on achieving good learning at third level

Here’s a few thoughts (especially for a certain JD!) on what drives good learning at third level. Students learn in lots of ways at this level so this is by no means comprehensive. I don’t say anything about laboratory teaching for example.

I strongly believe that third level education involves a partnership so some of these points are aimed at lecturers while some are aimed at students. The language I use is very much influenced by the fact that I teaching chemical engineering but I think some of the basic ideas will translate to other disciplines.



A lot of good teaching is done before you enter the classroom

Choose between need-to-knows and nice-to-knows and pitch the material at an appropriate level. Find the goldilocks zone, i.e., the zone where the level of the material will challenge students fairly, and appropriately, without demoralising them. Getting into this zone can be tricky, though, because the academic standard of the student intake varies from year to year and you don’t want to get into dumbing-down territory. It may also be the case that your programme is subject to professional accreditation and you may not have much room for manoeuvre.

Explicit instruction is essential

In any given discipline there will be concepts and methods that students will find difficult. To be a good lecturer/teacher you need to have an extremely good grasp of your discipline and, to put it simply, you need to be good at explaining stuff. That requires you to be reflective and to constantly re-evaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it. You need to be your own worst critic.

Be wary of philosophies of teaching and learning that de-emphasise your role. Most of them are unproven and contrary to some basic principles of cognitive science.

Make it your business to keep up to date with developments in education and cognitive science. I’d start with this book by David Didau.

If you decide to adopt a particular teaching innovation, think of what’s lost as well as what’s gained.

Remember that a class will have a range of personality types and some teaching innovations, such as the flipped classroom, may not suit some students, especially those of an introverted disposition who might like to do their serious thinking on their own, in their own quiet place.

Pass on your wisdom

Despite what many educationalists will say these days, you are the expert; you are the sage on the stage. You are not a ‘co-learner’. If you are, then you are in the wrong job. As a lecturer you have superior knowledge and experience and you should pass that on. If, for example, you have developed particular problem-solving strategies, then let your students know about them. They don’t have to follow your exact approach but the chances are that if it works for you it’ll work for them. Left to discover and reinvent everything for themselves, they will make bad choices and limit themselves unnecessarily. (Think about how limited your knowledge is of Word and Excel if, like most of us, you are self-taught.)

Remember that your role is to give your students a start in life. In time, students will probably drive their own learning and development but for now they need lots of guidance and they need to focus on acquiring the basic knowledge and skills of their discipline.

Don’t believe the hype about knowledge being transitory. The most important knowledge tends to stick around for a very long time.

Teach actively

You need to be extremely gifted if you want to lecture effectively using Powerpoint or without visual aids. Most of us are not. The average student (or anybody) cannot concentrate for 50 minutes unless the lecturer is inspirational. A good way to pace a lecture and to highlight key ideas and concepts is to write on the blackboard, whiteboard or a digital equivalent. Students learn best when a number of different senses are engaged so they need to be listening, observing and writing.

If you can, mix things up a bit. For some disciplines, and if the class size is not enormous, that might mean doing a little bit of hands-on problem solving or maybe a bit of group work on occasion.

Teach students how to study

Most students study ineffectively. They mainly use methods like reading, re-reading and highlighting, methods that have been proven to be ineffective. Show and discuss with them the evidence for good study methods. Provide materials or direct them to materials that will enable them to practice. If they practice a lot they will start to emerge from the rote learning zone.

Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that learning should mimic the ‘real life’ situation. You don’t learn to become a scientist by trying to mimic the behaviour of a scientist; there is a lot of practice to be done first. (See below.)

Be supportive to students

Students who go to the trouble of seeking your help should be rewarded for doing so. Respond quickly to student queries.




You will forget much of what you hear in lectures and tutorials. That’s ok. In fact it’s good because we know that when you revise the material (and you should do this more than once) you will remember it for longer and your understanding of it will improve each time.

Memory gets a bad rap in education these days but knowing certain things off by heart frees up working memory to enable you to tackle challenging problems. (I’m thinking here about really basic stuff like the rules of algebra.)


It is well known that to learn to speak a language fluently you must immerse yourself in it. A lot of learning is like this whether it involves becoming fluent at mathematics or at writing English. Use sport as your inspiration and think about how practice is used to attain excellence in sport. Practice is often quite different from what happens on match or competition day. Practice for team sports, for example, often involves individuals working on their own basic skills. Or it may involve players performing drills in small groups. Think Continental Europe where skills are high versus Britain and Ireland where skills ar low when it comes to soccer. Practice for individual sports often involves the athlete working on drills that develop core skills that will be employed during competition. It’s the same with learning.

Ask questions

Your lecturers are paid to support your learning so use them by asking questions either during class, after class or by email.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Thoughts on achieving good learning at third level

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Thoughts on achieving good learning at third level

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