Prof. Nicola Marples, teaching hero

Science Header

Professor Nicola Marples of the Department of Zoology was among 53 teachers from across the country to be awarded a ‘teaching hero’ award at the second annual awards on 30th September. Over a third of all awards went to lecturers in science related subjects, with Trinity’s Stephen Connon of the School of Chemistry and Nicola Marples also picking up an award. Prof. Marples talks to Trinity News about her experience as a lecturer, and what the award means to her.

Firstly, congratulations on receiving this award. Did you expect to be awarded it, and what was your reaction on finding out you had?

I was astonished, as I had not heard anything about it before being told I was an awardee. I was of course delighted to receive it, as teaching is often little rewarded by the system, even if it is appreciated by the students. I was particularly proud to know that it was the students themselves that had chosen to vote for me. My other main emotion on hearing of the award was embarrassment, as any number of my colleagues in our school could have been picked as the winner. It’s only that I teach an intrinsically nice subject that students remember me – there are a lot of better teachers than me who teach less attractive subjects.

Is there anything in particular you would attribute your evident success as a lecturer to?

I teach a very engaging subject (Animal Behaviour and Evolution), so it’s easy to be enthusiastic about it, and I am told that my enthusiasm for it comes across clearly. Students learn a lot better if they like the subject, so my job is easy. I also try things which might not work, and keep the ones which do work, so the students get a more varied and interesting experience. But mostly I just like communicating interesting things to people who want to know about them – it’s fun!

Did you have any lecturer in particular that inspired you while in college, maybe one who might have received this award, had they been around?

Such awards weren’t around in my day, but yes there were teachers at school and in University who were wonderfully inspiring and helped me think about the subject they were teaching. Also, colleagues in later years both here and in other universities have been a great inspiration and have given me both the ideas and the support to depart from classic teaching methods.

There are more awardees in science subjects than in any other. Why do you think this is the case?

I was surprised by this, and wasn’t sure it was really the case, but it is very interesting if it is. I wonder whether people who get into teaching in science tend to be the very good communicators, as it’s intrinsically difficult to explain some scientific principles. But I’m surprised it’s not difficult to explain other subjects too… so I really don’t know. Maybe it’s simply exposure, since there tends to be a lot more time spent in contact with every science student, so the students end up more aware of being taught by us, and more grateful for it.

Any advice for those students thinking of going into teaching or lecturing?

Loads. Never go unprepared into a lecture. Listen to the student feedback and try to help. Remember what it was like when you first met the topic and try to help the students be less scared by it than you were. Make it fun if possible but not at the expense of failing to pass on the ideas. Enjoy it – there’s not many times or places your words or ideas are listened to by 250 people! A lecture is a performance. You’re acting like a calm, confident person, even if you don’t feel like one. Order your lecture material in a logical way so the students can remember it easily. Never, ever try to appear clever – it only leads you into making the meaning obscure and your aim is to make it crystal clear, so use simple words when you can, and explain clearly and completely any terms of jargon the students really need to know. Try to remember that students aren’t a mass of hostile critics, but a set of well-meaning people trying to learn from you, so trust them to help you and they will join in when you need them to.

Image: Teaching Hero Website