Mei Dong wins 2021 Edward Brown Award for Teaching Excellence

Mei’s impact on her students has been far-reaching since commencing at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Mei Dong is this year's recipient of the Edward Brown Award for Teaching Excellence, an annual, University-wide teaching award that recognises overall teaching excellence in any of the fields of Architecture, Engineering, or Economics, Commerce and Business. An Associate Professor of Economics with a particular interest in macroeconomics, Mei is passionate about teaching and shares this enthusiasm with her students. Since commencing at the University of Melbourne, she has shown the impact she has on her students to be far-reaching.

Dilpreet Kaur spoke with Professor Dong to find out more about her teaching style and some of the goals she has for her students.

Congratulations on your award, Mei.

Thank you. It's a big surprise.

Would you please tell us about your passion for economics? And how did you get into teaching it?

I didn't begin with teaching economics. After I received my PhD in Economics from Simon Fraser University in Canada in 2009, I worked for the Bank of Canada, which is the central bank in Canada; it was more like a policy and research type of job. I was there for three years and got to see some actual policymaking and learn how economics can help you understand monetary policy. After that, because of family reasons, my husband and I both relocated to Australia, and I began my teaching journey. I began to realise that students can learn from me! I found that it brings a lot of joy and reward. It takes a lot of time, but I feel it is very rewarding overall.

What's your primary strategy for running a large, diverse classroom? Do you have any?

The second subject I taught after I moved to Melbourne was Intermediate Macro[economics].  It had around 700 students, and it rose to about 900 students when I last taught it in 2019.

I think with a large class, there are a few things that we can do to help. The first is to prepare the materials really well. I think from that aspect, I benefited a lot from my colleague who taught the subject before me, [Professor] Chris Edmond; I took over the subject from him.

In my department and the whole faculty, we have a long tradition of trying our best and putting our best efforts into teaching.

It's also essential to set clear expectations for students in front of a large class because students will send many inquiries and questions throughout the semester. It's important to have very clear expectations like when assignments are due, the requirements for group assignments, and what you should do if you want to discuss your grades.

We set very clear expectations, so students know where to get information if they need help. I will be like the goalkeeper of the subject and help students solve the problems that others cannot solve.

Lastly, I think also dealing with the diversity of the students; it's something important for large classes because students come from a variety of backgrounds, including international students and exchange students. I think being able to listen to them and respond to their needs, in our capacity, is something that improves the student experience of a large class.

How did online teaching impact your plans? Did you have to embrace a different style to accommodate the new normal?

Yes, I think every one of us has had to do some things differently. I feel it's important to make sure students have access to all the ingredients of learning - lectures, tutorials, online tutor consultation. I want them to feel they have access to all kinds of materials. The online part shouldn't create obstacles to their learning. I used to encourage students to come to consultations last year; some came, and they did say they felt more connected with us.

The last part is assessment, which is quite tricky in an online environment. It is difficult for us to make questions because we have to adjust the difficulty level, but it is also difficult for students. They are kind of by themselves, in a different setting, compared to what they are used to. I think designing assessments and making sure they know what to do during the final exam period, including the style of the final exam and what they're supposed to upload, is important.

Last year, we ran a mid-semester survey so that students could give us feedback. I tried to adapt to some of their suggestions. Someone suggested it would be good to have a weekly digest from me so that they knew what was going on each week in terms of learning and the administrative part of the subject. So I followed that suggestion and began to send weekly digests. I think that helps students feel more organised in an online environment.

What would your main tip be for a student struggling to keep up with studies during difficult times like lockdowns?

After my experience in the first semester last year, I didn't teach anything in semester two, and then I began teaching a new subject, Advanced Macro[economics] in semester one this year. I tried to do something different to experiment with what’s possible through online teaching. This semester, I introduced a recording and an online live lecture; in addition to the traditional recording, each week, we have three hours of lectures, one hour is the live online lecture.

I was hoping to get more students to engage in learning through the live session where they can interact with each other and interact with me; for example, when using Zoom, we can use the breakout room to have some discussions. As students' feedback had shown, they didn't feel that they could connect with us.

Differing learning experiences also compel them to get more involved, like in discussions using the breakout room or using the poll function in Zoom.

The presentation part, where we divide students into different groups and deliver a group presentation, is really the biggest part that brings all the students together in my class. Even the most passive students have to participate because they belong to a group. It kind of forced the less connected or more passive students to be part of the subject. In the future, if we want more students to be involved, maybe designing subject components like this type of presentation should be prioritised, if it’s possible.

We encourage you to read about Associate Professor Dong's assessment design practices in our Good Teaching Series. On behalf of the Faculty, please join us in extending our warmest congratulations to Associate Professor Mei Dong.