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David D’Avray: “There are few things as pleasurable as teaching”

24 October 2012

Provost’s Teaching Award-winner Professor David D’Avray discusses his formula for balancing teaching and research, the problem with the Oxbridge tutorial model and the importance of Kit Kats.

UCL History Department's Professor David D'Avray in his study

You’ve been teaching at UCL since 1977 and seem to have received consistently good student feedback since then. Why do you think that is?

Feedback in the Department of History is in general quite good so I doubt if it’s that special, but I try hard and I’m sure the students realise that. I suppose I do have certain ways of teaching that aren’t universal, for example I always try to lecture without notes. It gives me a direct contact with the audience which you don’t get if you’re mediated through a script.

So you lecture without visual aids?

Absolutely; if we were scored on visual aids I’d be on the bottom of the heap. When I first started here I was sent on a course for new teachers on how to lecture with slides and the slide projector broke down in the middle of it, so the moral I learnt from that was 'stay away from visual aids'!

On the whole, if you can remember an argument without notes then your audience will remember it too. If people are reading something that I could have photocopied and handed out it’s a recipe for a bad lecture.

What else characterises your teaching?

I strongly believe in small-group teaching. For the main year-long lecture courses, which use a combination of seminars and formal lectures, I always prepare to teach a few extra hours so that I can take them in this room [David’s office]. My normal group size is about six to eight and it seems to me that it’s well worth taking on an extra hour or two to be able to teach them in here. You can get great discussions in an informal setting like this – I give the students coffee and a Kit Kat then they relax and one can have a really terrific, argumentative atmosphere.

I’ve come to think over the years that this is better than the Oxbridge tutorial system, because with that, which I experienced as an undergraduate, you have a one-to-one and occasionally it works but it can be very stiff and intense. If you’ve got a handful of people the pressure isn’t so great on individuals; it can be more light-hearted and you can get a kind of collective harmony which you can’t one-to-one. You form a little community and when you’ve taught a group 20 sessions throughout the year you really do get to know them and become friends.

What is your preferred feedback method?

I very strongly believe in personal return of any written work. If students write an essay then I set up an appointment to return it and spend about quarter of an hour going through it with them. But that’s policy in this department in general. A lot of what’s good about my teaching is actually good about this department’s teaching. For a cutting-edge research department it’s got a very strong teaching ethos and the dominant ethos is that students come first, even though there’s also a lot of pressure to do top-class research work.

You have achieved real excellence in your research career and you’ve just won an award for teaching too. How do you strike a balance between the two elements of your job?

I have a formula: teaching equals research minus scholarship. What I mean by that is that you can bring advanced research even to undergraduates relatively easily. You may have to do a bit of extra work and translate or even transcribe documents, but you can do it because what really takes the time with research, especially historical research, is making sure that nobody’s said what you want to say before, which means you have to master the whole body of previous literature on the field. That’s scholarship. If you take the research directly to the teaching you don't have to do the scholarship. If I make a discovery in the British library and talk about it in a lecture I don’t have to be certain that no one has discovered it before because it’s directly for teaching, plus I can tell the students I made a discovery so they can see what research is directly; they’re learning things that even professors in the field elsewhere don’t know and they get a kick out of that. It shows first-year undergraduates the difference between school and university, which is that you’re not passing on a set body of knowledge but taking them to a moving frontier.

Does this process inform your personal research?

Wherever possible, especially in the second half of my career, if I’m designing a course I try to put on something that relates to research I’m doing in the future, often five or six years down the line or even further. My last two books [Rationalities in History: A Weberian Essay in Comparison and Medieval Religious Rationalities: A Weberian Analysis] were based on my course on the History and Sociology of Rationalities, and really it was through that course that I got my head straight about the content of those books.

I taught it for about ten years and the teaching was actually very direct preparation for the books but it wasn’t the sort of highly specialised teaching that people tend to associate with research-led teaching. I think it’s good if one’s research-related teaching isn’t too narrow as it stops the research being over-focused. It also keeps up the motivation for teaching because as long as you know that your teaching is going to have a pay-off in research eventually you don’t mind giving the time. That’s the only way to resolve what’s otherwise really quite an intense conflict. It slows you down tactically but it’s fantastic strategically to be talking with really clever 18 to 21 year olds.

First-year undergraduates are the best of all because they’re really open-minded, they can take in new concepts, and I sometimes think that when you’re talking to people at my age or even in their 30s, if you try and explain something a little bit advanced they run a programme in their head to see if they can find a match with it, and if they can’t, they have difficulty with it. A first-year will just listen to what you say and take it in so they’re kind of quicker on the uptake.

You have a lot of experience in internationalising the curriculum. Why do you think it’s important?

Well, ask any student who’s spent a year abroad. I think our university system is definitely the best in Europe and in many ways better than the American one because it combines teaching and research more. However, despite the superiority of our system, spending a year abroad is what really makes a person’s education because they’re in a completely different culture, it’s very good linguistically but also they learn a different way of life. Anyone who’s done it always says it was the best part of their degree in the same breath that they say the system over there was terrible! I have studied abroad myself and I found it very liberating.

How useful do you think e-learning is in higher education?

It’s a nice addition. Things like Moodle are definitely good as they enable one to do things one couldn’t do before. Being able to digitise materials is a no-brainer, it’s wonderful. Technology will always be a great help, but I don’t think it will ever replace personal teaching. You can’t replace free argument and discussion; that free-floating atmosphere of debate that you get in a small group is irreplaceable, and somehow people being there bodily is important to it.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your teaching career?

I find that one difficult to answer. Almost more important are the small challenges. It happens sometimes that you realise that a class or a course is not going well, and it’s really important to change it there and then. One year when I was doing my rationalities course I felt I was losing the students from the beginning so I saw them all individually under some pretext like discussing an essay, because I knew that as the weeks went on they would begin to feel comfortable with the subject and I needed them to be aware of that.

We’ve got really excellent students – a bit lazy sometimes but very bright and interested if you give them a chance. They’re generally very good at judging a course: if it’s not working for them it’s probably the teacher’s fault and they need to change it. Being able to pick up on students’ thoughts is another reason why small-group teaching is so important.

You’ve worked at UCL for 35 years. How have things changed during that time?

The huge increase in numbers for teaching. The number of students each of us teach about doubled in the ’90s. I can remember at some point when I was departmental tutor saying that it was intolerable to be expected to give a decent class with five people in the room, and that we needed to hold the line at four! Of course, this is not just UCL, it’s a general thing. We didn’t like it but it sort of worked in that, at least in this department, we kept up the ethos of putting students first and being available to them.

What advice would you give to new teachers?

I’d say don’t grudge your time; I think one should always try to let the student’s patience run out before one’s own does. Although being an academic is not an easy job, it’s a great job in that it’s a sort of vocation and the price you should pay for that is basically being prepared to give the students whatever they want. I would also say to think far ahead: in the long term try to put on courses that will relate to your research.

What does your future hold?

Well, I’m 60. If I retire at what was the retirement age I suppose I’ll retire in four or five years’ time, and after I retire I shall go on researching and publishing.

What would you want your students to remember you for?

Just that I always did my best for them.

And your colleagues?

That I always put my students before my colleagues! No, that’s unfair, because I’ve got lovely colleagues, I really do. But if it was ever one of those standoffs you occasionally get between a student and a colleague, other things being equal I would always take the student’s side in it. Actually the ethos in this department is very good and it’s full of really good teachers – there are loads of people in this department who could just as easily have won this prize. It’s a lucky thing that the department has kept up that commitment to teaching.

Do you think that teaching has helped with your career progression?

I don’t think one should really think of it like that. If you have a cavalier attitude towards teaching or an unwillingness to do the jobs that one has to do like being departmental tutor or whatever it may be, I think that should be a bar to promotion, but I don’t think doing it should be something that actually gets you promoted. Teaching is your core job, you should just do it as well as you can and you shouldn’t expect special thanks for it. The system as it is in this country is that your promotion, certainly to a Readership or a Chair, is primarily through research and I think that’s fair enough. But you’ll have an unhappy life if you sacrifice your teaching to that because the teaching is what you mostly do and if you’re always trying to do as little as possible you’ll be miserable. It’s easier to do it well and enjoy it. There are few things as pleasurable as teaching.

David D’Avray won a Provost’s Teaching Award in 2012 in the ‘Experienced Academic Staff’ category.

Interview by Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 24 oct 12 11:27


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