Teaching the joy of learning

20 August 2020
Engaging students during COVID-19
As she describes it, Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez is not your typical academic. Her career in academia was not by design, but one she fell into.
 Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez delivering a lecture before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez delivering a lecture before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

From studying economics, to her PhD research into the educational opportunities given to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, and then finally coming to teach at Sydney, she stumbled into all these major life decisions. But what drove her throughout was her natural curiosity and desire to learn. These are qualities she tries to impart on her first year Introductory Microeconomics (ECON 1001) students.

Engaging students

“I teach a mandatory first year class, so many of the students are there because they have to be. The challenge is to get them engaged with the course," Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez said.

When I can pass on the joy of learning, that’s when it clicks. The challenge for me is to make it click for the least engaged student.
Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez

In trying to make it ‘click’, Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez draws inspiration from a diversity of sources – from Hollywood movies to experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Economics is life: we can apply economic concepts to everything that is happening around us. So, I try to make economics relevant to the students. I ask them what they like and what they are interested in. When TV series Breaking Bad was popular I used it to explain the theory of monopoly and how that may impact the price of drugs. During COVID-19, we have been discussing scarcity around toilet paper,” Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez said.

Teaching during COVID-19

Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez has been teaching a foundational economics class at the University of Sydney for the last four years, however, this past semester has been one of the toughest. The COVID-19 pandemic meant all Semester 1 lectures and tutorials had to be moved online.

“I made a particular effort this year because we were all in lockdown. Aside from the academic support I provide my students, I wanted to support them in other ways too. Each week when I sent out an email updating the class on the course content, I would also send them a list of activities they could do that was unrelated to class, including virtual museums they could visit, online gyms, and free movies from the library. I would also add a personal note about what I was doing that week, like watching a Star Wars movie. I wanted to remind them they still needed to have fun," Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez said.

“I’m an immigrant here and 50 percent of my class are international students, so I could understand what it was like to be away from your family during this time. I remembered that when I was in the US doing my PhD, I would have appreciated someone reaching out to me to make sure I was okay.

I wanted to create that human connection with my students.
Associate Professor Marian Vidal-Fernandez

"This last semester was a steep learning curve for all of us. I showed my students empathy and that I cared about them and in many ways, I think it made me a better teacher.”

The effort Associate Professor Vidal-Fernandez poured into her ECON 1001 paid off: she had a retention rate of 90 percent; a significant achievement for a semester taught almost entirely online.

It was this effort to go above and beyond to connect with her class that first-year Bachelor of Economics student Alisar Sarah Khalil really appreciated.

“She kept the live lectures going and really engaged with us. She shared personal stories, such as a story about her pet turtle. It made the class feel more intimate and connected. I like how she made an effort to post a wrap up every week, summarising the course content. It was really helpful, especially with everything going on in Semester 1,” Alisar said.

A love of economics

It was during this semester that Alisar made the decision to concentrate on her love of economics. Originally enrolled in a Bachelor of Economics and a Law degree, she has now changed to a Bachelor of Economics and Advanced Studies.

“My mum and dad came from Lebanon. I enrolled in my law degree because I got the marks and because my mother wanted the best for me, and so did I. Yet that wasn’t going to come from being a lawyer or doctor, but from my love for economics. I love economics, I love everything about it, how it’s in everything and how it challenges me,” Alisar said.

“My parents understand the value of education and my dad really wanted me to pursue a university degree. My dad passed away when I was 5 and my mum has been a single parent to my brother, my sister and me.

“The only way I knew how to repay her was to study as hard as I could. Working hard is something she ingrained in me. I wasn’t the smartest at school, but I worked hard. And I did that because of my mum. Every motivation I have to succeed is because of her.”

It was this motivation that drove Alisar’s success in her higher school certificate, a success that saw her receive a Sydney’s Scholars Award on Equity and Hardship Grounds, as well as admission into the Dalyell Scholars stream for high-achieving students at the University of Sydney.

Her advice to students is to continue pursuing what you love studying, and don’t let the coronavirus pandemic stop you.

“I don’t like to let my circumstances become me; it’s always been my aim to overcome them and aim as high as possible,” Alisar said.

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