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Distance learning approach helps win teaching award

Dr Cami Sawyer

A Massey University tutor’s approach to learning, including her work with distance students and incorporating mātauranga Māori into teaching, is being celebrated with a national teaching award.

Dr Cami Sawyer, a senior mathematics tutor in the School of Fundamental Sciences, has been awarded one of 10 tertiary teaching awards announced by Ako Aotearoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

The awards recognise teachers who have demonstrated commitment and support for learners that go far beyond good teaching practice. Each winner receives $20,000 and at the awards evening at Parliament, hosted by Education Minister Chris Hipkins on October 30, the Prime Minister's Supreme Award will be announced, the winner receiving an additional $10,000.

Dr Sawyer says the award is part recognition “that teaching is important and that the work I do is noticed”. The prize money also provided an opportunity, she says. “As a senior tutor I don’t have as many chances for professional development or funding for projects. This gives me a chance to undertake things I am passionate about.”

Dr Sawyer teaches a range of students, from teenagers and international students to learners with families and full-time jobs. She says it is important to recognise that most distance students fit study in between other demands on their time and that most of her communication with them is asynchronous.
She initiated synchronous weekly E-tutorials to give students more real-time engagement. She uses Adobe Connect, simultaneously running an iPad with a whiteboard app and a personal computer showing student questions and comments. She was also an early adopter of using video to teach in a creative way. Rather than recordings of internal lectures, she uses bespoke teaching sessions, structured to help the learning of distance students. Since 2015, Dr Sawyer has produced 186 videos, which have had more than 58,000 views.

She is also learning te reo Māori and is actively helping build resources in maths related to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). She has worked with Massey’s Pūhoro Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy since 2015 to develop its programme and create better understanding of the needs of Māori students as they move from secondary school to tertiary education.

While Dr Sawyer teaches across many of the University’s programmes and degrees, her outreach extends beyond Massey. She has been helping to develop a national profile by convening the New Zealand Maths Society Education Group for the past three years.

“We are working to build a consensus around needed changes in the teaching of mathematics at secondary and tertiary level, but improvements do not happen easily. We need to improve the outcomes for all students, but particularly Māori students who can be underserved by our current system. Another problem is that teachers in kura kaupapa Māori often have to translate their own resources if they want to incorporate these changes. By learning te reo Māori I hope to open connections between these groups.”

Teaching approach

Her teaching philosophy is based in Situated Learning Theory, where teachers and learners are active participants in the learning process. “I encourage students to make connections with earlier learning experiences and overcome barriers they may have created to learning maths, and identifying how maths connects to their future goals. For me, teaching is a craft to be worked on and improved – the process is never complete. Each semester is another opportunity to enhance the learning experience. Excellent teaching is about recognising students as individuals and helping them make connections throughout their learning.

Dr Sawyer was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award in 2017. She also helps to run a competition for year-12 pupils to connect Massey staff with secondary teachers and businesses. She has convened the New Zealand Mathematical Society Education group since 2017 and co-founded the New Zealand branch of FYiMaths in 2016.

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