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University Teacher of the Year shares innovative teaching model with NMIT

09 Apr 2013

NMIT (Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE) higher education staff were recently privileged to attend a workshop by self-described 'academic activist' and 2012 Prime Minister's Australian University Teacher of the Year, Professor James Arvanitakis.

Professor Arvanitakis is known for his innovative teaching techniques which include the use of You Tube to summarise key theoretical concepts, sharing real life student stories in his textbooks and encouraging dance flash mobs in his lecture theatre.

The full day presentation was part of a wider tour of Victorian tertiary institutions by Professor Arvanitakis as part of his University Teacher of the Year award. The NMIT workshop included sessions focused on:

  • teaching for student engagement
  • building community engagement
  • assessment for learning and success, and an
  • overview of the Dean's Scholar Program.

Professor Arvanitakis strives to transform his lecture theatres into places of interactive learning that inspire 'active citizenship' in the world around us.

His students come from Sydney's western suburbs, but their history is often drawn from overseas with cultural roots reaching back to the Middle East or impoverished war torn nations in Africa.

Professor Arvanitakis believes the tertiary sector is going through 'big changes' akin to how the print newspaper industry has had to transform and reinvent itself in order to survive and thrive.

“I think we do need to change and we need to do our best to shape that change underscored by pedagogical rigor, maintaining standards and good scholarship,” said Professor Arvanitakis.

Professor Arvanitakis is not one to encourage 'talking at' students in a lecture theatre. He says the student cohorts of today are radically different from the past. They come from wide spectrum of socio economic backgrounds and bring to the classroom a range of life experiences - and expectations.

“This means we have to review our curriculum and approach to teaching... Why wouldn't they download your lecture notes and listen to a podcast on the way to their friend's house? What are we adding in a classroom? If all you are is a talking head why would a student turn up?”

NMIT Deputy Director Programs (Higher Education), Dr Christine Spratt, said academic staff were keen to listen to Dr Arvanitakis and share his expertise.

“The workshop highlighted the fundamental role of active learning pedagogies to support student engagement, transition and retention, but it also showed learning can be fun, rigorous and exciting for students,” said Dr Spratt.

“James highlighted the fact that aligning assessment strategies to curriculum outcomes is crucial to student success and that staff and students have mutual responsibilities in achieving a successful outcome.”

Professor Arvanitakis' philosophy of learning is based on three pillars - bringing theory to life, creating an encouraging environment and early feedback.

In bringing theory to life he likens his teaching practice to a Rubik's cube. “Teaching shouldn't be some distant, amorphous thing that's over there somewhere. I always think about what we teach as like a Rubik's cube. You give students the cube, the knowledge, so you hand it to them, and then you show them how to play with it. So it's something that's alive, it's here today and it's in the room,” he explains.

Creating an encouraging environment is also critical - particularly when it comes to the first assignment.

“Any academic pursuit is like trying to learn a new language. You have to write differently and learn new concepts. Many students will panic about the idea of, 'if I don't get this right I will fail,' and I want to remove this idea and start by working together to create a space where we encourage each other to learn.”

Professor Arvanitakis' approach when it comes to successful learning outcomes focuses on 'early assignments, early feedback'.

“We make sure we provide students with feedback in their first week. In week three they hand it in (their first assignment), in week four they receive feedback and in week five their next assignment is due, so they can apply the feedback straight away.”

As the head of the Dean's Scholar Program at the University of Western Sydney, he sees a lot of similarities between the student population at his university and students who are naturally drawn to study at NMIT.

“I think emerging universities have always struggled to capture some of the higher achieving students. A lot of students from broader western Sydney would travel further down the highway to attend other institutions. Those students have the potential for an important leadership role (at UWS). We now target students with an 80 ATAR score or more and in some cases offer scholarships and tailor programs for them,” said Professor Arvanitakis.

His passion for learning and the classroom is unlikely to wane any time soon.

“I think there is a massive change in community expectations about tertiary institutions. Rightly or wrongly, universities have been seen as being distant and pursing scholarship for scholarships sake, but one of the things we are not very good at is explaining our value to the community.

"We need to bring more - we need to change, we need to approach education in a different way.”


See Professor Arvanitakis and the dancing students from Youtube below:

See Professor Arvanitakis' YouTube tutorial on defining racism below:

Interview / Photo Opportunity

Media enquiries should be directed to the NMIT Communications Officer, James Gardener, on 03 9269 1579, 0413 483 182 or

NMIT (Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE) – Situated on six campuses and six training centres throughout Melbourne’s north plus a regional campus at Ararat, NMIT delivers vocational training, higher education and lifelong learning capabilities for a global workforce.  NMIT forges partnerships with community, industry and government to produce practical, solution orientated graduates capable of making meaningful contributions to their chosen field of endeavour.

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