As a 22-year old DPhil student in Oxford, Professor Tim Birkhead enjoyed his first experience of teaching undergraduates. As a lecturer in Sheffield in 1976 he was encouraged by the positive feedback he received from students. Seeking to enhance student learning, he made short films and was amazed by the response, from both undergraduates and academic colleagues who said they’d never thought of doing that.
Without ever considering whether it was innovative, he introduced research-led, interactive teaching and feedback long before these became routine. He sought new sources of inspiration to guide and inform teaching and found talking to the public about his research exactly what he needed. The more diverse the outreach audience, the more diverse and stimulating the feedback into his teaching.
For the past ten years Tim has given a public lecture, on average, every three weeks. He advises younger colleagues about teaching, encouraging them to tell the public about their research and promote teaching and outreach in numerous events and articles. He received a University of Sheffield Senate Teaching Award (2007), Departmental Teacher of the Year (2009) and National UK Biosciences Teacher Award (2013).
Impact of work
Assessing the effectiveness of teaching is notoriously difficult. The best evidence is subjective and comes from past students many years after they have graduated. Tim is regularly assured that he has been successful and inspiring as a teacher by the feedback from ex-students who have had time to reflect on how his teaching at Sheffield shaped their lives and careers.
Plans for the future
The almost constant state of flux in higher education means that the demands on, and expectations of, academics continue to increase. Achieving a balance between teaching, administration and research can be difficult. Tim will continue to: serve as a role model and mentor, talk to the public and continue to explore new technologies to find innovative and stimulating ways of achieving that balance. Throughout his career he has sought, and found ways to maintain and promote his own core educational values in the way he teaches, regardless of the changing face of higher education.
Professor of Zoology
University of Sheffield