Teaching and Learning Forum

Dr Maria Gibson

Dr Maria Gibson

Position: Senior Lecturer

Faculty: Science and Technology
School: Life and Environmental Sciences
Discipline: Plant Biology

Campus: Burwood
Phone: +61 3 925 17466
Email: maria.gibson@deakin.edu.au



"I teach holistically and I think that is important. I think the topic has to be in perspective with life, with where students want to go or could possibly go."

Dr Maria (Mary) Gibson is a Senior Lecturer, Course Coordinator and supervisor of higher degree by research students in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. She began teaching at Deakin 18 years ago, after working as a biotechnologist.


Mary has been helping others to learn since she was in primary school. In the small and isolated community in which she grew up, helping others was the norm. Teaching was a natural extension.

Mary believes that to be a good teacher you need to have a passion for your subject and for helping people to learn. She aims to stimulate and motivate students, and to engage them with content while providing them with the skills to become confident professionals who can make a valuable contribution to their chosen field. Her discipline of plant biology offers the metaphorical inspiration for her teaching philosophy: creating 'fertile' learning environments, well 'nurtured' to allow a 'diversity' of student learning of her subject to 'bloom' in students who 'adapt' well to professional work environments beyond their academic studies.

Student engagement

Mary's enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. Her students have often commented that they have found her passion for her subject motivating. This engagement, coupled with genuine concern for her students, means that Mary fosters an inclusive, supportive and student centred learning environment, founded on two-way communication and interaction. From the first class in which she uses icebreaking activities to prompt active participation and communication, Mary encourages questions and interruptions, taking the view that complete silence in class can signal boredom and disengagement. By using topical examples to illustrate theory, Mary seeks to touch her students and make learning practical and relevant. Because many of Mary's students share her motivation of benefiting others, she also relates content to broader social issues.

Audio Icon Audio clip: Mary Gibson on communication with students

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Approaches and methods

Mary describes her approach to teaching as holistic, meaning she seeks to connect the topics she teaches with students' lives. She actively encourages students to go on field trips and observe the plant life and related issues discussed in class. At least one student has changed his career aspiration as a result.

Resourceful and dynamic, Mary caters for a variety of learning styles. She uses visuals such as charts, graphs and diagrams to explain concepts and present data, and displays and slides to develop students' critical observational skills. In one unit Mary requires students to prepare posters displaying their research. This experience encouraged one student to present a poster at her first conference and led to an award for the best conference poster. An active person, Mary uses hands-on methods, such as examination of plants, and skits, involving members of the class, to illustrate theory. Practicals, workshops and field trips also cater for kinaesthetic learners. Lectures and discussion classes and the use of personal stories or anecdotes cater for students with an auditory learning style. Mary also uses imaginative resources such as interactive, online crosswords, flashcards and matching exercises.

Developing students' skills in critical thinking and analysis is also a focus. Mary uses problem solving, experimental design and data analysis to extend students' skills and foster camaraderie and interaction through group work around difficult concepts.

She also strives to identify and overcome barriers to learning. After observing a discrepancy between the level of understanding evidenced by a student's questions and that student's mid-semester results, Mary discovered that English was a second language for this deaf student, whose exam performance had been compromised by the need to translate English instructions into sign language. Mary subsequently arranged for interpretation of exams into sign. The student's result subsequently improved by a grade.

Because her students will be future professionals in the field, Mary integrates skills needed for successful preparation for job applications and interviews into lectures.

Enhancing teaching

Mary reflects on her teaching practice, reviewing methods and materials and responding to her own teaching experiences, as well as that of colleagues, to ensure that her teaching is contemporary, relevant and best practice.

She has consistently received very positive feedback through Student Evaluation of Teaching and Unit (SETU) surveys, but does not depend on this as evidence of the quality of students' learning. Mary places greater weight on the extent to which students communicate with her, taking the view that students' learning will be deeper if they are comfortable, can ask questions and seek help. Past, as well as present, students maintain contact with Mary, often letting her know about particular topics they learned which have proved invaluable in their working lives.

Because overwork can compromise motivation and performance, Mary makes sure that she takes a break from time to time. As well as being refreshing, trips away often generate material, such as photographs and anecdotes, that she can use to make classes topical.

Research and teaching

Being an active researcher in her field enhances Mary's teaching by allowing her to incorporate current research ideas and outcomes. She can provide students with a comparative picture of national and international research, helping students to see directions and challenges in their chosen field. Half Mary's third-year students go on to do Honours research.

Her second- and third-year students work on a group research project. The skills they acquire through this process, such as scientific report writing, seminar and poster presentation, are not only useful if they undertake further research, but also essential aspects of job readiness. Because of the importance prospective employers place on communication skills, Mary rewards outstanding performance with a certificate which can be used in support of a job application.

Mary is undertaking research on what students consider makes the student learning experience and whether there are any relevant cultural differences.


Other teaching and learning related areas in which Mary is taking a leadership role include:

  • mentoring academic staff
  • professional practice unit development for the Biological Science and Science degrees
  • community education on scientific issues. Mary edits the journal, The Victorian Naturalist, which caters for a wide audience; she has promoted environmental awareness at a range of community events and recently organised a one-day biodiversity conference that brought scientists and members of the public together.


  • BSc(Hons)
  • PhD [Monash]



  • Australian Learning and Teaching Council (formerly the Carrick Institute) Award Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning for developing a 'fertile' learning environment enabling a 'diversity' of student learning to 'bloom' in the field of plant biology and Australian vegetation
  • Deakin University Vice-Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching
  • Deakin University Award for Teaching Excellence


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29th July 2010