The more things change

At the recent farewell for union colleage Cathy Rytmeister, one of the guests reminded me of a YouTube video I recorded for the National Tertiary Education Union nearly fifteen years ago. He said he thought it was “brave” at the time. Certainly Cathy has some words to say about that:

Be brave. Be brave. Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around. I know that nowadays it’s a lot harder, because people are casual and it’s their livelihood at stake if they speak out … [Paraphrasing a well-known folk song] ‘Join the union while you may. Don’t wait till your dying day. That may not be far away, you dirty, blackleg academic.’ Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope.

The video was significant as one of the union’s early forays into social media. It was written about in the Australian Financial Review:

The National Tertiary Education Union has harnessed the power of video, using website YouTube to rally members ahead of a national strike on Wednesday week. A video produced by the university union’s NSW division, featuring an academic claiming heavy workloads forced her to choose between family and career, received 2300 hits in three days last week. Union officials say the response proves just how effective social media can be in getting messages out, and web users can expect to see a lot more online from the NTEU…

The video is no longer publicly available, but I am fortunate to have a father who downloaded it at the time with an eye to posterity. I had to convert it from an archaic file format in order to watch it.

With enterprise bargaining and industrial action happening across the Australian higher education sector, this glimpse into my university work fifteen years ago as a casual academic and PhD candidate reminded me of the importance of collective action and systemic change.

A comrade retires

This post is adapted from a speech I gave for my close colleague Cathy Rytmeister at her National Tertiary Education Union farewell. If you have worked with the NTEU in any capacity, then I expect you know Cathy. If you have taken parental leave from an Australian university, then you have benefitted from her advocacy. It was honour to give a speech to celebrate Cathy’s work for the NTEU and her retirement from Macquarie University, where she has worked to improve working conditions for over thirty years.

Cathy Rytmeister on a bicycle with NTEU flag

I have known Cathy for a long time. I encountered her at Macquarie University over twenty years ago soon after I started work as a research assistant at the then Centre for Professional Development. Cathy had recently moved from teaching and researching in statistics to academic development.

We were in the tea room — the Centre was well known for its generous morning teas. So much so, that as a casual staff member,  I asked whether I should omit the time from my timesheet. The director of the centre, Stephen Marshall, and my manager, Lyn Hammett, said no. Morning tea was the most important part of the working day. It was an opportunity for conceptualising research, developing teaching capabilities, and building relationships. We also laughed a great deal and ate a lot of cake.

So, twenty odd years ago, we were in the tea room of a cottage on campus that has since been knocked down. (Cathy asked if I had any photos of the cottage last week, and I said yes, before realising the only ones I had were of the bulldozer demolishing it.) This morning tea — a vast spread of cakes, biscuits and tea in front of us — I was sitting next to Cathy Rytmeister. Staring at my profile, she said ‘I know you’ and asked whether I had attended lessons at a local art centre with my brothers in the 1980s. I had.

Cathy had been my art teacher as a child. Here I am:

a sepia-tinted photograph of a child with paint-covered clothes

Cathy then asked whether I was a member of the NTEU. I was, and said my father had told me it was important to join the union. ‘I knew I liked your parents’, she declared.

There are so many ways in which I could describe Cathy — authentic, humorous, spontaneous, loyal, ‘not entirely whinge-free’ as her partner Roy has said. But I shall pick just three words and share some examples of how she has contributed to the NTEU and inspired me and others: integrity, generosity and passion.

First, her integrity

Cathy speaks truth to power, and has described her role as being “the little voice that annoys”. Like me, Cathy grew up pro-union, and her strong sense of social justice was honed in her childhood. Workplaces, notably the post office, and universities have played an important role in radicalising Cathy — she describes her time as a student at the Institute of Technology (now UTS) as a “hotbed of radicals” and a turbulent time that gave her a taste for campaigning, strikes and picket lines.  Studying maths at Macquarie and being a Student Rep in Academic Senate prompted a lifelong interest in academic governance and leadership, and the politics of higher education. She was active in the students’ political movements and worked with members of the Macquarie University Staff Association (MUSA), a branch of the Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) – a predecessor of the NTEU (thank you to Nikki Balnave for those details.)

Cathy has a long history with the NTEU, starting as a casual staff member at Macquarie in 1989, and joining the union as soon as she could as an academic a few years later. She has been active at all levels of the union, as a member of Branch Committee, NSW Division, National Councillor, Education Committee member, Women’s Action Committee, state Assistant Secretary, Bargaining Committee member over several rounds, Macquarie Branch Vice President (for both academics and general staff) and six years as Branch President. She has participated in four rounds of Enterprise Bargaining. It may have been faster to list the positions she has not held! A highlight of her union work is successfully campaigning for paid parental leave – and, like many, I and my children thank her for this.

We can celebrate Cathy’s successes, and recognise there is still plenty of work for us to do. Everyone here will be familiar with Cathy’s integrity and principles in the ongoing struggle — let me check my notes from conversations with her — against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda.

Second word: her generosity

I am sure you have all been recipients of Cathy’s generosity. It has had a powerful influence on my professional and personal life — I can’t disconnect the two because there’s an intimacy to working with Cathy. We’ve been through challenges — multiple rounds of change management, parental leave, break-ups, illness, the deaths of colleagues and friends — and celebrations of birthdays, degrees, jobs and family. Cathy and I have worked closely in the NTEU, in politics for The Greens, and as co-teachers, co-authors, researchers and committee members. I have interviewed her several times for different projects — her knowledge keeps on giving — and she has not let me forget putting [snort] into one of the transcripts.

Cathy nourishes people — sometimes with food (pancakes in the tearoom), sometimes with hard liquor, or by knitting socks and baby blankets. (This photo, over sixteen years ago, shows her exquisite knitting.)

a baby in a snuggle bed with a green knitted blanket

She supports and celebrates people — in song (her farewell songs are legendary, including Knock knock knocking on Kevin’s door for Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Kevin Jameson), with advice, and by sharing quality time.  Cathy feels deeply and her emotions are big. It’s a wonder that someone so sensitive can be so tough at the same time. We’re lucky that Cathy feels the world the way she does, and that she is generous with her vulnerabilities. Cathy is generous by disagreeing with people and challenging them. Her relationships, including with those she disagrees with, are enriched by her generosity.

She is also generous with her opinions. You won’t leave a meeting wondering what Cathy really thinks about something or someone. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what would Cathy say? A discussion with Cathy, or witnessing her in enterprise bargaining or on academic governance committees, leaves you in no doubt about her principles: equity, transparency, fairness, solidarity and activism.

Cathy shows that the revolution begins with care. Warm feet, a full belly and a song.

But don’t let being comfortable fool you. Cathy will challenge you. ‘Your warm feet feel good in those knitted socks, don’t they, your belly is full with the food I cooked, your ears are full of song, but what’s good for your world? What’s good for your neighbour? What’s good for the society as a whole? What’s good for people you never see? How will you pay the debt of your privilege, and share what you have?’

Finally, her passion.

Cathy is passionate about higher education. She is passionate about activism and politics within and beyond the university. Quality learning and teaching, education as a public good, effective leadership, the student experience, staff rights and conditions…

And she is passionate about life outside of work. Singing in two activist choirs, travelling, caring for her grandkids, loving Roy. That is inspiring. Let it be an example to you that your life at work does not define you. Cathy is leaving Macquarie, but she has songs to write, gigs to perform, socks to knit, campaigns to join, and a rich and loving circle of family and friends. May you have the same.

I have talked about Cathy’s generosity, her love and care. Part of her passion is also anger. Many of you will have seen Cathy being the ‘crankiest woman in the room’. She reminds us that anger is necessary and valuable. I am looking forward to the publication of her email drafts folder so we can finally see all the messages that were deemed too saucy to send after the heat of the moment had cooled!

Cathy’s integrity, generosity and passion come together in her work for the NTEU, and her life’s work.

Her office offers something of an archive as she cleans it out and uncovers gems of her history at Macquarie and with the NTEU. Treasures will include: bawdy and possibly defamatory song lyrics that she has written, a facsimile of an olive branch sent to former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury, learning and teaching awards, and union t-shirts and posters, including those inviting former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz to come to the party.

A toast to Cathy. To what she has given us, to what she leaves us and to what comes next. Thank you comrade.

What psychology can tell us about teaching in higher education

Welcome to the first post in a new series in which we look at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching at a university level? In each post, I will be speaking to disciplinary experts from my university and seeking their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines. Cross-posted at Teche.

Today’s post comes from Psychology, and I spoke with award winning teachers and discipline experts Penny van Bergen and Alissa Beath. You can listen to audio excerpts of our conversation throughout this post, and listen to the full (29 minute) conversation or download a transcript from the link at the end of the post.

Alissa is a Senior Lecturer and Psychology Undergraduate Course Director in the School of Psychological Sciences. Her research lies in Health Psychology and Educational Psychology, looking at the role of psychological processes such as self-efficacy, emotion regulation, and resilience, in health, stress, and wellbeing. Teaching research methods and statistics to undergraduate students of all year levels, Alissa is keenly aware of the need to teach in the right way, and for students to learn in the right way. In her Course Director role, Alissa draws upon science of learning and educational psychology, especially in the intersection of the way teachers teach, the way students learn, and how institutions can be set up to best support both those things.

Penny left Macquarie this year (but remains connected as an honorary associate and supervisor) to take up the role of Professor of Educational Psychology and Head of School of Education at the University of Wollongong. With a background in developmental psychology, she applies her understanding of memory, emotion, and learning to the field of education, focusing on emotional development, cognitive development, and student-teacher relationships. She is passionate about ensuring that students of all ages have opportunities for belonging, engagement, and transformational learning.

Educational and developmental psychology offer insights into the fundamental question of what it means to learn and how learning happens. When we talk about learning from a psychological perspective, we are fundamentally interested in changes in understanding, knowledge or skills.

My conversation with Alissa and Penny highlights concepts such as memory, motivation and self-efficacy, and raises obvious — but challenging — questions.

What is learning?

In this 42-second audio excerpt, Penny describes the brain’s limited capacity for information, the magic number seven for working memory and designing teaching activities so learners are not overwhelmed:

What is memory?

Psychology understands our memory as our capacity for encountering, managing, processing and storing new knowledge and skills, including conceptual knowledge. As Penny puts it: “Everything we know, everything we know how to do, everything we know about the world, everything we know about ourselves is held within memory.” Understanding how it works is really important for teachers and students. Below is a simplified model of how the brain learns that Penny shows undergraduate students:

Learning means putting knowledge into long-term memory so that it can be consciously retrieved as needed.

We use working memory to think about information we receive from our senses, and to retrieve what we already know from long term memory. Anything you are thinking about right now is your working memory. That means any cognitive activity — including problem solving and decision-making — happens in working memory, making it critical for university study.

In this 90-second excerpt, Penny and Alissa describe information processing and encoding in long term memory and the role of teachers in engaging learning:

Why is exam cramming ineffective?

Talking about how memory functions busts a common learning myth. A classic strategy students employ for exam preparation — rereading class notes — is ineffective for learning, especially for complex problem solving. (Listen to the full conversation to hear Penny and Alissa debunk the myth of learning styles).

In this 40-second audio excerpt, Penny describes elaborativeness and distinctiveness to talk about making connections and difficult decisions:

In this 64-second excerpt, Alissa and Penny describe active learning and why it works:

What can teachers do?

Strategies that teachers can use to promote learning include:

  • Designing learning with an understanding that working memory has a limited capacity (the magic number 7). For example, review your resources with this in mind, consider timing of complex information, and share key take-aways for students.
  • Enabling connections with existing prior knowledge. For example, explicitly link new material with what has been covered in prior classes, or ask students to think how a topic might apply to their lives.
  • Designing activities that require deep thought. For example, provide students with contradictory statements and ask them to consider them. Or present a real-life problem/issue and ask students to reflect on it.
  • Encouraging students to come up with their own examples, explanations, and questions to test their ability to apply the material to novel scenarios or new contexts.

Having talked about the learning process, how does Psychology understand learners themselves?

This is where motivation and self-efficacy come in.

Colloquially speaking, motivation is the push or pull away from a task. In a study context, we are interested in the reasons a student will try to succeed. Note that students’ motivations vary considerably, as Penny explains in this 36-second audio excerpt:

Motivation is complex and being motivated to complete a degree does not necessarily mean a student is motivated to complete an assessment task or attend a lecture.

Teachers can help students increase their motivation for study — and manage the competing motivations of paid work and social demands — by reminding students that achieving the smaller things leads to the desired outcome of a qualification or a career.

It’s not enough for students to want to do well, they have to believe they can succeed. Self-efficacy refers to students’ own beliefs about their capacities and their competence in a specific area. As Alissa explains in this 28-second excerpt, higher self-efficacy intersects with motivation to promote effective learning behaviours:

Teachers can enable mastery opportunities, and balance independent learning skills and learning support, by scaffolding learning and breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, defining the parameters for learning with opportunities for cognitive growth, and encouraging students by sharing strategies for success.

Towards the end of our conversation, Penny and Alissa discussed students’ mental health and the impacts it can have on motivation and self-efficacy. They emphasise the importance of referring students to Wellbeing services for high level expertise, providing evidence-based reasonable adjustments, and promoting safe and supportive environments for students across the institution.

Listen to the full 29-minute conversation and/or download a transcript:

Further reading 

Butler, A.C., Marsh, E.J., Slavinsky, J.P. & Baranuik, R. G. (2014). Integrating Cognitive Science and Technology Improves Learning in a STEM Classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 331–340. DOI:

Glass, A. L. & Kang, M. (2019) Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology, 39(3), 395-408. DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046

Honicke, T. & Broadbent, J. (2016). The influence of academic self-efficacy on academic performance: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 17, 63-84. DOI:

Mayer, R. E. (2001) What Good is Educational Psychology? The Case of Cognition and Instruction. Educational Psychologist, 36(2), 83-88. DOI: 10.1207/S15326985EP3602_3

Munro, J. (2020, March 10). You can do it! A ‘growth mindset’ helps us learn. The Conversation.

Thank you to Alissa and Penny for the conversation, slides and recommended reading. Thank you to Alison Hayward and Kylie Coaldrake for technical support with the audio recording.