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NTFS 2023: ‘Dysgu’ (Welsh) – to teach and to learn

21 Aug 2023 | Dr Emma Yhnell As a National Teaching Fellow 2023, Dr Emma Yhnell, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University School of Biosciences, reflects on how the Welsh word “dysgu” perfectly summarises her teaching vision and has led to her winning this highly prestigious award.

The Welsh word “dysgu” (pronounced “dusk-ee) means both to learn and to teach. While I must admit, this confused me greatly in my Welsh language lessons, it also provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on my recent National Teaching Fellowship award and how vital learning has been (and continues to be) in my teaching approach and philosophy.  

Learning to teach 

In 2016, as a very recent post-doctoral researcher, I stood at the front of a class of 80 undergraduate students to deliver my first ever lecture. I didn’t hold a teaching contract, but I had volunteered because I thought it would be good to increase my teaching experience. I’d previously done lots of postgraduate demonstrating during bioscience practical classes and I held Associate Fellowship but I hadn’t ever delivered a lecture before.  

Thankfully the lecture that I’d been asked to deliver was on my specialist subject of Huntington’s disease, something that I’d spent over three years specialising in for my PhD. When I began to design my lecture, I took myself back to when I first learnt about Huntington’s disease. My undergraduate degree was in Biochemistry, and I then made a somewhat unusual transition into Neuroscience for my PhD. That meant that I had a very steep learning curve to understand some of the basics of my PhD. In fact, I vividly remember scrambling to scribble down notes during my first PhD lab meeting which included a section ‘words to look up’! 

As the students filed into the lecture theatre, I suddenly felt a huge wave of panic wash over me. What was I doing here? Why was I here? Would the students think I was an idiot? I took a deep breath, a moment outside and had a huge gulp of water before reminding myself that I’d never done this before and we all have to start somewhere. Right?! The first few slides were basic content which I knew really well. Before I knew it, I’d settled into the lecture delivery and was in full flow. The students seemed to be enjoying the lecture, nodding along and enjoying the interactive elements in particular. And then, as soon as it had begun, 50 minutes had passed and it was over, and on time too.  

What I hadn’t anticipated was the encouraging words from students on their way out. They said things like “that was great, are you giving any more lectures?” and “thanks, that was my favourite lecture of this module so far.” My feelings of panic and anxiety were soon replaced by joy and excitement, I really enjoyed lecturing. There were certainly things that I could improve for next time, but I leave feeling reassured that for my first go, I’d done a pretty good job. 

Reflecting on my first lecturing experience, I had so much to learn about lecturing. But the key thing was to accept and acknowledge that despite being a subject expert in the content, learning about teaching was a key part of the process for me as an educator.  

Teaching to learn  

I began my lectureship in 2019 and as I prepared and then reflected on the delivery of my first lectures on a teaching and scholarship contract (albeit a temporary one), what I hadn’t fully appreciated was how much I would learn during my teaching. 

Teaching in itself can be such an important opportunity to learn, as long as you are open to viewing it this way. You can learn about your students by interacting with them, I’ve used anonymous wellbeing polls during my lectures to simply invite students to consider how they are feeling. You can learn new content and information when preparing materials, because, let’s face it, we don’t all have the luxury of being able to lecture in our specialist areas and things change, develop and evolve. You can also learn about yourself as an educator too.  

Being competitively selected by my university to apply for a National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) was incredible recognition in itself, and an added benefit was that it also gave me an opportunity to reflect on why I teach in the way that I do. My approach to teaching could be considered a bit “different”, I regularly use props, incorporate demonstrations and actively encourage “mini-discos”. I hadn’t really properly considered why until I wrote my NTF application. I love science, but I also have a passion for communicating complex topics effectively and differently, the way that I have chosen to do that is through making content relatable and fun. The trouble is that lectures in particular have a long history of being considered didactic, boring teaching methods and we need to actively challenge this perception. As I greeted my first personal tutees, I asked them “are you looking forward to your lectures?” most of them replied with fairly bland responses. None of them said that they were looking to be inspired or to even enjoy their lectures and I found this troubling. Why shouldn’t our students expect to be inspired, engaged and enjoy their lectures? That seems like a reasonable request to me. 

Dysgu am byth 

Dysgu am byth translated from Welsh to English can either mean forever teaching or forever learning. While I think I will probably always find this confusing in my Welsh language lessons, it has led me to question, does it really matter? Through teaching we learn and through learning we can teach. As someone who is incredibly passionate about advocating for exceptional learning and teaching in higher education, I will certainly never stop learning, or should that be, I will never stop teaching. 

Finally, I wanted to end by thanking my friend and colleague Helen Obee Reardon who suggested the initial idea for this blog post - diolch yn fawr iawn / thank you very much Helen!


Dr Emma Yhnell is a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University. As a multi-award-winning international science communicator, committed change-maker and innovative educator, Emma’s unique approach to teaching actively engages, enthuses and entertains learners. You can find out more about Emma’s work through her institutional website or her personal website

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