Going the extra mile to ensure all her students understand every concept thrown at them on their way to a level 3 Btec in IT is second nature to Preeti Vohra. How does she sustain her students’ high success rate?
Prianka Mistry and Jack Tallis are studying for a level 3 BTec national extended diploma in computing
Prianka: Preeti does what few other tutors do - she ensures everyone in the class understands each topic before moving on to the next one. Most students don’t naturally like putting their hand up in class to say they don’t understand something but she’s always encouraging us to ask for support and is more than happy to help. Early on in the course, I struggled with one particular subject in an exam so she suggested a one-to-one. I came into college on a day with no lessons, and she went through things and I understood. Preeti will do this for all of us; she’s 100% dedicated to seeing us do our best and succeed. I’ve learned so much more from her than anyone else. She’s a wonderful teacher!
Jack: Whenever we tackle sophisticated topics and don’t understand them, Preeti will always follow up with a simplified explanation that clarifies everything. Then she’ll return to the sophisticated version and check we’ve then understood! She really aspires to teach in a way that makes everything clear to us before she gives us homework and practice papers. Preeti also goes out of her way to listen to us and discuss things that we talk about. In online lessons, she’s constantly checking that everyone knows what they are doing and she’s very handy at making available every slide she presents on-screen. We all reckon Preeti is one of the teachers who work hardest to get us through our exams.
The use of a single computer language to develop so many different systems has long fascinated Preeti Vohra. “Programming has somehow come easy to me and I’ve also always been keen to teach; I enjoy helping people,” she says.
Programming and teaching were thus a natural fit in her career plan. So after getting a degree and masters in economics and information systems from Bombay University, she joined her brother in London to seek a teaching role in IT in 2004.
She soon found her first job teaching website development evening classes to professionals at Reading Adult Community College. “I really liked it and got some positive feedback, In 2008 I applied to teach A-level computer science at Reading College and have been there ever since. I currently teach BTec students and apprentices.”
How does she keep up to date with technology? “You have to be on your toes as IT is quite fast-moving - that makes it very creative and it’s why I’m very passionate about my job.”
Technology lifeline during COVID crisis
Preeti spent a week’s placement last year at IT distributor Westcoast to find out about the latest trends in emerging technologies. “It’s imperative for any lecturer to take on industrial placements to keep in touch with changes. Westcoast staff have spoken to and co-taught my classes 5-6 times - so it’s enriching for learners to know their teacher has been there as well. I don’t have to convince them to seek work placements when I say I’ve done it myself - it can be a quite big job otherwise!”
Digital technology offers so much flexibility and it’s offered a lifeline during Covid-19, according to Preeti. “We’re running our online lessons on an almost normal timetable that students know - there’s 100% attendance. They’re really excited to use their IT skills in distance learning - and they’ve got no excuses for being late.”
Trust and rapport invaluable during lockdown
As colleges move to a more online and blended learning culture and rely more on students taking greater responsibility for their own independent learning, the existence of trust and rapport between lecturers and learners is even more essential.
“As I get to know my students by listening, being honest in how I communicate with them, and always being there to help them, they’ll know they can talk to me without fear. It’s about giving them the confidence they are able to do something … that, yes, they are free to learn, forget and then relearn in a safe environment where no one is judging them and where it’s safe to make mistakes. It creates a very respectful and amicable atmosphere in class as they all feel they are free to communicate.
“The very first thing I tell them is ‘we all are one team’ and not ‘I’m here to teach and you’re here to learn’. I say we can make the course run faster by us all contributing. To achieve our goals we all have to work hard - that message is very clear and it’s what wins their confidence and trust and brings rapport.”
Quizzes to lift the mood
What happens if a day starts or ends slowly? “I always aim to keep lessons lively and interesting,” says Preeti. “If I’m focusing on a highly technical topic, I blend it with something light and fun that gives a balance, especially on a Friday afternoon. They love quizzes to lighten a topic - simple pen and paper activities. After the quiz, I ask my students to think up their own questions on the subject and put them to the class - they don’t think it's boring as it’s their time being the questioner. In fact, they compete to come up with the hardest question. I don’t provide the information but get them to help each other learn the answer - I take a back seat.”
“Everyone has to put a question to another student - if someone doesn’t know the answer, the questioner can give a clue. Giving a wrong answer is not a problem and, anyway, I’ll use it to link to something relevant.
“Give them the flexibility and confidence and they then don’t mind challenging themselves for the answer - hard work becomes second nature! The smile on their faces when they offer the right answer is incomparable.”
Preeti supports BYOD (Bring your own device). “I let them use their phones and other devices as part of lessons - they enjoy using them and, importantly, they then tend not to use them for personal calls mid-lesson.
‘I link what I teach to the real world’
“You have to be passionate to teach technology; it’s never boring or the same thing - there are always new things to learn. It’s very important to know I’m teaching content relevant to the real world, and it’s not just about passing exams.”
Take any topic and Preeti will spend a few minutes beforehand connecting the dots, showing its relevance to daily life, how it helps us, why it should be covered, how it may help us in 10 years’ time . . .
Teamwork plays a key role in Preeti’s approach to her students. “At age 16 and onwards students need to learn skills for life. One of my aims is to enrich the curriculum. I often co-teach with employers in class. They give lectures, provide the students with real-life assignments and discuss future options that students can follow after the course. I tell my learners they should see themselves as employees and thus have to work. Our employers give them projects and we work as a team - in these sessions we are not preparing them for exams but are encouraging them to simply enjoy learning something new without worrying about marks and outcomes.”
Motivating students by changing mindsets
Changing the mindset of ‘I can’t do this!’ is one of Preeti’s regular challenges, particularly in new cohorts. A-level students understand they have to learn things to pass exams, but BTec students have only started taking exams in the past two years due to curriculum changes.
Preeti follows the mindset theory of psychologist Carol Dweck (see her book ‘Mindset - The new psychology of success’) to help motivate her students. “If a learner has a mental block about something, I take a topic and give them a little exam-type question from a past paper, without telling them its origin. If they need help I put them in pairs (I always start with ‘scaffolding’, identify their interests at the start of the year and pair them up accordingly). Only when they get the answer - they have 20 minutes and five minutes extra if needed - do I tell them it was an exam question and they are confident to apply their knowledge anywhere. They then love the challenge and ask for more questions!
To be an effective IT lecturer, Preeti argues you need to be fascinated by the changing face of IT, be open to learning new things, be ready to teach topics in creative, different ways and tell a story, and connect the dots between present and future.
“You then just need to show passion and integrity and everything else will follow on!”