Number's up for scary statistics

27 March 2017 | Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo Robyn Walker.
Dr Miguel Lacerda is one of six winners of the 2016 Distinguished Teacher Award.
Dr Miguel Lacerda is one of six winners of the 2016 Distinguished Teacher Award.

Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity.

Based in the Department of Statistical Sciences, Lacerda does his utmost to bring his complex and often abstract course content to life. And he has exceeded all expectations, if the course feedback is anything to go by.

It is precisely for this reason that Lacerda has been honoured with a 2016 Distinguished Teacher Award. Lacerda spoke to Kate-Lyn Moore from the UCT newsroom.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

Outside of academia, the term lecture is commonly used to refer to a speech; typically one that is scripted and does not solicit input from the audience. This is very different from what we are called to do as academic lecturers.

To deliver a good lecture, we must understand our audience intimately. I find that contemplating the following points before a lecture helps me to relate better to my audience:

  • What academic knowledge can I assume to be known? Even if it was covered previously, is it worth recapping before building on it?
  • How can I communicate this topic in such a way that it is accessible to students with different learning styles? Can I find real-world examples that the students can identify with?
  • Do I need to clarify the intended meaning of a word/phrase in this context, particularly for those students for which English is not a home language?

The above points allude to an audience that is diverse in terms of academic ability, learning style and cultural background. This diversity must inform our approach to teaching.

How did you come to be a lecturer in UCT's Department of Statistical Sciences?

I completed my BBusSc degree specialising in quantitative management in 2005 and my MSc in statistical sciences in 2008, both at UCT. I began lecturing in 2007 while completing my master's.

The first class I taught was the summer term version of our first-year applied statistics course. I remember arriving nervously for my first lecture on 3 January 2007, not knowing how to set up a projector or operate a microphone, and no one else around to help me get going! That was quite an experience!

How would you describe your teaching style?

The material that I teach is largely abstract and technical in nature. My chief objective is to communicate this content in a manner that makes it accessible and meaningful to my heterogeneous audience.

While I am passionate about the content, I can understand why students might find chapters upon chapters of confusing symbols and formulae somewhat daunting. It is my job to bring this material to life and to instil an appreciation for it in my students. After all, a genuine interest in a subject is a strong motivation for learning. While it is a requirement that students be able to derive the results covered in class on their own, I strongly discourage rote learning.

Instead, I believe that students should be able to arrive at a result through sound reasoning, rather than by having memorised the process of getting there. Students should also understand the relevance of theoretical results in an applied context through applications to unseen problems.

What do you love most about teaching?

I love thinking about creative ways to explain complex concepts to students. I love it even more when it works!

What is the importance of this kind of recognition?

I am truly honoured to receive this award. I put a lot of effort into my teaching, and it is great to have it recognised in this way.

What do your academic responsibilities entail besides research?

I am keenly involved in promoting statistics as an exciting career option. For many years, statistics has been viewed as a service discipline and the fall-back option for students who fail actuarial science.

However, the demand for data-savvy professionals is growing exponentially as huge volumes of complex data are accumulated in diverse fields ranging from astronomy and bioinformatics to finance and marketing. Statistics is now an attractive career path in its own right.

I aim to leverage this momentum to attract good students to study statistics and data science at UCT. This has required the development of new courses and degree programmes, and a careful re-evaluation of our existing offerings. I have been a key player in the curriculum development for these programmes.

What do you like doing off duty?

I enjoy spending time with my wife and baby boy, watching TV series, running and reading. And eating good food – my wife and I are avid foodies!

 

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Distinguished Teacher Award

 

The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.

 

2018


‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019
 

2017


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018
 

2016


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017
   

2015


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015
 

2014


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014
 

2013


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013
 

2012


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012
 

2011


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011
 

2010


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010
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