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Aliki Thomas

Physical & Occupational Therapy
Faculty of Medicine

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

In our program, we do a lot of case-based work. You know, “Mrs. Smith fell and has this injury. Let’s talk as a group, let’s brainstorm on what has happened, why and what approach we will use with this client.” I also use a bit of humour, talk about my own experiences, and ask students lots of questions. I involve them a lot in all of my classes. There is lots of interaction! I also use clips from television series such as “Grey’s Anatomy” or “E.R.,” where they show professional behaviours that the students can analyze and learn from.

When students get tired around exam time, and they’re getting disengaged, I may just stop everything and try to get a feel of what’s happening by asking a question such as “I know it’s December and you’re tired and exams are coming. Is there anything else?” And I don’t necessarily want the answers, but I stop to validate that something might be happening. I find this approach helps them engage again.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I have moved away from some of the more traditional methods of assessment because our program was revised to target higher levels of learning and advanced competencies. I use different methods that are aimed at capturing various aspects of learning, and I select assessments that are most aligned with the content and processes I am trying to evaluate. For example, if I want to see if students have good communication skills, I will take them to the simulation centre and put them in front of a patient, played by an actor, to see how they communicate.

Within a course, I will use a variety of assessments because they target different things and because some students perform better on an exam than they do on a term paper, and vice-versa. I also use formative assessments—assignments that don’t have a mark assigned, but that will allow me to track how they’re learning. I use the simulation centre for this purpose. For example, in one eight credit team-taught course, we have an OSCE at the end of term worth forty percent. Prior to this summative OSCE, we have a series of formative OSCEs where students can practice and receive feedback without being graded. The students interact with patients, played by actors, and we, the instructors observe from behind a window. We enter the room after the encounter with the patient is over. We sit with the students, and say, “This is what we observed. This is what was wonderful. This is where you need to improve.”

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

They learn that being an occupational therapist is very much about being caring and having empathy. Everybody can learn from books, but what I hope they get from my courses is passion, motivation, and a sense of pride for their role as occupational therapists. I hope that they feel empowered to make a difference in people’s lives. Occupational therapists are important members of health care teams, and I would like my students to embrace this idea. I want them to be proud of this profession. They learn that they are receiving world class education, they wear the McGill name wherever they go, and they have a great responsibility to make a difference in the lives of people living with disabilities.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

I teach about the role of research and scientific evidence in clinical decision-making. Evidence-based practice is a large part of what we do as a profession and what we teach within our school: Whether we are teaching about assessment or treatment, we are always grounding our teaching in the latest research. There has been a huge shift in healthcare towards more evidence-based practice, so we’ve been very systematic in the way we’ve designed the instruction to make sure that the students start by finding out what research means and what evidence-based practice means. Then, they learn how to start searching for literature and the year after that, how to appraise the literature they read and then how to integrate the findings from the literature into the assessment and treatment decisions made for clients.

I also talk about my own research and the research that exists in occupational therapy to allow students to get a better sense of why things work or don’t work in practice. Our graduates will be consumers of research, and I expect them to be more critical about what they read and how they go about making decisions about what they’re going to do for their clients when they begin their clinical practice.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

I tell them that it takes time to feel comfortable in front of a class and to develop a solid course outline. I tell them about all the in-house resources, like their colleagues who have quite a bit of experience and expertise in education and course design, and that there are many other resources they can use, like the Center for Medical Education, and Teaching and Learning Services.

I tell them that teaching is an art and that we learn the most from our students. Sometimes new teachers feel lost because they don’t know how the pieces fit together within a program. So I help them look at the whole context, at how the course fits in with everything else, and often, that helps to appease some of their anxiety.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

To be there in the classroom because they really want to be there and to think of their education as a gift! It is such a privilege to be in this university and to have the possibility to do nothing else but learn for three years—learning, not just academic learning, but learning about interactions with other people, about debate, about becoming lifelong learners and critical thinkers, and about this great university.

The other message is, specifically, regarding our profession. I want them to realize the responsibility they will have as occupational therapists. They’re going to be dealing with people who are ill, living with disabilities, and who are often quite vulnerable. They will see young people and individuals who are elderly, with a lifetime of experience. They will have all of that and more in their hands, and hopefully, they will cherish that because their training is going to allow them to do something good with the individuals who are receiving their services.

Why do you teach?

I teach because I just simply love it. I think that somehow, someone, some power-that-be, put me on this “occupational therapy road,” so I could eventually become a professor. I feel that it’s such a privilege to share my knowledge, to empower young people, and to open the door for them to go out there and care for others.

Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
aliki [dot] thomas [at] mcgill [dot] ca