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André Costopoulos

Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts

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

One thing I do is to use gaming and simulation exercises to engage students in learning more difficult or counter-intuitive concepts. For example, in the evolutionary theory course, it’s sometimes hard to get students to understand that variation doesn’t arise out of a need to adapt to the environment—that individuals adapt, but populations are selected. So I use a game where students manage a population of unicellular organisms and I’m the environment and I change the conditions, and the students flip coins to determine whether their cells mutate or reproduce. Through this process, they learn that their cells don’t acquire certain traits because the environment is changing, but that the cells that happen to have mutations that are favourable given the environment are the ones that reproduce. It’s always fun to have 200 students in the auditorium madly flipping coins, trying to keep up with the game.

Another strategy I use is discussion because for me, a lecture is really a dialogue, and should be, regardless of class size. As a lecturer, I have to be aware of the reactions of my audience to know if something is going over with them or not. And last, I talk with students about where they want to go with the class. There are many ways for me to get to the core teachings, so my goal is not to cover specific material, but to give students the methodological and theoretical tools they need to go get that material themselves and to show them why they should bother.

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

I assign various kinds of papers to get students to really explore the material. In large courses, I give three short writing assignments of 500 words each. In the first, if they can write a good paragraph that has a clear answer to a question, I’m happy. In the second, I start looking at the answer itself. And in the third, I look at the way they synthesize insights from the course to answer a question.

In more advanced courses, I’m interested to see whether students can identify their own interesting questions from the course material, and how deep into the material they get in finding their answers.

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

In my view, that’s independent of discipline. What I would like students to acquire in any course, by the end of their undergraduate degree, is an awareness that there are very good questions to be asked about the world—important questions that need answers. They themselves can do something about these questions—they can expect to make a difference. In some ways, it’s their responsibility to do this, to be aware of these questions and to use fruitful methods and theoretical approaches to try and answer those questions, to make a contribution. In any course, that’s my goal.

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

I try to approach every course like it’s a research exercise, and I’ll focus on what I don’t know rather than what I do know. I’ll explain why I don’t know, why I’m trying to do something about it, and what they can do to help. And I invite students along on this adventure of trying to answer these difficult, unresolved questions. In the big intro course on evolutionary theory, I’ll have a central question for the semester, such as “Is cultural variation the equivalent of genetic mutation?” They’ll usually have a gut answer, and my job is then to give them the tools to evaluate that answer and to be able to explain by the end of the term whether and why they might have changed their minds.

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

The main thing is to have fun when you’re teaching because if you’re bored, imagine what your audience is going through! So teach what you’re interested in, explain why you’re interested in it and where you’re going with it. Of course, you have to organize your passion so that students can address issues of concern and participate in the resolution of problems. The goal is for them to produce work that contributes something. Students ask for nothing more than to be allowed to come along, so let’s bring them.

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

The first thing would be to actually do the readings, to engage in the material. There’s a reason why the readings are there—because these important core questions have been worked on for a long time. People have made some headway in answering them, and it helps us to see what people have done before, what they’ve done well, not so well, what remains to be done, and what we are in a position to do ourselves.

Students don’t do themselves any favours by going into a course expecting to receive something. They do themselves the most good when they go into a course expecting to contribute something.

Why do you teach?

Because I have to—not contractually, but internally. I’d be teaching even if it wasn’t my job. If you asked my friends and family, they’d tell you that I teach no matter what. I can’t help it. I see problems and questions that need solutions and answers. I try to make others aware of this, and I try to find out from them what we can do about it.

Email Address: 
andre.costopoulos@mcgill.ca
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