Bruce M. Shore
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I don’t use classes to transmit information per se. I don’t just want students to know the content—I want them to know what to do with it. So I separate the learning process into three parts. The first is didactic: I select the content and present it in an order that enables students to learn it more effectively. The second is pedagogical: I use class activities that reinforce student learning. For example, as students complete the required reading assignments, I have them develop question-and-answer sets based on the readings, with an explanation of why they think their answers are good ones. On arrival in class they submit a copy to me, and I have them ask each other their questions and discuss the answers in pairs. This way, they have an opportunity to learn from and evaluate each other’s work, but above all, they learn that the most important thing about knowledge is to generate good questions about it. The third part is a role exchange to show students that I also learn from them—from the information they find independently and from the insights they have and share with the class.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
This question cannot be answered adequately in a few sentences. The only definitive statement I can make is that I have never once in 40 years set a final examination! Aside from that, I use varied, continuous evaluation, both formative (does not count toward the final mark) and summative (does count). Whatever mix of individual and group assignments I use, I share my grading rubric outlining the qualities of work expected for grades of unsatisfactory to A+ for truly outstanding work on assignments. I do not give attendance or participation grades, but I will deduct marks for unaccounted absences.
Typically, though, students’ final grades are made up of at least six elements. They might prepare questions on their readings, write essays which they submit for feedback at various phases, do individual projects in which they apply their new knowledge to real problems in the field, or prepare the equivalent of posters for scientific conferences around theoretical or applied questions. Occasionally, I give a short quiz. Feedback is provided in all instances, and I always try to return graded material by the next class, or at worst, one week later.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
All students learn the same thing: that they are responsible for at least half of their own learning. I’m there to facilitate their learning—not to be their fountain of knowledge.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
Textbooks are key in this regard; the textbook I use is very good at linking research to the discipline. Also, I bring in research we have done at McGill to show students the data, explain how we collected it and discuss how we used it to reach conclusions. Another thing I do is structure students’ essay assignments progressively. First, I bring a librarian in to help them with their searches. Then I require them to submit their topic and a general reference by about the third week, and their first five references with annotations a few weeks later. This forces them into the research right away, before the final draft is due, and it also allows me to give feedback on their work at various points along the way.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Go visit classes where the professor does not simply lecture for an hour. Immediately plan your classes to include activities that reinforce learning. Know that if you present all the material all the time, you will burn yourself out very quickly: You’ll be exhausted, and you’ll hate it. If you want teaching to be fun, step back and have some confidence in the students. We are lucky at McGill. The students are smart and they are dedicated; they will not let you down. They will run with you a little bit, but you have to remember that they are not used to that. They will fight you sometimes. They will say “Hey, teach me! I paid my fees.” You have to teach them that your job as a teacher is to bring the material to them but not necessarily to read it to them. Even if it’s a class of 400, break it up with activities that engage the students. Or have them work in pairs. The other thing I would suggest is to have warmth and a sense of humor. Be relaxed. But keep some distance as well. For instance, I introduce myself as “Professor Shore,” not “Bruce Shore.” This helps convey your role as a guide for the students.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
The main thing to know is that they’re not here to be filled like empty vessels, they’re here to be guided on how to learn. Part of the students’ job is to understand and remember some of the material, but it’s also to expect activities in class that are designed to enhance their learning. Students need to understand that we learn by doing, by reflecting on the doing, and by sharing, evaluating, and looking for gaps—and that none of this is possible through passive listening. I deliver fifty percent of their education, but the rest is up to them.
Why do you teach?
I was a teacher before I was a professor. It’s part of my history; it’s one of the things that I like to do. It’s partly biological too: we’re not here forever, so if what we do is to be valued, we have to share it with the younger generation. Part of this is altruism, in that knowledge can improve society and people’s lives, though I also teach because it’s fun—it’s an interaction, a dialog. But it’s also a way of learning. My challenge to students when I assign an essay is, “If you want an A+, teach me something I don’t know.”
Photo by Owen Egan
My challenge to students when I assign an essay is, 'If you want an A+, teach me something I don’t know.'