What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I think one of the best strategies is to tell stories, either from personal experience or from research involvement. It’s important to have a hook and to grease the wheels that way, and a good story or analogy does the trick because it’s everyday situations that draw students into the content. For example, I often use pizza as an analogy when I teach about competition in ecological theory. Imagine if someone brought pizza to class. How would you get more pizza? You could lock the door, or you could become more efficient at eating pizza—both of which are strategies of competition in ecological theory.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I use a combination of written assignments, midterms and exams: just one strategy for one class never works. For exams, integrative long answers are very effective but are the hardest to evaluate. Sometimes I give pop quizzes which, while worth little, provide students with immediate feedback, and more importantly, keep them coming to class.
For the written assignments, I’ve tried having students write annotated bibliographies, short summaries of lectures, and journals. Provided that the grading rubric is really clear, these types of assignments can be very effective. Most of my written assignments are fairly short. It’s hard to write concisely but it’s a really important skill for students to develop.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
I hope students learn that science is fun, that they gain a passion and enthusiasm for it, and that they learn that there are people behind all the research with interesting, wonderful stories to tell. I also want them to realize that even if they’re apprehensive about the content, they can work through it. And through my courses I aim to help students decide whether or not they like the discipline and want to keep at it.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I use case studies, but not in the traditional way. In my ecology class, we will critique recent articles in peer-reviewed literature as a group. I’ll go through the gory details of a scientific paper from start to finish, reviewing what it takes to do research, and what things like peer review, quality of science, rigour, or statistical analysis mean. Even if they don’t understand the stats, we can figure out what statistical significance means.
The other way has again to do with stories and analogies from my background as an entomologist. Students relate easily to insects and spiders, and their interest leads into discussions about some of my past experiments in the forest and then to talking about research and experimental design.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
First, new faculty need to develop their own teaching styles and skills from the beginning, keeping two things in particular in mind: one, that as the expert, teacher and boss, professors need to earn and foster respect, and two, that flexibility is really important. They should resist over-preparing lectures and relying too heavily on technology, and they should not hold back from including material from other disciplines and the real world.
Second, faculty shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. I’ve opened classes up to debate by taking a news item or saying something outlandish; this meant dropping some content, and it could also have gone really badly—but the students liked it.
Last, new faculty should hang out in other professors’ classrooms when they’re starting out. They should go see the best teachers at McGill. I never did, but I should have.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I’d tell them to show up, and not just physically! To really engage in the content, students need to come with open minds, do the work, ask questions, and be sceptical. I make mistakes, too—but it’s really healthy for students to realize that professors are not always right, and that it’s okay to question them.
That’s a general mantra for life as well as for my courses: come and be ready.
Why do you teach?
There’s nothing better than education—teaching is a very exhausting part of the job, but it’s definitely one of the most satisfying. When students are engaged in the content, it’s fun. I want to open the door to my discipline for people, so they can make an informed assessment on whether or not they like it. Until students’ upper years, where they touch on content through research, their primary exposure to a discipline comes through their courses. So these courses have to include the content and the links to research, as well as their relevance to the real world.
Photo by Owen Egan
I think one of the best strategies is to tell stories, either from personal experience or from research involvement ... because it’s everyday situations that draw students into the content.