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David Ragsdale

Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Faculty of Medicine

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

I teach the neuroscience and muscle physiology sections in a large introductory lecture course on human physiology (around 1100 students). In that course, I see my role as an entertainer of sorts, to try to be funny and to give vivid examples while still providing a coherent presentation. I also put a lot of effort into describing abstract concepts with metaphors or similes, and to give the presentations a little bit of historical and scientific context.

I also teach a much smaller course on philosophy and neuroscience (around 25 students) with a philosopher named Ian Gold. This is a class where we do readings that are fairly substantial and present scientific work—not just scientific papers but also chapters from books that are written by scientists. The advantage of the books is that the information is less compressed than in a scientific paper. In a book chapter, the author has the chance to sort of spread out and explain his ideas. This spurs lots of interest and interaction among students, and it really helps that none of us know the answers; instead, we’re collaborating on a problem. This is a very exciting way of teaching, one that’s much more consistent with the notions of research and scholarship.

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

In the large class, we use multiple-choice exams. I think there is a certain art to writing effective multiple-choice questions. If put together properly, they can meaningfully assess real concepts.

In the upper-level course, students submit a summary of an assigned reading as a journal entry on WebCT the night before class. This compels them to do the readings, and it gives us a way of assessing the participation component. Then as they learn more, they can revise their entries, and their journals are later submitted and assessed as a whole.

I think that students need to be gradually introduced to the idea that assessment in the real world doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a test. They won’t work at jobs for six months and then have midterm exams. For the upper-level class, I’m not that concerned about assessment because the reason people take the course in the first place is that they find it intrinsically interesting. It’s not just to get a grade to go to medical school, as is often the case in the physiology class.

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

Students in the large introductory physiology class need to learn basic terms, facts and concepts before they can progress in their understanding or participate in a lab. I also spend time directing students who express a real interest in neuroscience toward research projects and labs that they might be able to participate in.

As for the students who don’t want to be scientists, I find that they’re the group I’m really teaching to. The details aren’t going to matter to them, just a basic knowledge will be enough, but it needs to be presented clearly. I think it is very important to make non-experts understand how science translates information into practical applications, especially as it takes on a larger and larger role in our lives—and I enjoy explaining these concepts to them.

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

First, I try in both classes to integrate the process of scientific investigation into the lectures and discussions. In the smaller class, it’s all we do—explore and debate theories. But there is rarely controversy when you teach an introductory lecture on how a muscle contracts, so providing historical context can be valuable in the large class. For example, the notion of probability eluded everyone until Pascal worked out a solution. In retrospect, it’s an incredibly simple problem that may even seem trivial, but it was a true stroke of genius that required a huge conceptual leap at the time.

I also direct students toward research laboratories. What’s special about research at McGill is that we have really cutting-edge labs available to those students who are keen on lab work. I also help graduate students find appropriate research laboratories and to adjust to them, because labs present a very different way of learning from what many of the students are used to.

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

I would advise junior faculty to consider how truly rewarding, valuable and fun teaching can be, instead of seeing it as a distraction and a burden. People often view their supervisory roles as their primary teaching responsibilities. This is fair enough, but again, teaching in a classroom is also valuable and really rewarding, so I encourage new faculty to take that kind of attitude toward it.

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

I would tell them to come to class and ask questions. Was it Woody Allen who said that 90% of life is showing up? If students just show up for things, they’ve got 90% of the problem beat already. The rest is to resist being passive—to ask questions, make comments, and participate in the learning process.

Why do you teach?

I find the whole teaching process really satisfying. First of all, I like to explain things; I always have. I’m a person who is mostly interested in the core idea, the bottom line, and I enjoy taking all of these complicated things and condensing them into a few key ideas for students to take away. And of course I also enjoy and appreciate interacting with the students. McGill students are very good, and I’m constantly impressed by the quality of their thinking and questions—I can see that they are really talented and are going places.

Email Address: 
david.ragsdale@mcgill.ca