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Elena Bennett

Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

McGill School Environment (MSE)

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

I have students from very different backgrounds, so I need to use a range of approaches to reach them all. For example, in a “big picture” discussion about strong versus weak sustainability, I’ll start with topic-based definitions, which typically engages the School of Environment students; then I’ll use math and derivatives to engage the Bioresource Engineering students.

On the activity level, I mix things up a lot in my class, using debates, small-group conversations, or games to keep things active. For example, we’ll play a fishing game where I set up the math and students have to choose between using new-style nets that will catch more fish for them individually but make the whole group do worse overall, versus using the old-style nets where the whole group does better but individually they do worse. And to really motivate them I give rewards—including chocolate!—for the individual and the group that does the best. We learn a lot from participating in the activity and a long debriefing discussion afterwards.

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

I use a variety of methods, including a lot of writing assignments, oral presentations and debates. In some of my courses I use a multi-faceted strategy that is popular. At the end of each class, I give the students an index card and ask them to write one good exam question based on what we covered in that class. On the back of the card, they have to provide the answer. This exercise has multiple purposes: on a basic level it allows me to see who’s coming to class; more importantly, it provides me with feedback about the effectiveness of my lectures and allows me to follow individuals to see who’s struggling. Before exams, I use these questions to help students review and prepare. I pick the best questions from each week I and hand them out for students to ask each other in a round-robin format

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

This depends on the particular class. 

In the introductory Environmental Studies course I teach, it’s information literacy: they learn where to go to get reliable information on subjects when they’re not experts, the difference between peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed sources and how to judge information’s accuracy and validity. I put a lot of emphasis on science literacy and information literacy because I think they need it for every conversation they have about the environment. 

In the Ecosystem Management course I teach, I really want the students to understand how complex systems work, so I have them draw systems diagrams and explain them to each other. This helps them understand the classic components in environmental and other systems and what makes these systems function or fail. Students leave, I think, having a much better sense of how the environment works and how to manage environmental systems, which benefits them in their future. 

Finally, I also want all of my students to learn how to communicate. For an early assignment in my Environmental Studies course, for instance, I have students write an editorial on a topic of their choice and submit it to the publication of their choice. This forces them to have a clear opinion backed up by solid facts. We actually get about 10% of them published every year, sometimes in their local weekly, in the Montreal Gazette or in papers with an even bigger reach.

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

In the Environmental Studies course, we read a fair amount of primary literature, and I make a point of connecting that back to the conversation about information and science literacy. We cover all the basics, including the nature of science, peer review and professors’ expectations. I tell them about my graduate students and what they’re researching in my lab, which opens the door to discussing what undergraduates in my lab can do. That way, they learn about the possibilities and can consider becoming a part of the research environment. I find that giving undergraduate students concrete examples of real research under way has greater value for them than if I were just to list the latest research in my field.

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

Talk to older faculty. When I started I got some great advice: “Spend a lot of time working on your syllabus and not so much time working on any one lecture.” That really helped me because I learned that if I got the course structure right, I knew enough about the subject matter to develop the lecture material quickly after that. 

Sometimes faculty might think that teaching is not our “real” work or it is somehow less important or meaningful than our research. I challenge that notion with the idea that our students deserve to have really meaningful experiences, which we are in a great position to provide. It does not necessarily take a lot of time to engender those meaningful experiences. It just takes some effort to reflect on what they might be, as well as the desire to make them happen.

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

Talk to me to see if there’s a way that you can get more involved. Ask for a 15-minute appointment to discuss the course work, research, which classes you should take, etc. In general, spending a little bit of time talking to your professors will help you get more out of your classes and your whole university experience. Also, be engaged in the process of learning. I know this can be tough in classes that aren’t designed for it, but I guarantee that you’ll get more out of a class if you put more in, especially if what you put in involves reflecting deeply on the material rather than just memorizing it.

Why do you teach?

To be honest, I started teaching because it was part of my job. It really wasn’t until I put the time in to think about what was meaningful to me about teaching and what I wanted students to learn that everything began flowing for me. And there are often ancillary benefits to teaching such as better alignment with my research program. Now I really enjoy getting into the classroom because I can see the value of spending time on my teaching reflected in the level of student learning. When I’m standing up there and I see it all coming together, it feels so great.

Email Address: 
elena.bennett@mcgill.ca