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Isabelle Cossette

Department of Music Research (Music Education Area), Schulich School of Music

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

I tell students that my approach is Socratic, that I’m a facilitator. I don’t know everything, and we’re both there to learn. I discuss things and ask questions as much as I can because what I want students to develop above all is awareness—before being able to do anything, they need to be aware of what they are already doing. A technique I use for this in my “Practicing & Coping Strategies for Performance Enhancement” class (15 students) is to hold mock auditions by having students post performances to WebCT. These recreate the stress of a real audition, and for some students it works very well—they really do get stressed about it. Others admit to using the avoidance strategy, meaning that they did not care, they did not prepare. Either way, they are reflecting, linking the experience to the theories they are learning and looking at themselves with those theories. Then for courses like “Breathing: From Theory to Practice,” we look at the physiology of breathing, and I relate verified facts to the physical skills they are learning.

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

In the “Coping Strategies” course, because every individual reacts differently to stress, the students’ main task is to explore and choose different strategies and to decide what works best for them in which situations. To evaluate them, I start with a small assignment asking them to describe the symptoms of performance anxiety that they had in their last performance, and then we discuss the list of possible symptoms. I ask them to write in journals, three or four times a week as they practice strategies. In all, they write 15 or 20 entries that include some final reflections on what they are learning. In the graduate seminars, students also evaluate their own presentations based on peer feedback. Here they learn to be critical, while at the same time being respectful and constructive in the process. All these reflective processes permit students to identify issues they might not have seen otherwise. For example, they might say, “I realized that my computer was disturbing me when I practiced, so I shut it off and was just amazed at how much more efficient I was.”

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 their final papers for the “Coping Strategies” course, a lot of them write that they learn about themselves, for example, through finding ways to deal with stress. Also, I tell them at the beginning that there is no right or wrong answer. I also tell them that they have to keep an open mind because if they decide that something will not work, then obviously it will not work.

In the “Breathing” course, many of them develop their critical skills as they go through understanding the physiology and seeing how many common beliefs are scientifically “wrong.”

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

In the course on coping strategies for performance enhancement, I don’t go too far into research because we have so many strategies to look at. I would call it more of an enquiry—I present different strategies, talk about their origins, their development, how they relate to different symptoms of anxiety and how they can help students to cope.

We also have a class about measurements. Though it’s using scales, we cover psychological as well as behavioural and physiological measurements. Here they learn that they have these tools, these criteria and scales, available to them for analyzing things.

In other courses, like the graduate course on breathing, students have to create an annotated bibliography using and comparing databases like Medline, or they might have to read some papers on research methods to help them articulate a research question. We also do pilot studies in a lab and report on the findings, which has them asking and answering questions in that setting, too. I hope they see through all this that the core of research is to try to understand what’s happening.

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

First, I would tell them that they can still be good teachers without knowing everything.

Second, they should invest in organizing the course, maybe by attending a course design workshop or thinking up strategies to help students learn. The more strategies they can think of, the more fun it becomes. And I don’t mean to prepare or learn everything first; in fact, I prepare less than I used to prepare. What I mean is that I prefer to see students learn, to see them evolve in front of me rather than just repeat what I say.

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

Well, I tell them that it’s in fact their course, and the more engaged they are in trying to learn, the more they’ll get out of it... and the more fun it will be.

Why do you teach?

What I like most about teaching is seeing the students evolve, even if it takes them a few years to recognize the value of what they have been learning. I like to see them become critical, in the sense of thinking critically and of learning to question, instead of just receiving and repeating. I like to see them developing themselves. Actually it is similar to parenting in some ways, in that I can really see the light and the curiosity of these students.

Email Address: 
isabelle.cossette@mcgill.ca
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