What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
Right from the beginning, I encourage students to ask questions by just presuming that they will—and they do. I pose questions to provoke interest, and I don’t continue the class until the questions are answered. That way students understand that the class is meant to be interactive. I’m rarely on a strict timeline, so if we get off on a discussion that is getting them interested but takes us off topic, I simply adjust a later lecture.
A couple of other techniques I’ve found to be pretty effective are putting students in groups for class work, and using games to illustrate important concepts. For example, we played “Boggle” in my ecology class. There are 16 cubes with different letters on each side, and the cubes fall out into a 4x4 grid. Students try and make as many words as they can by going in different directions, and I use that as an analogy for optimal foraging.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
For one course, though students do write individual term papers and take-home exams, about half of the class time is devoted to group work. For the first two assignments, students are asked to write a page based on individual library research, and then assemble their findings into a group report for which they receive a shared grade. My TA and I both evaluate the written reports, we compare notes and decide on a single grade, but the students receive the written feedback from both of us. Thus, they see two different perspectives. The grade for the second assignment is a higher percentage of students’ overall mark, so they have a chance to learn from the first time around and improve their performance.
For the last group project, groups prepare a 15-minute presentation. They are encouraged to be as creative as they can. Some of them make movies, some do skits, I’ve had puppet shows, songs, and so on. I ask the students to anonymously evaluate the presentations, and we factor these evaluations into groups’ final grades.
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 don’t distinguish between students from “within” and “outside” the discipline. Regardless, the first thing I want students to learn is to be critical in their thought processes. I want them to be able to look critically at information, and to realize that one “fact” does not necessarily reflect “truth”. This helps them to formulate and express well-founded ideas about what they’re learning.
The other main thing I want students to learn is how to synthesize and integrate ideas and information. As an example, on the last day of one of my courses, we have a storytelling session, where each student contributes part of a story. The goal is to see how they ensure coherence with points that others have made. I also ask them to answer a creative “science fiction” question on their take-home exam. I expect them to use their imagination but to incorporate their knowledge of the subject matter so that their essay makes sense.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
In senior undergraduate courses, I expect students to find papers from the primary research literature and to struggle with them—and with any contrasting views relating to the topic. They need to be able to extract information from different places, integrate it all and come up with a response. In this way, they are introduced to the process of research.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Faculty need to be relaxed enough so that they don’t see the students as some enormous threat, so that they don’t worry about saying “I don’t know, but will get back to you next class” in response to a student question. The other main thing is to recognize that students don’t need us. They can learn a lot on their own if they are motivated to do so. I gave up on the instinct to “download” everything I know in each lecture a long time ago. They can learn even more in groups because they can collate a lot of information and because they then engage with the information.
I also recommend new faculty take the course design workshops given by Teaching & Learning Services. They should talk about teaching pedagogy with other faculty, and take advantage of opportunities to co-instruct so they can dialogue with other professors—and students too in some cases—and get ideas and feedback on how they’re doing that way.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
They need to understand that I respect their views, that I welcome their questions, and that I expect them to engage with the learning process.
Why do you teach?
My instinctive reaction is to say that I’m not really teaching, I’m promoting learning—and I love it. I’m always intrigued to figure out why students get confused because then I can try to explain things differently. Interacting with students is the most enjoyable thing of all the things I do!
Photo by Marilyn Scott
I’m not really teaching, I’m promoting learning – and I love it. I’m always intrigued to figure out why students get confused, because then I can try to explain things differently.