What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
Students come to McGill because we have a reputation as a research-intensive university, and what I can do best is to bring my own research into the class room. It’s my job to make sure the students know how the curriculum relates to the cutting edge of research. I make sure they know the foundations of the field but also the edges of the field. One of the things I do early in the class is guide the students to ask questions that I can’t answer—I know I’m successful when they ask questions for which the field does not yet have answers, since it means they are exploring the boundaries of our knowledge. Sometimes they’ll ask questions that I know I should know, and I’ll say, “I have a PhD, but I don’t know that. But here’s the first place I’d go to look it up.” Or, “I don’t know the answer, but it’s got to be related to these three things, so let’s write them on the board and see what’s going on.” And usually, we’re able to find the answer together—in this manner they are able to witness how I go about learning new things.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
For take home assignments that are marked by a TA, I typically assign questions for which there is only one right answer and one reasonable way to get there. This is good practise for the students, but doesn’t exercise the creativity that I think is so important in science. What I’ve been doing more of now are student video podcasts and posters, for which I also employ peer grading. For the podcast, students each make a 5-minute video. They can record a talk with themselves speaking in front of PowerPoint slides, or they can record a voice-over and not be in it at all. Some students do animations. I don’t mark them on video editing, but they come away with some really creative things. They tell me it’s the hardest talk they’ve ever given because they have to hear themselves speak as they edit it. So I think they learn the most about speaking.
For the poster projects, I spread out all the posters that students have created, give them each a marking sheet, and they go through and mark each other and give comments—good and bad. At the end, they’ve read every poster, they’ve given constructive feedback, they’ve learned what other people did, and they’ve learned how to critique their peers. I grade in real-time and compile everything. There’s usually less than a standard deviation away from the grade the students give and the grade I give. So, peer grading works in this context and is a vehicle for them to learn from one another’s work.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
The edges of knowledge. I introduce the foundations, the things they have to know, but then I’ll give a lot of homework where they use that information and learn on their own. Then I focus on what that means, what the edges of knowledge are. In the final exam, I’ll usually have at least one question that says: “Find three frontiers of knowledge that were touched on in this course and explain what we know and what we don’t know. Define the edge.” Some students think it’s an unfair question, saying, “That’s not in the syllabus.” But I hope some day I’ll see one of my students getting the Nobel Prize for extending the frontiers of knowledge that we have explored in class.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
The main thing is that I’m willing to talk about my research, even if it’s not perfectly related to the course content. I feel that I can tell them about what I’m measuring in a way that’s more comprehensive than what I can tell them about someone else’s experiment. For example, I was recently involved with a measurement of how neutrino mass affects the growth of galaxy clusters. So, in my particle physics class, I talked to the students about what our calculation is and what I think our next paper is going to say. I know I can do that with more enthusiasm than I can tell them of the discovery of the neutrinos in the 1960s.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
McGill faculty are typically very happy to help mentor new faculty in teaching. And all you have to do is ask. In my first year, I approached a senior faculty member, John Crawford, who had just retired. I reminded him that I was in his class years ago and that I learned a great deal. I asked if he would come to my class for two or three lectures and give me feedback, and to come to my class for a forth lecture and lecture himself. He said yes right away. After class, we debriefed for 5-10 minutes and his feedback was great. I was surprised at how easy it was to set this up and how effective the process was.
The other thing is that there is no right way to teach. Try to find your own niche. It’s best for the students if we have a huge selection of teachers with different teaching styles.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Spend a little time before each class introducing yourself to the material because it’s a poor use of the class’s time to spend it all teaching the basics. Students can learn a great deal themselves. They will benefit most if I talk about the exceptions, about the weird stuff, about whatever it is that they don’t understand.
Why do you teach?
I guess for me it’s mainly about understanding the boundaries of our knowledge. They aren’t always clear, and teaching it makes it clearer. And I also mean boundaries of my own knowledge. I love it when students ask me things that I don’t know the answer to and I know I should. That helps me in my research. Textbooks are criminal about that. There should be a margin note in every textbook that says, “This is what we don’t know. This is the limit of our knowledge. Right here.” As opposed to, “I ran out of space in this chapter, and I could tell you much more.”
Photo by Owen Egan