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Navin Ramankutty

Department of Geography, Faculty of Science

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

In large classes, I try not to just present facts but to also ask questions and have the students discuss them with each other to arrive at the answer. In these classes, I’m trying to move more towards problem solving. Sometimes, I give a handout with a problem that the students work on, and I walk around and talk to them individually. It takes a lot more time, but at the end, I feel they learn more that way.

I’ve also realized that it’s better to take a few concepts and teach them really well rather than to pile on a whole lot of information. So, for each lecture, I will decide on one to three concepts that I want to get across. I am also trying to engage more with the students by trying to get rid of the hierarchy in the classroom. For example, if students are having a hard time grappling with a difficult concept, I tell them, “Hey, when I first encountered this concept, it was hard for me too. And in fact, it continues to be hard for me.”

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

In the smaller classes, students mostly work on lab reports, assignments, small group or term projects, class presentations, and project term papers. The second or third year students do assignments based on a certain problem that we’ve talked about. They’ll work on building a model, or they’ll get a data set to analyze and do some manipulation of the data. Then they write about how their results can be placed in a larger context. In the large class, I still give exams. I use short essay questions since they allow you to test more concepts than just having multiple-choice questions. I try to develop questions that gauge learning that go beyond just memorizing things.

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

Most of the students in the large class are from outside the discipline. I love teaching this class because it is an opportunity to get these students interested and inspire them to think about global environmental challenges, which is important because they are going to be the ones solving these problems in the next decade or two. I can play a role by inspiring them to think about these problems and telling them that they can work within their own disciplines to address these issues in very important ways.

Students from the discipline of geography or environment are here precisely because they are concerned about the issues. The most unique thing that I can offer them is the opportunity to look at these issues from a global perspective and get them to think about problems on a much larger scale than they are used to.

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

I talk to students about the value of science. For example, I will ask them, “Why do most scientists believe that climate change is happening?” I present them with a selection of different kinds of observational evidence, all of which are consistent with the theory. Then we talk about the theory of climate change. Finally, we look at models. Then I take evidence from the latest literature on how scientists have used models to tie theories and observations together.

When I present all of this material, I always return to discuss the “scientific method” and how that’s important. For example, one of the things I always talk about is how, while using a model, you have to do experiments with control cases and compare the differences between experiment and control as you would with any scientific study. The final thing I try to do is to place scientific findings in context, to ask what conclusions can be drawn from everything we know. So for example, we discuss how we can compare climate modelling to other kinds of models, like economic models, and consider how we invest in the stock market in spite of large uncertainties with models of the world economy.

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

Try to teach something that you’re passionate about. If you look at the comments on student evaluations, they often remark that the professor was very passionate about the subject. It inspires them somehow. Also, don’t waste time in the classroom talking about facts that students can get from a textbook. What is unique about teaching is that YOU are in the classroom. So, think about what you as a person can contribute, something that students can’t get from the Internet or from a textbook.

Don’t try to get everything perfect in the first year. Just do a few simple things in the beginning and then innovate year after year as you go along. I think that evolution is important. It is better to teach a few concepts really well than to try to cover a huge amount of material. The biggest challenge that I faced when I started was time management. One of the things I learned is to block times off for important things. So have a chunk of time reserved for research and a chunk of time for teaching prep, rather than one hour here and one hour there.

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

I think my main advice is to attend class and pay attention. You’re paying tuition, you’re sitting in a class, and you have someone who’s teaching, so why not take advantage of that time? A lot of people come to class and do something else, and it’s distracting to other students and to the teacher. If students would rather be doing something else in class, I would prefer that they not attend.

Also, make use of office hours. Most professors are flattered when a student comes and asks questions. They’re actually really happy about it. Lastly, try not to prejudge a course. Even if the professor is new, give the professor a chance to show what he or she has to offer and make your judgement later.

Why do you teach?

It can be very rewarding because you feel like you’re making a difference at some grander level. With research, I sometimes wonder whether my best contributions are behind me, but my best teaching days may still be ahead of me, which is actually very inspiring. I draw energy from other people and in a classroom, I find myself more intellectually active. It has happened that I hit upon a new kind of research idea while teaching. Also, it gives me the opportunity to influence the next generation of scholars. So in some ways, I’m not just teaching, I’m also influencing future research.

Email Address: 
navin.ramankutty@mcgill.ca
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