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Raphaël Fischler

School of Urban Planning, Faculty of Engineering

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

The School of Urban Planning is a professional school with a hands-on approach. We give students an active part in their own learning experience through projects, studios and practicums. One of the particularities of our program is that students come to us with Bachelor’s degrees in many different fields and most have little knowledge of urban planning. Nevertheless, from day one, they are required to work in teams and address real-life problems. Generally, as they study a neighbourhood and interact with the local population, they quickly realize that they don’t know what to do. We try to prepare them, but ultimately, there is no right formula and they must learn on the spot. Professionals have to function in situations of uncertainty, conflict, and complexity and students must deal with the same conditions—that is the process of learning.

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

In the studio, we use self-assessment where we ask students to answer a few questions about their own learning process, for instance, what they found difficult and how they dealt with it. We also use iterative assessments to allow students to submit a draft of their work for feedback before they submit the final versions. For exams, we use different question formats—because some students work better in some formats, but also because not all formats are suited to testing all types of knowledge. Less tangible skills, like working in groups and dealing with uncertainty, are important but harder to assess. So to a certain extent we admit our incapacity to evaluate some of the learning that takes place, and students sometimes complain about the lack of feedback.

We rarely criticize students in a negative way. Not just because we want to promote their self-esteem, but also because we realize how complex and difficult this type of work can be. Our main goal is to have students engage with the process.

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

We emphasize that beyond procedural and technical knowledge, this work is not value-neutral: we all have different notions of what a good city is. How we shape our built environment (and, more generally, make decisions) is based not only on interests (economic interests in particular) but also on values, visions of a good society, a good community, a good life. It’s crucial for students to be conscious of their own values and of their place in the collective decision-making of city planning because they are going to meet residents who are very attached to very different concepts and environments.

We also emphasize that professionals must help in the process of defining the problem, not just in the process of finding a solution. In addition, knowing how to communicate effectively is essential, both orally and in writing.

How do you help your students understand what research/scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)? Please provide an example.

One way is to show them good scholarship. We look at exemplary research papers that are exciting and well communicated—papers whose authors display clarity of thought in defining the problem, devising a methodology, analysing the data and stating conclusions. But we also emphasize that there are different types of research, and that not all of them have to be scholarly. Research does have to be rigorous, but a scientific paper is not the only way of doing that. For example, we ask students to analyze a neighbourhood and diagnose its strengths and weaknesses. They work in teams, and then we discuss their findings, their thinking, and their key points. So while there is no set formula to solve the issues, there is rigour. Intellectual rigour rests first on good reasoning, not on technical know-how.

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

If you want teaching to be an important part of your life, you’ve got to make it an important part of your life. If you want to excel in both your teaching role and in your research, you have to take teaching seriously and be prepared to work really hard. Teaching & Learning Services is there for advice and workshops, and you should also consider asking for advice from trusted friends and colleagues.

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

To be active, not passive—students are the true agents of their learning processes. What a person gets out of university is what a person puts into university. The professors can make a difference, and I wish for every student to find an inspiring teacher in his or her life. But learning is really in the hands of the students.

The second thing is that they need to be ready to do team work and to be ready for the messiness that team work involves because this is how the world works. If the team has a slacker on it, the team members will either have to motivate that person, come to me to intervene, or resign themselves to doing that person’s share of the work for their own sakes.

Why do you teach?

I went into academia because I wanted to be a life-long learner. I think that learning things is really the driving force behind teaching. Less modestly, I do think that I have things to say. But it’s not just about knowledge, it’s also about insights and experience: the depth of my teaching is different now from what it was when I started 16 years ago.

I also think that society needs practitioners who are reflective, value-driven and effective, and who set out to do good work. This is what drives me and my colleagues. The world needs to be improved, and it can be improved—very slowly, haphazardly even—and we can help people to go out and do that work, to make the world and our cities better places.

Email Address: 
raphael.fischler@mcgill.ca