What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I work in a pediatric intensive care unit at the Children’s Hospital, so I generally teach in a clinical setting, and students are assigned to work in our unit with learning objectives related to their level.
One thing I like to concentrate on in a clinical case is when there is uncertainty about what to do or how to look at something. This is a great opportunity to develop students’ higher-order learning and clinical reasoning skills.
Then there is the power of the story of somebody’s life. I can teach about the tendons in the hand, but it is way more meaningful if it is attached to individuals’ stories about how they used their hands or how they injured them. There are all kinds of informal messages that I try to pass on as well, for example, how people should be treated, how to be respectful, and how to understand the context of the patient. These are things that we don’t always talk about, but if I tell the students a story, these messages end up coming out.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I try to mix my assessment methods because a lot of it is actually observing people’s behaviours in different contexts in order to see what their overall performance is (broadly called performance-based assessment). There are often other educators involved in evaluation, so building consensus with them is also a part of the process. I also look at what students’ educational objectives are and what they’re supposed to be learning, and try to assess whether they’re meeting those objectives.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Actually, I think that the most important thing that they learn about is certain values—for example, that they will be learning throughout their careers. What we are telling them is going to change, and the skill of self-regulated learning is one of the real objectives of their studies. We are also trying to pass on some informal curricular messages, like how they are supposed to treat people. We are in a service-related profession, and it comes with obligations towards the people that we’re serving. This is not to say that the message of competence is missing or less important because competence is what everything is based on, and that is conveyed too. But it’s these kinds of messages—and the larger idea that we are modeling thinking and best practices around the problems at hand—that needs to be reinforced.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
Everything in Medicine depends on bringing the focus to the bedside because there is nothing more powerful than the story. You can tell people all you want about randomized control trials, but it will never have as much effect as when they actually see someone with a problem and then you link it to the research by asking them to look up the latest relevant literature. Nowadays students can go to the computer even at three o’clock in the morning, click on the McGill library website, and immediately find the appropriate paper. Knowledge generation and translating it to practice is often best done at the bedside.
I think people also need to see the possibilities for their own careers and to have role models. Again, for me, that’s about stories too.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
I would tell them not to treat teaching as an extra or a given, and not to think that being content experts makes them excellent teachers. Being experts does help a lot, but they should still avail themselves of the services available (faculty development for a large variety of environments is strongly emphasized in Medicine). The other thing that I would say—and this comes from my primarily clinically-based perspective—is that if they’re working in the clinical environment, they should try to understand what the overall curriculum of the students is, and try to not just be a cog in that wheel.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I think that because a lot of learning is experiential, attendance is very important, underrated as it may be by students. Even if students just want to pass exams, they should attend because they are usually going to hear what they need to hear for the exams there anyway. And besides that, a huge part of learning is done through conversations, and the only way to have conversations is to be with other people, so … attend!
On a separate note, students should also ask questions and try their best to see what turns them on—this is great for helping with career choice and those kinds of issues.
Why do you teach?
I teach for two reasons. First, I love teaching. I always have. I think there is no better way to stay humble in what I know than to teach because teaching is a conversation that I always learn from. Second, I get to hear about new things in the field in a highly efficient way that is both interesting and grounded in patients—being exposed to students is to be exposed to their experiences and all of the people they’ve interacted with.
Photo by Owen Egan