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Tamara Sussman

School of Social Work, Faculty of Arts

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

There is always an interactive component to my teaching whether I am teaching a seminar of 15 students or a lecture of over 100. In a lecture in front of 120 students for example, about every fourth slide, I pose a question to the group and provide an opportunity to talk. My philosophy is that there’s very much to learn—not just from me but from the interaction and the questions others ask. So, that’s imperative.

I have small group interactive exercises that force them to apply knowledge to real life because that’s what social work is about. In practice, it’s all about reflecting on and applying information. For example, when we discuss ethics, I give students a typical scenario like being a hospital social worker for a 75 year old person with health problems who is insisting on going home but whose daughter disagrees with her wishes. One student plays the social worker and two others play the patient and the patient’s daughter. It’s different to know an ethical situation in theory than it is to navigate it and to experience it in practice. After the role play, I’ll have questions for the students to discuss in their small groups, and then we’ll discuss it in the big group.

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

In social work, we have to write case reports. I used to have students write a case report based on a written case and weave within it all sorts of academic literature. But in the field, they won’t have the glory of writing 10, 15 pages and reflecting and all the rest, and they won’t get a case summarized in writing. Now I use In Treatment, a drama series that airs on HBO, about different people going to counselling. It’s modern, so students can identify with the issues. I’ll give them an episode to watch, they’ll first write an assessment as they would in practice, which gives them the opportunity to write a concise report on real case material. I will also include in the assignment a section for them to link their ideas to the literature so they still have to do the reflecting piece, but it’s separate.

I think what distinguishes a master’s student from an undergraduate student in social work is leadership in the profession, and I would really like them to understand that. So, in my master’s seminar right now, I’m getting them to redesign a program and present it to the class as if we are real stakeholders. They have to use the literature, but have to be presenting it as if this were a board meeting and not an academic presentation.

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

How to create a road map for themselves that will help guide what they might be asking in their practice. They have to be aware of how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and be able to decide whether what they’re thinking is worth asking or not. And of course, they have to reflect on others and be aware of how they’re responded to. Our students go to work in social work agencies where they get supervised by a practitioner with many years of experience. And I have come to understand that conceptualization, that is, a kind of consolidation of self-reflection and critical analysis, is the most important thing they want students to learn. If you know how to conceptualize, then you’ll know how to summarize a case. You’ll know where you’re going, what to ask, how to recognize that you didn’t ask something because you were feeling nervous or ashamed. These things matter as well as all the other skills that professionals expect of social workers.

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

My role is to introduce them to the main debates. If they’re going be reading a critique, I make them read some original material because I want them to start thinking about their own opinion as opposed to how someone else has summarized the material. I’m very purposeful with what I put in the reading material. The first two or three classes are all about giving them the background they need to understand the main debates and ways of thinking about a particular topic or issue.

In my aging seminar for master’s students, I created a handout on “How to Read Critically” because they get hundreds of pages of reading, and they don’t necessarily know how to understand what’s important. So, in the first two classes, we talked about a dominant theory and some gerontologists who contest that theory. In the third class, I didn’t give them any new reading. Instead, they presented a review of the reading material including the five people that this gerontologist referred to. I want them to question and to go back.

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

If possible, co-teach. It often means teaching two sections of the same course and learning from each other. You plan the course together and you share what doesn’t go well. When I did my PhD, I actually video-taped myself, and it was very helpful. It’s like the self-reflection I want students to learn. I expect it of myself as well. That’s how you get better.

Take evaluations seriously. The thing that you hate the most about your teaching evaluation is usually the thing you know to be true. I read my teaching evaluations, put them away, read them again about three or four weeks later, and think about them again. I also give my own midterm-evaluations in which I ask questions related to something I’ve tried to accomplish. It still gives me an opportunity to actually change something, not just for the next students, but for my current students as well.

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

I want students to be open to not just what I say, but what their colleagues have to say or ask. I’m uncomfortable with the model that says the teacher is the expert and everything else is just wasting time. I’d like students to understand that there is something that someone else is going to say or ask that will teach them more than something I just said. They’re all coming in with knowledge and with experience, whether they are aware of it or not, and I expect them to see it in themselves and in their colleagues.

Why do you teach?

I see it as my role to educate the next generation of practitioners. It is part of my responsibility to the profession. I get a lot of pleasure out of training students to practice. I also think my research is better because I teach. The examples students bring to class keep me and my research questions current. My practice skills are also retained because when I teach about practice I continue to learn about practice. I do have days where I’m bashing my head against the wall about something that happened in class, but it really only takes a couple of students who either were struggling and then did awesome at the end of the term, or who were so engaged from the beginning that it just keeps you going because that’s what it’s all about.

Email Address: 
tamara.sussman@mcgill.ca