Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I often use videos, everything from interviews with prominent researchers to how equipment works and how it can be used in the laboratory to generate different types of data. Videos help encode the material. PowerPoint slides help make the material more visually engaging because it can be emphasised with colour and motion.
Another strategy I use is to have a question-and-answer session. This is perhaps the only active approach to learning in this class. It’s not just for students to clarify what I’ve said but an opportunity for them to be creative and to ask questions on material beyond what we’ve covered. Surprisingly, this approach appears to encourage students who are timid to participate, presumably because of reduced anxiety; the format helps them feel like they’re in the same boat as everyone else.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
In a class of 650 students, I can only assess their learning with multiple-choice exams. I’ve tried the short-answer format, but these types of questions take a long time to grade and don’t really help assess what has been learnt because the students have this idea that there’s a set answer for everything and simply repeat what I write in my lecture notes.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
In my class, students learn how to do research in behavioural neuroscience. Specifically, they learn about many different techniques, such as how research with animals can help us understand human development, human behaviour, brain maturation, and so on. More importantly however, they learn that behavioural neuroscience as a part of experimental psychology requires an integrated, multi-disciplinarian approach; they learn how to apply methods from such diverse fields as genetics, molecular biology, psychopharmacology, animal behaviour and biological anthropology.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I introduce students to some of our current research pioneers, like McGill’s own Ronald Melzack and Brenda Milner. But I also talk about pioneers from the 1800s who laid the foundations of what we know today. I think it’s important for students to have some historical background; it puts the latest research into perspective.
Of course, most of the course material is based on research and methodology that we can use to understand the brain and behaviour relationships, so students are constantly exposed to figures, graphs, and diagrams to exemplify the types of research in the field. For example, we cover microscopy, histology, behavioural testing, animal models, and so on. On many occasions I review the entire methodological protocol of an experiment to help them understand how the experiment addresses a specific research question.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
It is impossible to keep every student happy in a large class. The main thing however, is to aim to provide a positive experience so that students take away with them having learnt something. A positive environment will make them want to return to class even if they don’t like the material you teach. Students can be anxious in a large class, and they need to feel relaxed in order to learn and to share what they’ve learnt. For example, I let the students discuss course material on WebCT, but I don’t contribute to the discussions because when I do, they stop discussing. It’s important for them to feel that WebCT is their personal space and their own medium, and that ultimately, they are in control of their own learning.
In class, professors should always try to reply positively, even if they find certain questions inappropriate, irrelevant or just don’t know the answers. It’s best to be honest; if you don’t know the answer, just say so. Alternatively, suggest you’ll try and find out for next class. Better still, ask the students if they know anything about it. You’ll be surprised with the answers.
For large classes, it helps to post some of the lecture notes in advance on WebCT. Some professors have reservations about doing this. I find the students find it easier to follow the lecture if they have notes to direct them. WebCT is helpful for large classes because it’s the primary medium for communication. Ultimately however, students have to take responsibility for their own learning.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Students should take independence in their learning. There is a constant need for students to know exactly how much they need to know, which chapter, which page numbers and what precisely they will be tested on. Students should use the course notes as a guideline for their reading and should do their own research and read about the topic. This facilitates learning because it requires an active role on the students’ part.
I also encourage students to keep up with the readings. Large classes rely on textbooks, so it can be easy to follow assigned readings. Students should also regularly attend review sessions, which are good opportunities to review past material and learn informally from teaching assistants. Students should also use the discussion board on WebCT to discuss lecture material with other students.
Why do you teach?
As a professor of behavioural neuroscience, I believe it’s my duty to share my knowledge in what is now an active and exciting research area, and to train the new generation of researchers and scientists. More personally, I teach because I crave new knowledge, and teaching helps me gain that knowledge. I enjoy telling others about what I have learnt and how new findings about animal behaviour have enhanced our knowledge about human behaviour. When I teach, I learn more about what I teach, and this is very rewarding to me.