Entre Nous with Cynthia Weston, Director, Teaching and Learning Services

Entre Nous with Cynthia Weston, Director, Teaching and Learning Services McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 3, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > April 3, 2008 > Entre Nous with Cynthia Weston


with Cynthia Weston, Director, Teaching and Learning Services

Caption follows

Cynthia Weston says that the transition to full-time employees in 2005 has allowed Teaching and Learning Services to tackle bigger projects than in previous years.
Owen Egan

Enhancing, engaging, educating

Even though it is the day before she has to submit the new budget for her unit, Cynthia Weston graciously agrees to an interview with the McGill Reporter. Of course, there are worse fates for Weston than having to put aside the number crunching for 30 minutes to talk about a subject she truly loves: teaching and learning. Coming to McGill in 1980 as a professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, Weston has been involved with Teaching Learning Services (TLS) and its various incarnations since 1982. In 2005, Weston became TSL's director – a move laden with irony as the Chicago native left behind the classroom setting she so loves to devote her full attention to improving it.

What is the mandate of Teaching and Learning Services?

Our mission is to promote and support the ongoing development and enhancement of teaching and learning services.

That sounds like a pretty wide-ranging task.

It is. Our people collaborate with professors to help them improve their teaching. We work with departments and faculties on program design or redesign. And we work very much on the administrative level, implementing and shepherding policies related to teaching and learning. Our goal overall is to help the University through policies and procedures and actual practices to create sustainable, innovative learning environments.

What are some of the major initiatives TLS is working on?

One is teaching and learning spaces. When faculties make requests to upgrade and improve classrooms and teaching spaces, we look at what their priorities are and make recommendations for funding to the Provost.

What kind of improvements are you talking about?

We're trying to design spaces that enhance the opportunities to engage students because we know that people learn better through active engagement; they learn better when they interact with one another; they learn better when they have to articulate their ideas to someone else.

If people are in a memorizing mode, it tends to be surface learning, but if they are in an engagement mode in which they are really integrating what they are learning with their previous knowledge, then it ends up being deeper learning and more useful.

This means moving away from the standard lecture format with fixed seating and a podium in the middle. This is a transmission model of learning – the teacher tells; you listen. We're moving toward classrooms with more flexible seating, more modular approaches.

We'd like to move toward screen-sharing where what students have on their laptops can be shown to the whole class. Not just the professors will show what they want to communicate; students become a part of that as well. It is architecture as pedagogy.

How do you engage students when they are just one of several hundred others?

Good question. Some of our introductory science classes have as many as 900 students in them, so getting people engaged is very much a challenge.

This past September we launched a pilot project called 'Enhancing student engagement with the support of clicker technology.' It is also known as the student response system. During the course of a lecture, students respond to questions using small hand-held devices called clickers with the results being shown in real time on the screen overhead.

Does this change the way professors have to plan their courses?

It does, because rather than a straight lecture, professors will ask students meaningful questions that get them to think, predict, talk with their neighbours and then vote. The professor gives a lecture and students vote again, giving them a way to check their understanding. Professors and students get instant feedback.

Professors who want to use this technology come and work with us in two workshops. Again, it moves them away from just transmitting information to "what kind of thinking do I want the student to do?"

For many undergraduates coming from high school, this is their first contact with university life. They're in a class with 500 to 600 students and they can feel disconnected. We're trying to make sure that the experience is a beneficial one.

The reports this semester have been very positive from both professors and students. Currently we have some 8,000 students using clickers, mostly in the Faculty of Science, but we're looking to roll it out University-wide in September.

How easy is it to get people to change their teaching methods and to use new technology?

First of all, everything is voluntary – people don't have to change if they don't want to. Of course, as you know, we've hired more than 800 new professors in the past five years and the new professors are often teaching some of the large introductory classes. The new faculty are usually very open to fresh approaches.

Then there are long-standing professors who embrace innovation. These people can be very influential – when they start using new technologies, others become interested. I think people who have been teaching for a long time like to try new approaches that will inject new life into their classroom.

I understand you just held your first teaching workshop for grad students.

That's right. On March 8, we had our first one-day Learning to Teach workshop. Most graduate students have little preparation to teach even though they are an important part of McGill's faculty.

Working with Martin Kreiswirth (Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies), we're designing seminars that equip our graduate students with concrete skills and strategies to help them become better teachers.

On a larger scale, Dean Kreiswirth sees this as part of a recruitment package for incoming graduate students that will include some sort of pedagogical preparation. This type of training will put them ahead of their peers when applying for jobs.

How was the workshop received?

We had a cap of 200 and 400 applied and despite a horrible snowstorm we had a full house.

What is the biggest change you've seen since you first set foot in a McGill classroom in 1980?

Without a doubt, the biggest change is the support of central administration for teaching and learning – mainly coming from the Principal and the Provost. They have really planted the flag for teaching, which is critical at a research-intensive university. They've injected new life and resources into the services to support professors and to support these initiatives.

In fact, many offices have followed suit. For example, our CIO, Sylvia Franke, was instrumental in getting the clicker project off the ground. I'm thrilled to be a part of a university where so much is being done to enhance teaching and learning.

Where does your passion for education come from?

Both my parents were teachers. My mother taught in grade school and high school and my father was a chemistry lecturer at Northwestern University. I grew up in an environment where education was highly valued.

What do you miss most about the classroom?

The students. My 25 years in the classroom with students really serves as the touchstone for all the work I'm doing now.

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Cynthia Weston's first job

My mother had a school for handicapped kids. I taught during the summer, helping out when I was about 10 and getting my own class when I was 15. The students were very young so we really worked with them on basic living skills. Even back then, the challenge was to keep them active and engaged.

But my first paying job was at McDonald's. I worked the cash and this was pre-computers, so I had to add up these long lines of numbers that all ended with 8s and 9s. If you were short, you had to pay from your pocket. [Laughing] Math was never my strength, so I was short a lot. One summer, that was enough for me to realize I had to finish my education.