What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I think the most important strategy is to make the teaching authentic and applicable to what the students will be doing in real life. For instance, in the doctoral seminar, we’re training educational researchers, so we try to incorporate activities that will help develop skills and capacities they will need as professional educational psychologists. For example, if we have to review a manuscript for a journal, we will discuss how to go about the review process, what constructive criticism looks like, and so on. Basically, the classroom is a means to an end, not an end in itself, so as educators, we need to adjust our approach to make sure it leads to desired outcomes.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I always struggle with having to attach a grade to evaluation. In my view, anxiety over grades interferes greatly with students’ learning. I really appreciate that certain PhD courses have a pass/fail grade rather than a letter grade. And I think the more authentic the evaluation is, the better it becomes. The closer I can bring my assessments to real-world deliverables, the better I feel about them. For the doctoral seminar, this would mean that a literature review should lead to the ability to do proper searches, to use new techniques, to synthesize knowledge, and to critically review literature. I allow students to resubmit work after they’ve already received feedback. This may create more work for me, but if the premise is that assessment is for learning, then we have to do these things.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
There are really two questions here—what the most important thing is for students, and what the most important thing is for me. For me, it’s for students to realize that they’re responsible for their learning, that they get from it what they put into it. If you’re taking a course, you need to know why you’re doing it and how it’ll fill in gaps in your knowledge, and you should take advantage of the opportunities offered. For students, I’ve been told that students use me as a model for organization, preparation, presentation, and setting up the class in an engaging way.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
In my case, it’s pretty easy because many of our students at the PhD level are looking to academic careers as their future, and students are infinitely interested when I offer them insights from the real world and incorporate my experiences into their learning. So in class, I’ll talk about my own work and research on major higher education reform processes in developing countries, like Yemen and Ethiopia. Talking about these projects really injects a sense of importance into some of the research questions that they pursue. Say you do research about a topic that is so abstract that nobody but you understands what the implications or application of this research might be. If you can find a way to connect that research to the bigger picture, it can be the means of promoting learning in more ways than just understanding the subject matter, or knowing the content, or the technical skills to conduct research.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
My experience with new faculty members is that they are very enthusiastic and are inherently motivated to do well. They want to do the best they can, and they’re thrilled with all the support they get, such as the support available from Teaching & Learning Services. But they’re also very smart people and quickly grasp the lay of the land in terms of what is valued and where they should put their priorities. So my recommendation is not to new faculty so much as it is to department chairs: it is not to put a lid on the enthusiasm of new faculty by conveying messages that teaching is of secondary importance, that it doesn’t matter how they teach so long as they bring in research funds.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
The undergraduates who run into problems are the ones who treat university like it is high school. They need to understand that university education is an expensive endeavour, and that they study because it will provide them with more fulfilling lives. To take it lightly, to just do what’s needed to pass, is really a waste of everybody’s time. For graduate students, my advice is to know why they’re in graduate school—to do volunteer work and research, to identify exactly what their areas of interest are, and to invest their time accordingly. A bit of work experience can really help orient their sense of what they want to do in life. It just doesn’t pay off to study for the sake of getting a degree.
I would actually have advice for our Dean of Students too. We need to do a lot of work as an institution to convey to students what a university education means. We need to help students realize what a huge investment it is, for them and for taxpayers, and that they should really take advantage of it. We should assign our best profs to first-year students, have smaller classes where they can connect with someone, and really understand that a university education is more than just doing the courses, getting a grade, and getting out.
Why do you teach?
I teach because I like to teach. Teaching is what keeps me sane, basically, gives me balance and rejuvenates me.
Photo by Owen Egan
For graduate students, my advice is to know why they’re in graduate school—to do volunteer work and research, to identify exactly what their areas of interest are, and to invest their time accordingly.