John Stix

Earth and Planetary Sciences
Faculty of Science

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

Eyad Atallah and I co-teach a large non-science class called Natural Disasters to 600 students. The size of the class is a challenge, so we choose our tools carefully and try to mix it up a bit to break up the lecturing. Sometimes, I throw a question up on the board and ask the students to vote with clickers, an electronic way to poll students. Sometimes we show a film and we also do some demonstrations in class, like a volcanic eruption. The demonstrations don’t always work out as planned, but they always help in keeping their attention. Another thing we tried is to have one to three speakers coming in via Adobe Connect Web conferencing. They talked for 10 to 15 minutes and then the students asked them questions.

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

In the large classes, it’s 35% for each the midterm and final exams with only short answer questions. We put a lot of emphasis on the term paper, which is worth 30%. Our course syllabus provides a lot of information and guidelines to students about how to write a paper, and we also have a liaison librarian come in and talk to the students. We’ve noticed that since students have access to resources online, their papers have improved significantly. The students choose their own topic—we think that’s much better. In this class of 600, we have a very diverse group coming from faculties like Education, Engineering, and also all the way from U0 to U3. I hate grading exams, but I love reading papers. I really enjoy it. We split the grading up between us and the TAs. We have about 12 TAs, so every TA is grading 40 or 50 papers.

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

I would like my students to have the tools to approach an issue or problem by themselves: know how to ask the right questions, find the right materials, and evaluate competing hypotheses. I think that’s what McGill is all about. For example, this year’s students in the Earth Systems Science research course (ESYS 500) figured out different ways to address research issues with just a bit of guidance from us. And at the end of the course, they were able to reflect on what they would do differently with their methodology if they were to do same thing again. That was great. 

As for students from all disciplines in the large intro class, I would say they get to develop their own interests during the term paper—through the writing process and in organizing themselves. I think students should be encouraged to write much more.

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

In our research class, we try to explain to the students what we do in the research groups we’re involved in. I co-teach with Eyad Attalah whose topic is tornadoes. One day he came to class and said, “I am not going to talk to you about tornadoes today. I am going to talk to you about a very interesting storm system that is developing.” This was a couple of days before Sandy hit. He spent almost the entire lecture looking at this storm. The storm hit on Monday and we had class on Tuesday. All the students were amazed. They could hear him talking about something that really excited him. So from time to time we deliberately include something that we are involved in personally.

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

The first time you teach a course, it is always an experiment. So experiment! Try different approaches. Some will work better than others, so this can be fine-tuned the next time you teach the course.

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

Go to class! The classroom experience can be very stimulating. Also do lots of writing. Being able to write well is a wonderful skill for graduate school and beyond.

Why do you teach?

That’s an easy question: Because it’s fun! I think most professors at McGill feel that way—it’s just fun to interact with the students! The students at McGill are so good, this is incredible. What a joy to be teaching to these students!

Contact Information
Email address: 
john.stix [at]

I hate grading exams, but I love reading papers. […] I think students should be encouraged to write much more.

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