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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Top marks for innovative teaching

Trent University shows that effective teaching strategies and professors’ knowledge of course material are what count, Caroline Alphonso writes

By Caroline Alphonso
The Globe and Mail

Mathematics professor David Poole has been making small miracles happen in the classroom at Trent University - converting some of the biggest math-phobes into math-addicts.

He's passionate about teaching the subject, even designing a course for those studying to be elementary school teachers, the ones he describes as having a lot of anxiety about instructing young people in math. These are the teachers who will help form the future mathematicians.

“[The course] has been successful. Some of them have kept in touch with me. Their goal was to become a history teacher and now they're teaching math,” Mr. Poole said.

His enthusiasm about teaching, shared by other professors at Trent, has won the university ringing endorsements from students.

In the University Report Card survey, students ranked Trent first among 38 institutions for its education standards, followed closely by Brock University and the University of Guelph. Students praised the Peterborough, Ont.-based university, giving it top marks in the quality of teaching, effectiveness of teaching strategies and professors’ knowledge of course material.

One student in the survey said that the quality of education is of “extremely high calibre.” Another student said: “The small student-faculty ratio makes for a more intimate learning environment, which benefits both students and faculty members.”

Mr Poole credits the high ranking to professors at the university being given the freedom to try out new teaching methods. In fact, Mr. Poole, who is also associate dean of teaching and learning, runs workshops and panels on different teaching strategies that can be used in the classroom.

“Trent is not [uniform] in the sense that you can say the entire university operates this particular way,” Mr. Poole said. “If a faculty member wants to try out a teaching strategy . . . go ahead and do it. If it works, that's great. So you'll find different kinds of strategies in different places being used.”

In first year physics, for example, there are no lectures. Instead, professors assign all the readings to students before class and then use the Web to have students say what they didn't understand. The physics professor then reads those on-line responses an hour before class, and only teaches the material that isn't thoroughly understood.

“Good teaching can happen just about anywhere. But certainly in my time at Trent, I’ve seen an awful lot of thought and care go into the teaching that my colleagues do,” said Mr. Poole, who has been recognized for his teaching.

Student Kate McEwen appreciated this when she walked onto the campus last year for the general arts program. “Being a small school really works in its favour,” the 20-year-old said. “I couldn't imagine being a number.”

By the end of her first week of school, she had all her professors’ home numbers just in case she ran into problems with her assignments.

She can’t stop raving about her Spanish professor. In her first year of university, she said she learned more Spanish than she had French through high school. And in her international development class, her professor spoke enthusiastically about the places he had visited.

“They know what they’re talking about. They can talk about it from their own experiences,” Ms. McEwen said. At Brock, president David Atkinson said there’s nothing “particularly sexy” taking place on campus as far as teaching goes. However, professors are encouraged to be innovative in their teaching methods and maintain a relationship with their students, a move that likely caused its second place ranking in the quality of education category.

“There are academics out there who really are in the business of research and whether or not they teach undergraduate students is irrelevant to them. When we bring faculty in, we stress the importance of teaching,” Mr. Atkinson said. “There has been an emphasis here on teaching that's part of our tradition.”

On the other end of the spectrum, students who ranked their universities low in the quality of teaching say their professors are more interested in research than standing in front of a classroom.

At the University of British Columbia, one student said there’s a lack of lesson planning. “It wouldn't hurt if the teacher were actually interested in trying to educate the students instead of just reading through lecture notes,” another student said.

Sandra Li, who is studying English literature at the university, said she's had some excellent professors, but there have been times where she’s had to figure out the course material on her own. One professor's notes were so disorganized that “I basically learned that entire course from the textbook,” Ms. Li said.

The university, however, is not sitting back. Workshops and seminars are held every year through the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth to enhance teaching quality. The centre, one of the largest in the country, has an annual budget of $600,000.

Gary Poole, director of the centre, said that despite the level of activity taking place, comments from some students are a telltale sign that the university still has some way to go.

“I know some would say it’s a privilege to be here because we have award-winning teachers,” Mr. Poole said. “I’m proud of what we do here at UBC, but I’m not surprised [by the comments]. That's frustrating for me and disappointing. But it happens.”

At Trent, an interactive learning centre, similar to the University of British Columbia's, holds workshops for professors on teaching strategies. Professors are taught how to document their own teaching, how to use technology in the classroom and there are panel discussions on teaching both large and small classes.

Although Mr. Poole at Trent has mastered the art of learning the names of all his students, he’s still trying out new teaching strategies in the classroom.

“I like to try out new things. I like designing things,” he said. “I’ve done insane things like having students in a calculus class write an essay.” ROBTv Workopolis