Opening Doors to better teaching
Like the pitching coach that helps a professional athlete improve his game, Andy Dicks, a 2009 President's Teaching Award recipient and Teaching Academy member, helps both new and seasoned faculty improve their classroom skills so students have a better learning experience.
Dicks, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, is a mentor in the University of Toronto’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) program, Open Doors on Teaching, a collaborative initiative with the Teaching Academy.
“The outside perception is that we [at U of T] don’t care about teaching because we’re known as a research intensive university,” said Dicks. ”But the reality is that departments take teaching more seriously than ever.”
The Open Doors program is one example of the university’s commitment to teaching. CTSI matches faculty seeking feedback on their teaching practices with Teaching Academy mentors. The pair then make arrangements for the mentee to sit in on one of the mentor’s lectures. Afterwards, they meet to discuss what the mentee observed and what he/she can do to improve lectures.
“This is a unique mentorship program for U of T instructors,” said Thuy Huynh, programs co-ordinator at CTSI. “It gives them an opportunity to visit Teaching Academy members’ classrooms and engage in discussions with mentors.”
Dicks has mentored faculty from all three campuses and from a variety of disciplines since 2010, when the program first started. He also offers his mentees the opportunity to have him attend one of their lectures for further feedback. This semester he opened the doors to his lab for the first time and wants instructors of all disciplines to know they are welcome, even if lab work is not a regular part of their course curricula.
“The dynamic between the students and instructors is quite interesting in a lab,” said Dicks. “There is a lot of relationship building taking place.”
Michelle Arnot, a lecturer in pharmacology and toxicology, took advantage of Open Doors in its inaugural year. CTSI matched her with Dicks because they share similar experiences. Both are instructors in the life sciences program and each teaches a course with a large class enrolment. Arnot said she attended two of Dicks’ lectures and took him up on the offer to have him observe two of her lectures.
The first thing she noticed about Dicks’ teaching style was how he engaged with his class of more than 400 students. After each section of his presentation, Dicks stops and asks his students questions about the material to assess their understanding of the subject before moving to the next slide. She also noted that he uses real life experiences and personal stories to motivate his students.
“By the time he came to my lectures I had already incorporated a couple of things I learned from him,” said Arnot.
Dicks said the most common reason for seeking feedback is that instructors want to make their subject come alive for students. They want to capture their students’ attention and not just have them sit passively watching.
Some of his recommendations for improving the classroom experience include:
- creating visually interesting lecture presentations, perhaps by using more images and less text;
- designing lectures that engage students and encourage them to take notes; and
- asking them questions and not rushing through the material.
“The tendency is to go too quickly,” said Dicks. “Before you go to the class you have to consider what the students know. You’ve been thinking about this stuff on a daily basis. They’re often just seeing it for the first time. We have to show empathy towards our students.”
Although most mentees in the program are new to teaching, Open Doors is open to all faculty in all disciplines, regardless of class sizes. Dicks said the idea that a big class is a bad class is a myth. There are always different things you can try.
“We’ve got to get away from class size being related to educational quality,” he added. “It’s always what you do in the class with the students that is important, not the size of the class.”
To find out more about the Doors Open on Teaching Program, please visit the CTSI website.