Classroom dynamos

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McGill Reporter
November 16, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 06
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Classroom dynamos

McGill suffers from no shortage of teaching awards. Most faculties offer at least one each year. But the University's newest teaching awards aim to be McGill's most prestigious.

The winners of the new Principal's Prizes for Excellence in Teaching were officially announced at fall convocation last week.

The Principal's Prizes stand out from their existing brethren in a number of respects.

For one thing, the awards are available to teachers right across the University in a wide range of disciplines. For another, the reward is a little more substantial than seeing your name added to a plaque. Each of the winners of the new Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching receives $5,000.

"The point of these awards is to demonstrate McGill's commitment to teaching and to great teachers," explains Principal Bernard Shapiro. "No matter how research intensive an institution we become, teaching will always be as important as anything else we do."

The awards are presented at fall convocation because the ceremony provides a rare opportunity for a major public event at which all of McGill's faculties are represented.

"The qualities we were looking for in the candidates for these prizes were a proven commitment to students, an ability to motivate students to perform at their very best, and evidence that the teachers used student feedback to keep improving. Nobody is ever perfect. We wanted to see evidence that people were committed to continually developing their skills."

Physiology professor Anne Wechsler won the prize in the associate professor category, natural resource sciences professor Terry Wheeler won among assistant professors, and lecturer Hélène Poulin-Mignault, from the English and French Language Centre, took the prize for best faculty lecturer.

There is also a category for full professors, but the selection committee, comprised of Shapiro, Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet and a group of students and professors, opted not to hand one out this year.

Shapiro says the candidates for the prize, proposed by their respective faculties, were good, but not quite good enough.

In a letter written earlier this year to support Wechsler's candidacy for another teaching prize, medical student Matthew Erskine called her "the single most dedicated professor I have encountered over the course of my eight years of post secondary study."

Erskine paid tribute to Wechsler's "endearing use of humour, metaphor, literary quotes and even poetry to stress key concepts and maintain students' attention and interest."

Wechsler has been quick to utilize new technological approaches to teaching such as online quizzes and audio and video clips. She also uses some fairly timeworn techniques like supplying her home phone number to jittery students approaching their finals so she can help them conquer their nerves.

Former student Matthew Schumaeker testified to Wechsler's dedication, approachability and availability to her students. "The presence of such a person in the often intimidating world of first-year medical school is uniformly appreciated by her students."

Students in the Department of Physiology paid Wechsler perhaps the ultimate tribute when they created their own teaching prize for professors. They named it the Dr Anne Wechsler Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Physiology.

Wechsler's departmental chair, Professor Alvin Shrier, noted that Wechsler's commitment to good teaching isn't restricted to her own courses. As the chair of the department's curriculum committee since 1989 and as its chief academic adviser since 1979, she plays an instrumental role in helping to shape the educational experiences of all the students in her department.

Shrier notes that Wechsler was a very influential player when the Faculty of Medicine reshaped its curriculum earlier this decade and she has been an active force on committees monitoring its implementation. Wechsler won the Faculty of Medicine's top teaching prize in 1998.

For his part, Terry Wheeler is on a winning streak. Last spring, he picked up the Macdonald Campus Award for Teaching Excellence.

Wheeler is renowned for being strict about deadlines, but his students don't grumble since he is just as demanding of himself. He is credited with being remarkably speedy in grading assignments, complete with thoughtful suggestions and criticisms. And students appreciate his "Wheeler Grading System": students are afforded a second chance to improve their grades by rewriting their assignments after they've been marked.

Jessica Forrest, who took Wheeler's Zoogeography course, commented that "he makes the geographical distributions of families of small flies and the effects of the Pleistocene glaciations seem much more fun and memorable than they have any right to be."

Wheeler also takes a keen interest in his students' research efforts, encouraging even undergraduates to have their work published in refereed scientific journals. He doesn't just cheer from the sidelines; he has co-authored and overseen the publication of several student research projects.

Many of his graduate students, writing in support of Wheeler receiving a teaching prize, credited him with being a fine academic mentor, somebody who makes a point of helping students hone their presentation skills and learn the ins and outs of applying for grants.

"This dedication to graduate training has paid off as his students have not only been very successful at securing scholarships and research funding, they have also consistently received awards for their student paper presentations at both national and provincial conferences."

Stephanie Larkin, now a lawyer with Ogilvy Renault, took a French course with Hélène Poulin-Mignault 11 years ago. "The content of the course was very challenging and demanded a high degree of both creativity and discipline from the participants. [Poulin-Mignault] had a wonderful ability to draw out the talents of all her students, including those who in other circumstances might have been left to drift passively through the year."

Added Larkin in her letter of support for Poulin-Mignault's teaching prize, "The result was a dynamic class of respected and respectful colleagues, a rare experience in my career as a student."

Madeleine Palmer took Poulin-Mignault's course as an undergraduate in anthropology. She was so impressed by what she experienced, she made the course the subject of her master's thesis in education.

Palmer's thesis posited that a specific skill, the management of trouble repair interaction, is integral to good teaching. "An excellent teacher consistently identifies the important errors and deals with them in a way that maximizes group learning all the while taking into consideration individual learning style and personality," writes Palmer, a skill she believes Poulin-Mignault has in abundance.

Poulin-Mignault's teaching style involves lively class discussions about current affairs and ethical dilemmas. For one assignment, she challenges French neophytes to conduct an interview with a francophone on a complex topic, such as ethics in advertising, and to report back to the class.

"I remember how impossible this task seemed in September. Yet she built our skills systematically and guided our efforts so that all students completed the assignment con brio," recalled Palmer.

Dean of Arts Carman Miller credits Poulin-Mignault with playing a major role in establishing his faculty's Multimedia Language Facility. Hélène Riel-Salvatore, the director of the English and French Language Centre, notes that Poulin-Mignault has taught French to plenty of McGill faculty and staff over the years. "Within McGill, her reputation is as solid as a rock."

Mathematics and statistics emeritus professor William Moser would concur. He took a course with Poulin-Mignault 25 years ago. "Some of the students were shy, embarrassed to speak out. Madame Poulin-Mignault coaxed them with such enthusiasm that we all became chatterboxes."

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