With Cynthia Weston, Director, Teaching and Learning Services

Posted on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cynthia Weston: "We (profesors) are trained as subject matter experts and a large part of the evidence upon which we are hired is based upon our research ability. But most professors haven't been trained to teach, so they show up in a panic because they don't have the framework to plan a course." / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

It would be hard to find someone at McGill better suited for her job than Cynthia Weston, the Director of Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). A lifelong educator who came to McGill as professor in 1980, Weston has experienced the profession from just about every angle, be it professor, researcher or administrator.

Earlier this year, the Chicago native was honoured for her dedication by being named recipient of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s Christopher Knapper Lifetime Achievement Award. Weston recently sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk all things classroom.

Tell us about the award.

My staff nominated me and, I have to say, it is very humbling. Of course the whole lifetime achievement thing means I’ve been around for a long time [laughing] and when I stopped to think about it I realized that I’ve more or less grown up at McGill.

What make a good teacher?

There are lots of qualities that are needed to be a good teacher, and one of them is a cognitive mechanism called reflection. What is working for the students? What isn’t working? What can I do differently? This mechanism is strong in the best teachers.

Example: I’m a new hire and I come to McGill with no teaching experience. A common scenario?

It’s fairly common. We [professors] are trained as subject matter experts and a large part of the evidence upon which we are hired is based upon our research ability. But most professors haven’t been trained to teach so they show up in a panic because they don’t have the framework to plan a course.

That’s where TLS can help, right?

Right. Our course design and teaching workshop has been one of our flagships since 1993. We look at the thought processes that go into planning and designing a course. In all, some 500 professors have gone through the program and, because many of them have been new hires, we’re starting to see a real culture change in teaching around here.

In what way?

Specifically in regard to increased student engagement in our classrooms – and that’s a good thing because we know that when students are engaged with content and each other, they learn in a deeper way.

How do we get students involved when they are just one in a class of 600?

In 2006 we started using clickers in some of our larger classrooms and we noticed a difference in student engagement right away. It gives them immediate feedback and provides them with a better sense of what they know and what they need to study more.

On the other side, it also means that professors have to ask meaningful questions, so, in that way, it helps them reflect more on the critical concepts they are trying to teach.

And the program has been successful?

To date, some 200 professors have used clickers in their classrooms, which means some 10,000 students. We have been gathering data all this time and the clickers have made a huge difference – especially in those large first-year classes where it is easy for students to feel anonymous. The clickers have helped them feel more engaged with the material.

Any other classroom initiatives?

TLS’s Teaching and Learning Spaces Working Group is constantly looking at ways to enhance the educational environment and we can see it in the way McGill designs its new classrooms and lecture theatres.

Now we want chairs that turn around and workspaces where students can put their laptops and their papers. New classrooms are being designed with round tables around which six to eight students sit; glass walls where students can write and screen-sharing capability where we can post what’s on a student’s laptop to the main classroom screen.

How have the students and professors responded?

For professors there is a learning curve because this isn’t the traditional lecture environment. This is an environment where you have active and collaborative learning, where you have close student-faculty interaction.

Students love these classrooms. One student said that it moves the responsibility from the shoulders of the professor to the shoulders of the students. It becomes a shared partnership in learning as opposed to an expectation where the professors speak and the students listen.

To what extent do some of the more experienced professors embrace these changes in educational technology and philosophy?

I think it depends on the individual. For the older professors, the key lies in these different access points, such as clickers. They don’t all come to our workshops, but they are exposed to the ideas through clickers or the new classrooms or through their interactions with younger colleagues.

Any new initiatives at TLS?

We’re working on the connectedness between what we do as a research-intensive university and our teaching mission. One of the strategic goals of the University is to have undergraduate students have some sort of research

experience in their first couple of years here. It may mean a research project, it may mean a research seminar, it may mean working with their professors – so that students benefit from being at a research-intensive university and they get to understand how one thinks like a researcher.

As well, we are doing more and more program initiatives like the big one that we’re doing

with the Faculty of Law. We’re working with them for the next three years. The name of the initiative is “Better teaching for active learning.”

Is this training more effective when it is done faculty by


I think this type of program-

level initiative is where we’re going to see a lot of change. And I think it is more effective in the long run because professors cross-identify themselves as disciplinary experts – we see ourselves as members of our disciplinary communities. So I think working on teaching within that disciplinary context is a more effective way than doing it university wide.

Increasingly, we want to work with Chairs, because we’ve come to realize that Chairs is where

the rubber hits the road. That’s where you have the programs developed, that’s where teaching assignments are done and Chairs are expected to do reviews of professors’ teaching and research to prepare them for promotion and tenure.

Any other projects?

We’re just starting a brand new initiative to work directly with undergraduate students. Recently, I gave a seminar called “Learning expectations at McGill” with Ken Ragan, who teaches this big intro physics class; Dave Ragsdale, who teaches this big intro to physiology class; and Mike Porritt, Director of Residences.

What was the impetus behind the seminar?

We’ll often talk with professors about their expectations for student learning, but we don’t tell the students what we expect from them. We all perform better if someone tells us what it is we’re trying to achieve. It was a pilot seminar and the students loved it. They said, “for the first time I have a sense of what the profs expect me to learn.”

What is the biggest challenge facing professors?

Time. The expectations for new professors – or any professor, for that matter – are enormous in terms of getting their research lab started, building their research programs, planning courses, teaching, and supervising graduate students. It is very hard to find the time to do all those things and to do them well. These people really care and they want to do the best for their students, the best for their graduate students and the best for research, but time constraints can make that very challenging.

What is the payoff?

When a student comes up to you and says “that course made such a difference in my life.” When you see that flash of understanding on a student’s face – that aha moment of understanding – that’s the payoff. That’s when you know you’ve really made a contribution to the future of a young person.

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