SFU’s 2009 Excellence in Teaching award winners l-r: Russell Day, psychology; Peter Liljedahl, education and Doug Allen, economics.

2009 teaching excellence awards

February 25, 2010

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SFU’s 2009 Excellence in Teaching award winners, chosen by a committee of faculty, alumni and students, bring enthusiasm, innovation and passion to their teaching, and clearly care about their students’ learning and achievement.

When psychology instructor Russell Day shows up for class he always wears a tie. He likens it to dressing up for a special occasion.

"It’s a way of showing respect for students and their learning," he says.

Day has the unenviable job of teaching both of the psychology department’s introductory courses, which each have more than 400 students. But his respect for students ensures that he works doubly hard to keep them interested.

"These are gateway courses into the psychology program and that’s really important for the student experience," he says.

He acknowledges that teaching so many students at once requires an entirely different skill-set than teaching a class of 40, but he’s up to the challenge.

Student nominators say his lectures are engaging and laced with his trademark humour as well as passion for his topic. They also appreciate the music he plays (U2 and Queen) prior to class and his invitation to drop by his office and introduce themselves.

Day balances his first-year class load with teaching instructional-skills workshops at universities across the country. Not bad for a fellow who never earned a high school diploma and started university at age 30.

"It helps me to connect with the mature students," he says. "And I figure my PhD trumps a high school diploma."

In 2004, Peter Liljedahl received the Governor General’s gold medal for the highest academic standing among all SFU graduate students. This year Liljedahl, now an assistant professor of mathematics education, is being recognized as one of SFU’s best teachers.

A former high school math teacher, Liljedahl now teaches pre-service and in-service teachers enrolled in the Faculty of Education. His goal is to engage his students in mathematics and get them to embrace the ‘messy work’ of teaching the subject.

It’s a pretty tough audience, he says, since most of these students have very negative views of mathematics. Still, it’s a challenge he relishes. His teaching approach is to set students accessible tasks that encourage them to explore and discover mathematical concepts.

"I try to give students who are very resistant to mathematics an experience that is other than what they’ve had so that they can find in themselves their inner mathematician," he says. "I love changing minds more than anything else."

The process works. Student nominators acknowledge his innovative approach to teaching mathematics.

"I use the ideas I learned in his class with my students and I find they enjoy math," says one nominator. "He has changed my attitude towards math and my teaching."

The concepts introduced in first-year microeconomics are often difficult to grasp. Many students dislike the course and failing grades are not uncommon.

But that’s not the case when economics professor Doug Allen is the instructor. He uses aspects of popular culture, such as songs, movies, novels and even relationships with the opposite sex, to teach students how to apply complicated and mechanical economic techniques to their everyday life.

"I’m their preacher and I’m trying to convert them to the economic way of thinking," explains Allen. "Microeconomics is a tool of analysis, not an end it itself."

Students get the message. Says one student nominator, "By taking every issue and asking ‘how can we explain this with economics?’ he forces us to think critically about everything we see and do."

Says another, "I actually hated economics before Dr. Allen’s class. But his innovative teaching technique totally changed my view on economics."

While Allen loves teaching, he confesses that perhaps he loves research slightly more. He has a new book pending that examines social institutions like the aristocracy, duelling and the purchase of public office during the pre-modern era. "It’s a little bit like economics meets Pride and Prejudice," says Allen.


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Doug Allen definitely deserves this award. ECON 103 is currently my favourite class this term, and I actually look forward in reviewing after every class. I don't usually re-write my notes, but Allen encouraged us to write another set of notes right after class for us to study better. I love his enthusiasm and humorous stories! Allen, you're a great prof!

claire Reid

Doug Allen rocks!

Explains economics in a way that makes you want to go home and read more economics and then think about economics when you're driving your car and then when you are out clubbing on the weekend it makes you want to draw graphs on the bar napkin to explain to other kids what you learnt that week.

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