Excellence in Teaching

Feb 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 3

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Each year three awards are given to top teachers at SFU who've been nominated for excellence in teaching awards. The winners are chosen by a committee of faculty, alumni and students who select recipients based on several factors, including their ability to stimulate students to think creatively and critically, present complex information clearly, bring enthusiasm and innovation to the teaching process, and who care about their students' learning.

Malgorzata Dubiel
Andrew Heard
Doug Wilson

Malgorzata Dubiel
By Carol Thorbes

At 149 centimetres (4'10.5”) in height, Malgorzata Dubiel (left) often stands on her tip toes to fill a white board with equations that sometimes leave her students quaking in their seats.

Yet, they call her a “giant in teaching” because of her unique ability to inject humour, meaning and even beauty into mind-boggling mathematics.

The Simon Fraser University senior lecturer's gift for teaching one of the most feared subjects has earned her a 2002 excellence in teaching award.

Dubiel, originally from Poland and a teacher at SFU since 1985, is devoted to demystifying mathematics.

Her joy in seeing students “get it” drives her incessant search for creative ways of helping students grasp the basics of mathematics.

“For many of the students I teach, the key tool they need to be successful learners is confidence in their abilities. They also need to be inspired and they can tell when a teacher isn't,” says Dubiel, who has studied voice projection through SFU's learning and instructional development centre to improve her lecturing skills.

Getting students to build intriguing, geometric models from drinking straws and examining a picture of a Chinese chef making noodles multiply are some of Dubiel's techniques for helping students visualize math.

In nominating her for an excellence in teaching award, many of her students lauded her refusal to give up on them.

They also praised her ability to demonstrate the applicability of different types of math in daily life and different approaches to solving math problems.

“I fully credit Dubiel for opening the door to mathematics for me, a door which had been shut to me most of my life,” says one student, “and thus had shut many potential opportunities and careers to me also.”
Dubiel will be on study leave next year.

Andrew Heard
By Marianne Meadahl

Andrew Heard (right) surprised one of his first-year classes by asking them all to leave the room at the start of class on the first day, before even introducing himself as teacher.

He called them back and questioned them about their actions. “No one asked why they had to leave, or in fact, who I was,” recalls the associate political science professor. “It led to a discussion about the everyday rules that govern our lives, and how sometimes those rules need to be questioned.”

Heard uses the approach to explain political science, a subject many students don't understand. “Students often take it to fill program requirements. Many don't even know what political science is,” says Heard, whose teaching style is being recognized with a 2002 excellence in teaching award. “My task is not simply to teach them the nuts and bolts of facts and concepts. I try to show them how the subject is relevant to their lives, and the value in trying to analyze and make more sense of the political world around them.”

Heard, a native of South Africa who specializes in Canadian constitutional law, grew up in Nova Scotia and studied in Canada and England. He decided to follow in the footsteps of his political scientist father after returning to South Africa for a stint at teaching.

While he maintains several research interests, and has just finished a paper on judicial independence with one of his doctoral students, Heard gets more personal satisfaction from being in the classroom, where he constantly challenges students.

“My assignments are very different, and they get more difficult - and interesting - as students become more senior,” he says. Graduate students, for example, are asked to write opinion pieces for national newspapers. “I encourage them to become engaged in the political world around them,” he adds. “What they learn becomes more meaningful.”

Students aren't the only learners in Heard's class. “I try to approach each class with an eye to learning something new about it myself, no matter how many times I've done the class before,” he says. “There have been many happy surprises when my teaching leads to some spark of insight into issues I am investigating for research and publication.

“I owe much of my continued interest in the subjects I teach to the students I teach,” he adds.

Doug Wilson
By Stuart Colcleugh

Doug Wilson (left) is a little perplexed. “I was surprised to get a nomination,” says this year's recipient of an SFU excellence in teaching award. “But I certainly didn't think I would win. It's flattering, but when people come up and congratulate you, what do you say?”

The senior lecturer in biology may be at a loss for words but he has received an avalanche of praise from students. “The time and effort (he) took in ensuring that all his students had the knowledge to address the lab exercises was astounding,” writes one.

He is “one of the only professors who made a difference in my life,” writes another. “The only reason why I had confidence in biology was due to his teaching style.”

That style has evolved somewhat since the B.C.-raised Regina native started teaching at SFU 22 years ago, after completing both his bachelor's degree in biochemistry and his master's degree in biology at the university.

“My teaching is mostly a struggle to deal with my own limitations,” says Wilson. “When you're standing in front of a class and you find a certain way of doing things isn't working then you try something else. And that's what it's been about for me.”

He believes it's more valuable for students to master concepts than to just memorize information, a philosophy he promotes “by framing my lectures on concepts and devising short laboratory exercises and problems that illustrate them.”

In addition, he says, “I've learned that by evaluating students relative to a fixed scale, rather than relative to each other, students are more willing to teach each other since they don't lose out by doing so.”

Wilson's effectiveness stems not from “his expert knowledge, concern for student learning or pleasant demeanor,” extols another student, “but the combination of all three.”

It's a combination he has no plans to change. “I'm still updating the material I teach and experimenting with different teaching ideas,” he says. “I still enjoy teaching and I hope I will continue to do so until I retire.”

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