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SFU 2023 Excellence in Teaching Awardee aims to inspire students to be engaged, self-directed learners who are empowered to develop their own agency and resilience in the face of environmental crises

March 06, 2024

Tara Holland, a senior lecturer in SFU’s Department of Geography and School of Environmental Science, is a compassionate and reflective educator who enhances student learning in her classrooms using evidence-based techniques.

Holland received the SFU 2023 Excellence in Teaching Award in recognition of her commitment to developing her teaching toolkit, work to understand how students best learn and her innovative and compassionate approach to teaching.

From implementing two-stage collaborative exams to developing a capstone course based on community research projects to integrating elements of choice into major assignments, Holland designs assignments and course materials that enhance student experience and learning outcomes.

Holland explains that she has worked for years to develop her in-person teaching practice to be engaging, motivating and inclusive. When the pandemic caused SFU to move to remote teaching, she saw this as an opportunity to develop ways to engage students in this new environment.

“I realized right away that it would take a new suite of skills to maintain these attributes of pedagogy in a remotely delivered course – it was never a question of whether I would do it, but I just needed to learn how,” says Holland.

Holland shares that she leaned into the resources available to her through SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence and current research on online and blended teaching and learning to craft a path forward.

While the move to remote learning was a new challenge to tackle, Holland is no stranger to shifting teaching methods to better serve students. Over her time at SFU, Holland has received multiple Teaching and Learning Development Grants that she has used to investigate and implement methods to improve student’s motivation, engagement, and retention of key course concepts.

“I strongly believe in teaching as an evidence-based practice. I gather evidence to inform my teaching in a number of ways, one of which is reflecting on what works and doesn’t in my courses – this can be based on observations, feedback from students and peers, and/or more formal inquiry projects,” she says.

She regularly attends and presents at teaching conferences and participates in workshops, keeping on top of the latest findings and trends in the field. In addition, Holland is the Faculty of Environment Teaching Fellow, where she aims to foster a collaborative community of teaching practice throughout units, providing support for her colleagues to develop, reflect on, and share their pedagogy.

“Sharing and learning from others in communities of practice like teaching and learning conferences, as well as through more informal networks, is something I find hugely enriching and inspiring,” says Holland.

Holland is also known to develop curriculum that is sensitive to student needs as they dive into topics like climate change and environmental science — two subjects that are central to her courses. She is careful about how environmental problems are taught and creates space for students to unpack complex and potentially distressing topics. For example, she takes a solutions-focused approach, encourages dialogue among students, and schedules breaks from assignments during the semester to allow students to decompress.

“Our students are experiencing overlapping climate, ecological, and social crises. Teaching about subjects like climate change and other, related environmental issues feels like a massive privilege and responsibility. I want students in my courses to learn the science that underpins these crises; to be able to build from that scientific foundation to also understand potential solutions; and to use that knowledge to develop their own agency and resilience for their future. I want them to leave my courses feeling inspired and empowered to act, rather than anxious and defeated. To me, that is the most important learning outcome that I can work toward.”