January 26, 2023

I see things differently now: SFU instructors share their top teaching insights

From fewer curve balls to more stories, instructors reflect on how their teaching has changed over time.

January is often a time of reflecting on the year passed and planning for the year ahead.

We asked faculty members to share what one way their approach to teaching has changed and why it matters.

Building flexibility into the rigour

Susan Clements-Vivian University Lecturer and Associate Director, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, FCAT

When I first started teaching, I worried about whether my courses were rigorous enough, which led to a kind of rigidity in how I approached things that I don't think was good for learning. People have all kinds of different things going on in their lives and shouldn’t be penalized for not being able to meet every deadline, every time. Rigour and fairness are important but now I approach them with more flexibility. For example, I approach concessions as a dialogue with students. I ask the class what they feel would be a fair reason for me to grant extensions and we come up with an approach together. What this has done is reduce stress for my students, which makes it easier for them to learn.

The power of storytelling

Gail Anderson, Professor and Associate Director, School of Criminology, FASS

When I first started teaching, I was more nervous about being the ‘expert.’ I stuck to facts and textbooks. Now my teaching is more about sharing stories with my students about what I have experienced in relation to the content, stories about crime scenes I have been to or how I interacted with the court system for a particular case. I find that students are really engaged by stories. It makes the course material more real for them—and memorable. I will meet a student years after they have taken my course and they still remember the stories I told them.

Letting there be silence

Peter Dickinson, Professor, School for the Contemporary Arts, FCAT

I've gotten over my anxiety around silence. When I was first teaching, it felt like if students didn't answer questions right away then I had to fill that space. I would answer my own questions, but that's not useful pedagogically. I understand now it’s not that students didn’t do the reading or don’t understand my question; it’s just that they often need time to chew on things. Instead, I now try to keep my mouth shut for at least 30 seconds and if they still don't bite, rephrase the question or suggest a different prompt. I have found that when I downplay my own ego and create space for them, students are more empowered and the conversations are livelier.

Taking the curve balls out of assessments

Michael Sjoerdsma, Senior Lecturer and Interim Director, School of Engineering Science, FAS

I used to focus on grade distribution and assessment through examinations. To make sure that my courses were ‘hard enough,’ I would put tricky questions in the midterms and final exams. I realize now that students are already so stressed when they are doing assessments that it’s not the time to be clever or spring something new on them. It’s just not fair to them. I still like curve balls, but now I save those questions for class activities or tutorials, spaces where students have the capacity to engage with them and actually benefit from them.

Rethinking assessments

Shauna Jones, Senior Lecturer and Teaching and Learning Academic Director, BUS

My perspective about assessment was very narrow when I first started teaching. I knew at an intuitive level that there was something about exams that I didn’t like, but not why. Learning about educational theories like Bloom's Taxonomy and Fink's taxonomy has helped me think more holistically about my courses, the experiences I want to create for students, and how my students are assessed. For example, when I approach course design now, I incorporate three approaches to assessment: 1) assessment as learning (formative); 2) assessment for learning (formative); 3) and assessment of learning. This way I create opportunities for students to show me they can actually apply concepts from my courses, while learning during the process.

It's about inspiration

Leanne Ramer, Senior Lecturer and Faculty Teaching Fellow Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology, SCI

What has changed is my attitude about what I am teaching versus how I am teaching. I used to agonize over content. Now I think the content is almost irrelevant. There are some core things you need to take away from core courses, but resourceful and resilient students can readily find this content for review when they need it—just like we do as faculty. What's important to me now is creating community in the classroom and creating space, opportunities, and motivation for intellectual practice and play. Fostering curiosity about the discipline and a sense of belonging in the academy are more important than any piece of content.

Focusing on questions

Peter Tingling, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, BUS

When I first started teaching, I was focused on getting through as much content as I could. I take the opposite approach now. Students need space for ideas to move around and to become their own. If we teach the lecture like it’s a brain dump, we’re focused on the wrong thing. For me, it’s not about getting students to know all the answers, it’s about getting them to ask the right questions. All the AIs in the world are not going to tell you what questions you should ask.

Openness to change

Peter Liljedahl, Professor, EDUC

The big thing that’s changed for is that I teach students now, instead of content. I go into the classroom with destination in mind, but I allow the conversation to dictate where we go. For example, my syllabus has draft water mark on it because I leave room for change. We may drop an assignment or shift something depending on the needs of the learners.