What makes prize-winning professors?

by Eric Smith

Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect when it comes to university teaching. In some cases, a lack of teaching experience might even be an asset.

This is one of the preliminary findings McGill doctoral student Timothy Rahilly has made based on a series of interviews with university professors from across the country.

For Rahilly's thesis he is testing the applicability of pedagogical theories to a university context. His interview subjects are divided into three groups; those with the most university teaching experience; those who became faculty members more recently and those who have won awards for their teaching.

Rahilly found evidence that teachers at the award-winning level "speak about teaching and about their students in a different way. They are more aware of what their students know and how they study. They look at teaching and learning together and see themselves as participants in the classroom."

Some of the skills of award-winning teachers are shared by many less experienced teachers who are themselves recent graduates and are consequently closer to their students.

"New faculty have a honed sense of equity," according to Rahilly. "When they are teaching something, what's fresh in their minds is how they themselves learned it."

But this awareness of their own learning process can also be a shortcoming. "In cases where students will say 'I still don't get it,' the newer professors often only have one way of explaining it"--the way they learned the material themselves. More experienced professors have developed alternative ways of explaining the same problem. And while newer faculty tend to have a better understanding of the technology the current generation of students is using in its research, "more experienced professors have a strong sense of their universities" in terms of its resources and idiosyncrasies. "They know what to do if the lighting's funny or the overhead projector doesn't work," says Rahilly.

A student of instructional psychology, Rahilly's work is supported by a $12,000 Royal Bank Graduate Student Fellowship. He is conducting his research out of McGill's Centre for University Teaching and Learning, a scholarly unit which doubles as a University resource for faculty development. He is concerned in his study with the question of "how best to allocate faculty development resources." There is currently a debate over whether it is best to use centres like CUTL and focus on educational psychology and teaching methods or whether resources are more effectively deployed at the departmental level with training more focused on the content for specific disciplines.

Rahilly suggests the answer might vary for the different groups in his model. "For newer teachers, general approaches are fine," he says. "But for more experienced teachers, the approach needs to be discipline-specific. It is necessary to have an understanding of what these people are teaching." Rahilly says the prize-winning professors are remarkably similar in how they approach their teaching. "You find award-winning physicists and philosophers talking in the same terms."

Rahilly's thesis work is now in its final phase. He is attempting to validate the information he has gathered from the interview phase and identifying "critical instances of teaching, times when professors believe they did an excellent job and times when they did a poor job." Rahilly is calling some of the professors he has already interviewed--those who described interesting and useful teaching strategies--to get a better sense of how they came up with these teaching techniques.

And he is still looking for more participants who are willing to give approximately 45 minutes to answering a questionnaire. Interested faculty members, experienced or not, can contact Rahilly at CUTL (398-6648) or by electronic mail at czt6@musica.mcgill.ca.