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Providing students with exceptional learning opportunities

The Faculty of Law's Erik Knutsen is the 2018 recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award.

[Erik Knutsen]
The Faculty of Law's Erik Knutsen is the 2018 recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award. (Photo by Greg Black)

When Erik Knutsen talks about teaching and learning it quickly becomes clear that he is passionate about the topic.

It’s one of the reasons he re-designed three Faculty of Law core courses.

For this work and his ongoing efforts to foster active learning and student engagement, Professor Knutsen is the 2018 recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, which recognizes undergraduate, graduate or professional teaching that has had an outstanding influence on the quality of student learning at Queen’s University.

“Erik Knutsen’s dedication to providing students with exceptional learning opportunities is truly inspiring,” says Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning). “He has purposefully redesigned his courses to ensure that they are engaging, relevant and provide students with the kinds of hands-on experiences and skills they will need in the legal profession. Professor Knutsen is deliberate and purposeful in his use of evidence-based pedagogies and yet he also has the ability to make learning come to life.”

The recognition, he says, is humbling considering the number of exceptional educators across the various faculties and departments at Queen’s. He also says the work wouldn’t have been possible without the “incredible support” he has received from Dean Bill Flanagan, associate deans, fellow faculty members, and Queen’s Law students.

Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award recipients:
2017 Catherine Donnelly, School of Rehabilitation Therapy
2016 Jill Atkinson, Department of Psychology
2015 James Fraser, Physics, Physics Engineering and Astronomy
2014 Stephen Lougheed, Biology
2013 Anne Godlewska, Geography
2012 Lindsay Davidson, Surgery
2011 Brian Frank, Electrical and Computer Engineering
2010 Mark Weisberg, Law
2009 Richard Ascough, Theology/Religious Studies
2008 Bill Newstead, Chemistry
2007 Ron Easteal, Anatomy and Cell Biology
2006 John Smol, Biology
2005 Maggie Berg, English
2004 Morris Orzech, Mathematics and Statistics

In nominating Knutsen for the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, Dean Flanagan pointed to the trailblazing role he has taken in an area of study that has long been resistant to change.

“Erik is on the forefront of rethinking how we can teach law in a way that is more engaging for our students and with better learning outcomes,” Dean Flanagan says. “ He cares deeply about his students’ development and growth, continually finding new and innovative ways to teach them about the law and also professionalism.”

In redesigning three core courses in the Faculty of Law, Knutsen tried to place himself in the position of the students with the end goal of providing them with the skills they need to become a lawyer. He then incorporated as much active learning and student engagement as possible throughout each course to help develop the skills they will need in the workplace.

That meant creating “experiences” for the students.

“So I took all the things I wanted to impart in my courses and thought of them that way, as experiences rather than as didactic learning/information,” he says.

Typically, he divides class time into three sections: a limited period of info delivery; an exercise or group work; and time for feedback to discuss the lessons learned.

Take, for instance, selecting an expert witness in a lawsuit, a key skill for a lawyer but one they are unlikely to experience before actually having to do it.

Traditionally, students would read about some recent cases and discuss it in class. That still happens but under the redesign the students are tasked with selecting an expert witness for a hypothetical case. They are given the CVs of actual expert witnesses and are required to make a selection. Further, they have to defend their expert’s qualifications with relevance to the law and the case and explain why they did not choose the other three experts.

“As a result, the students walk out of there with a totally different experience than had they read some cases about what happened to somebody else and we talked about the rules and reviewed them. They had to apply it and think about why, and it was made to feel real to them,” Knutsen says. “So to me that is taking the learning to a different place. The simple version is I’ve always told my students you have come here to learn as much as you have come here to have an experience.”

This teaching leadership and innovation has extended to other faculties and departments as well, having taught a professional competencies course at the School of Medicine, and contributing to the Faculty of Law’s foundational course for Queen’s Undergraduate students (Law 201: Introduction to Canadian Law).

He is also a founding member of the teaching team for the Masters of Science in Healthcare Quality program, a two-year interdisciplinary blended/online program on patient safety for midcareer healthcare professionals. The program is a joint effort between the School of Nursing, School of Medicine, Faculty of Law, Smith School of Business, School of Policy Studies, and Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In addition to serving on the program design and approval team, Knutsen developed and taught the course Law, Risk and Healthcare.

This work, he says, has been immensely rewarding.

“Best thing I ever did. Getting out of your own world, an academic silo setting, and learning how other disciplines, other professors and other students operate has been absolutely invigorating because it forces you to challenge your own assumptions about your own discipline,” he explains.  “If I meet them halfway and they meet me halfway, it’s fantastic because as much as they are learning about a world that they haven’t seen before, I am learning about how nursing, medicine, and management operate. It’s fascinating and different.”

More information about the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, including eligibility requirements, is available on the Centre for Teaching and Learning website.