A guide, not a gatekeeper
For James Fraser, the 2012 winner of the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, helping students create a sense of community in the classroom is integral to engagement and effective learning.
“Providing leadership and support that enables students to create their own learning community is something I’ve been working towards since I started teaching – it’s a principle that permeates every element of course structure and informs all aspects of my course design,” says Fraser, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics & Astronomy.
In addition to emailing students prior to the start of their courses and welcoming them at the door on the first day, Fraser encourages peer-to-peer instruction during lectures so his students learn to depend on each other. He also recruits a student advisory council to provide him with regular feedback on his teaching.
“I want to make sure that students don’t view me or their teaching assistants as gatekeepers to knowledge, but rather that they see us as guides and mentors who are trying to help them to create their community and to grow intellectually,” says Fraser. “The process of building trust and engaging students is one that takes time, but when we’re all pulling together and working towards a shared goal, it’s just so much fun.”
It’s the enjoyment and sense of fulfillment Fraser gleans from his interactions with undergraduates that encouraged him to follow his postdoctoral fellowship with an academic career. This balance between research and teaching is also something that characterized his recent sabbatical at Harvard University, where he worked with renowned physicist and educator Eric Mazur on laser physics and teaching research.
“There’s so much to learn about teaching and so many innovative techniques, so this was an incredible opportunity to sit at the back of a classroom and observe methods being put into practice by people on the frontiers of teaching research before importing them into my own teaching,” Fraser says. “It was also an experience that has encouraged me to contribute to physics education literature rather than just being a consumer.”
Fraser notes that one of the best learning experiences he’s had as an educator was the realization of the disconnect that can exist between teachers and students in terms of learning style. Elegantly crafted explanations may benefit academic colleagues, he realized, but a different approach is often required to explain complex concepts to students who are at a much earlier stage of intellectual understanding and development.
Fraser also relies on quick, timely feedback on his teaching (through pre-lecture assignments, in-class polling multiple times per class, weekly quizzes, and problem sets) to help him ensure that he’s meeting the needs of his students and effectively implementing best practices in the classroom.
“I think teachers often want to create something completely new on their own in their classroom. I think that’s great, but I also think it’s much better if educators can make use of all the resources that are out there,” he reflects.
Fraser is excited about the advances he has made in many of his classes – from adopting a different classroom environment to switching up how he interacts with students – but he’s the first to admit that he feels some of his testing methods haven’t quite kept pace.
“While I don’t want to fall into the trap of just trying something new because it’s new, I feel like I’m too reliant on the old idea of what an exam looks like,” he says. “It’s so important that evaluation matches the true learning outcomes. The final three-hour exam is such an awkward artificial thing, and I’m still struggling with it.”
From challenges to successes, it’s this constant learning and experimentation that ensures teaching remains a continual journey of discovery for Fraser. “I feel very proud that I’ve been able to implement teaching strategies in such a way that it’s helped my students to create engaging learning environments over which they have a real sense of ownership,” he says.
“Teaching can certainly be challenging, but it’s such great fun and provides an ideal balance to independent research. Knowing that I’m on the right track in terms of offering my students the mentorship and guidance they need is, for me, one of the most important things that’s reflected by this teaching award.”
Prof. James Fraser will receive his award at the Alumni Awards Gala on October 13. For more information, please visit www.queensu.ca/alumni/quaa/gala.html