School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Redesigning HLTH 415: A Journey in Teaching & Learning

 

Redesigning HLTH 415

Wanda Praamsma, Communications Officer, University Relations

 

Janette Leroux posing against a tree on campus

Janette Leroux teaches HLTH 415 and is close to finishing a PhD in health promotion and social epidemiology.
University Communications

Through redesigning HLTH 415 into an active learning experience, PhD student Janette Leroux has experienced her own transformation as teacher and learner.

PhD student Janette Leroux is thankful that students in HLTH 415 “keep it real” for her.

“They told me I’m not a very good lecturer,” she says with a laugh, adding that she’s developed a “thick skin” over the past few years, since she began instructing the course several years ago.

HLTH 415 is a health studies course, intended to give students the skills to design and develop community health programs. Health promotion is a practical field, one that lends itself well to active and experiential learning – something Ms. Leroux is also thankful for. Instead of being offended by the students’ comments, she’s used the criticism as impetus to teach in different ways.

“Teaching this course has been a journey of self-discovery,” she says. “There’s more risk when you put yourself out there in less conventional ways. But it’s so rewarding. And the return for students is immense.”

HLTH 415 is called Program Design and Evaluation – a full-year course that includes both a classroom component and a community component. Inside the classroom, the health studies students gain an introduction to program planning, covering different issues, strategies and theories associated with designing community health programs. Ms. Leroux guides them and gives them space to try out scenarios, helping them develop skills and competencies that will support their practical work.

Outside class, students work with organizations within the Kingston community – such as Kingston Coalition for Active Transportation, the Boys & Girls Club, Kingston Gets Active, Kingston Transit and H’Art Centre – to develop new, or enhance existing, health programs.

The course used to be more theoretical and hypothetical – instead of going out into the community, students attended lectures and worked on case studies.

“Putting things into practice in the community is very different,” says Ms. Leroux, who began as a teaching assistant in HLTH 415 before becoming the main instructor in 2013. “It can be messy, and there’s a steep learning curve. Community service learning is a delicately balanced system – as an instructor, I have to consider the safety and needs of the students and the community partners. I want it to be a positive experience for everyone.”

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Taking HLTH 415 away from lectures and case studies and into the community, in some ways, has reflected Ms. Leroux’s own academic journey. She's moved from studying the world at a microscopic level, to a macroscopic, more sociological level.

Raised on a farm north of Kingston, she was intrigued by nature and thought the best way to understand things was through the hard sciences. Ms. Leroux enrolled at Queen’s, studying biochemistry. During her undergraduate degree, she worked as an assistant in the morgue and museum in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

She went on to do a master’s in cell biology, also at Queen’s, studying cardiovascular pathologies. But she was beginning to feel a shift. “I discovered I was more interested in health than disease, and I began exploring. I took a course in geography, health geography, and found this whole other realm of research. I discovered that this field was really getting at the questions I was trying to answer for myself.”

Ms. Leroux began looking at population health, and the social and physical determinants of health. She took a year off after her master’s, lived in Quebec City and studied French intensely at Université Laval. She took a job as a cashier at a grocery store, and without even realizing it, Ms. Leroux began observing the psychology of food choice – an area of research that soon formed the backbone of her PhD thesis.

“I’ve really moved from the cellular to the social,” says Ms. Leroux, who is nearing completion of her PhD in health promotion and social epidemiology. “I’m looking at the impacts of social networks and relationships on health, and how social inequalities affect people’s health behaviours.”

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Active learning classroom in Ellis Hall

Janette Leroux taught the classroom component of HLTH 415 in one of the Ellis Hall active learning classrooms.
Supplied photo

One of the best decisions Ms. Leroux says she’s made in the past few years has been to take a course, SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, offered jointly through the School of Graduate Studies and the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She learned more about different pedagogical approaches and different discipline-specific epistemologies – or the ways of knowing and understanding – and simultaneously began to critically examine what it meant to her personally to be a teacher and a learner.

“I hadn’t sat through a lot of non-science lectures. Without realizing it, I was trying to apply my scientific epistemology to teaching and research around social health issues. I was teaching according to the didactic pedagogical traditions, through which I had been taught, and in my research, I kept looking for ‘answers’ and the ‘right’ way of doing things.”

She came to realize that some of the things she was struggling with in teaching – namely, the bigger picture and her place within it – she was also struggling with in her research.

“I began to see myself more as a learner, and as a co-learner in the classroom. I didn’t have to be an expert, and I didn’t need to hold all the answers,” Ms. Leroux says. “It’s a humbling and freeing realization, and it opens up a lot more possibility in terms of a richer exchange between myself, each student and community partner.”

In turn, her work in the classroom has enhanced her research, and she’s allowed – through a great deal of self-reflection – her many different identities, as teacher, learner, researcher and community member, to merge.

As for the students in HLTH 415, Ms. Leroux believes most leave the course with greater confidence. Working in the community, they build their interpersonal and professional skills, and learn to navigate day-to-day challenges.

“They sometimes feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity that can arise in their projects,” says Ms. Leroux. “I help them interpret the challenges and I guide them and encourage them to take ownership of their projects. The process is enriching for all of us.”

This article was reposted with permission from the Queen's Gazette.

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