Pedagogy: A Science of its Own

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It was 1988 when Leslie Mackenzie, then a graduate student at Queens University, was told by his supervisor that he would be giving an anatomy lecture the next day to a group of student nurses. “To prepare for that I did what anyone would have done - I read the textbook,” recalls Mackenzie of his first teaching experience.

After the lecture Mackenzie stuck around to speak with the students. The feedback was unanimous. “They said I sounded just like a textbook which I could only assume was negative,” Mackenzie laughed as he recalled the students’ comments.

Dr. Mackenzie is now Associate Professor and Director of the Pattern II M.Sc. Program in Anatomical Sciences at Queens University. Spurned by his lackluster first teaching experiences, Dr. Mackenzie was eager to improve. “There’s nothing that gets me more passionate about something than a challenge,” said Mackenzie, “and it all kind of developed from there”.

His field of study focuses on the use of pedagogy in teaching the anatomical sciences.

Pedagogy can be described as the art and science of teaching. A professor keen on using pedagogy presents material in new ways with the aim of not only effectively imparting the knowledge itself but also encouraging the well-rounded development of the student.

In recent years, more interest and resources have been pooled into the growing field of pedagogy research for the sciences.

“That’s what my studying is all about; how you go about the topic of anatomy and the anatomical sciences with a certain amount of color that’s more conducive for the betterment of the student understanding as compared to just sitting in the lecture theater. [For example], like going to a lab and getting involved in other activities.”

For Dr. Mackenzie, teaching is a dynamic process that requires constant revision and skillful manipulation in order to be effective.

“Many of us forget the fact that it shouldn’t be teacher centered learning - it should be student centered learning. So even [concerning] a lecture environment, how can you make it more student centered learning? It’s difficult […], just the physical parameters of the lecture hall in itself may not favor that, although I think we should always try to make it more student centered.”

Active learning (or as Dr. Mackenzie prefers, student centered learning) is a recent pedagogical approach to instruction. It requires class participation and challenges the traditional listening-only approach. Its methodologies include: class discussion integrated into the lecture, question-and-answer sessions, “clicker” participation, one-on-one student to instructor consultations and more frequent demonstrations.

He is currently evaluating several different strategies focused on active learning in larger classes that are both interactive and practical study.

“[In my classes] there is always the opportunity for students to ask questions, typically to start discussion. For example, the open forum discussion session is a class specifically set aside so that people have the opportunity to ask questions [and] create a discussion.”

Away with the exclusive use of PowerPoint or chalkboards, such methods have demonstrated that engaging students in the learning process increases their attention and motivation. Furthermore, it encourages them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills. Instructors who adopt a student-centered approach encourage student engagement, which then facilitates the achievement of the course’s learning objectives.

Dr. Mackenzie is also constantly researching more effective ways of imparting knowledge and encouraging the development of the students. Presentation media, teacher-student communication, large group dynamics and the conduct and attitude of students in class are only a few focuses of a pedagogy specialist.

When confronted with a teaching dilemma, he views it as just another problem to be solved. “So let’s try and back up and figure out a better way to do it, and something I’ve done [for students] is to give multiple opportunities for achieving marks in this course.”

When it comes to evaluations he is willing to take a dynamic approach.

“A student might come in here saying ‘Well you know on the practical evaluation […] I got it wrong and that’s why I’m here - it’s that I want to talk to you about it.’ Just listening to them talk for five, ten, fifteen minutes on that particular question I know if they understand the anatomy or if they don’t understand the anatomy. Quite frequently I’ll end up giving the mark to the student for that question just for the fact that not all students see [the question] the same as me.”

“The whole concept of an evaluation - the way it’s done - is that really conducive in trying to actually evaluate the understanding of the students? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a perfect world.”

In response to this concern Dr. Mackenzie tries to give students the best chance of success through the implementation of three block tests, multiple quizzes, and two bell ringers, all evenly spaced throughout the year rather than a final exam determining the entire grade.  

When asked what values he thinks are the most important when pursuing a career in pedagogy, Dr. Mackenzie emphasized fairness. “If I’ve made a mistake why should you or anyone else suffer because of it? That will be spelled out very clearly to the students all the time that they are not the only ones learning. I’m learning as well. There has got to be transparency.”  

To any students wishing to pursue a career involving pedagogy Dr. Mackenzie says that not only is a passion for teaching a must but also the willingness to have a relationship with your students, even in the larger classes.

JYI is always looking for motivated undergraduate students to join our team. We also are looking for faculty members and professional science writers to serve as mentors for undergraduates.
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