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Meet Teaching Award-winners Steve Joordens and Andy Dicks

Two of only five honoured by Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations

Psychology professor Steve Joordens is known for his innovative approach to teaching (photo by Ken Jones)

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) recently awarded 2011-2012 Teaching Awards to the University of Toronto's Steve Joordens and Andy Dicks.

Both are renowned for their skill at inspiring, motivating and engaging students in introductory courses – classes which generally bring together a large number of diverse students. Some students are keen to delve deeply into the subject, hoping to devote years – perhaps even a lifetime - to this area of study. Others see the course as one of a wide range of academic options to explore.

How can one instructor ensure everyone benefits? Writers Kurt Kleiner and Gavin Au-Yeung spoke with Joordens and Dicks about their award-winning approaches to teaching.

When Steve Joordens teaches, he doesn’t just want to convey information. He also wants to impart thinking and writing skills that students will be able to use for the rest of their lives.

“It’s the difference between knowing a lot about the guitar and being able to play the guitar,” says Joordens.

That philosophy, along with his engaging and approachable style, led to the OCUFA 2011-12 Teaching Award. It’s the latest in a series of awards for the psychology professor. Joordens, a recipient of the President’s Teaching Award, was also a finalist for the TVO Best Lecturer Award and has received a National Technology Innovation Award.

“Prof. Joordens has received recognition at the University of Toronto and throughout North America for his innovative contributions to teaching,” says Constance Adamson, president of OCUFA. “He is an innovator, an explorer, and a challenger.”

Joordens is well-known at the University of Toronto Scarborough, thanks to his Introductory Psychology course, which often includes up to 1800 students at a time.

"Steve's an innovative and engaging teacher, and this is an award he richly deserves,” says UTSC Dean Rick Halpern. “The award also highlights UTSC's commitment to excellence in teaching. We're extremely proud."

Joordens is also celebrated on campus as an especially skilful and engaging professor.

“During our first class, he told us, ‘I’m going to make you love psychology’,” recalls Khyati Gupta, a third-year management specialist who was taking the class as an elective. “I said, ‘Yeah, right.’”

By the end of the class, she had decided to add a psychology minor.

“He really knows his stuff,” says Rajani Sellathurai, a second-year psychology major. “He knows how to communicate well. He teaches in a way you can relate to and understand.”

Joordens says that one advantage he has is that psychology is relevant and potentially interesting to everybody. Nevertheless, it’s evident that he also works hard to get his lessons across.

“I really enjoy the performance aspect of it,” he says. “From early on I was always trying to figure out what worked.”

He tries to always start a lecture by playing a piece of music which illustrates a theme – for instance, he’ll use “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police to launch into a discussion of mind/body dualism in the history of psychology.

But even more important than lecturing, he thinks, is the ability to teach a student to think critically, organize those thoughts and express them well. Because the classes he teaches are so large, he’s been developing novel tools to try to do that.

One of those tools is peerScholar, which he developed with PhD student Dwayne Pare. The computerized system requires a student to submit his or her work for review by other classmates and also to submit comments on the work of other students. The feedback allows students to almost immediately receive feedback on their work, something that would be difficult or impossible in the typical large lecture course.

“I want to create these tools and convince other universities and colleges that they should use them too,” Joordens says.

Like Joordens, Senior Lecturer Andy Dicks teaches several popular courses – and his inspiring work in the classroom has led to a President’s Teaching Award as well as this latest recognition from OCUFA.

Known for teaching a large introductory organic chemistry course accommodating 1100 students, Dicks is widely respected as a motivating and engaging teacher, students say.

“Class with Professor Dicks was always an interactive event,” recalls Landon Edgar. The chemistry PhD student was taught by Dicks during his undergraduate years.

"I never felt apprehensive about asking a question in class and Professor Dicks’ responses were always clear, concise, and complete.”

The majority of his students may not end up being chemistry majors, so Dicks seeks to ensure his teaching has an impact that extends far beyond his particular academic discipline. 

“It’s about teaching them skills that they will find useful wherever they go and not just in the context of chemistry,” Dicks says. “So problem-solving and deductive reasoning… those are examples of skills you take from studying physical sciences.”

He aims to show students their own potential by encouraging them to explore new concepts, puzzle out challenges and work through problems. 

“I specifically remember thinking that his quizzes always seemed to ask questions about the material that I hadn’t quite mastered yet,” says Adam Zajdlik, another PhD candidate taught by Dicks as an undergrad. “As a result, I developed the invaluable capability to learn the material in its entirety on my own; to identify what areas I needed to work more on.”

This is how learning is best accomplished, Dicks says.

“I actually think the best state to be in is leaving class feeling a little bit confused,” says Dicks. “Students are forced to read their textbooks and rattle ideas around their mind to solve problems. Then the deep understanding comes in.”

Dicks has also incorporated his research into the classroom. A major focus is green chemistry: the idea that a chemical process can become more environmentally friendly by using different chemicals or processes which require less energy, or by developing greener chemical reactions.

“Green chemistry is relatively young, so we need to think carefully about how we teach these principles,” says Dicks. “I get involved with undergraduates in formulating new ways of how to do it. Students love designing new curricula and they appreciate thinking about how the lab can be improved.

“Students should be involved with their curriculum; they have so many ideas about how to do things effectively.”