Better grades tell the story of commitment to teaching

(Edmonton) As the University of Alberta tipped its hat to teachers during this past week’s Festival of Teaching, materials engineering professor Suzanne Kresta was happy to open her classroom doors to other professors from across campus.

Kresta is one of those professors who knows there’s always a better way of teaching and is continually fine tuning her techniques so students leave class confident they’ve got a grasp on an important new concept.

And she gets results. Kresta has taken a mass and energy balances course that once stymied and frustrated students, and has systematically overhauled it, bit by bit, semester by semester, to a point where average grades have risen by 13 per cent—even as the number of students in the course grew from 56 to 98.

“I’ve been teaching this course for ages but the cool story is that when I started, about 30 per cent of the class totally didn’t get it,” she said. “Students taking this class used to come to me and say ‘I worked on the problem until two in the morning and I can’t even get started.’ That was just unacceptable to me. I said ‘I think we can teach this better.’

“So we started looking at where students were getting stuck and we changed some teaching methods, targeting where the learning fell apart. And their performance is up 13 per cent. We are getting content mastery from a lot more students and the standards are coming up.”

Kresta makes it a point to “get into the trenches” with her students, attending labs and providing one-on-one assistance whenever she can. It helps the students understand material better, and it gives Kresta insights about her own teaching effectiveness.

When she discovered that students were struggling with terminology, for example, Kresta made the first assignment in the course one that familiarizes them with the language used in the course. She also updated the curriculum by bringing tables used as industry standards into the course—the information wasn’t in textbooks.

In her drive to make sure students get the most out of a course, Kresta has gone so far as to look at textbooks used to teach the same concepts in the early and mid-20th century.

“I want to know what are the other ways of explaining this stuff—how did we used to do it? Learning about the thinking of a discipline makes you understand the discipline better and sometimes you can go back and pick up a piece of really good information.”

Kresta also works with professors to help improve teaching effectiveness, by joining in “teaching triads,” where professors critique one another’s classes, and by taking part in events like the Festival of Teaching.

Kresta wasn’t exactly “lured” into teaching. It was more a matter of being “persuaded” during her undergraduate years at the University of New Brunswick.

“When I first got into it, it was because we desperately needed women in engineering and I got leaned on by the president of the university, the vice-president academic, the dean and department chair and all of my professors, to become an academic. There was a little bit of pressure,” she said.

So she tried it—even wrangling herself a teaching assistant position in her fourth year of university—a position typically reserved for graduate students.

“I decided it was absolutely the right thing for me then, and I still do it now because I love it. I love seeing them grow, I love seeing them change and really learning how to think,” she said. “I want teach courses where students get transformed and their problem-solving skills are supposed to take a big jump.”

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