Award-winning Ocean Sciences professor inspired to be a better teacher
Dr. Pat Gagnon has teaching in his blood.
The 2021 recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award from the Faculty of Science is the son of teachers and spent many meals discussing the occupation with them and how they dealt with issues that arose in and out of the classroom.
“They’ve always been an inspiration for me, and now when I talk to my parents, I tell them what I’ve been doing,” he said. “They always give me good feedback.”
The professor in the Department of Ocean Sciences uses his creativity to design a customized experience for his students and involves them as much as possible.
“Teaching is not one-way, with just the instructor giving content,” said Dr. Gagnon. “I like to engage my students through discussions and interactive tools to create an environment to push them outside of their comfort zone, both in the classroom and the lab. Because I think that’s the best way to teach and learn. I really want to get them to think about the content and make connections to it.”
From student to teachers
Since joining Memorial in 2007, Dr. Gagnon has been conscious of the different learning styles of students and looks for opportunities to draw in the quieter students.
He says that it can sometimes get “a bit awkward” in the beginning, but as they advance in the course students get more comfortable — resulting in interesting discussions.
“By the end they have gained a level of confidence.”
Dr. Gagnon also says he feels he isn’t the only “teacher” in the room and thinks everyone can learn from each other. He says he often calls upon his students to explain new concepts to others.
“I take a lot of pleasure in getting them to explain things instead of me, and as the semester advances, you can really see them evolve. By the end they have gained a level of confidence where they can explain anything they have learned.”
Calling out mistakes
One of the ways he can tell they’ve gained that self-assurance is when they correct Dr. Gagnon on his own mistakes.
“When teaching I like to put a slide on the screen that is visually appealing and, while discussing it, I introduce a mistake on purpose,” he said. “I’m curious to see if they pick up on it and are willing to tell me I’m wrong. If they do, we’ll start a conversation about it. I’ll ask them to clarify what I should have said instead. If they don’t notice, I’ll tell them I made an error. After doing that a few times they catch on and start looking for mistakes, so it’s another way to engage them.”
Even his exams are teaching tools where students are given an opportunity to learn something new.
“Having a mix gives everyone an equal chance to succeed.”
He says exams aren’t just pieces of paper asking about what he said in the classroom; he tries to come up with questions that encourage students to link ideas together.
“I also use at least six different types of questions – from multiple choice to essay. I know students are better with some types of questions than others and having a mix gives everyone an equal chance to succeed.”
Care and encouragement
But he believes the most important way to be a good teacher is showing students you care about their progress.
“There’s not a single lecture where I don’t ask them if everything is okay,” said Dr. Gagnon. “I stop a lot to ask if they have questions and if no one does, I ask them one, just to be sure they understand. I also ask them for feedback on my teaching a couple of times throughout the semester. There’s value in waiting for the university’s Course Evaluation Questionnaire at the end, but it’s also too late to change things then.”
Not being content just to improve his own teaching, he regularly encourages his graduate students to give a full or half lecture in one of his classes or to drop in to talk about their research.
“It’s important to give undergraduate students exposure to research and my graduate students get their first experience in teaching. I did that myself as a graduate student and I think that’s what sparked my interest in teaching. So, you never know when you might be sparking that interest in someone else.”
He also tries to develop that interest in children. He visits schools in the K-12 system to talk about oceans and his research and show them what he does with drones and underwater cameras.
“I didn’t really get that kind of exposure, so I didn’t know I wanted to be a biologist until later. I think as university teachers we have a responsibility to share our knowledge so, even before students get to Memorial, they know some of the possible ocean careers that are out there for them.”