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March 2, 2010 — Colliander Wins Outstanding Teaching Award

by Christine Elias — Tuesday, Mar 02, 2010

March 2, 2010 — Colliander Wins Outstanding Teaching Award

Professor James Colliander

March 2, 2010
Steven de Sousa

A typical question often begets a typical answer, while a good question may generate further inquiry.

In Professor James Colliander’s mathematics class, an “excellent” question will earn you cold hard cash.

Colliander, one of five recipients of this year’s Outstanding Teaching Awards in the Faculty of Arts and Science, is well known among students for bringing enthusiasm and humour into the classroom, along with innovative teaching methods to his mastery of the subject.

But he really grabs students’ attention when he rewards a probing mind with….a dollar coin.

“There are some questions where the student is reaching a little bit, and bringing in a concept that is either from their background or from another course and they’re anticipating something — they’re going out on a limb and trying to synthesize a concept. When I see that happen, especially in the first month of a course, I say, ‘That’s a really good question,’ and I give them a loonie,” Colliander says.

“The first time it happens, there’s typically a big reaction in the classroom and maybe this inspires other students to reach similarly and ask their question.”

Raising those standards costs Colliander about $10 a year — that’s the average of how many loonies he hands out to reward those students who pose excellent questions that enhance the learning experience for the whole class.

His method seems to be working.

In a testimonial supporting Colliander’s nomination for the award — one of more than 70 received by the dean’s office — Raymond McTaggart, a second-year student in the Engineering Science program, praised his approach.

“There is a difference between being confused, and not knowing what question to ask,” he wrote. “Professor Colliander understood this and would help you ask the right question.”

Learning to ask the right questions is a skill Colliander’s students take with them beyond the classroom.

“If I can show students how to filter out badly exposed mathematics they find on the Web from properly exposed mathematics in a famous textbook, they can develop an attention to detail and an awareness of when they’re reading high- versus low-quality material,” he says. “So if they learn that skill they’re going to read more high-quality work and they’re going to learn more all the time.”

Colliander believes his role as teacher goes beyond bringing information to the classroom; his goal is to provide students with the tools they need to get the information themselves.

Students today have many more resources available to them — easily accessible repositories of information like Google and Wikipedia — that have drastically altered the context in which they learn and gather information.

Among Colliander’s successful innovations is his effective use of wiki and other web-based tools. His class web pages are integrated into one wiki site which contains information on his research, reviews of recent and important results in the area, and seminar announcements. These resources are open to students and researchers all over the world, and he actively encourages students to contribute to this web of knowledge.

A strong proponent for collaborative learning, Colliander says there are a lot of smart people who students can learn from — including their peers.

In his graduate class, for example, students are placed into small groups to prepare a presentation for the class. Once the presentations are ready, he shuffles the topics so that a presentation that is prepared by one group will actually be presented by another, forcing the groups to talk to each other before the presentations.

“This kind of switcheroo forces people who would otherwise have been in the audience to become the speakers and vice-versa, which leads to more collaborative learning,” he says. “I’m not sure this particular approach could work as well in a larger class, but I think there are ways we can get information to students so that they are digesting rather than just regurgitating for the first time.”

The Outstanding Teaching Awards were created in 1993 to highlight the value the Faculty of Arts and Science places on excellence in teaching. The awards are presented annually and the recipients are selected based on nominations by peers and students.

The awards are made on the basis of excellence in teaching and contributions to undergraduate education during the academic year. In evaluating nominees, the following criteria are considered: excellence in communications skills; mastery of subject area; ability to stimulate critical and analytical thinking in students; ability to stimulate enthusiasm in students; and innovations and creativity in teaching methods, course design and curriculum development.

Photo: Steven de Sousa