Reinventing the way you’re taught

Chair of Teaching and Learning Leo Jonker talks of his plans to explore new teaching methods

Leo Jonker, the University’s first chair of teaching and learning, is heading initiatives to change how students learn.
Leo Jonker, the University’s first chair of teaching and learning, is heading initiatives to change how students learn.

Leo Jonker is out to change the way Queen’s students learn. Appointed the university’s first chair of teaching and learning in May, Jonker has a budget of $20,000 to develop initiatives meant to help students get more out of their formal education.

Jonker said professors at the university are interested in constantly improving their own teaching skills, citing a peer consulting program he recently participated in where a colleague would sit in on several of his classes and make suggestions and he in turn would do the same for another professor.

“People are doing what strikes me as very novel and exciting things, all of them serve the same end, to improve your teaching.” Jonker said there isn’t as much time spent on teaching at Queen’s as there might be at other institutions. “The break-down is pretty much 40 per cent for research, 40 per cent for teaching, and 20 per cent for administration,” he said. “The research is really close to the centre [of the school].”

As a teacher, Jonker said he finds that students who are interested in the subject learn better.

“They have their heart in it,” he said. Because of this, the one course he is teaching this year, fundamental concepts in elementary Mathematics for Teachers, involves students going out to elementary schools to teach children how to do math.

“Their heart is in teaching those kids; it becomes a motivation to learn,” he said. Jonker said students have been extremely receptive to the course, enough to convince him to test-run a similar first year physics course in January.

Jonker said the university’s focus on a grading system can be problematic, but it’s difficult to conduct evaluations without it. “There’s no doubt that grades are an imperfect measure of how well a student does,” he said. “People are not worth more because they get higher grades. There’s a special challenge in teaching students who don’t know something well.” Jonker is also looking at the first-year science experience. He said he wants departments to work with each other to reinforce knowledge from other classes. “What happens with physics would help you with mathematics,” he said.
Jonker said he’s focusing on the more cognate departments, such as sciences, engineering, and math. These lend themselves better to the integration of different fields of study.

“Taking these principles and applying them to something like drama wouldn’t necessarily work,” he said. Jonker said his approach to teaching—to find out what motivates students and develop
new ways to make things clearer— has developed over time. “When I was younger, I was very traditional-thinking.”

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