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Where journeys in teaching begin

One year in, the Graduate Certificate in University Teaching is paying dividends for PhD students
April 7, 2015
By Christian Durand

Jana Abou Ziki applied theoretical concepts she learned in the program, in a real classroom setting. Jana Abou Ziki applied theoretical concepts she learned in the program, in a real classroom setting.

Transitioning from being a PhD student to a professor is a challenging and fiercely competitive process. In order to give doctoral candidates a leg-up in their future academic endeavours, Concordia’s School of Graduate Studies created a 15-credit Graduate Certificate in University Teaching program in 2014.

Interdisciplinary in nature, the program provides doctoral students with both the theoretical and practical training required by top-level post-secondary educators. Participants study pedagogical materials from a wide variety of specializations, and must design and deliver a course in their field under the supervision of a faculty mentor.

With members of the first cohort set to graduate this spring, we checked in with participants Jana Abou Ziki, who recently received a PhD in mechanical and industrial engineering and Marilou St-Pierre, a PhD candidate in communication studies, to see how their experience has been thus far.

Why did you decide to take this program?

Marilou St-Pierre:  I thought it would be a good complement to my PhD because I didn’t have a base in pedagogical theory. As a graduate student, I had already been a teaching assistant, but felt it was important to delve deeper into the subject matter.

Was the program what you expected it to be?

Jana Abou Ziki:  It was more than what I thought it would be, actually.  When I first joined, I was really stressed out and a little hesitant because I was finishing my thesis. I quickly realized I made the right choice, and that teaching was something I want to do more of throughout my academic career, instead of focusing solely on research.

Having a faculty mentor with teaching experience and deep pedagogical knowledge was an incredible opportunity. Some people start to teach and don’t have a person to guide and challenge them. Essentially, my journey into teaching came from this program, and I am optimistic about the future.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

MS: I am in the process of developing a class for the fall semester. It’s a communications course on sports and media in Quebec — a class that has never been offered at Concordia before. My biggest struggle is working with my supervisor to create a coherent and relevant syllabus that students will get excited about.

What did you learn from designing your own class?

JAZ: For me it was learning how to implement active learning strategies in the classroom. By this I mean that my teaching style engages students in the learning process through technologies such as Moodle and interactive clickers. This is more than a lecture on my part; I observe how engaged students are and based on this I can adjust my teaching strategies in class. These were theoretical concepts I learned in the program, and which I put into practice in a real classroom setting with feedback from my supervisor and my students.
How do you think this will help your academic career?

MS: What I am learning in the program gives me an extra set of tools for when I step into the classroom. The competition is getting tighter in universities for stable academic jobs, and this really gives me an advantage. I have hands-on experience in developing a class and a sound theoretical foundation.

The program has also helped me look at theory and practice from different perspectives. Three of the other students in my cohort come from engineering backgrounds and have other ways of looking at pedagogy. It makes for really interesting exchanges, and we learn a lot from one another.

What advice would you have for someone interested in taking the program?

JAZ:  You have to go into it motivated to become a good teacher, and you need to really care about student success. I go to class with a lot of energy and curiosity in order to create the best possible learning experience for my students. This is not the easiest approach — I could just show up and lecture — but it is what I feel is the best for my students.

The Graduate Certificate in University Teaching program is currently accepting applications for the 2015-2016 academic year
deadline is May 1. A limited number of fellowships are also available for eligible candidates enrolled in the UNIT program. 



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