Thursday 24 November 2011

Keeping Students Engaged is Key

Engineering lecturer and first-year program coordinator Nancy Acemian

If students find Nancy Acemian sometimes feels like a big sister, it is probably because she’s been a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of West Island for almost three years now.

She finds mentoring preteen girls very gratifying. “I’m a role model they can come to about issues in their lives.” She uses her love of painting and crafts — knitting, crocheting, jewellery making — to help connect with the girls.

Nancy Acemian was honoured with the President’s Teaching Award in 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching. | Photo by Concordia University
Nancy Acemian was honoured with the President’s Teaching Award in 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching. | Photo by Concordia University

This desire to connect drives her achievements in the classroom, too.

Acemian received the President's Teaching Award 2010 for Innovative Excellence in Teaching for her classroom performance and leadership in developing innovative teaching in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science (ENCS). The year before, she was recognized by the Faculty with the Teaching Excellence Award.

A native of Montreal, Acemian earned her bachelor’s from McGill with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Computer Science. She then obtained her master’s in Computer Science from Concordia and is working on a PhD in Educational Technology, also at Concordia. She taught at Marianopolis College for 11 years before arriving at Concordia in 2000. Plus she teaches in her third language, giving her unique insight and a deep appreciation of the diversity that’s the heart of Concordia.

“At Concordia, we give everyone a chance, with kids straight out of cegep alongside young adults back at school after several years at work,” she says.” The multicultural diversity of the student body is also way up on her list of Concordia pluses.

Acemian is the first-year program coordinator at ENCS, and shares her knowledge and expertise through the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services; however, her passion is teaching introductory level courses in computer science, which can be difficult. “Classes are large and the students are very diverse. Some have never programmed before.”

Keeping students engaged — ensuring they’re active participants in classroom discussions — is paramount. Acemian believes in a very interactive class: “Teaching is a two-way street.” She needs to know right away if students have problems with the material.

That’s why she uses the i>clicker classroom response system. Like the “ask the audience lifeline” from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the i>clicker lets Acemian pose multiple-choice questions and get instant feedback. Because it’s anonymous, “everyone participates, even the shy ones.” And she can zero in on unclear concepts in real time.

She also uses i>clicker to get students interacting. “Sometimes, the answer will split 50/50 in the class. I’ll tell them ‘find someone who doesn’t have the same answer as you and talk about it, try to convince each other.’”

Acemian also relies on the tablet. “Students can have the teaching slides ahead of time and we can figure out the problems in class. And because I’m always facing them, I can see when the light goes on,” she laughs.

Sometimes attention spans are short, especially when it comes to teaching on a Monday morning at 8:45 a.m. “You can’t be passive. You have to challenge the students, to keep them involved. Programming isn’t a spectator sport.” Breezing in, doing a lot of talking, and then walking out again is what doesn’t work. “The challenge is to keep from boring them.”

Respect is also very important. Acemian cultivates an open-door policy, encouraging her students to consult her, and not just about course content. “Life can be tough. There are career decisions and sometimes problems in their private lives. There’s the juggle of kids new to Montreal, living on their own for the first time.”

And Acemian likes being there for her students. Just like a big sister.

Related links:
Centre for Teaching and Learning Services
Slide show of the 2011 Mascot Design Contest Acemian organized as first-year program coordinator at ENCS

(Originally published in Concordia NOW.)

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