When Marjorie Johnson first stepped in front of a room full of university students more than two decades ago, she had no idea what she was doing.
She didn’t know what pedagogy meant. She was given a textbook, told when and where to show up and to simply “go forth and teach.” That was the extent of her formal training, she said.
Today, Johnson, who teaches in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, is among the university’s most decorated instructors – one who holds the university’s ‘Big 3’ teaching honours. In 2003, she received the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2012, Johnson earned a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the highest teaching honour in Canada. And this year, she was named one of six outstanding university teachers by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
“A lot of teaching is just making your own personality come across. That makes it feel to the students, and for yourself, more natural because you’re doing what feels right for you, and not trying to imitate somebody else,” Johnson said, noting a personal approach and investment has been key to her success as an instructor.
In those early days, she approached lessons through trial and error, largely depending on intuition and trying to imagine herself in her students’ shoes, she explained. Over the years, she attended every teaching workshop she could. She continued to learn from mentors and other instructors on campus.
But among the tips, tricks and teaching innovations she picked up, the biggest lesson was authenticity.
“You try to implement some good things you might think are good, but what you find is they don’t really stick unless they are authentic to you. The main thing is to just let them know you’re human, just like anybody else,” she said.
Sharing her mistakes, stories and even injuries encouraged students to share their own and helped them relate to the material, Johnson added.
“I have five kids and I’ve done all this while raising them. That’s where I get all my stories from,” she laughed. “I often make a fool of myself in class. And I try to make it a casual, comfortable environment. I try to get students to ask lots of questions.”
Her modus operandi is to “quietly force students to own their learning.” She prefers anecdotal lessons, drawing anatomical structures on the board and encouraging students to draw along. She carefully evaluates new technologies and teaching methods to see if they add value to an anatomy lesson. She remains open to new teaching methods and strategies but, in some cases, the tried and true, hands-on approach works best in the classroom and the lab, she said.
It’s easy to memorize names, parts and functions of structures.
But students remember lessons when they are engaged.
“It’s about trying to keep it relevant and feeding off the ideas students give you. It’s hard in a big class to get discussions going, but over the years, I’ve tried to use questioning more than I would have in the past. I do center out people, ask for personal stories. I walk around a lot. That gets people talking,” she said.
And Johnson’s personal, adaptive approach has resonated with students.
“She always stood out with her creative teaching methods. She taught us anatomy in the most interesting ways. She reached out to every student at their own level. From clay models to dancing uteri, she made learning fun. No one ever skipped her classes and we all took so much away from her teaching,” one student wrote for Johnson’s OCUFA teaching nomination.
“Students flock to wherever Dr. Johnson is teaching, hoping to hear some of her interesting anecdotes and insights. (She) creates an environment where students are not afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Rather than lecturing you on the content, she asks probing questions and helps to lead you to the answer, giving students more confidence in their own problem-solving skills and knowledge of the content,” another student said.
Students and colleagues praise Johnson for her supportive mentorship and guidance, in and out of the classroom and lab. Her students keep in touch, she said, offering gratitude and updates on their careers. A comment from one student in particular led to a nickname that has stuck for Johnson in the department.
“I like to follow basketball. One of my students, when I had this huge big class, 600 students, at the end of one of the exams, he handed me his paper and said, ‘You know, I always used to think of Dr. J as the basketball player. Now I think of it as you,’” Johnson said.