Zecevic: Teaching about learning together

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Aleksandra Zecevic remembers it clearly. It was a Friday evening, around 6 p.m., the campus was eerily quiet as she headed home. A gentle snow was falling.

“I got to the parking lot and I said to myself, ‘I am so happy. I am so happy to be here, to have a job where I interact with young people all my life. I am surrounded by people who are 18-22 years old. What a beautiful energy and potential. What a fantastic way of seeing the future growing in front of your own eyes. Being part of creating that future is just an honour.’”

When it comes to teaching, the Health Studies professor walks into her classroom with one thing in mind – serve the needs of her students.

“Teaching is a business of changing people’s lives,” Zecevic said. “Teaching is not only the content; it is a way of being, a way of doing, a way of shaping who students are going to be in the future.”

A multiple award-winning professor, including the International D2L Brightspace Innovation Award in Teaching and Learning from the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Zecevic said a good teacher doesn’t need to be the focus of the class, but rather a facilitator in engaging the students – making them part of the learning process.

“In my classrooms, I don’t stand and teach, I don’t deliver the content. I challenge students to learn the content and teach each other,” Zecevic said. “My classrooms are a collaborative teaching effort where I challenge my students to participate in all aspects of what I, as a teacher, am to do. So, they teach each other, too, and we learn together.”

When her Aging Body course started, it was a tad dry. “It was so boring; I had to spice it up,” she said. To do so, she tasked her students with creating a simulation lab that answered one question: What does it feel like to be old?

“Not only did they have to come up with simulations and activities people will do when we equip them to feel and be old, but they also had to figure out how to make the lab mobile, so that we can take it outside the classroom, into the community, and teach other,” she said.

After students created the Evoking Empathy Aging Simulation Lab, the course began to evolve. After a few years of revising and revamping the simulation, it has since become a teaching tool in the classroom and community. Local high school students come to Western to be taught by the third-year Western students.

“Imagine how empowering that is,” said Zecevic of her students becoming educators.

Aging Globally: Lessons from Scandinavia is an international course where Western students collaborate with students in Norway and Sweden on problems prevalent in aging populations. That puts the spotlight on issues like e-health records, which have existed in Scandinavian countries for the past 30 years, but not in Canada, or those around the transition of care to a long-term care home?

“Students in Canada and students in Norway work together to learn from each other, understanding what the situation is in their respective countries,” Zecevic said. “They compare, contrast and conclude what can we learn from each other. We have this trans-Atlantic interdisciplinary classroom where Health Sciences students can work with occupational therapists, physiotherapists and computer science students at Oslo Metropolitan University every week.”

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It is dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success and is attended by higher education leaders, innovators, investors and policy-makers from around the world.

“Teaching is a lifelong process, it never stops,” Zecevic said. “As a professor at university, I’ve just started. Every course I have, every interaction with students I have, is just the starting point for the next level of what we’re going to do.”

She would like to integrate more technology into higher education and leverage that technology to improve teaching and learning.

“I am excited we will get the chance to talk to senior administration at all university levels and tell them what we need, as professors, to take forward these advanced ideas we have about worldwide classrooms,” Zecevic said.

“The future of education will allow students from all over the world to start creating networks at the undergraduate levels. The excitement is palpable, but we need the support. We need different approaches to make this type of education available to more than just the 30 students we’re are taking into these courses now.”