PhD graduate | Psychology

Sarah McCrackin was recognized for her outstanding work in the classroom with the Faculty of Arts Excellence in Teaching Award. She received her award for her co-instruction of Introductory Psychology at Renison University College in Fall 2018, as well as her online course instruction for Physiological Psychology in Winter 2018.

Sarah’s teaching strategy encourages students to apply their learning to real-world problems. She runs re-enactments of patient-doctor exchanges and has students diagnose those patients based on the new knowledge they’ve acquired. “It’s a good way to test that students understand the different functions of each brain lobe, and it makes it fun for the students,” says Sarah. “It makes the content relevant because they can understand that having that knowledge can help a neurologist actually diagnose a patient and improve a patient’s quality of life.” These enactments make Sarah’s learning interactive, and by linking back to the real-world, her students realize why the content they’re learning matters. In her teaching, she is also able to share data on her research regarding how eye gaze is used in social interactions, and how individuals use cues from other people’s eyes to infer what they’re thinking and feeling.

While online teaching is arguably a more challenging space to maintain student attention, Sarah excels at rallying her students around her content through the power of her teaching. She also creates a genuinely supportive academic community online by setting aside time to hold live office hours for her students so she can have actual conversations with them.

it's not me it's my amygdala meme

Sarah and her students incorporate satire into learning by using content-relevant memes, and other popular culture references.

Sarah keeps in close contact with her students, maintaining an open dialogue because she feels, “Having [an instructor] actually reach out to you and say ‘hey, I noticed you’re struggling’ or ‘I noticed you’re succeeding’ is really meaningful to the students.”

student headshot

By connecting with students often, Sarah demonstrates a deep care and compassion for them, and this translates through to how she structures her lectures. She schedules a five-minute break into her lecture to allow students who may be uncertain of the content or are struggling with another issue, to approach her to ask their questions in a more intimate one-on-one way before the class proceeds.

She says, “I put this break in my lecture so I am directly available to students. It can be harder for some students to put their hand up and ask a question with all of the other students watching.”

At Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE), Sarah has worked on the Fundamentals of University Teaching and the Certificate in University Teaching programs at Waterloo, completing a series of workshops and teaching observations, as well as a research project to make her think critically about all of the teaching approaches she could take. With her newly minted teaching dossier and skills, Sarah now feels that she has many new teaching strategies in her arsenal that she can use besides delivering a typical lecture.  “Anyone interested in teaching should get involved with the CTE,” she says, “because it’s a program with really good teachers that are there to help you be the best teacher you can be. You can explore different types of teaching, as well as make yourself a more competitive applicant for teaching jobs.” In recognition of Sarah’s efforts to improve and strengthen her teaching, she received the 2019 Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program award.

When possible, Sarah participates in community science outreach opportunities, including the Let’s Talk Science initiative at the University. She facilitates workshops that cover science topics, and she runs these at elementary schools or local libraries. Sarah is also a contributor to the web component of the program called CurioCity, where she writes articles to help high school students grasp topics at the university level more easily. Through one such paper, Sarah described her research on how eye gaze is used in social interactions, and how individuals use cues from other people’s eyes to infer what they’re thinking and feeling. Sarah looks for any and all opportunities to break down the barriers to learning and to confidently and interactively teach concepts to a wide variety of learners.