Teaching Stories

Mary Louise McAllister: Illuminating Experiences

Mary Louise McAllister

Mary Louise McAllister

Written by Bailey Jacobs, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

A power outage is an unfavourable event and might lead to the premature adjourning of a class - but when the power went out during one of Dr. Mary Louise McAllister’s Faculty of Environment lectures, she didn’t blink an eye.  Although she does use multi-media to enhance her classes, her teaching methods do not rely on bells and whistles – because, as she says, “you don’t need any of that to teach well!” She soldiered on in the dimly-lit classroom, relying on the tried-and-true teaching methods that she always uses. Her students claimed that her "blackout lecture" was one of the best of the whole course.

When McAllister started teaching approximately thirty years ago, she delivered lectures in the traditional “sage on the stage” manner. She shifted away from that pedagogical approach, however, when she realized that, as she puts it, “an instructor and their students can actually have fun when learning in the classroom!” Since making that change, she believes her lectures have evolved into lessons in collaborative learning, using combinations of different kinds of experiential or hands-on learning.

One day, for example, McAllister stopped mid-“lecture” and asked her class “Are you following me?” When her students acknowledged that things weren't fully clear, she put down her notes and declared, “Okay, we are now in city council,” assigned roles to her students, and began role playing a scenario to teach how local governments operate.

The verbal aspect of McAllister's teaching is not the cornerstone of her lesson; instead, the lesson is fundamentally focused on the students’ experiential learning. Ethical questioning, class discussions and debates, storytelling, music and group exercises are some of the elements that not only distinguish her lessons, but bring the engaging element of hands-on learning into her classroom. As a former student of McAllister, Graham Howell, elaborates, McAllister always “breaks down the traditional classroom style of lecturing.”

Her class field trips, such as a day trip on the local train to St. Jacobs and a trip to city hall, are other unique ways in which she creates both an interactive and educational atmosphere for her students. McAllister asserts that “it is better for students to go and observe a city council meeting for themselves… because that is more effective than me telling them what goes on during a city council meeting.” This affirms her belief that personal experiences are an integral part of a student’s learning process.

The emphasis on experiential learning extends beyond the lessons; it is the fundamental umbrella under which all aspects of McAllister’s courses reside. For example, ERS210, a qualitative methods course (a companion course to ERS 211, a quantitative course taught by colleague Steve Murphy), has one major term-long project where the students are responsible for going out into the local community to undertake primary qualitative research.

McAllister’s students augment their understanding of qualitative research methods learned in class by working hands-on in the community, thereby directly applying their knowledge. But McAllister wants to ensure that the learning doesn't stop there. "What is sometimes missing in courses," she says, "is effective peer-to-peer communications to share what has been learned. After all, the best way to learn subject matter is to have to teach it.” Accordingly, she has her students give term-end presentations to teach each other. McAllister believes this peer-teaching process helps her students actively engage in deep learning.

If you ask McAllister about the pedagogical skills she has acquired throughout her career, she will provide some simple take-away points: “Have faith in your students, set your expectations high, and they will always rise to the occasion. Lastly, let go in the classroom and learn from your students.”

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More Resources

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: