Fiona Dunbar: Teaching That Adds Up

Fiona Dunbar

Fiona Dunbar

Written by Hina Ahmed, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

When asked what motivated her to pursue teaching, Fiona Dunbar replies, “You might say it was in my genes.” With a mother who is a science teacher, and a grandmother who was a teacher and principal in rural Ireland, a passion for teaching runs in Dunbar’s blood. Dunbar, who has been a lecturer in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics since 2005, knows that Math is often seen as a formidable field, but she firmly believes that you do not have to be a “mathie” to understand and even enjoy it.

Committed to ensuring that her students fully understand concepts and that she can be a supportive mentor throughout the process, Dunbar strives to accommodate her students’ needs. She understands that most students work on assignments in the evening, which is what inspired her to start holding office hours on Piazza – an online discussion forum – on the nights before major assignments are due. This allows the whole class to see practice questions as well as responses from other students and the instructor, creating an effective and collaborative online learning community. With each question being viewed by an average of 50 students, Piazza has proven to be a successful forum for her class.

Believing that effective instructors need to be life-long learners, Dunbar takes feedback from her students very seriously, and has adjusted her teaching methods as needed. By providing skeleton notes to students prior to lectures, she is able to use class time to go through difficult examples and solve problems with her students to ensure that they really grasp the concepts.  “My job is to break the material down into manageable pieces and then connect them together step by step,” states Dunbar. As one student remarked about Dunbar’s calculus course, “I used to dread going to math but I always look forward to her lectures. They're fun, and you'll reach an epiphany every time she explains something.”

The delight that students take in Dunbar’s courses is perhaps not surprising considering her pedagogical approach. “Teaching,” she says, “is a performance. And I’ve spent my whole life performing.” With her ARCT in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Dunbar sees teaching as an expressive art where you need to stay passionate and inspired.

Dunbar also spreads her passion for math beyond the university community. In 2009, she created a workshop for grade 9 girls called “Think About Math” in order to encourage them to consider furthering their education in mathematics. The success of this program led to the creation of an annual workshop that brings high school girls together with the University of Waterloo’s math alumni. Dunbar has also been long involved with Waterloo’s Women in Math committee, and is the Chair of the Euclid Math Contest committee. Her interest in math education is also apparent in her involvement with the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC). As a CEMC member, Dunbar visits high school students and informs them about math contests and interesting areas of math that they can pursue as a potential career path after high school.

As one of Dunbar’s first-year students affirms, “Having such a personable and dedicated instructor is a true blessing.” 

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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: