Problem solving and critical thinking — with new twists

Meet Early Career Teaching Award winner Mike Smit

- November 23, 2017

Early Career Teaching Award recipient Mike Smit. (Danny Abriel photos)
Early Career Teaching Award recipient Mike Smit. (Danny Abriel photos)

One group of students receives a set of instructions, the other a container of LEGO pieces. Together, they must work to build a structure. The only catch: they are in different rooms.

“People have to communicate how to build their thing online,” says Information Management professor Mike Smit, explaining one of the activities he uses to teach the concepts of teamwork and online communication.

While building LEGO using only instructions from people you can’t talk to in person may sound frustrating, Dr. Smit says students tend to thrive and show genuine understanding when put in such situations. “There’s a kind of a language that develops” between the groups of students, he says.

It’s the kind of interactive experience that stays with students, motivating them to learn and engage with the material. And it’s just the sort of critical approach to the classroom that landed Dr. Smit Dal’s Early Career Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching earlier this year.

An original style

Dr. Smit’s original approach extends to even the most basic building blocks of university courses: textbooks, readings, and essays.

He says being explicit about explaining what you’re doing and why (say, what course materials you’ve chosen and what assignments you’ve presented) helps impart the concept of teaching critical thinking — a key aspect of the university experience.

“I spend a lot of time talking about ‘why did I choose this textbook?’ ‘why is this assignment done this way?’” says Dr. Smit, who joined Dal as an assistant professor in 2013 and teaches master’s-level courses. “I think it’s important for them to see that students don’t do things because Mike Smit said so.”

Dr. Smit recounts the time he “brought in all eight textbooks that [he] reviewed and showed them to the class,” explaining the problems and strengths behind each to drive home the importance of critical thinking in a learning environment.

The future of the university experience

Regardless of the type, size,or subject of the class, Dr. Smit says there’s a way to bring a “hands-on” experience to students.

He’s a big believer in letting the topics themselves shape the types of activities offered.  

“Let’s actually do a usability study in a user-experience class,” he says. “Or if it’s a data class, let’s actually do some data analytics . . . and see how this actually looks when we’re trying it out.”

While technology will no doubt change the way professors engage in the teaching process in the decades ahead, Dr. Smit says there are elements of teaching that will still be relevant years from now.

Understanding individual student needs, critical thinking and skills-based learning will continue to drive the relevance of a university learning experience, he says, helping get students “where they need to be.”

This article is part of a series highlighting some of the recipients of Dalhousie's university-wide teaching awards. See the full list of award winners for 2017.


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