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In conversation with Michelle French

Winner of numerous teaching awards, the physiology professor is respected by students and peers alike
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Michelle French. Shaan Bhambra/THE VARSITY
Michelle French. Shaan Bhambra/THE VARSITY

A common complaint regarding U of T professors is that while they are excellent researchers, they don’t excel as educators. Yet, there are still professors capable of instilling a love for the subject that they teach in their students. Dr. Michelle French of the Department of Physiology is one such professor.

French, who teaches and coordinates a variety of courses in the department, has received teaching awards from U of T nearly every year since 2003. Most recently, she’s taught a course she designed, Biomedical Research at the Cutting Edge.

A small seminar, the course focuses on teaching first-year students fundamental research techniques, and how to interpret biomedical research. The success and quality of the course is a clear indicator of French’s dedication to improving undergraduate education.

In an interview with The Varsity, French discussed her approach to teaching, and how best to improve Science education at U of T.

The Varsity (TV): What drew you to science as a career?

Michelle French (MF): “Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a medical doctor. I am not sure whether this was something that came from me or from my parents. So in high school and university, I focused on subjects that would prepare me for medical school. But I do have a[n] inherent interest in biology and physiology in particular. I really enjoy learning about how the body functions — from the cellular to the whole organism level.”

TV: What was your educational path like?

MF: “BSc U of T Physiology specialist, Zoology major; MSc U of T Physiology, PhD University of Western Ontario.  [This was followed by] two four-year post-docs. One at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne Australia and a second at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto.”

TV: What difficulties did you face in your own science education?

MF: “My first two years at U of T were tough. I did not realize how much I had to work outside lectures and labs to actually learn the material. This changed when a fellow student described his studying approach (two to three hours per hour of lecture — reading the textbook and redoing lecture notes). My marks improved in third year and an independent research course with Drs. Otto and Anna Sirek in the Department of Physiology in fourth year started me on a research path.”

TV: How do you attempt to make science [easier] to learn for your students?

MF: “I think that the key thing is to convey enthusiasm for the topic. When lecturing, I like to start with a case to draw the students into the lecture. I also create learning breaks (usually multiple choice questions) to help students refocus and I repeat and summarize as I go through the lectures. In my smaller classes, mainly, I try to incorporate opportunities for students to work in groups and learn from each other. I often think that the best learning opportunities come when I am helping the students to discuss and work through the material on their own or in groups rather that straight lecturing. For this to work, of course, you need to have a committed class, but I find that U of T students are highly motivated and willing to engage in these types of activities.”

TV: What do you like about education at U of T? What could be improved?

MF: “I think that U of T provides unparalleled brea[d]th and depth of areas of study for students to pursue. Whole new academic paths can be opened up to students who decide to take an introductory course in an area that they know little about initially. I also think that U of T has maintained its high academic standards and that a degree from U of T is valued in the outside world. In terms of what could be improved… I would like to see more classrooms that can be configured in multiple ways to allow for small group work in addition to lectures. I think that often students to look for the easy path with their undergraduate education. Partly this is driven by the desire [or] need to get high marks for professional schools, but I think that students should also make sure that they take courses that challenge them and build a solid foundation for future studies or for their career.”

TV: Why do you think you’re ranked highly as a professor with students? What could other professors do to improve their teaching styles?

MF: “I think that you should ask the students… But perhaps they can see that I do genuinely care about them, their learning and their future. One thing that I have learned is to try not to be too defensive when reading teaching evaluations and to try to learn from them and modify accordingly while still maintaining the academic rigor in the course. Students should know that we do read our teaching evaluations, they are incredibly important for making teaching improvements.”

Correction (February 8th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Michelle French is a public health professor. In fact, she is a physiology professor.