Online learning with Bill Ju

A graduate of the department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, University of Toronto, Professor William Ju’s graduate research involved the examination of cellular and molecular pathways underlying motivation, learning and memory, and neurodegeneration. After completing his research, Dr. Ju was a sessional lecturer in the Physiology and Cell and Systems Departments at the University of Toronto, before joining the Human Biology Program in 2009. Dr. Ju has incorporated the use of his previous research background to teach courses within the Neuroscience as well as the Health and Disease streams. Student engagement and extending the traditional classroom has been a dominant part of Dr. Ju’s pedagogical philosophy. He also aims to create innovative forms of “authentic” (or real-world) assignments to assess skills, concepts and knowledge transfer to students in both online and traditional classrooms.

In the nomination, the student states that in your class, you “address the importance of mental health, helping to break the silence with regards to this sensitive topic so that students feel less alone.” Could you tell us a bit more about how you accomplish this, and why it’s an important aspect of your approach to teaching?

I teach in neurobiology, where we look at the biological dimension, but we don’t necessarily take into consideration the human aspect or the human impact. I think that best practices includes making it relevant and as personalized as possible for the students. This is why I often talk about my own mental health journey with the students. I think that hearing a faculty member talk about their mental health, and things that are going on in their life, does help to open up the discussion a lot more. And more generally, that’s something I want to promote among my students, for them to feel free to talk about these things. I’m not a clinician, and I do make that very clear to students, but I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to help them feel like they are free to talk to someone. I’ve also realized that not all students want to talk, in the traditional sense. Students may not want to verbalize it, but they might be more comfortable writing a note or sending an e-mail. 

Discussions about health are often related to concerns about healthy eating, physical activity, managing stress, and sleep. We’d be interested to hear from you, your thoughts on the concept of a “healthy campus” and how it can been integrated into the classroom setting?

I actually bring food into my class, healthy food: I think it’s a really important thing. I think about faculty meetings and how they always have food available and I think, why not make that available for students?  I also talk to my students about how to cope with stress through effective time-management. I believe that much of the stress students experience can be managed by simply having a good plan in place. We try to provide weekly reminders about what they could be doing on the weekend to prepare for the upcoming week, or for their midterm or term tests. 

I’m a big proponent of sleep, which students often tell us is impossible. But I do think is possible and they really should be getting enough sleep. I think the late night study sessions will catch up to them, and that’s a big concern.  Also, I often mention the importance of exercise, and that it can take on many different forms. Whether they feel like being involved in some sort of organized activity or sport, or simply walking across the campus several times a day, it’s really about getting outdoors, taking time away from their school work, and maybe having some fun. 

In the nomination, the student describes you as approachable and supportive, and that you “have created a community for neuroscience students, where we feel welcomed and inspired to learn as much as possible.” Please let us know what this nomination as a Healthy Campus Champion means to you personally and/or professionally?

Firstly, I’m surprised and grateful that students have this opinion of me. I’m not sure I do a really great job, but it is something I think all faculty members should be thinking about - that the classroom isn’t just a place to teach, but also a place to foster a sense of wellbeing and community. Finding ways to get students to interact with each other, during a break, even instead of checking their e-mail or phone, is a great way to create a community. Once they’ve met other students in the class, they can talk to each other and hang out afterwards, which makes it a much more positive learning experience. I think there are many benefits to creating this sense of community in the classroom. It also feels very cool to be nominated! 

We would also be interested to hear if you have suggestions about what more could be done to foster campus environments that support the wellbeing of our students?

I think students want to feel connected to this place and a sense of community, they spend four or more years of their life here. If you feel so anxious that you have to miss a class, because you have no one else to rely on, whether it be a professor or another student, to catch up on what you missed, then something’s wrong. I don’t think the classroom is then functioning properly or the way that it should. There has to be a support network present and the student has to feel that they are part of a community, one that will notice that they are missing. Whether there are 400 student class, or 40, there is no excuse to not get to know your students. 

I start my courses with an informal, anonymous questionnaire that asks, “What’s the one thing that you wish you could tell me?” We also ask them about their biggest concern about the semester, “What’s the one big challenge you are going to be facing?” I think getting students to verbalize these things or write them down is a good start to establishing a sense of community. If your professor is asking you these things, maybe they care! I think it’s more common for professors to try to get to know students by the end of the course, but I think it’s important to get to know them at the beginning. When you read their responses, you get a good sense of what your learners are going through. It gives me a very different perspective on things, and then I can tailor my course accordingly. For example, if one-third of the students are anxious about the midterm and multiple choice questions, I have to address those concerns. 

I also have a flexible syllabus for my classes. For example, a student might not be great at multiple-choice questions, but I have other types of assignments, where the emphasis is on writing components. If they are doing better on the writing component, then I will increase the weight of that assessment and decrease the weight of other. It’s a way to ensure that it’s about the learning first, that’s the priority, and to let students know that their experience in the course matters.