Teaching award winner strives to create ‘ripple effect’

Teaching methods based in cognitive neuroscience play a big part in how Erin Panda structures her courses — and not just because she is a cognitive neuroscientist.

The 2023 Faculty of Social Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching recipient builds her approach to teaching and mentoring around both her research in educational neuroscience and students’ feedback on their learning.

Panda, Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies, says students are much more likely to form and consolidate new memories of course content if they can attach what they are learning to what they already know.

“Learning is about binding new information to pre-existing structures to create new representations. For example, combining content heard in lecture or read in a textbook with personal experiences stored in episodic memory,” she says. “If you’re going to remember something for the long term, you need to activate what you already know so you can integrate new with old.”

Panda enhances learning in her classes through active-learning tactics such as the flipped classroom, where students watch video lectures prior to class and then work through discussion questions and activities to deepen their connection with the material.

“Those ‘aha’ moments rarely happen when you’re passively listening or reading,” she says. “They happen when you say things in your own words or apply facts to new situations, which is why the flipped classroom is so conducive to learning. It makes space for repetition and for students to identify main ideas, key drivers in forming long-term memories.”

It also makes lectures more fun, which Panda says aligns with science suggesting that “learning happens best when there’s that dopamine kick.”

Panda also uses peer assessment to help students build understanding. Since her first year at Brock in 2018, Panda has used a platform called Kritik that randomly and anonymously assigns students’ work to other students for evaluation.

“Students evaluate each others’ work, giving at least one positive and one helpful suggestion for each rubric component, and also evaluate the evaluations they received, sharing how the feedback made them feel and how useful it was,” says Panda. “This process embeds opportunities to develop critical thinking, communicating constructive feedback and working with others — all extra levels of learning.”

For Panda, this layering of soft-skill development with teaching strategies designed to be most effective for learners is “integral” to her knowledge mobilization work around evidence-based practices, especially because so many of her students will become teachers or mental health professionals working with young people.

“A really rewarding part of my job is the idea of a ripple effect,” she says. “What students learn here about the different ways people process information and the various challenges they may face will allow them to adapt their own teaching or the ways they interact with children and families so they can better support the people they’ll work with.”

The ripple effect extends to Panda’s mentoring and research supervision, another aspect of teaching that she says is “truly rewarding.” She describes the Developmental Neuroscience Lab — which she co-directs with Associate Professor and founding director Ayda Tekok-Kilic, Professor Suzanne Curtin and Emeritus Professor Sidney Segalowitz — as being like a family, with senior and junior faculty members working together with PhD, master’s and honours students and volunteers to support each other.

“I want to share how grateful I am to my colleagues and to the students I work with and how much I learn from them,” she says. “It is a joy to be part of this team.”

Ingrid Makus, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, says Panda’s integration of research into not just course content but also course delivery is one of many reasons that she was awarded the Faculty’s top teaching honour.

“Dr. Panda’s approach to teaching helps students understand the importance of what they are learning, particularly as they move forward in careers working with children,” says Makus. “Her innovative teaching and her thoughtful and meaningful engagement with students are sure to have a lasting impact on future generations.”

In her Convocation address on Monday, June 12, Panda reminded graduands that they have succeeded in spite of the unexpected challenges presented by the pandemic. She encouraged them to remember the strength, perseverance and flexibility they discovered over the past four years and that “the gift of any challenge — if you can find it — is growth.”

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