Engineering lessons

In learning to manage their workload, students develop a valuable skill

Marwan Kanaan, winner of last year’s Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching (Course Lecturer category), has been teaching Engineering undergraduate classes since 2012. Before that, as a McGill grad student, he served as a teaching assistant for more than four years. In this Q&A, he shares his thoughts on how instructors can liven up dense lectures, and how students can get the most from their courses:

How do you create a strong connection with your students?

Marwan Kanaan: For me, perhaps the best way to make a connection with students is to present myself as more than just a teacher, and give them short breaks filled with stories and personal anecdotes. Every so often in a dense lecture, I’ll pause the material and go off on a tangent about the latest TV show or tell a personal story. The students love it because it makes me more relatable as a teacher. I think it makes them even want to succeed more when their teacher seems more human -- they want to do well for you, because they feel like they know you.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

Kanaan: Engineering is probably best defined as systematically solving problems using minimal resources. With that definition in mind, I think getting an engineering degree in and of itself is good engineering training. Remember this when you’re in the middle of your term and you suddenly have more midterms, projects, and homework than you think you can manage. Deciding what to do first, how to organize yourself, how to tackle your challenges is essentially managing your limited resources to solve a problem. Figure this out and you will have a great skill that will stay with you for the rest of your career.

Is information technology changing teaching?

Kanaan: Yes, but not as much as you’d think it is. Despite the fact that you can go online and listen to any song or watch any video you like, we still pay money to go to concerts and watch live shows. For the same reason, I find there’s still value in going to classes and getting information firsthand. You can interrupt and have a meaningful dialogue in the middle of a lecture. However, information technology is certainly making education more accessible. Whatever topic you’d like to learn, you can find world experts teaching it somewhere online.

What are some of your favourite things about living in Montreal?

Kanaan: Montreal has a fantastic selection of restaurants. I also love to walk, and it’s very walkable for those living in the city. I love the culture and vibrancy of it, as well as the diversity. It’s big, but not too big or impersonal. You can still always run into someone you know on the street.

Anything else you’d like to tell students who are thinking about coming to McGill?

Kanaan: University is not just a place to grow academically, it’s also where you grow personally. Choose the place wisely. It will have lasting memories and lifelong friendships.