Dr. Muir rehearses her lectures before every class. Photo by Caitlin Taylor

Muir recognized for outstanding teaching

Neuroscience can be a daunting subject for first-year veterinary students, but with Dr. Gillian Muir at the front of the class, students have nothing to fear.

Muir is the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's 2016 recipient of the Provost's College Award for Outstanding Teaching. Offered through the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, this annual award is presented to one professor from each college who demonstrates outstanding teaching in his or her field.

"I'm flattered — I'm honoured to get an award like this. It is always surprising to be rewarded for something that is already so rewarding," Muir says, who has been a WCVM faculty member for 20 years.

During her time as a professor, she has perfected her teaching method both in the lecture hall and in the lab. Unlike many professors, Muir prefers talking and drawing on the board — or "chalk talk" — rather than using PowerPoint slides.

"What I like about teaching from the board is that I can develop and adapt the lecture to the students' needs as the hour goes on. I'm not stuck to a set of slides," say Muir, who is also head of the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences.

This technique has pushed Muir to perfect her drawing and speaking skills, and even though she has been a professor for many years, Muir still rehearses her lectures prior to class. She's constantly learning how to draw the nervous system from different perspectives to help her students understand.

While Muir's teaching method may seem simple, she also incorporates videos and images into her lectures where applicable. Her combination of explanations, drawings and multi-media seem to be the best recipe for most of her students, but she is aware that some people have trouble keeping up.

To help with this, Muir has teamed up with small animal internal medicine specialist Dr. Sue Taylor to develop a neuroscience teaching website. The site will have more in-depth versions of Muir's chalk talks as well as videos of animals with lesions in action.

"Students will be able to watch an animal with a lesion in a particular part of the nervous system, watch how they move and then go to an explanation of why that's occurring using the anatomy and the physiology from the talks," says Muir.

Taking information gleaned from lectures or the website and applying it to clinical cases is something that Muir believes is essential to understanding neuroscience.

"Being able to pull that information out of your head and use it again – that's what ends up making the connections, strengthening those synapses. That's when you start to really know something."

While receiving the U of S teaching award is an honour for Muir, seeing her students make those connections between theory and practice is the most fulfilling part of her job.

"Those ‘aha moments' where you're explaining something to somebody and they're puzzled, puzzled, puzzled — and then suddenly their whole face clears up and they go ‘Oohhhh, I get it!' That's great. That's all the reward you need," says Muir.

Caitlin Taylor of Saskatoon, Sask., was the Saskatchewanderer for two years and photo editor at The Sheaf on the University of Saskatchewan campus for 2015-2016. She is the 2016 summer research communications intern at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
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