Meeting the Minds – A new Voice Column of AU Interviews

Janine Keown-Gerrard

Dr. Janine Keown-Gerrard has been a tutor and academic expert working at Athabasca University for 8 years now. Her courses include PSYC 304, PSYC 356, MATH 215, ORGB 300, and COMM 243. She tutors and advises approximately 150 students.

Dr. Keown-Gerrard was recently interviewed by The Voice Magazine, and here is the gist of what was said:-

Psychology and Math seem to be an unusual combination, what brought you to start in this particular combination of fields?

When I was an undergrad, I wanted to be more of a regular clinical psychologist. At the time, I was volunteering for elderly and palliative care and it seemed to be the next step along that career path although I felt like something about it was missing for me.

I had nearly completed my degree but needed another option. The course I took was one in industrial-organizational psychology (I/O Psyc); basically, psychology of the workplace, and I fell in love with it. Here was something that often relied heavily on objective measurement and that spoke to the math nerd in me. I’ve always been a math and stats girl and I/O Psyc relies heavily on research and measurement in that way. At the same time, whereas my more traditional psychology courses seemed to be about how to help people who were struggling achieve the status quo, I/O psyc was more about looking at high performers and seeing how to help people achieve their maximum, and that was just a better fit for me.

Fortunately, I’d maintained a solid GPA and had my research experience as background, so when I applied for grad school, they accepted me and I’ve continued that way since, attaining my MSc. and Ph.D. in the field.

What are the common pitfalls you see students running into?
There are a few, and I’m sure others will tell you self-discipline, but I think one of the largest are how some students are hesitant to contact their tutors, and they miss out on the guidance that we can offer.

Because some students are hesitant, they tend to contact us primarily by email, but don’t realize that if they speak on the phone with us, they can usually get a lot more information. For instance, sometimes when students are having difficulties, they may not even realize that they have an incorrect understanding of certain earlier concepts in the course, so when they ask a question about later material, the answer they get may not be as helpful as it could be. When we’re on the phone, however, we can better read where the problem is exactly and so help quite quickly. As it is though, only about 5% of the students who contact me do so by phone.

Of course, many tutors are welcoming but some aren’t, so it really falls to the students to take on the responsibility to, perhaps, push past their comfort zone to contact their tutor and ask some good questions. So that’s the pitfall I most often see: students taking the path of least resistance, and only really using us as tutors when they run into trouble. But we have so much more information and ways that we can help out, and since they’re paying for it, they really should take advantage while they can. A lot of tutors are happy to give this information if someone’s interested, but some you do have to work to get it out of them, so a good way to go is to be prepped, have a list of open ended questions you can ask them.

What is interesting to you currently in your academic field?
I started out working at a consulting firm doing leadership development. There were many hours involved and a lot of travel to client sites, where I’d coach managers on how to build their skills further. Unfortunately, the hours and the travel simply didn’t mesh well with my life, especially as my partner is a farmer and rancher here in Alberta.

So now I’m more interested in the area of academic coaching: how do you build student skills to get them to succeed. I’ve started working in that area with some of the local high school students, helping them with things like test anxiety, how to ask their instructors questions that get the best results for them, how to prepare for exams and take better notes, basically all areas of academic coaching, so my interests are more in the applied areas of the I/O Psyc field currently.

And outside the field?
I have three small children, so it kind of revolves around them with kids? activities, hockey games, parent councils, as well as being involved in my partner’s cattle and grain farm and building the community around here. Between that and AU, there’s not a lot of time for other interests.

What is your opinion on AU’s move to e-texts so far?
My experience is that it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Policy-wise, I’m of the understanding we’re stuck with it, so students are best off trying to find and use the benefits now. The technology we have for it seems quite good, allowing us to highlight, make notes, access through multiple devices, and of course search for specific terms?something that can be hard to do with physical books if they don’t have a good index.

But people learn to learn differently. In my courses, I was a visual learner, when I was researching I’d have journals and books and papers spread out around me. The option for electronic journals and the like simply wasn’t there. But with e-texts, that’s not easily possible without spending the extra money to get print-outs of the material. So the question people have to ask themselves is do they take on the challenge of trying to change the way they learn to best utilize the e-text format, or do they take on the challenge of trying to change the way that e-text can present the material so that it conforms with how they’re used to learning, or a combination of both?

How about the shift to the call-centre model?
I work in both, but, personally, I much prefer the tutor model, because the call-centre puts a barrier between the students and myself. Building a tutor-student relationship is still about building a relationship, so as a tutor, I put a lot of effort into that first contact message that we’re required to send. I find that’s a really important piece of the tutor model, that first contact. So I put extra effort into it, I’ll make it personable and give a little information about myself. I’ll also look at the student’s class record to try to personalize the letter specifically for them and ask them some questions on what they expect and how they tend to work. Also, if a student doesn’t reply, I’ll follow up just to try to start any sort of dialogue between us. Once they do reply, I can then give them more information about the course that may relate to them directly, which provides good reason and reward for them to continue the dialogue and get as much as possible out of the course and me.

With the call-centre, however, it’s difficult to even start to build those relationships, so it’s much easier for students to take that path of least resistance again and only look for more information or instruction when they’re having a problem.

Have you any thoughts on social media use at AU?
I haven’t used it a lot. The problem that I’ve seen with it is that there has to be a gathering place that people utilize. I’ve looked into the Facebook pages (including the one made by the psych centre) but the activity there seems to be too infrequent to make it really useful. There’s a lack of structure around how it’s used and who its used by, etc, to make it a really good resource, and so it’s easier for students, who are already leading busy lives, just to not bother with it at all.

What do you think AU really should do to improve itself in future?
Tutors want to be engaged too, but AU needs to realize this. They’ve gotten rid of the tutor conference which was one place where it was easy for tutors to get in contact not just with each other, but with the course co-ordinators and faculty in the AUFA. There’s very little connection between tutors and AU proper. There are lots of emails, but these mostly revolve around things that happen at the AU offices and so affect administrative staff or faculty, not the tutors.

This can make it hard for tutors to feel like they’re a part of something larger, something good, which in turn can make it harder to pass that feeling on to students who are taking their courses here. Perhaps a required meeting for tutors and faculty every quarter would be really useful to help us as tutors and faculty to learn from each other. AU offers technical training on the various things we need to do our job, but little developmental training for tutors to bring us out and encourage collaboration between all of us.

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