Seventeen students sit in a semi-circle as Senior Lecturer Lisa Coutu leads them in figuring out how to apply course concepts to real life. Several students volunteer answers when she asks, "How?" and "Why?" and "What if?" Coutu calls on a student not participating in the discussion, but he doesn't know the answer. She moves on to another student. At this point the first student opens his book. When Coutu asks another question, two students who have already spoken raise their hands. The student who just opened his book raises his hand, too, and Coutu calls on him. He gives the answer, and the class moves on, every student now fully engaged.
Five years later, the colleague who witnessed this class writes in support of Coutu's nomination for the Distinguished Teaching Award, "Lisa works to make students feel comfortable, without letting them off the hook." Coutu is an expert, says the colleague, in creating a climate in which students feel respected and comfortable in speaking out. "I have long admired Lisa's ability to respond to incorrect answers in a face-saving manner."
Coutu, whose communication courses range in size from five to 500 students, and from introductory surveys for undergrads to professional skills seminars for doctoral students, is known for classes that are as lively and interesting as they are serious and difficult. She incorporates films, novels, current events, online homework, Internet discussion groups and anything else she can think of to involve students in the subject.
"If I can use an example that makes people laugh, they'll remember that example. And if they remember the example, they'll remember the concept better," she explains. Coutu objects, however, when her class is described as "entertaining."
"I worry sometimes that we feed students' desires to be entertained, and that's not what I try to do," she says. "Anything I do that is entertaining or fun is done with the purpose of helping them learn and remember the material."
Her students are surprised when she professes to be genuinely shy. "I was always the kid in class who sat in the back and didn't say anything." As an undergraduate, a teacher noticed her and helped her to feel comfortable participating in class. "That kind of attention from a teacher changed the way I thought about myself in the classroom and whether I had a voice," Coutu says. She has become skilled in drawing out reluctant students because of that experience. "I try to notice the people who aren't talking - not to force them to talk, because I think that's really detrimental - but to make space for them to engage."
Coutu's effectiveness becomes clear in the comments of her students. "I was struck by Coutu's ability to fill the room and create an interactive culture in which student participation is not only encouraged, but is the hallmark of her class experience," wrote one student. "The ability to project this impression to an audience of 300 students is phenomenal and rare."
Another student gave this remarkable testimony: "I was not one of her favorite students, or her best student. It is my belief I was a difficult student. Being a difficult student to teach, few professors chose to embrace such a challenge. Lisa could see something in me that few others in my education did. She gave me a chance and brought the best out of me."
Coutu thinks she gets the better part of the deal, however. "Every day, I get to come to work and talk to people who want to learn things from me. How much better can it get than that?"