Recognizing excellence in teaching: Steven Barnes awarded a UBC Killam Teaching Prize


Dr. Steven Barnes in front of one of his chalkboard animations.

UBC Psychology is pleased to announce that Dr. Steven Barnes, Instructor I for the Department of Psychology and Vantage College, has been awarded a UBC Killam Teaching Prize. The Prize, awarded each year, recognizes distinguished teaching at all levels of instruction. Prizewinners are selected by an adjudicating committee chaired by the Faculty of Arts’ Associate Dean and they are approved by the Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academic at UBC.

Dr. Michael Souza, Senior Instructor & Associate Head, Undergraduate Affairs, UBC Psychology, says “This award reflects excellence in teaching at the very highest level, something that Steven has demonstrated with finesse in his years of service to UBC.”

In this Q and A, Dr. Barnes reflects on his teaching style, what he has learned from his students, and the people who have helped him in his journey as an award-winning instructor.

First of all, what attracted you to teaching?
Mostly it was those teachers that I found inspiring during high school (i.e., Dr. Moe Jacobs) and in university (e.g., Dr. John Pinel, Dr. Boris Gorzalka). I think I have always wanted to emulate their ability to alter my way of thinking about the world–I think that is a major purpose of any valuable education. To a lesser degree, it was also those teachers who did a poor job that attracted me to teaching–I wanted to make sure I didn’t make, what I perceived to be, their key mistakes. Accordingly, I try to make each student’s life ‘easier’ by setting clear yet high expectations, and presenting materials in a clear yet multifaceted way.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?
Eclectic, I guess. For example, I like to intermix storytelling, technology (e.g., chalkboard-based stop-motion animations, in-class polling tools, ‘choose-your-own-lecture’ polling), video, and content that is clear and easy to understand. Moreover, I try my best to maintain an open atmosphere in the classroom, where students feel safe to ask any questions they might have. I also like my course materials to be as current as possible for the students; so, each week before a lecture, I scour the recent literature for any new and interesting findings.

If you could share one message with future teachers, what would that be?
Don’t be scared to change things up in the classroom from time to time, and to try new technologies. It’s far too easy to get caught up with the same routine in any class you are teaching repeatedly. Also, recognize that there is no cookie-cutter method for teaching, and your best bet is to use multiple teaching techniques. Teaching fads come-and-go–glean what you can from each, but don’t get too tied to any one technique. Finally, read the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) literature, both related to your own field and in general. There are so many great teaching ideas out there, and they are increasingly appearing in peer-reviewed publications.

How have you learned from your students?
My students have taught me in so many ways, and it is because of them that I received this Killam award. Some ways they have taught me: (1) by them telling me when they don’t understand something I explained in class (which motivates me to improve my teaching and/or explanations of those materials); (2) by choosing the topics we cover in class (it forces me to learn new things, so that I can teach them about what it is they want to learn about); (3) through them telling me, and the rest of the class, their own stories related to the course topics; and (4) the wonderful projects they produce–many reflect a wonderful intermingling of psychological science with the arts.

Related to your Killam Prize, is there anyone you would like to thank or acknowledge?
In addition to my students, there are several people I would like to acknowledge. First, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Michael Souza–without his hard work, help and advice, I doubt this award would have been possible. He has also been a great friend and mentor. Second, I would like to thank the many students, alumni, and colleagues who nominated me and wrote letters of support for me. Third, I would like to thank Dr. John Pinel, Dr. Boris Gorzalka, Dr. Erin Michalak and Dr. Sunaina Assanand, who have all been great friends and mentors to me over the years. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the continual support of my wife, Behnaz Tehrani-Ami, and my daughter Mina–who have always put up with my often annoying work habits. There are, of course, many others that deserve an acknowledgement.

In recognition of his award, Barnes will attend a special celebration with the Dean of Arts on May 5. He will officially receive the award at UBC’s 2016 Spring graduation ceremony in May. This is the fourth consecutive year that UBC Psychology faculty have received the Killam Teaching Prizes. For a list of past recipients, visit our Awards page.