Supporting student success

August 11, 2020 | Society, Campus Life
Dr. Andrea Wagner, assistant professor in political science, isn’t afraid to hold her students to a high standard. “I’m German-Hungarian, and I always tell my students I expect them to have a German work ethic,” she says.

"That means not only doing your best work at all times, but also being respectful by showing up on time, and letting me know if you’re not able to attend a class. I can be very strict about that."

The key to making it work, she says, is balance. “You can’t expect a lot from your students and then leave them on their own. You must provide them with the tools and guidance to be successful. I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about helping my students succeed.”

And clearly her students appreciate her combination of structure and warmth – after all, they nominated her for a 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award, which she received this past June. “I believe that it is crucial for students to have a complete picture of what will be expected of them,” Wagner says of her approach. “I have noticed that when students know the learning goals and receive feedback, they feel supported.”

We talked to Dr. Wagner about how she creates connections between the European Union and her Alberta students, and what she loves about teaching.

MacEwan University’s Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2020 award winners' profiles throughout July and August: Tanya Heuver (assistant professor, nursing practice), Dr. Samuel Mugo (associate professor, physical sciences), Neeraj Prakash (sessional faculty member, English) and Dr. Andrea Wagner (assistant professor, political science).

Q: What inspired you to study political science?

Originally I was focusing on economics. I did my masters in economics and I wanted to do my PhD in economics. But then I realized that I find economics a little too analytical and dry. I needed something that related more to real life. I was interested in the study of corruption, so I switched to studying political economy and from there, political science was just a step away.

Q: When did you realize teaching was for you?

Originally I thought that I might want to work for the United Nations, and when I was finishing my undergrad, I had an opportunity to go to the UN headquarters in New York City for an internship. But while I was there, I realized what I really wanted to do was research and teach. That's when I decided that I would go for my PhD and become a professor.

Q: What do you love most about teaching in your discipline?

There are many elements of teaching that I love. I love to connect with students and create a collaborative class structure and culture, while giving them the opportunity to apply and constantly re-apply the knowledge acquired in class to authentic problems that plague society. I love to see in their eyes how proud it makes them when they learn something new. I like to break complex matters into little digestible pieces – if there's structure, then anything complicated can be taught.

I also teach statistics and research methods, which many students fear so much. They come into class thinking they are going to hate it or that they will do poorly. I always try to deconstruct that negative notion that certain things are out of their reach. It’s such a wonderful process to see them understand complex matters and gain self-confidence. I am a true believer in positive pedagogy and positive reinforcement and all my courses reflect that belief. I always try to debunk such negative internalized belief systems by reiterating that students’ ability to be successful is not a fixed variable, but amenable to change and improvement.

Q: How do you approach teaching European Union politics to Canadian students who were raised in a different political environment?

Through my Jean Monnet Chair, I was able to invite speakers to the university in January, who discussed the similarities between Brexit and the risk of Western secession and the political power behind the secessionist movement. The students are quite interested in learning more about the European Union, and how the recent developments affect Canada and Alberta. So this is an opportune time to be teaching about the European Union.

Q: What is your favourite course to teach and why?

I love all my courses on the economics and politics of the European Union. Within these courses, every year there is a trending topic. For instance, this year I will teach about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it was handled in the European Union. So I try to always update my courses and discuss recent developments so that students understand all current events.

Q: Does having been educated in Europe affect the way you teach?

Europeans tend to be more direct, so there’s some culture shock when my students meet me for the first time because I'm very blunt and to the point. Some of them find it intimidating at first, but in the end, they find it very authentic.They appreciate this type of openness and directness. But at the same time, I am also very compassionate and interested in their success. What draws students to me and my courses is that I truly, genuinely care.

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