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December 19, 2014

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Educational Development old

Trent Tucker talks about how 'less is more' when it comes to lecturing

May 27/10

Walking into Trent Tucker's classroom, students are welcomed by the smooth, hypnotic rhythm of reggae music.

"It sets the mood, and it's not just for them, it helps me focus," says Trent Tucker, a lecturer in the Operations and Decision Sciences area at Laurier's School of Business & Economics. "When I do a set of notes, I have the obligatory quote at the top and I often use song lyrics. And when the students come in to the classroom, the song with those lyrics will be playing to set the theme, and so everything is tied together.

"Some students figure out there's a running thread," he added with a chuckle, "and the ones who do, say, something like, 'Ah, Trent -- you're a sly guy. There's something going on here.'"

Something going on, indeed, as Tucker recognizes there is sometimes a fine line between educator and student: "On the very first class, I let them know that I'm a student as well and there's not a lot of difference between us," says Tucker, who is currently working towards his PhD in Management Science at the University of Waterloo.

"I tell my students, this is me -- this is what you get," he adds. "I try to build a bit of street-cred(ability) by telling them that I wasn't always an academic, but worked in industry for a number of years -- these are the companies I worked for, and these are the job titles I've had." Tucker explains to them, while earning a BSc in Mathematics from the University of Alberta, he began a career at Imperial Oil (IOL) in the distribution part of the business. "My four year undergrad took six years because I lived in residence the whole time," says Tucker, who was also heavily involved in the student government.

After leaving IOL, Tucker worked in the supply chain area at Methanex in Vancouver, after completing his MBA at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Later, he became a senior consultant with HATCH, consulting to the natural gas industry, he explains to his students. "And I tell them this because if they were to get a co-op offer, that they can come to me and talk about it because I've been out in the workforce -- and I get it," adds Tucker, who most recently was the Software Development Manager at Schneider Foods before leaving industry to focus on academia, and joining the faculty at Laurier's School of Business & Economics in 2003.

Through his experiences teaching at Laurier, Tucker says it took some time to learn and apply what he calls his "less is more" approach to lecturing. "The first time I ever taught a statistics course I remember thinking, 'This will be easy,' because the guy who wrote the text book gave me a copy, and I also got a CD ROM with all the publisher's slides, so I thought, 'This is great, I can stand and deliver," Tucker recalls.

"But when I got into it, I realized there's no way I can take 60 slides and cover the material in 80 minutes -- it's just not possible. Then I asked myself, 'What are the really salient, important bits? And what can I scrap?' Every year, I try to scrap as much as I can to get to the core essence of the material.

"And because I've done that, I now have more control over my pace," he adds. "And rather than looking at my watch and thinking, 'Oh no, I only have 20 minutes left to try and cram everything in,' and rushing through material that the students aren't getting anything out of, I now usually end about 10 minutes early. The students really appreciate that because if there's questions or something we need to go into a little bit more deep, then I've got that buffer built into the class time."

And like the reggae music -- with its floating, trance quality -- that he plays before class, Tucker strives for a comfortable, friendly pace through his lectures while acknowledging students' interest in the material is often content dependant. "I tell them, 'Look, we're all in this together, and some of the stuff we'll be covering is dry as hell, so I hope you have a water bottle with you,'" Tucker admits. "And they always chuckle at that.

"I believe that given a choice between taking certain courses, or not, they probably wouldn't," concludes Tucker with a laugh. "But then again I have some students come back and say, 'You know, I think it's great that you showed us how you can tie this material back to some real world concepts."

Or, as Tucker has shown, through the rhythmic beats and lyrics of a reggae song.

Marshall Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).

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