Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

OCUFA Teaching Award is an extra perk for a computer scientist devoted to reinventing education

Photo of Diane Horton with a students looking at a computer

Diane Horton (right) with students Anmol Nagpal and Rachel Woo from her undergraduate course, Introduction to Computer Science. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Diane Horton was born to teach. Believe it or not, she has known that since her Grade 2 teacher Mr. Ripley let her assist him in class. Little wonder she found her dream job at the University of Toronto, where “reinventing education” is a core mission.

“I’ve always dreamed of being able to really focus on teaching, and I’m so lucky, because here at this university I can,” says Horton, a 2016 winner of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations’ (OCUFA) teaching award.

“I have the good fortune to know what it is I want to do and to be able to do it”

“I have the good fortune to know what it is I want to do, and to be able to do it,” adds Horton, an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Department of Computer Science.

What Horton wants to do includes turning old school concepts about teaching upside down with new ideas like ”inverted delivery,” where students review material outside of class, then bring questions and ideas to the classroom for discussion.

Her research and experience has shown that this active learning model can be highly effective. “With the kinds of active learning that we do, every student is participating in solving meaningful problems that help them discover what they do and don’t understand — right away with me there to help.”

“I always use the campfire metaphor, where we gather round in class to discuss ideas and brainstorm and fix misconceptions, and then let the students loose again to work on what they’ve learned,” says Horton, who also won a 2015 President’s Teaching Award.

The President’s award is just one of the ways the university infrastructure values and supports its teachers, says Horton. Administrators frequently consult their teachers on major issues, and generously fund pedagogical innovations.

Most importantly, U of T has created a separate “teaching stream” to parallel the more traditional path followed by professors focused primarily on research and tenure.

Teaching stream professorial ranks reflect importance of undergraduate education

“I think that is an incredible step forward, and U of T has been a real leader in this regard,” says Horton, who joined the university’s computer science faculty in 1993.

“It was nothing like that 25 years ago, and I think it’s really to the benefit of everyone.”

Having both streams together in a department like hers, “one of the best in the world for computer science,” has nurtured a sense of community and unleashed a torrent of collaboration, allowing Horton to refine her teaching methods by testing what works.

She conducts studies on topics such as the effectiveness of inverted teaching practices, and also teamed with colleagues to develop a software tool that provides immediate feedback on how well students are doing.

And like the role models who influenced her, Horton’s teaching is predicated on a personal touch. With interest in computer science growing, about 800 students will take her classes this year, and she wants to get to know as many as possible.

“I’m very motivated by understanding each person and something about them, because every student is unique,” she says.

“I’m also really motivated by the slightly lost student who is struggling with something, whether it is academically or personally.”

Horton’s philosophy: Students are more likely to succeed if they know they are valued for who they are and what they can achieve

Horton’s philosophy is that students are more likely to succeed if they know they are valued for who they are and what they can achieve.

She is excited about ideas like self-regulation and self-efficacy, powerful psychological tools that have made their way into educational thinking as a means to help students struggling with confidence and poor study habits.

Horton is also a big believer in self-reflection, prompting students to think and write about their experiences as they go along, whether it’s prepping for a big test or participating in the mentorship program she runs.

The mentorship program, which connects students with U of T alumni in hi-tech companies such as IBM, is an illustration of the contagious nature of teaching, typically matching up 70 mentors with an equal number of participants every year.

“What’s really inspiring is when these students go on to graduate and get jobs, they want to become mentors too, because it feels really good to share what you know.”