Q&A with Excellence in Teaching Award-winning Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Nora Fritz

This spring, Wayne State University's Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences presented two Excellence in Teaching Awards for 2020-21. The awards recognize outstanding faculty — one in Health Sciences and one in Pharmacy — who, to an exceptionally high degree, demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of their subject, superior classroom performance and high educational standards, among other criteria.

We sat down with the recipients for insight into their winning ways (see Dr. Dennis Parker's Q&A here), starting with Health Sciences winner Dr. Nora Fritz:

Dr. Nora Fritz
Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Nora Fritz

Q: Congratulations on being presented with an Excellence in Teaching Award! How does it feel to be recognized by leadership and your peers for this honor?

A: Receiving this award is an incredible honor. I consider myself to be primarily a researcher, so to be recognized for my teaching is very meaningful.

Q: What are some ways you were able to generate enthusiasm for learning and motivate your students to excel from afar during distance teaching?

A: Over the past year, I have taught first- and third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy students, as well as first- and second-year Master of Occupational Therapy students. All of the students have been incredibly resilient — ensuring their success, even with the shift to distance learning was so important to me. In the same way that instructor enthusiasm is contagious in the classroom setting, instructor enthusiasm and empathy are critical for distance learning. I tried to provide a variety of methods for students to ask questions during class and after class.

Dr. Fritz keeps students actively engaged in this interactive bilateral transfer lab, where they can experience the impact of training with one hand on performance of the other.

Q: Did the pandemic change the way you approach your material or communication of lessons?

A: Absolutely! I was co-teaching a course in motor control and motor learning with Dr. Christine Kivlen when the lockdown started. We had to pivot to synchronous lectures. I like to do a lot of moving around in the classroom and often ask the students to stand up and try out movements themselves. There was a lot of adjusting of the webcam at first to get it right! We also had to translate all of our lab activities that we would normally do with partners in-person to at-home labs.

Q: How do you achieve work-life balance — before the pandemic and during current conditions?

A: This is a tough question — one thing about having little kids at home is that they demand a certain schedule, so they keep me on track! Even prepandemic, I tried to limit how much I worked in the evenings and weekends to reserve that time for family. This has become even more important with working from home, where the line between work and home is blurred.

Q: What made you decide to go into teaching?

Students interview seniors during Balance and Fall Screenings at St. Patrick’s Senior Center in Detroit.
Dr. Fritz's students interviewed seniors during a prepandemic Balance and Fall Screening at Detroit's St. Patrick Senior Center.

A: As I mentioned, I’m primarily a researcher, so most of my teaching experience was mentoring in a laboratory setting. I was not specifically trained to be a classroom teacher, so when I started my faculty position at WSU, I spent a LOT of time with the Office of Teaching and Learning to make sure I was meeting the needs of our students. I find teaching to be really energizing; I love that feeling of sparking an interest or new understanding in a student.

Q: How does your clinical work inform your classroom lessons and vice versa?

A: I am a neurologic physical therapist, primarily working with individuals who have neurodegenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis or Huntington’s Disease. I am able to bring my clinical expertise as well as anecdotes to the classroom lessons, since I teach neuroscience and motor control courses.

Q: Christine Kivlen nominated you in part for going above and beyond to be accessible to your students. Give some examples of how you do that and why you feel it’s important.

A: I am so thankful to Dr. Kivlen for this nomination. We have co-taught a course together for two years, and it has been a wonderful experience — we learn so much from each other. When we moved to distance learning, I wanted to provide students with many ways to ask questions and check their understanding. So in addition to using the chat feature in Zoom during class, students could unmute themselves to ask questions, complete a “muddy point” anonymously after class (answering “What was the muddiest point/most unclear concept from today’s class?”) and have this answered during the following lecture, or when they join me for virtual office hours. We also included a Kahoot (quick live quiz) after each lecture to allow students to check their understanding.

Dr. Fritz performs hip extension strength testing as part of teaching and mentoring in the Neuroimaging and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, which she directs.

Q: You work with both physical therapy and occupational therapy students. Tell us more about your interdisciplinary instructional practices and what it means for students.

A: PTs and OTs work together regularly, so it’s critically important for the students to understand the strengths of each profession so they can co-treat or refer appropriately. During a typical year, students would work closely in small groups, but with distance learning we used breakout rooms and large group discussion to highlight differences and similarities in PT and OT practice, and how each profession might approach a problem.

WSU Applebaum information meetings for prospective students take place at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month. The Doctor of Physical Therapy program application process opened July 1 and the deadline is Oct. 15. The Master of Occupational Therapy program application cycle takes place Aug. 1-Nov. 1.

Q&A with Dr. Dennis Parker

An anchor in urban health care 
The Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is built on more than 100 years of tradition and innovation in the heart of Detroit. We have grown deep roots in our city, harnessing its powerhouse hospital systems and community service organizations as vibrant, real-world training grounds for students, with an ongoing focus on social justice in health care. And our research at all levels — from undergraduates to veteran faculty members — translates into creative solutions for healthier communities.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering approximately 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 26,000 students.

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