Humble Burton puts students first
Successful, beloved professor emphasizes personal interaction
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Professor Burton shuffles through papers, paying no attention to the two awards – given to him for excellence in teaching – sitting on a cluttered shelf to the left of his desk.
A group of students walks out of his office when another knocks on the door. His scheduled office hours are over, but Burton invites him in.
Harold Burton, a professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, has been at UB since 1987. In that time, he has been honored with the University at Buffalo Distinguished Service Award, the School of Public Health and Health Professions Teacher of the Year and the Milton Plesur Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence. Though he seems to give little attention to the honors, no one is more deserving, according to students.
“[Burton] is one of the best educators I’ve ever been around,” said Carol DeNysschen, a UB alum and former student of Burton’s. “He really cares about [his students], but he doesn’t do their work for them … He makes the work interesting for the students. [Burton is] definitely deserving of the awards he received.”
The praise is not limited to Burton’s students; his fellow professors have noticed his commitment as well.
Professor Gaspar Farkas, the interim director of exercise and nutrition sciences, who has worked with Burton for 18 years, is impressed how Burton learns the names of all 120 or more students in his lectures. Burton likes to get involved and puts in the effort to know about their lives, according to Farkas.
Burton doesn’t let the high praises or awards go to his head.
Burton credits his ability to remember students’ names to attendance printouts that come with pictures of the students. Burton said he considers it “quite a compliment” to hear about his popularity amongst the students.
A native of Kirkland Lake, a small town in northern Ontario, Burton began his academic career with the intention of becoming a teacher.
As an undergraduate, he was interested in teaching high school so he earned his bachelor’s in education. When he became interested in health sciences, he pursued that on the collegiate level.
Burton received his doctorate in cardiovascular physiology from the University of Guelph in 1983, and he earned a fellowship at the University of Michigan until 1986, before becoming an associate professor at UB.
His background in education is in part responsible for his emphasis on connecting with his students, a quality which sets him apart from other research-oriented professors and endears him to his students, according to DeNysschen. She likes how Burton is always willing to talk to students when they need him.
Burton thinks his style of teaching is what makes him successful as a professor.
He prefers to teach introductory exercise science classes so he can introduce the material to students in new and interesting ways, where they can interact with him and each other more than they would in a typical lecture-based class.
One of the techniques Burton uses to get his students to connect more with the material is to have them work in smaller groups, enabling the students to interact with each other to better their understanding of the concepts covered, according to Burton.
This technique also ensures the students taking these large lecture courses have more of a chance to meet with Burton in a one-on-one setting. Burton also tries to make sure the information he presents is tailored to the interests of his students.
“I use real life examples [to illustrate what I’m teaching],” Burton said. “If a student’s memory cue for a term is a page number in a textbook, then they aren’t going to remember it, but if their memory cue is [a real life circumstance], they will."
Burton was made the director of undergraduate studies for the exercise science department in 1995, a position he held until 2006. During that time, the department saw an increase in enrollment every year and a growth in the number of classes and concentrations offered.
He said taking the position changed the focus of his work.
“It’s very difficult to focus on research, teaching and administrative duties at one time,” Burton said. “When [I became the director of undergraduate studies], I put more of my energy toward teaching [than toward research].”
Though Burton said his focus in recent years has shifted toward teaching, this hasn’t stopped him from continuing his research. Since 2008, he has contributed to six publications and has another contribution in the works.
“Professors have to balance research with education,” Farkas said. “And Burton is great at focusing on his students while continuing his research.”
He is currently working on creating a new online introductory exercise science class, while researching the effect of exercise on cancer survivors.