December 15, 2000

Norden wins national teaching award

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Jeanette Norden uses a model to describe the parts of the brain during a lecture. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Norden wins national teaching award

When Jeanette J. Norden, Ph.D., teaches medical students about brain tumors, she goes beyond a cellular and anatomic description of the disease. She invites families whose children have died from brain tumors to talk to the students about their experience with the disease and with the medical profession.

This unique approach–bringing the human element into a basic science course–was recently applauded by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The AAMC and the Medical Honor Society Alpha Omega Alpha honored Norden with the Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award, the top national award for medical education.

Norden, professor of Cell Biology and director of the Medical Neurosciences course for second year medical students, is the first Vanderbilt faculty member to receive the award.

“Jeanette is a superb teacher who always–and that’s the operative word–has the best interests of the student and the student’s education in mind,” said Dr. John E. Chapman, dean of the School of Medicine. “She embodies in spirit and action that every student is a teacher, and every teacher is a student.”

Norden began to include human stories in the Medical Neurosciences course nearly 10 years ago, based on conversations with students about their medical school education.

“Students told me that they didn’t feel like they were getting good exposure to how a disease affects someone as an individual, how it affects families,” Norden said. “It seemed that the Neurosciences course would be a good course for exposing students to human loss, because in neurology, there is every conceivable type of loss that a human being can suffer,” Norden said.

To prepare herself for this angle of instruction, Norden enrolled in grief and addictions counseling courses in Peabody College’s Human Developmental Counseling program. The coursework strengthened her resolve to complement basic neuroscience instruction with human lessons.

When she teaches about Alzheimer’s Disease, for example, Norden invites a woman who cared for her husband who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s for six years to share her experience with the class.

“You can give didactic lectures on Alzheimer’s and talk about what neurons in the brain die; what is responsible at the molecular level; what we’re learning scientifically; what interventions are available; what drugs we give to people,” Norden said. “And all of that is important, but none of it tells you what a family who leaves with this diagnosis has to live with.”

This approach and other elements of Norden’s teaching style have made her a featured instructor at workshops about what the best medical educators do, sponsored by the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. The Searle Center cited Norden as “the most successful medical teacher in the country in recent years.”

She has lectured and participated in medical education workshops all over the world.

Norden is modest about her success.

“I’m not a particularly polished lecturer,” she said. “If I have a teaching talent, I believe it is in taking complicated subjects and making them appear very simple. I think I can take almost anything in neuroscience, distill it down to its essential features, and communicate it in a straightforward and simple way.

“This approach allows a student to acquire a foundation of understanding for neuroscience, and I hope it helps make them life-long lovers of the subject.”

She hopes that her national recognition will raise the awareness of teaching at VUMC.

“It takes talent to be a good doctor, it takes talent to be a good scientist, and it takes talent to be a good teacher,” Norden said. “And if we want to foster whatever talent each of us has, we need the support of the administration and the respect of our colleagues.

“I count it a privilege to work with others on the teaching faculty who are excellent teachers and wonderful people. All of us have immense respect for the medical students and for the profession they have chosen.”

At Vanderbilt, Norden was the first recipient of the Chair of Teaching Excellence, which she held from 1994 to 1997. This year, she received the first School of Medicine Excellence in Teaching Award for teaching in the lecture setting.

Norden has been honored with every award given by medical students for teaching excellence. These include the Shovel Award, the Best Lecturer Award, the Jack Davies Award (four times), and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award (four times).

In 1997, Norden was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha for her contributions to medical education, and she was the first recipient of the Gender Equity Award from the American Medical Women’s Association.

Norden received her Ph.D. in Psychology, with training in Neurobiology and Clinical Neurology, from Vanderbilt University. She completed postdoctoral training at Duke University, the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and Vanderbilt. From 1979 to 1997, Norden directed an active research program investigating why neurons in the central nervous system do not regenerate after injury.

Since 1991, she has served as director of the Medical Neurosciences course and the Clinical Neurology Elective for second year medical students. She was named director of Medical Education for the department of Cell Biology in 1999.