Encouraging learning through observation, participation

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson. Photo: Jenny Fontaine

Each year, UIC honors some of its most dedicated and outstanding teachers with the Award for Excellence in Teaching. The winners, who receive a $5,000 salary increase, are selected by past recipients of the award from nominations made by departments and colleges.

Elizabeth Peterson’s teaching philosophy is grounded in the concept of social learning. She believes that context, not just content, matters.

“Social learning theory suggests that people learn through observation, participation and modeling, not just study,” said Peterson, clinical professor and director of professional education in the department of occupational therapy in the College of Applied Health Sciences. “My experiences as an occupational therapist and educator have taught me that the best learning occurs within a social context and, as a result, role modeling and student participation are key features of the environments and experiences I create for my students.”

Peterson began teaching at UIC in 1993. In her 23 years with the university, she has been instrumental to the success of the occupational therapy master’s degree program, from curriculum development to accreditation and expansion of the program. Peterson has taught or contributed to many of the required courses in the program, frequently drawing on her experiences as a fall prevention researcher to highlight the importance of evidence-based practice and interdisciplinary approaches to patient care.

Bo Fernhall, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences, supported the department’s nomination of Peterson for the Excellence in Teaching Award.

“Dr. Peterson has not been content with being an exceptional teacher. She has conducted research and helped our department achieve remarkable success, which is evident by its ranking as the top public university department of occupational therapy in the nation,” Fernhall said.

“It is an honor to even be nominated and I am very proud to win,” Peterson said. “Teaching is a privilege and I am very fortunate to work with the amazing students and faculty we have here at UIC. There is an optimism on our campus that comes from our strength as a research institution that is committed to serving our city.

“It’s a joy to help my students not only build skills as occupational therapists and academics, but as individuals,” she said.

Peterson’s philosophy and success as an educator are born from her background as an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists, she explains, are very attentive to the impact of context on performance.

“Occupational therapists are trained to work with people of all ages to achieve individualized goals by considering a variety of factors,” she said. “These factors can range from physical and social environments and available resources to roles, routines and personal strengths.
An occupational therapist builds personalized plans with clients to support their engagement in meaningful activities — occupations — within the framework of their everyday lives.

“In a clinical or community-based setting, it’s clear how the context surrounding the patient and his or her goals influences the path and destination of therapy. The same is true of education — it’s my job as an educator to provide a structure and a process that facilitates learning,” Peterson said.

Kathy Preissner, a former student of Peterson’s, strongly supported the nomination.

“Dr. Peterson knew her students personally and provided individual attention,” said Preissner, clinical associate professor in occupational therapy. “She linked the content in her courses to the curriculum as a whole, and helped students to make connections to concepts learned in other courses. UIC is a world-class university because of educators such as Dr. Peterson.”

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