UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
Psychology Professor Melanie Ayres is the recipient of the 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award. The award was established in 1965 and is the highest honor a faculty member can receive. Awardees are nominated by current and former students in the spring and selected by the Distinguished Teaching Award Committee each fall.
Ayres came to UWRF from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2008. In addition to teaching, she coordinated the Women's, Gender and Sexualities Studies interdisciplinary program from 2015-23 and currently serves as department chair.
Ayres is praised for her compassionate, collaborative and creative approach to teaching and her ability to utilize multiple methods and tools to engage, educate and inspire students.
“I loved the variety of learning in this class,” a student wrote. “No day was the same. We learned about different topics in different ways, including both small and large group discussions, lectures, documentaries, activities, and guest speakers, etc.”
“Part of being an effective teacher,” wrote Ayres, “is being a good facilitator. I facilitate learning by using a multi-method approach to teaching. In contrast to the ‘banking’ methods of education, which views students as containers that teachers ‘fill’ with knowledge, my approach is to create a space in which the students and I are co-creators of knowledge.”
“Besides,” she said, “doing the same lecture for 15 years is not of interest to me!”
Ayres said that forming connections – to the content and her students – is key to successful instruction. “It’s the thing that matters most.”
She encourages collaboration and active learning, and creating a safe space for students to share and ask questions.
This approach has an added benefit, she said: “Hearing their questions every time I teach a class keeps the content fresh and continues to spark my own curiosity, which fuels me as a teacher.”
Student nominators took notice of her ability to connect in the classroom. One shared that Ayres is “personable and easily approachable, which in turn makes asking questions and voicing concerns easier. I always felt listened to and understood no matter if we were talking about an assignment or continuing a class discussion.”
Giselle Nuñez, a 2023 UWRF alum and now graduate student at Kansas State University, wrote that she particularly appreciated the research expertise that Ayres has shared with students, both individually and in the classroom.
“If it were not for her support in research and career advising, I do not think I would have pursued further education,” Nuñez wrote. “She helped me find my passion for research!”
Cyndi Kernahan, professor of psychological sciences and director of the UWRF Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said the advanced research methods course which Ayres teaches and was responsible for revamping, has allowed more students to gain high level research experience.
Ayres holds a Ph.D. and master’s degree in developmental psychology from the University of California-Santa Cruz. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Oregon.
In 2019, Ayres received the 2019 Keith G. Wurtz Award for Teaching Excellence which recognizes outstanding and innovative teachers who have made exceptional contributions to the university and to the community.