York’s AIF Celebration

“When I hear about the innovation and passion that people have put into these projects to improve teaching and learning, it makes me think that the people criticizing higher education are not only on a different page but in a different galaxy,” summarized Peter Gooch, from the Council of Ontario Universities, at the conclusion of York University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Celebration.

The day-long event highlighted and recognized the 39 projects funded from York’s Academic Innovation Fund, a fund which supports initiatives that reflect York’s strategic priorities related to teaching, learning and the student experience.

Patrick Monahan, Vice President, Academic and Provost at York, opened the morning session by stating the reason universities exist is because of “students, students and students.” What the Supporting Student Success research team has learned as we have travelled across Ontario is that in order to truly support student success, students must be at the centre of the planning, implementation, and evaluation of curricular and co-curricular programs and services. Students are truly the lifeblood of postsecondary education.

I was invited to present the afternoon keynote and throughout the day I heard of amazing projects that exemplified the points I planned to highlight in my talk. I share my points below with examples from yesterday’s presentation.

1. Faculty and staff support student success by structuring opportunities for students to learn from each other.

Those attending yesterday’s event were treated to a fabulous short theatre piece in which student actors depicted a true “slice of first year life” — the ups, the downs, coming across like you have it all together when really you are just trying to keep it together. These students performed the play 15 times during orientation this past year. Incoming York students commented how much they could see themselves in the play and how they appreciated the play normalizing how they were feeling.

From campus to campus in the Supporting Student Success study, we have heard countless examples of students teach students — as peer mentors, orientation leaders, and student instructors in supported learning groups or in Supplemental Instruction courses. Students are powerful educators if given the opportunity.

2. Faculty and staff support student success by drawing on students’ inclinations to co-construct their learning experience and acknowledging and crediting students for their contributions.

There is a perception that large classes are impersonal and passive learning experiences and they can be. But they can also be dynamic and engaging. Online learning tools can situate students as co-constructors of the learning experience. Merv Mosher demonstrated how by uploading last year’s exam to one of York’s learning management systems, Moodle, he invites the 700 students in his Kinesiology course to become undergraduate assistants, crowd-sourcing information and sharing the correct answers with their classmates.  

The Supporting Student Success team has learned of a multitude of ways that campuses are drawing on student ideas, energy and initiative to develop programs and services that meet today’s students’ needs. Listening to students was evident in the presentation about the Virtual Learning Commons. Students articulated what they needed from the virtual space, including suggesting a different name to reflect student needs: Student Paper Assistance and Resource Kit (SPARK).

3. Faculty and staff support student success by inviting students to draw on their own experiences to demonstrate knowledge.

There are no shortage of ways that educators can structure learning opportunities such that students draw from their experience to demonstrate knowledge. For example, residence life staff can ask their dons or residence assistants to use what they have learned in their social psychology course to make sense of the group dynamics taking place on their floor.

Yesterday’s celebration highlighted the role of experiential education in bringing course content to life. A student talked about her internship experience and how her coursework prepared her for the work environment. Perhaps more importantly, she also shared the experience provided her with a perspective on intergroup communication and interaction that would have been difficult to capture in a classroom setting.  She can now share her experience managing the “soft skills” that she learned from her internship with her classmates.

4. Faculty and staff support student success by asking students to apply what they have learned by addressing real problems.

The power of putting theory to practice was evident from the presentations. It is one thing to learn from a text; it is another to apply the concepts from the text to a real world situation. Students who participated in the Mediation Clinic as part of the Osgoode Hall Law School’sMediation Intensive Program spoke eloquently about the challenges and opportunities they confronted when working in an unscripted, unplanned environment.   

The Supporting Student Success team has heard from students across the province about the power of applying what they are learning in the classroom to real world problems. From developing apps to take Tim Horton’s orders to community service-learning, a consensus appears to exist among students — there is no better way to learn than to do.

There was a palpable energy in the theatre at York University yesterday. Project presenters and champions proudly shared how postsecondary education can be transformed when committed and passionate faculty and staff are recognized and supported to make their innovative ideas reality. With students at the centre, these projects demonstrated the power of engaged learning.

What innovative programs has your campus launched to improve teaching and learning and support student success? Please share so that we might learn from each other. Let us use this space as means to recognize the multitude of ways we are innovating and transforming postsecondary education.


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