Higher Goals for Higher Learning

-Submitted by Christine H. Arnold

The University of Toronto’s 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Symposium revealed several important concerns, developments and future initiatives to guarantee the success of students in post-secondary education. The Supporting Student Success research team in attendance at the Symposium, received confirmation that the themes our current research study has generated are those that government, higher education agencies and faculty are also investigating. Dr. Richard Wiggers’, Executive Director HEQCO, keynote address entitled, ‘The Shifting Nature of Teaching and Learning in Today’s University’, set the stage for the Symposium early in the morning. The keynote discussed several key factors that impact student success across post-secondary institutions in Ontario. Several of the factors outlined mirror the findings our research team has recently begun to encounter. The Supporting Student Success team presented these findings at the Symposium at our session entitled, ‘How to Train your Professor: Tips for Flight According to Students’.  Themes in common between the keynote address and our research include: conversations about class size, experiential learning, meaningful lesson planning and the use of technology in the classroom.

Learning among 800 undergraduate students is challenging. Large lectures require breakout seminars, tutorials or labs during which concepts can be discussed and applied.

Dr. Wiggers discussed the literature on teaching and learning, across North America, regarding class size and the importance of this factor in supporting student success. Overall, he remarked that research demonstrates that class size does not ultimately determine what is achievable in the classroom; skilled professors can engage an 800 student class in activities and problem based learning. Class size is an important theme discussed throughout our research by students and a well-known area of concern for many. During our focus groups, students often stated that large lectures require breakout seminars, tutorials or labs where students have the opportunity to discuss, clarify, apply and extend meaningful concepts introduced during lecture. The seminar system at many of our participating institutions was found to be a supportive peer atmosphere where students could scaffold each other’s understanding of important concepts.  Students spoke positively about the benefits of the seminar system stating, “With the seminar system, you really get … a ‘supportive peer’ base … you get to know people in your program and in your faculty. So I think the seminar system does a lot to … help peers help peers” (University Student). Another student highlighted the importance of participating in the activities arranged during such sessions:

“So instead of just standing up there and lecturing, it’s more like group discussions and contributions and you just kind of lead the discussions. I feel like that’s the best way to learn and to really include everyone and get everyone participating. … often people tend to zone out when someone’s talking for a really long time without any involving of anyone else” (University Student).

Contrastingly, students often discussed lectures as stark periods of time during their post-secondary careers where they are unable to question material, crave real life examples of concepts taught, desire active learning, dread verbatim text book teaching and read slides previously distributed with little to no elaboration. One student compared seminar and lecture formats in the following manner:

“[In seminar] you’re able to apply the theories in class and look at it critically in a 16-14 student format and be able to feed off each other. Whereas in the lecture of 1 of 90 … once you put your hand up, the prof’s like, ‘Ok, you can email me that question, right?’ It’s no longer a discussion” (University Student).

Make it meaningful. Demonstrate expertise by bringing research findings into classroom discussions; offer a variety of examples; and set consistent policies and guidelines.

Nevertheless, not all lectures are stark environments where students practice sitting and listening. Dr. Wiggers, as well as the students participating in our research, highlighted teaching qualities that can transform large lectures into shared learning moments. Faculty can gain students respect and interest in even the largest of lectures by sharing personal stories with regard to the material taught; elaborating on concepts by using their own research findings and experiences; and by setting consistent classroom policies and guidelines. It is evident that students seek meaningful learning opportunities. Those participating in our research were quick to recall positive faculty practices. One student described her constructive experiencing exploring career pathways in lecture:

“When you go to a class, lessons are based on a textbook and you have already read that, so then class is dull. She [the professor] comes in with real stories of what she experienced and what we may experience. What you may do in your career. The good and the bad. So it’s not a cookie cutter type of thing” (College Student).

Another student described the opportunities his professor provides in allowing students to experience her occupation outside the classroom, stating: “One of my profs–she is a defense attorney. She sets up opportunities for us to go to court so we can watch how that all plays out. Things above and beyond the classroom. She has volunteers come with her to wrongful convictions proceedings” (University Student).

Our research findings and the Teaching and Learning Symposium keynote address outlined the application of knowledge that students seek. Students wish to have personal contact with their professors, engage in small group discussions and have the ability to ask questions when and where they wish.

Technology is not a panacea. Technology is effective when it supports learning outcomes, eases student workload and content delivery.

Another similar theme presented at the Symposium was the use of technology as an (in)effective teaching tool.  Technology can be a wonderful outlet for teaching and learning when used intentionally. When used primarily for the sake of spicing up the classroom environment, technology can often fail and leave more to be desired for students. Dr. Wiggers echoed this sentiment by discussing the shortcomings technology can hold for professors if not used in meaningful ways. It is not enough just to use technology he stated, it needs to be used diligently. Technology is used most effectively as a means to achieve predetermined learning outcomes. Backwards design, an instructional design method, is particularly useful when designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). This design approach has three stages:

  1. Identify desired results (learning outcomes). What should students know, understand and be able to do? 
  2. Determine acceptable evidence (assess if learning has occurred). What will evidence of student understanding and proficiency look like?
  3. Plan instruction and experiences (determine the methods and materials). What instruction, activities and technology will be used? 

The use of technology when used skilfully would fall into the latter, being used as a tool to achieve learning outcomes versus as a means unto itself.  Backward design begins with the end in mind; learning outcomes (goals) are the first priority when lesson planning.  Instructional methods are determined thereafter; all educators are asked to consider why certain experiences, materials and technologies are integral to the learning process.

Students in our study commented on the frustration they experience when technology is used for the sake of ‘using technology’. Students described searching for useful course and enrollment information across multiple websites, trying to follow online course discussions and uploading various assignments.  One student shared his frustration with the online seminar model that is emerging at his institution in place of face-to-face interaction:

“Now that some classes have no seminars, some professors are trying to do online seminars as a class, and I don’t find that as effective. I mean, once you have a hundred responses, … by the time you get to the 80th person, you’re like, ‘I didn’t even get to that point!’ And it may be a great point, but you couldn’t really contribute; if it was in a seminar style, you would’ve” (University Student).

Professors must consider how their students will use the technology they implement and test each application before use. The choice of technology one has selected may be useful, but the way in which it has been applied may not be effective. What classroom environments lend themselves to certain media and technological applications? What assignments and evaluation processes can be reimagined to include technology? And most importantly, is the use of technology contributing to the learning outcome(s) set for the course or session?

While there are certain consequences one can experience when using technology, a few students and professors in our study cited the many benefits that can be gained if used efficiently. One professor discussed using her students’ curiosity for web technologies as a fact checking and note taking tool during her classes. She detailed her use of Facebook in the following inventive approach,

“So we crowd source and fact check all the way through, we end up using Facebook as the place to do all this crazy  amazing stuff, while I am lecturing, because I know they are on there anyway. I will play a video, play a commercial from the Super Bowl … and then I’ll say ‘just for purposes of sharing, can somebody put this on the Facebook wall?’ … So the whole lecture is basically captured really in a way, but in this grassroots way that I don’t know it just blows me away” (University Professor).

This inventive use of a social media tool students are already engaged within is unique. The strengths of the technology have been reimagined for use in the classroom, despite the rap this web platform might typically receive.

Although there are additional similarities between the Teaching and Learning Symposium keynote address, presentations and the Supporting Student Success research project, those discussed above highlight the most common concerns discussed by students. While these concerns are not new, they are presently being re-examined in light of mass higher education and shifting learning contexts. Positively, current dialogue reveals inventive ways to involve students so that all are provided a productive learning environment.  It is true that student voices reveal the ways in which we might modify our teaching practices.

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