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Breaking Through Boundaries in Teaching and Learning: STLHE 2012

I’m back in Montreal this week (for the third time this spring) to attend the 2012 national conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE).  I’m hoping this will be a stimulating opportunity to discuss emerging trends in pedagogy and classroom technology with some of the leading thinkers, and award-winning faculty, from across Canada and around the world — more than 650 delegates from Canada, Australia, England, Wales, France, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Switzerland, Taiwan, UAE, and of course the US.  With more than 300 peer-reviewed sessions in multiple languages, this blog can only capture my own eclectic experience and observations of the conference.

Paradigm Shifts in Pedagogy

In his opening remarks, STLHE president Arshad Ahmed played us a song by Montreal’s “poet laureate of pessimism,” Leonard Cohen. In his welcome, Anthony Masi (Provost at McGill) observed that this time will likely be regarded in the future as a time when higher education underwent a paradigm shift in delivery, and emphasized the importance of evidence-based approaches to pedagogy.  Raymond Lalande (VPA uMontreal) emphasized that, despite the red square protests in Quebec, universities are deeply committed to students and their development, as well as innovative ideas, particularly generated by breaking down disciplinary boundaries.  Christian Corno (Academic Dean of Champlain College) described the innovative CEGEP model in Quebec, designed to facilitate transition from high school to college and university in a province with historically low levels of PSE participation, and the use of exit profiles, a set of competencies and skills defined as learning outcomes. David Graham (Provost at Concordia U) talked about “expanding and exploring beyond online”: he believes the online paradigm will be short-lived and that pedagogy will move quickly beyond it to something more interactive, virtual and pervasive – we will be stepping through a “suddenly liquid looking glass” into a virtual world of avatars and simulations and truly unfettered exploration. “Our need for face-time will overcome all limitations of space-time.”

True Student Development is more than Facts and Skills

Marcia Baxter-Magolda (Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership at Miami U of Ohio) delivered the opening keynote on “Integrating Cognitive, Identity, and Relational Development.” Typical collegiate learning outcomes include critical thinking, intercultural maturity, and ethical discernment — these are more than skill sets, they require developmental capacity, how we view knowledge with compexity and subtlety, how we view ourselves and develop a sense of identity, and how we view relationships with others and develop interdependencies. Drawing on a 25-year longitudinal study of 100 students and a national study of about 300 students, Dr Baxter-Magolda emphasized that the faculty-student relationship is a “learning partnership”, and that personal development is a messy, circuitous process.

Based on the research, almost all students start their college careers deriving authority from external sources, looking for clarity about right and wrong and frustrated by subjects like the humanities, with shades of gray. The challenge for these students is that so many courses demand critical thinking and not blind acceptance of authority.

The next stage of personal development is far more self-sufficient, assuming responsibility for one’s own happiness and asserting one’s own ideas with confidence.  The “leading edge” of this phase is recognizing multiple perspectives and questioning authority.) Individuals gradually “put the puzzle of who they are together,” a process that sometimes takes decades. Ironically, as individuals become more confident in themselves, they become less absolute about right and wrong, and more tolerant of subtleties and shades of gray.

A successful learning partnership requires a balance between challenge and support: too much challenge and a student shuts down; too little and they don’t grow.  Knowledge is complex and socially constructed, and learning is mutually constructing meaning. Faculty and students have been socialized to expect the teacher to be an authority, but actually effective teaching requires a sharing of authority.  Undergrads might gain more sense of the world as “gray” if faculty treated them with more respect, and were less quick to dismiss ideas as simply wrong. We need to develop our own identities to the point that we can share authority with our students, and dissolve the boundaries between teacher and learner.

Policies that can Enhance Teaching on Campus

It was exciting to attend a panel discussion featuring administrators and faculty from McGill, Dalhousie, and Queen’s, specifically to discuss the policies and practices that can support innovation in pedagogy.  OECD’s AHELO project is working on metrics (rather like the PISA study at the elementary and secondary level) to compare teaching quality in higher education across OECD countries.

Hot issues: can we give newly-appointed faculty release time to develop their teaching?  What evidence of teaching effectiveness is credible enough to drive institutional policies and practices?

McGill has a “Teaching Scholars” program to develop faculty understanding of curriculum design, and in the case of Ilana Bank, led to the development of a national curriculum for medicine education and simulation learning. She encourages institutions to urge all young faculty to take a course like it.

Richard Reeve from Queen’s Teaching and Learning observed that course syllabi are often seriously outdated re classroom technology (laserdiscs?).  He uses a mind map to focus learning outcomes for his course, and to ensure that his learning strategies align with those outcomes. He suggests that a full term release or even full-time position in curriculum development would be desirable.

Several panelists described the temptation to teach from too high a level, too advanced, or in a way that didn’t match the published syllabus. Many students don’t want to learn for the sake of learning, they want to learn what is required and may not be ready for more advanced content.

Carolyn Watters (Provost at Dalhousie) observed that research-intensive universities have a process for new researchers in most disciplines — teaching release time to set up their labs, coaching on writing grant applications, etc.  But we have little process, little sense of advancement, for the 40% of their time spent on teaching. “We aren’t preparing them.” Expectations around teaching effectiveness are not as clear, and it is difficult to measure improvement.  Course relief is not enough — there also has to be a teaching development plan, like our research development plans. Student evaluations aren’t quite adequate; they measure only short-term learning impacts, while the long-term impacts of a course are more vital. “What could possibly justify NOT having teaching development for faculty, throughout their teaching careers?”

Anthony Masi (Provost at McGill) observed that research-intensive universities have allowed research to become detached from teaching, particularly for undergraduates. Inquiry-based learning should be more central for undergrads.  Things change rapidly — not only what we want to do as teachers, but also what students want to learn. Growing internationalization means student backgrounds and objectives are getting more diverse.  Only 30% of PhDs go on to university teaching — so doctoral education is not the place to teach pedagogy. Teaching isn’t just in the classroom; we need to assess teaching integrally across the curriculum. Universities likely can’t apply a single policy about teaching release to develop their teaching, but institutions can develop a culture in which there is a clear expectation of lifelong development of pedagogical expertise.

Demands for accountability in teaching are rising, and most impacts new and early career faculty.  There are very high expectations, but very poor feedback, and of course plenty of competing demands.  Institutions need to ensure that all faculty have the opportunities they need to develop their personal teaching skills, and thereby the institution’s teaching and learning capacity.

Alan Wright, uWindsor Vice-Provost Teaching & Learning, asked whether it’s time to stop preaching to the choir, and to introduce a PD requirement in faculty collective agreements — say 10% of their time. Jim Greer (uSask) observed that early career mentorship too often focuses on research, and urged institutions to balance that mentorship with teaching as well.

Lessons in Online Quality from Open Universities Australia

Grace Lynch, Senior Project Manager at OUA (, reports a 29% growth in online study in Australia, and growing interest among traditional students in having some portion of their education online. Like the US, Australia has set targets for increased degree completion and labour market needs are driving higher levels of enrolment. OUA had 200,000 students in 2010, and 250,000 in 2011, representing 23% of the online market In Australia (currently $4.7 billion). And 55,000 of their students from from dozens of other countries.  Although OUA offers hundreds of degrees, it does not issue degrees — those come from 20 other participating universities. OUA is a for-profit company owned by non-profit universities. With open enrolment, first-year courses have no prerequisites and students range in age from 14 to 92.

This year, OUA formed a new Centre for Online Learning Excellence (COLE), and is spending considerable energy on developing learning analytics in order to optimize pedagogy. The real potential of learning technology is not so much decreased costs, as increased personalization for each student, to ensure the optimal learning experience.  They are still gathering data and were sadly unable to share much with us today, but Dr Lynch did mention that an interesting issue is that the majority of first-year Engineering students are abandoning the formal forums after week 3 and establishing their own discussion groups on Facebook. The optimal tutor:student ratio seems to be 200:1 to ensure ongoing engagement and prompt grading.  OUA is carefully tracking completion rates and “yield” (the average number of units taken subsequently) — and both are trending upwards with their efforts.

Blended Learning and the Humanities

I find most of my audiences intuitively grasp the benefits of a flipped classroom for teaching mathematics: assign the lecture as homework, via self-paced online learning, and use class time for the exercises that would once have been assigned as homework. With Queen’s University’s recent announcement that it was moving to an inverted classroom model in the faculty of Arts, though, I’ve been curious to hear more about how blended learning works in other fields.

Eileen Kerwin Jones and Brenda Lamb (from John Abbott College) presented a session on their Humanities Blended Learning Project, which added 30% eLearning to replace face-to-face contact time for two classes of a global studies course. The JAC library had a surprising number of eresources, and the video clips proved so used that they are also being used in traditional classes. Tools included Atomic Learning Platform, Merlot, MIT OCW, ProfWeb, LEA and Moodle.  In Quebec, CEGEP@distance is facilitating online delivery of CEGEP courses, and is now investigating course development.

In his book, iBrain, Gary Small argues that significant time spent online is actually rewiring youth brains, and creating an epidemic of PCA (partial continuous attention), social isolation and mental stress. The movie “Digital Nation” offers another alarming perspective on Internet addiction.

Assignments included individual research, group reporting, and peer critiques, all using online resources, team forums and class forums. Aside from some inevitable technology learning curve, less verbal students found the online environment liberating.  Teachers need to be present to maintain online momentum, and assignments need to be aligned to marks.

Faculty Attitudes to Student-Centred Learning

I spoke to Jim Greer (uSask) at his poster session (co-authored with Brad Wuetherick and Stan Yu) about a faculty survey conducted in 2009 to explore receptivity to active learning.  77% of female faculty (compared to just 53% of males) strongly agreed that active learning was more effective than lecture for student learning. This student-centred attitude was stronger among early-career faculty, lower-rank faculty, and sessional faculty.  After gender, though, the strongest predictor was discipline: faculty in Commerce, Education and Law (76%) and Health Sciences (73%) were most likely to agree, while faculty in the Sciences were LEAST likely to agree (45%).  Those who favoured student-centred approaches were about 20% more likely to report that PD training was valuable.

Measuring Impacts on Learning, not just Teaching

Richard Wiggers and Valerie Lopes of HEQCO presented a excellent overview of dozens of research projects (including some for which Academica Group is performing the fieldwork), which was unfortunately constrained by a 30-minute time slot.  (Several participants, including me, would have gladly spent all afternoon on the discussion.)

The government of Ontario is particularly interested in metrics for learning outcomes.  An OUSA survey found that current students most value faculty enthusiasm and passion in lecture.  (In a sense, students evaluate profs as performers or even entertainers in class, I guess.)  Over recent years, measurements of student success started out looking at access and participation, then focused on retention and credit transfer, then shifted to learning outcomes and employment.

Generally, students in smaller classes at smaller institutions feel more engaged, but students at larger research institutions also defend the value of their classes. Retention varies by program (it is outstanding at private colleges) and by institutional selectivity (Queen’s has the highest rate of retention into second year in Ontario).  The biggest determinant for persistence is students finding the right fit in program — and this is the biggest issue.  The public believes the student, or their high school, is more responsible than colleges or universities, if they drop out of PSE.

PSE students are increasingly unprepared.  60% of incoming college students in Ontario cannot pass basic English literacy testing.  And the authors of Academically Adrift conclude that 4 of 5 students show no improvement at college.  An Ontario study found most students spend less than 30 hours on schoolwork — and most of the gender gap can be explained by hours spent studying.  (Male students, and younger students, spend considerably less time on their schoolwork.)

Currently we measure learning by student grades — but in reality, grades are a very poor proxy for determining learning which took place in the course, and are affected by grading curves.  We use exams as a key testing model — when in fact the exam scenario bears little resemblance to their working lives.  Are we trying to determine what learning took place in the course or program, or are we more concerned about measuring their skills and outcomes?  And as one audience member opined, measuring student attainment of information seems irrelevant in an age of ubiquitous information.

Research Ethics

Denise Stockley (Associate Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s U) and Laura-Lee Balkwill (of the Government of Canada) presented on a topic that might seem arcane but attracted my attention – “Working within the Ethical Boundaries of Conducting SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) Research.”  Many faculty members fail to realize that pilot studies, emergent course design, and presentations about teaching often require review by campus Research Ethics Boards (REBs).  The theoretical, worst-case scenario is that your entire institution could be disqualified from Tri-Council funding if you have violated codes of practice.

The second edition of the Tri-Council Policy Statement was launched in 2010 and specifically addresses the distinction between program evaluation or quality assurance, and research that requires REB review.  (The TCPS2 is available at Usually issues concern obtaining consent from students, data security, and protecting student privacy.

A key campus challenge is that educational developers are seldom in close connection with campus research offices or REBs.

The Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research also has an online CORE training module on research ethics. At some institutions, it is mandatory for faculty to take the course.

Blind Curves or Open Roads?

The STLHE conference ended with a panel of 12 students, including 8 3M Student Fellows, facilitated by Alice Cassidy from UBC.  (I was particularly intrigued by their use of the road map metaphor, naturally!) Their email exchanges prior to the conference revealed a common passion for learning and education, and their involvement in the community, not just in their education. The students are passionate about problem-based, active, and holistic learning. The students shared some of the innovations in education at their institutions.

At the McDonald campus of McGill, they have a faculty-student ratio of 1:15, and an ecological garden.  uWaterloo has a stellar co-op program. Carleton has award-winning student services, and the co-curricular record. The uToronto Asian Centre offers problem-based and experiential learning, while uToronto also offers many niche programs in gender studies, diaspora studies, etc.  McGill also has a great program of equity and engagement for FNMI students.  UoGuelph has a “really cool” first year seminar — sometimes with just 8 students! — that offers students a great opportunity to engage directly with faculty and with each other. (They now have about 15 sections.)  Champlain College represents the strengths of CEGEPs, which “rescue us from high school” and prepare students for university or employment.  UNBC has health sciences programs geared toward rural and northern communities.  Concordia participates in a community-based service learning project called CURE (Canadian University-based Research Exchange) that connects students with community organizations for experiential opportunities.

The students feel that PSE prepares students to navigate a world that is increasingly interconnected and rapidly changing, by inspiring curiosity and the ability to engage with a wide range of subject matter, enabling reflection and provoking critical thought. PSE should be a safe space for students to discover their true selves, build emotional resilience and character.  Even failure in higher education is good preparation for the inevitable setbacks in life.  Several students said that university needs to encourage students to take risks, in a safe context, and build their confidence. Students hear plenty of negativity in the media, but want their faculty to provide some inspiration and hope.  (Oh, and only when prompted by a member of the audience, the students admitted that employment preparation is also an important outcome of PSE.)

Experiential learning was a hot topic among the students on the panel, and featured prominently in a mock university president’s speech they delivered. They especially values the interdisciplinarity and collaborative experiences they gained in experiential projects, and felt that both were very important preparation for working life.

An aboriginal student at McGill described the challenge of maintaining high standards while also trying to remain true to her culture.  She appreciates the welcoming, safe spaces on campus.

As the students contemplate the future of PSE, they imagine the elimination of tuition through a progressive taxation system, and the cessation of “reckless military expansion.” They also see institutions that are more accepting of LGBT students, students with disabilities, immigrants and minorities. Classrooms that are more democratic, in which students have a say in curriculum, syllabus and grading — and institutions that are independent of corporate and political influence.  In a role-playing exercise, they encouraged self-selected final projects aside from research papers, such as community service learning, video or photo essays, running an awareness campaign, etc. “Tell your students to bring their hearts to class, not just their brains.”

Students feel that campuses need to work harder at developing an environment conducive to good mental health, and sometimes competitive, driven university cultures actually fuel the problem.  they suggest mandatory workshops, resources, and universal access to counselling and medication.

A Concordia student expressed concern about institutional funding. Quebec’s tuition increases, she says, will prevent 30,000 additional students from pursuing their education.  The universities are between a rock and a hard place.  Corporate or military funding often has strings attached, and students are concerned about the ethical implications of the growing role of the military-industrial complex in PSE.  No Canadian university has an ethics policy on military research, she says.  Our society needs to value and fund its educational institutions, to ensure that they can continue to work for the betterment of society.

Another Quebec student also spoke in defense of the student protesters. “If you think investing in education is expensive for our society, just try ignorance.”  University curricula often fail to encourage creativity, and in fact squash it.  The students encouraged the conference delegates to not only pursue excellence in the classroom, but also to remain active politically outside the classroom.

Not surprisingly, the student panel got a standing ovation.

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