Embracing a National Leadership Role

It is an interesting exercise to reflect on a final message one might pass on to a campus community as dynamic and diverse as the U of S, and to my colleagues in the GMCTE for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect.  And while I leave a lengthier reflection for the pages of Bridges this coming September, I wanted to focus on one key area that I hope brings this campus community together across all academic units – an area that I look forward to watching (and trying to emulate) from across the country when I start my new role at Dalhousie University.  That area is curriculum innovation and renewal.

A few years ago, PCIP agreed to fund a very forward-looking and ambitious plan to encourage strategic curriculum innovation in academic programs as one of the focal points for the third integrated plan adopted by the campus community.  This is an area of increasing importance across the country (and, indeed, around the world) for a number of reasons, including changes in accreditation requirements in many disciplines and, more importantly, increased government oversight and demands for quality assurance.  Many of these reasons have forced universities across the country to engage in activities related to curriculum across all disciplines, ready or not.

The higher education literature talks about three main reasons (or drivers) for engaging in curriculum renewal, none of which are mutually exclusive. They are: quality assurance (often externally imposed processes to ensure a minimum standard across and between institutions), quality enhancement (usually intrinsically motivated to improve the experience and development of students across a program), and the scholarship of teaching and learning (usually in the form of an improved understanding of evidence-based teaching and learning practices that might inform individual courses in a program or courses across an entire program).

Due in part to the provincial context in which we find ourselves, however, the U of S has an advantage over a significant number of other institutions beginning to pay attention to their curriculum.  Other than those programs for whom there are ongoing accreditation processes required by their professions, the U of S does not have an externally imposed quality assurance framework that we must meet.  Even though innovation in academic programs is included in the integrated plan as an institutional priority, the potential is there for all programs (departments, colleges) engaging in curriculum renewal to do so in a manner where a genuine interest in enhancing their programs is the primary purpose.  And this interest hopefully stems from a realization that there are evidence-based teaching and learning practices that might be adopted to improve the student learning experience.

When coupled with support frameworks that have been put in place to aid programs in their activities that are the envy of most campuses in Canada (including curriculum and course development specialists in the GMCTE who are freely available to consult with academic units, funding support from the curriculum innovation fund and other funds that have been recently created on campus (such as the experiential learning, undergraduate research, and community engaged learning funds), database tools developed support curriculum mapping, and other initiatives on campus to support curriculum innovation – including a learning analytics project to try to understand more about our students, and participation in the Bayview Alliance), our institutional and provincial context has positioned the U of S to become a national leader in curriculum innovation and renewal.

As I interact with colleagues at universities across the country (which I have had the pleasure of doing many times in the past three and a half years), I have witnessed dramatic increases in the respect shown to this institution and to the work being undertaken in academic units across the campus in the area of curriculum development.  Indeed, curriculum innovation and renewal is one area, regardless of disciplines, where the entire U of S campus community has the potential and promise of national leadership, that is if you collectively choose to embrace it.

Postscript:  It has been a pleasure working with all of you at the University of Saskatchewan.  Thank you for your generosity over the years, and for providing incredible opportunities for me to grow as a scholar, leader, and champion for all things teaching and learning.  My new contact information at Dalhousie University is brad.wuetherick@dal.ca.

With Great Power …

I am a regular reader of University Affairs. I always find it an interesting place to hear about what is making news in Canadian higher education.  In particular, I like looking at the ‘most popular articles’ section just in case there are articles that I should pay attention to that I have somehow missed.  That is how I stumbled across an article by Shirley Katz from 2000, titled “Sexual relations between students and faculty”. Most of the article was what I expected (ie. don’t do it! – there are too many possible conflicts of interest and risks associated with such relationships). While I have a number of questions about how this became a ‘most popular article’ now, there were a few lines that I found very interesting.

“Professors enjoy autonomy to determine how and what they teach, how they go about their research activities and how they serve the university and the larger community. Because of that autonomy, they have been called fiduciaries under the law. As fiduciaries, they have a duty to avoid conflict of interest and to exercise their powers over students only in the students’ interests, and not in their own interests” (Katz, 2000).

The article goes on to describe what this means in the context of sexual relationships, but this got me thinking about what else this might mean.  What does being a fiduciary mean in terms of “exercising (my) power over students only in the student’s interest, and not in (my) own interest” in the context of teaching?

As I though about this, I immediately turned to the U of S Learning Charter, which spells out four key responsibilities of instructors on our campus – which could be seen as our fiduciary responsibilities.  The first is to ‘exemplify learning’, including to “embody learning behaviours expected of students” and to “maintain an appropriate instructor-student relationship”.  The second is to ‘teach effectively’, including to “ensure content proficiency” and to “ensure pedagogical effectiveness”.  The third is to ‘assess fairly’, including to “communicate and uphold clear academic standards” and to “perform fair and relevant assessment of student learning”.  And finally, to ‘solicit feedback’, including to “provide opportunities for student feedback” and to “solicit feedback on their teaching”.

In our role as a fiduciary, one might add the question – ‘am I doing this in the best interests of the students or in my own best interest?’ I don’t think anyone would question that clear academic standards and high expectations are in the students’ best interests, as are effective teaching strategies and authentic assessment of students’ work.  What about teaching strategies that are not very effective?  What about assessments that fail to measure students’ ability in a fair, reliable, and valid manner?

There have been several recent cases of students suing universities – due to poor advising, misleading students about times to completion, or failing to provide accommodations for a disability.  Recently, the Ontario Court of Appeals ruled, and the Supreme Court of Canada upheld, that “Students may have a claim for damages if it can be shown that the university did not deliver on its promises and if the allegations refer to behaviour that exceeds the jurisdiction of universities over their academic programs – in other words, if the students are not merely attempting indirectly to appeal a decision of an academic nature.” (Knelman, 2012).

This might imply that in academic matters are off limits for the courts, but even when an academic matter is at issue there are quasi-judicial processes that govern our actions as teachers.  And there are cases of courts intervening if universities don’t follow their own procedures and allow for due process to occur. One of these quasi-judicial processes is a grade appeal.  Having sat through a number of them, grade appeals can be overturned in the student’s favour when it is clear that the instructor assessed the work in a manner that was solely in the instructor’s best interest.

One such appeal I witnessed was when a student’s paper (in a ‘low-consensus’ discipline where grading was highly subjective) was given a poor grade.  In reading the comments, it became clear that the professor’s concerns were that the student argued for a position that contradicted the professor’s own personal beliefs, and ignored the fact that the paper was well-written and researched with a sound argument that met reasonable academic standards for a class at that level.  The two faculty members who were asked to re-assess the paper disagreed with their colleague’s viewpoint, and gave the student a much higher grade on the paper and in the course on the grounds that the instructor did not assess the student’s work fairly.

Perhaps in the end we should always learn from Uncle Ben (a Spiderman comic joke for the uninitiated) – “with great power comes great responsibility”.  Exercise that power judiciously!

Katz, S. (2000). “Sexual relations between students and faculty”, University Affairs, January 10, 2000.

Knelman, J. (2012). “Court rules students may sue universities, in some cases”, University Affairs, April 18, 2012.

Investigating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Landscape at the University of Saskatchewan

With Stan Yu

In the summer of 2012, the GMCTE, with support from the Office of the Vice-President Research, undertook a study to assess the level and extent to which the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SoTL, was being conducted at the University of Saskatchewan. SoTL can be defined as, “[the] systematic study of teaching and/or learning and the public sharing and review of such work through presentations, performance, or publications” (McKinney, 2006, p. 39). The study identified a campus-wide community of 284 SoTL scholars, consisting of 247 faculty and 37 staff members. An electronic survey was sent to this cohort, which yielded a 70% response rate.

In the electronic survey, we found that, for 47% of faculty respondents, SoTL comprises less than ¼ of their scholarly work. Meanwhile, 18% indicated that SoTL comprised more than ¾ of their scholarly research. While half of faculty respondents indicated that the proportion of their participation in SoTL has not changed over time, 41% now spend more time on SoTL than in the past. Additionally, 64% of staff conducted SoTL as part of their professional responsibilities. For 27% of faculty and 81% of staff, SoTL projects were conducted collaboratively more than half of the time. 49% of faculty and 41% of staff reported that their SoTL projects were multidisciplinary. Finally, it was found that a considerable amount of faculty (40%) and staff (26%) have published, and 53% of faculty and 50% of staff have presented their SoTL findings at a conference(s).

When asked to describe any barriers arising uniquely from involvement in this type of research, faculty respondents indicated that the lack of perceived legitimacy of SoTL scholarship constituted the primary barrier. SoTL work tends to be viewed as “soft” or “secondary,” and this point of view pervades everything from departmental cultures to promotion and tenure standards. For these faculty members, the work is carried out in spite of this friction.

Overall, this study revealed a sizable community of scholars internally networked across disciplines, departments, and colleges on campus. Furthermore, the quantity of U of S scholars engaged in, as well as their level of engagement with, SoTL is increasing. Despite the reported challenges of the perceived legitimacy and value of SoTL continuing to be pervasive and substantial, faculty and staff involved in SoTL research have had remarkable success. The next step towards furthering this type of scholarship is an effort to move SoTL beyond the practice of individuals towards the institutionalization of SoTL. For us, this elicits the work of Hutchings, Huber & Ciccone (2011) which documents strategies for institutionalizing SoTL, such as: articulating an integrated vision for SoTL and connecting SoTL to student learning initiatives. This snapshot of SoTL on our campus provides an optimistic and encouraging picture moving forward.

For a copy of the full report: http://www.usask.ca/gmcte/resources/library

Self-Assessing Your Teaching

Kathryn SutherlandDr. Kathryn Sutherland, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Victoria University Wellington, visited the U of S campus in November 2012 to speak about early career academic success, including at a talk she gave for the Gwenna Moss Centre.  In her talk she reminded me of something I read years earlier from Glassick et al’s (2004) Scholarship Assessed that is very important as we think about self-assessing our work as teachers.  Glassick et al (2004) propose the following criteria for evaluating all scholarly work:

1. Clear goals—Does the scholar state the basic purposes of his or her work clearly? Does the scholar define objectives that are realistic and achievable? Does the scholar identify important questions in the field?

2. Adequate preparation—Does the scholar show an understanding of existing scholarship in the field? Does the scholar bring the necessary skills to his or her work? Does the scholar bring together the resources necessary to move the project forward?

3. Appropriate methods—Does the scholar use methods appropriate to the goals? Does the scholar apply effectively the methods selected? Does the scholar modify procedures in response to changing circumstances?

4. Significant results—Does the scholar achieve the goals? Does the scholar’s work add consequentially to the field? Does the scholar’s work open additional areas for further exploration?

5. Effective presentation—Does the scholar use a suitable style and effective organization to present his or her work? Does the scholar use appropriate forums for communicating work to its intended audiences? Does the scholar present his or her message with clarity and integrity?

6. Reflective critique—Does the scholar critically evaluate his or her own work? Does the scholar bring an appropriate breadth of evidence to his or her critique? Does the scholar use evaluation to improve the quality of future work?

It is quite easy to imagine how you might use these 6 criteria (and the sub-questions indicated by the authors) in assessing your research work – whether discovery research in your discipline, or the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  Indeed, as a member of a SoTL journal editorial board, and as the co-editor of the STLHE Green Guide series, these six criteria are used to inform how we peer review contributions to these forms of scholarly publication.  I have also used these six categories as the basis for a rubric for assessing students’ research papers.

In referencing this work, however, Kathryn was referring to using the framework to think about how we might assess and reflect on the quality of our teaching activities more generally.

There are many reasons for why Kathryn argues for engaging in reflection on your teaching, including documenting your effectiveness for applications to faculty positions (particularly for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows), for tenure and promotion case files, and for awards nominations. And it is tempting to spend time in this post exploring what others, including Schon (1983) and Brookfield (1995), say about reflective teaching practices.  But instead, let’s consider the six criteria in Scholarship Assessed as a tool for reflecting on, and self-assessing, your teaching.

  1. Clear goals—Have you set clear goals for what you are trying to achieve with your students’ learning (by defining learning outcomes for the course as a whole as well as for each individual class session) or personally with your teaching?
  2. Adequate preparation—Have you prepared yourself (in terms of both content knowledge as well as preparation for the teaching strategies you are using), your course materials (whether distributed to students or not), your assessments (exams, assignments, etc.), and your students (by setting and communicating clear and appropriate expectations)?
  3. Appropriate methods—Have you chosen the teaching strategies and assessment strategies that are MOST appropriate (in best alignment) with the intended learning outcomes you have established for your course or any particular class session?  How do you know whether you have done so?
  4. Significant results—Have your students (or at least a significant majority) achieved the outcomes you have set for them? Have some students exceeded your expectations?  Have you exceed theirs? Have I received the peer and student evaluations of teaching that I expect for what I feel I have accomplished in the course?
  5. Effective presentation—Are you choosing, and implementing effectively, appropriate forms of presentation for the context of your course? Are you presenting your ideas clearly? Is your material well organized? Are you using humour effectively?  How do you know you are effective?  Have you effectively shared or discussed the ‘significant results’ of your teaching with colleagues?
  6. Reflective critique— Are you critically evaluating your own teaching on a regular basis? Have you gathered appropriate evidence about your teaching to inform your reflection? Are you using that evidence to improve your teaching in the future?

If you would like to discuss reflecting on your teaching, and gathering evidence of your effectiveness as a teacher, do not hesitate to contact anyone at the GMCTE.  As well, if you are serious about improving your ability to document the effectiveness of your teaching then you might be interested in participating in the Teaching Portfolio short course offered annually as part of the GMCTE’s regular programming.  You can also find the full talk by Dr. Kathryn Sutherland online at the GMCTE website at: http://www.usask.ca/gmcte/events/featured_speakers

References (all three available in the GMCTE library):

Glassick, C. E., M. T. Huber, and G. I. Maeroff (1997). Scholarship assessed: Evaluation of the professoriate. San Francisco, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

The Importance of Conversations

I had the privilege recently of attending the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISOTL) conference in Hamilton, ON (hosted by McMaster University), and I came away once again reinvigorated by one thing in particular – conversations!

The sessions I attended at the conference were great, including sessions on topics ranging from decoding the disciplines and curriculum development to the importance of scholarship exploring academic leadership and embedding experiences for undergraduate research and inquiry in courses.  From tremendous, thought-provoking plenary sessions to individual papers during concurrent sessions, I had the pleasure of hearing about tremendous new research exploring teaching and learning innovation from Sweden, Hungary, the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, Canada, and I just scratched the surface on the close to 300 concurrent sessions, workshops, and posters included in the program from over 14 countries.

My ISSOTL conference experience was preceded by two and a half days dedicated to an invite-only collaborative writing group retreat where teams of 7-8 people were invited to collaborate together on an article related to different topics of importance in teaching and learning in higher education, as well as an all-day symposium on undergraduate research and inquiry hosted by the Council for Undergraduate Research.

As rewarding as all of these experiences were, the common element to all of them was engaging in rewarding and reinvigorating conversations about teaching and learning.  This lesson, which is usually reinforced when I have the privilege of traveling to conferences in Canada or abroad, is something very important for us to remember here at the U of S.  For those of us exploring innovations in teaching and learning through scholarship, the importance of dissemination is key to what makes that work have impact.  One often forgotten element of that dissemination, particularly when struggling to play the traditional research game – ie. finding a journal to publish an article or a conference to present at, is conversations with peers in our departments, disciplines, and institution.  In addition, conversation (resulting in engaged dialogue and community-building about teaching and learning innovation) is an absolutely critical characteristic of successful teaching departments, as reinforced by the research of Gibbs, Knapper and Piccinin (2009) exploring the common characteristics teaching departments within research-intensive universities.

This experience left me wondering a few things as I have returned to the U of S:  Where am I engaging in those deep and meaningful conversations about innovation in teaching and learning at the U of S?  Am I regularly sharing my excitement and enthusiasm for teaching and learning with colleagues across the institution?  How am I helping to foster conversations in the work that I do for my department (the GMCTE) and the institution?  I have some thoughts about how I would answer these questions, do you?

Gibbs, G., Knapper, C. and Piccinin, S. (2009).  Departmental Leadership of Teaching in Research-Intensive Environments. York, UK; Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Threshold Concepts – ‘One resource to rule them all’

If you have been following along some of my writing in the past few Bridges, I have been writing about threshold concepts – a new and emerging idea in the area of higher education teaching and learning that many people from on campus and around the world have found quite useful in thinking about teaching and learning as well as curriculum development.

Threshold concepts, to remind those who may have missed or only skimmed the Bridges issues (Vol 9, issue 2; and Vol 10, issue 2) where I introduced this work, are those concepts that are central to students’ mastery of their subject. They have a number of features that make them threshold concepts rather than just key or core concepts:

  • Transformative: A students’ way of understanding the discipline or subject is transformed once understood.
  • Troublesome: The concept is often troublesome – tacit, seemingly incoherent, alien, counter-intuitive, or the language of the concept is troublesome.
  • Irreversible: Once learned it is very unlikely that a student will forget (or unlearn) the concept.
  • Integrative: In that they highlight the interrelatedness of knowledge within their discipline or subject.
  • Bounded: They usually delineate a particular conceptual space, and is bounded by other thresholds that lead further into the discipline.
  • Discursive: In that an enhanced and extended use of disciplinary language usually accompanies a students’ learning of the concept.
  • Reconstitutive: In that the students reconstitute their understanding (their prior conceptual schema) over time and let go of their earlier conceptual stance.

Having just re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy recently, I am reminded of the phrase “One ring to rule them all” and in thinking about writing this blog post it jumped into my mind. Mick Flanagan, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at University College London, has put together the ultimate website resource related to threshold concepts, featuring publicly available articles, videos, and other detailed resources. One of the most exciting aspects of the web resource is that Prof Flanagan has compiled all of the work that has been done on threshold concepts in the disciplines on the site. There is information on threshold concepts in everything from Engineering, Chemistry and Computer Science to English, Economics, and Gender Studies, and on to the Health Sciences. If you are interested in learning more about what has been written/discussed on threshold concepts in your own disciplines, this resource is the place for you. It is the resource to rule them all (for threshold concepts).

Why “Educatus”?

And why the tag line “By Teaching We Learn”?

The staff of the GMCTE held an internal contest to name the blog and the winner was the Latin word ‘educatus‘.  Educatus is the past participle of educare – to educate (or to train).  The person who suggested the name presented two main arguments in favour of its use as the GMCTE blog name.  First, the blog is intended to educate about teaching and learning in higher education.  In trying to meet this objective, the blog is aimed at any member of the U of S community engaged in teaching and learning, including our own staff here in the GMCTE, or anyone beyond the U of S with an interest in teaching and learning in higher education.  The content of the blog is also about ‘education’ (in particular, higher education teaching and learning), which is an English cognate that draws upon the original Latin educare. Second, the name (which ends in ‘us’) keeps with the U of S Communications campaign of using words ending in ‘us’ as part of the ongoing communication and marketing of the campus.

The second place choice was also a Latin phrase – ‘docendo discimus‘ – which is translated into English as ‘by teaching, we learn’ or ‘we learn by teaching’.  This phrase, first used by Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD) in his letters to Lucilius Junior that we are learning if we teach (epistulae morales I, 7, 8), is actually the motto of a number of universities around the world. In terms of the blog, it was felt that this particular Latin phrase was too complicated for the name.  It was, however, felt that the notion of learning by teaching captured in many ways the spirit of what we intend to do here in The Gwenna Moss Centre, and hence its continued inclusion (translated into English) as a tag line for our blog.

Welcome to the GMCTE Blog

The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness is really excited to be launching a blog related to all things “teaching and learning in higher education”.  On this site you will find reviews and links to resources/articles/books that might be of interest, news items related to teaching and learning in higher education, and personal reflections on teaching and learning from staff in the GMCTE and elsewhere (on campus and around the world).  It is meant to be a place for faculty, staff, and students to learn about the exciting and dynamic field of teaching and learning in higher education, while at the same time providing a quick and easy place for references, ideas, and resources that will help you in very practical ways as a teacher.  You will be able to search the blog by keyword (if you really want to focus in on, for example, the use of technology in teaching), or by author (if you really want to focus on the musings of any particular staff member).

Why a blog?

We have decided to write a blog from the Centre for a few key reasons.  First, we felt this medium would be the easiest and quickest way to bring up-to-date, key resources related to the work that we do in the Centre to those who might need those resources – faculty, staff and students involved in the teaching and learning enterprise at the U of S (and elsewhere).  Second, we wanted to model how you might use a blog effectively as a tool in your classes.  And third, in line with our vision to be a national and international leader in the support for teaching and learning in higher education, we felt that a blog would be a great way to keep a current and visible presence with our peer Centres around the world.

Heather M. Ross, one of our Instructional Design Specialists in the GMCTE and a regular blogger in previous roles she has held (for example see SIAST’s Ed Tech blog she ran until last year), will coordinate our blog.  If you have ideas for blog posts, or would like to contribute your own post, please contact her at heather.ross@usask.ca.  Otherwise, please enjoy the ride!

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