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By Karen Herland
Senators discussed the report of the Provost’s Working Group on Teaching and Learning at their last meeting on April 17. The 20-page document was prepared as a roadmap to “improve all aspects of teaching and learning” at the university.
Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning Ollivier Dyens was deputy chair of the working group. His office will be responsible for implementing the approved plan.
“Essentially, we want to improve the whole teaching and learning environment and improve the student experience and the faculty experience. I think we’re already doing well, but we could be doing better,” says Dyens.
The working group was initially slated for the 2006-07 academic year but was postponed pending the appointment of a new Provost. Provost David Graham chaired the working group after assuming the role. The working group included representatives of full and part-time faculty, the Board, Libraries, the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services and students.
Senators discussed the report, which had already been reviewed by the Senate Committee on Academic Planning and Priorities, at length. One of their first suggestions was to develop priorities for the 46 recommendations in the report.
“What we need to look at first and foremost is our pedagogical mission,” says Dyens, who has begun to prioritize the recommendations for a second presentation to Senate. “Everything else flows from there.”
Dyens sees this exercise as one that needs to happen at a departmental level. Although there are general points that can apply across disciplines, “departments should define their outcomes and ways to assess them, instead of imposing them from the top down.”
He adds that among the issues to address is how to combine the university’s twin goals of accessibility and excellence, along with the needs of undergraduate and graduate students, full and part-time schedules and the needs of young people and those with families.
The report will also need to address how to measure teaching success. “Student evaluations are essential, but they are the only external measure we have. We need additional ways to help instructors develop an even stronger pedagogy.” Dyens would like to see teaching having more weight in tenure and promotion discussions. Doing so means developing consistent, objective assessment tools.
Another challenge is the recently emerging discussion on core competencies. The suspension of the university writing test (Journal, Dec. 4, 2008) has raised the question of whether writing is the single common skill all students should possess upon graduation. The definition of core competencies, and tools to transmit and measure them will also require a pan-university discussion. “Among other things, we need to consider the scientific research on learning and cognition.”
The report’s conclusion points out that with information now so readily available, teaching has moved beyond knowledge transfer. “Teaching is about exploring how to connect and engage with information, about interpreting data critically, about drawing and articulating conclusions.” Supporting that process will be a critical element of teaching and learning across all programs.