New workshops aim to promote better teaching

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Cheryl Amundsen hopes that Simon Fraser University's expansion of a workshop she founded at Montreal's McGill University will inspire more professors to rethink how they teach.

Ten years ago, the SFU education professor and her colleagues at McGill abandoned traditional approaches to showing instructors how to teach because evidence showed they were not really benefiting student learning.

“They usually promote a generic set of teaching strategies rather than emphasizing the fit between teaching approach and learning in a particular discipline,” explains Amundsen. “Most academics have little or no background in pedagogy, but they do have a good understanding of the nature of learning in their discipline.”

That's why Amundsen and her colleagues created Rethinking Teaching: A Course Design Workshop for Professors.

The workshop focuses on helping instructors design courses that draw on their passion for their discipline and their understanding of how knowledge develops within it.

Amundsen, who has 20 years experience studying instructional development and the use of learning technologies, says the workshop is based on a central construct.

“Students learn better if instructors let the learning they want their students to do drive their choice of teaching methods,” explains Amundsen.

Since its creation, the pioneering workshop has attracted 300 participants at McGill. Many past participants of the workshop return as workshop co-instructors.

Some helped Amundsen and her colleagues write Rethinking Teaching in Higher Education, a book inspired by their teaching philosophy.

Amundsen, in partnership with McGill University, will hold the workshop for a second consecutive year at SFU, this spring from April 19 to 23.

SFU's learning instructional development centre (LIDC), SFU's VP-Academic office, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council are sponsoring the workshop.

For some SFU faculty, the workshop will be the culmination of their participation in an earlier workshop, created this year.

The New Faculty Learning Community, the brainchild of LIDC director David Kaufman, is meant to help instructors maximize what they get out of the April workshop.

Eight sessions, running September to March, get new faculty to study the learning process in their disciplines.

Participants choose the focus of each session, which Amundsen coordinates.

The new workshop is open to any fulltime SFU instructors, but targets tenure track faculty. “They are the permanent residents of a university,” explains Amundsen. “That's the group to target if you want to support the rethinking of teaching in the university.”

Glyn Williams-Jones, a newly appointed assistant professor in earth sciences at SFU, was one of 11 participants in the new fall workshop.

He found it useful and is taking the April workshop to get feedback on a fall introductory course he has designed.

“These workshops not only help us relay new research more effectively to students, but also give us the tools to communicate better with our peers and the public,” says Williams-Jones. “What good is cutting edge research if it never gets out of the lab because you can't communicate it well.”

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