Dr. Cheryl Amundsen on Academic Development

December 05, 2019

Dr. Cheryl Amundsen is a Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Education, as well as the Founder, and Past Director, of the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines (ISTLD), where she developed the Teaching and Learning Grants program. Cheryl's research has focused on how university professors develop pedagogical knowledge in relationship to their subject matter, how they come to understand teaching (and graduate supervision), how they make instructional decisions including the integration of various technology applications and the effects of these from the learner's perspective. She was the Principal Investigator, for a twelve-year longitudinal study (2006-2018) entitled, Developmental Trajectories of Doctoral Candidate Through New Appointee: A Longitudinal Study of Academic Identity Construction.

What called you to work in the areas of academic development?

My first faculty position (1988) was a cross-appointment in the Department of Educational Psychology and the Centre for University Teaching and Learning at McGill University. My research program in that role sought to understand how professors come to understand learning in their disciplines and by extension, teaching. When I moved to a faculty position at SFU in 1998, I was charged with developing the Educational Technology and Learning Design program. Once that program was in place, I returned to my interest of academic development, particularly the place of faculty-led inquiry in furthering understanding of learning and teaching. The Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines (ISTLD) and the Teaching and Learning Development grant program grew out of this work. Along the way, I (along with my longtime colleague Lynn McAlpine) also began investigating the process of how PhD students develop as academics or as professionals in other contexts.

Can you tell us about the longitudinal research program you were involved with?

Our primary motivation for this study was the high drop-out rates of PhD students in the sciences and social sciences. To address this, I, along with Lynn McAlpine, conducted a longitudinal qualitative research program over twelve years (2006-2018) to understand how doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, and pre-tenure faculty navigate the complexities of academic work within their broader life experiences to create a career in the post-PhD years. We followed students, researchers, and faculty from SFU, McGill University, and the University of Oxford to gain a deeper understanding of academic identity construction; looking at decisions they made and challenges they faced in the context of their whole lives.

What were some of the key findings from this study?

From this longitudinal research has emerged a distinct conceptual view of identity, identity-trajectory (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2011), in which our examination of early career academic experience highlights the importance of individual agency, embedding of academic practice experience within their broader lives, and the influence of past and present experiences. We found that academic success was connected to the rationale and intent behind entering their graduate career, how they prepared themselves for graduate life, and how the environment around them facilitated that success. Since this study was released, several researchers around the world are now using the concept of identity trajectory to frame their own research. 

Can you tell us about the Teaching and Learning Development Grants program?

The main motivator behind the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines, is to support professors to conduct research with a focus on student learning within the context of their own courses or program. Given this mandate, the Teaching and Learning Development Grant program provides small grants to SFU faculty members to recognize teaching development as a scholarly activity and to stimulate faculty-led investigation of new or innovative teaching and learning practices.

The theoretical rationale for the overall design of the program is based on two core theoretical understandings of the nature of professional learning: learning as the product of experimentation or inquiry (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002; Dewey, 1916) and learning as a form of situated practice (Boud & Brew, 2013; Greeno et al., 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991). The Teaching and Learning Development Grant program provides the opportunity for experimentation and inquiry situated within the faculty member’s own courses. Because these projects focus on collecting evidence of student learning, the grant program provides professors with the opportunity to link their teaching practices with student learning, empowering teachers to make more informed decisions that lead to success in the classroom.

How do you know the Teaching and Learning Development Grants program has accomplished what it set out to do? 

Laura D’Amico and I conducted a formal multi-year evaluation of the grants collecting data from the professors who had participated since its inception over 10 years ago. We were interested in understanding what the professors learned and how their project influenced their teaching so that we could continue to improve the granting program, provide evidence of the impact, and share these findings with the wider academic community. We also wanted to investigate a phenomenon we call, ripple effects. That is, the effects of the grant project beyond the project itself. For example, a possible ripple effect is that the project findings served as the basis for the redesign of another course(s) in the Department.

Learn More…

Cheryl Amundsen and Lynn McAlpine recently published, Identity-Trajectories of Early Career Researchers: Unpacking the Post-PhD Experience (2018) UK: Palgrave-MacMillan Publishers.  Provides a summary of the research over twelve years. An informative read for anyone contemplating entering a PhD in the sciences or social sciences! 

Cheryl Amundsen and Laura D’Amico recently published, Using Theory of Change to Evaluate Socially-situated, Inquiry-based Academic Professional Development (2019), Studies in Educational Evaluation, 61, 196–208. Describes the evaluation of the Teaching and Learning Development grant program – of interest to anyone undertaking a program evaluation.

For more information about other publications

For information on the ISTLD granting programs