T&L development grants kindle creativity

November 05, 2013

Provide the opportunity and they will come.

That’s one of the basic assumptions behind the Teaching and Learning Development Grant program. And its wisdom is being borne out by the numbers.

The two-year-old program, funded by the VP Academic’s office and administered by the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) and the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines, is supporting almost 80 projects across all disciplines.

And more than two dozen grant recipients have already reported their results, sharing them with departmental colleagues and at SFU’s annual teaching and learning symposium and beyond.

“A crucial part of this is that if faculty want to try out new teaching ideas, they should be given the opportunity because it could lead to important innovations and understandings of student learning,” says education professor Cheryl Amundsen, who works directly with each project.

“These aren’t competitive grants,” she adds. “If someone wants the funding and they’re prepared to put in a little time to create a proposal, they’ll be funded.”

The proposal process itself is almost effortless. At workshops held each semester, participants can get help clarifying their ideas and developing a first draft. After that, they work one-on-one with Amundsen and TLC staffer Cindy Xin to produce a final proposal. 

Amundsen says she has been impressed by the depth and breadth of the research so far. “We really are moving quickly toward having a significant, high-quality body of work,” she says.

Teaching by remote-control

Take Anders Knudby’s proposal, for example. The geography assistant professor’s project involves a remote control helicopter aerial surveying system “drone” that mimics satellite and aerial remote-sensing systems. Knudby, who teaches remote sensing, hopes his students will better understand the fundamentals of how remote sensing data are collected by watching the drone in action and using the results in lab exercises.

“By demonstrating how the measurements were done,” he says, “the field of remote sensing will be that much more comprehensible—and enjoyable—to my students.”

Measuring the method

Then there’s health sciences senior lecturer, Mark Lechner. His research looks at whether a teaching and learning approach used in introductory biology and human biology enhances students’ understanding of scientific method. “We’d been encouraged by student feedback on the approach, which involves students using iClickers to collect data, but we haven’t quantified anything yet,” says Lechner.

The results from pre-and-post course surveys indicate “the approach improves understanding of scientific method and changes attitudes in terms of students seeing themselves as scientists,” he says, adding, “we’ll continue to use it, fine-tuning as we go.”

Videos spark interactive learning

Susan Barber, an education lecturer, used her grant money to produce a series of videos on writing and teaching narrative as a means of learning. The videos target elementary school teachers in the language arts, especially overseas students. “Their educational background does not always include narrative writing and I noticed some were struggling with assignments,” Barber says.

After using the videos in her class this summer, the feedback was positive on all fronts. “Not only did my international students say the videos helped them tremendously,” she says, “but generally, today’s students are adept at multimedia and more interactive learning. These videos support the future direction of education.”

The group-test approach

Marion Caldecott, a limited term assistant professor of linguistics, evaluated the benefits of group exams for EAL students with her development grant. She noticed that EAL students in her linguistics classes weren’t coming to her for help or asking questions in class, even though they were struggling. “Group exams, in addition to individual exams, were my way of getting them to learn from each other,” says Caldecott.

Through surveys and test results, Caldecott showed that group testing has clear benefits for both EAL and English-first-language students—including improved performance over the semester. She presented her findings in June 2013 at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference in Cape Breton, N.S.

Engineering an educational goals algorithm

Michael Sjoerdsma’s study has program-wide applications. The senior engineering science lecturer is assessing ways to determine which courses cover the indicators associated with specific learning outcomes.

“We’ve already created an algorithm,” says Sjoerdsma, “and the database to house the data will be done by December. Once we put meaning to the data, we’ll be able to use the information to help develop a curriculum that meets our educational goals.”

While clearly diverse in scope, Amundsen says “these and all the research projects funded have something fundamental in common—the potential for enriching the teaching and learning experience.”

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