Some Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

October 06, 2011

Message from the VP, Academic

Earlier this year, I attended the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) workshop on undergraduate education. And while the event and the report generated from it painted a somewhat disheartening picture of teaching and learning nationally, we at SFU are moving in the right direction.

It was obvious when I consulted prior to the 2010-13 Academic Plan that teaching and learning is highly valued at SFU, and this is reflected in many of the current plan’s goals. We are moving forward with the plan, incorporating the recommendations of the Task Force on Teaching and Learning.

The AUCC report suggests that faculty member “resistance to change” may hinder new approaches to undergraduate teaching, but that’s clearly not the case at SFU. Our faculty members are actively involved in projects such as “Honeycomb”, and a recent review of SFU curricular-based experiential education opportunities reveals that our faculty members have pioneered stimulating educational experiences. These are only two of many positive stories about teaching and learning here.

As we move towards NWCCU accreditation we are inevitably drawn into debate about the role of learning outcomes in the American post-secondary system. U.S. assessment and accountability expert, Peter Ewell, who spoke here Sept. 28, says defining and assessing learning outcomes is typically focused on two somewhat contradictory goals—accountability to government and giving students the best possible educational experience.

I’m mainly interested in the latter, and I believe we can build a logical set of activities around the development and use of learning outcomes to further improve the educational experience at SFU.

By learning outcomes I mean a conscious definition of what we expect students to learn while studying here, and systematic collection of data to assess how well we are meeting our goals. For example, a department might decide that students should understand certain theoretical concepts and would ensure that this was reflected in the curriculum; the instructor would design assignments to assess student understanding of the concepts; aggregate data on student performance would be collected. Over the next few years, we will work to incorporate learning outcomes and their assessment into all of our programs.

As we do so, we must address three other priorities. First, it’s time for a thorough overhaul of the way we evaluate courses and instructors. We’ve given that responsibility to the Senate Committee on University Teaching and Learning, which will complete its work during the current academic year. This gives us the opportunity to update our practices, link student assessments to a course’s purpose, employ new technologies to reduce workloads and make sure results are useful to faculty members.

However, we know that diverse learning outcomes require diverse teaching methods, and there are opportunities to add new approaches that reflect research into effective teaching methods. Therefore, we will continue to encourage faculty members to experiment with new methods and we will encourage professional development through the work of the Teaching and Learning Centre.

Second, we will continue to focus on ways to diversify undergraduate education so teaching methods fit the learning outcomes defined for courses and programs. I avoid saying we should “improve” teaching at SFU, because that notion insults the dedication of faculty members and other instructors to teaching and learning, and is inconsistent with surveys that demonstrate high student satisfaction.

A third task still lies in the future: a serious audit of curricula in each unit, focusing on desired learning outcomes and the most appropriate ways to deliver and assess learning. We shouldn’t begin this task until we have taken a thorough look at the best way to implement a learning outcomes approach at SFU, and certainly not before we have a more robust process for evaluating courses and instructional methods. Additionally, I expect such an audit will be “bottom up” and the university will have to provide some guidance and resources to make it effective.

I look forward to working with you on these initiatives over the next few years.



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