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Some reflections from a pioneer on teaching and learning in Canada

Posted on 7 January 2013 by

Back in early December I had the pleasure of hearing Christopher Knapper deliver the annual Kesarwani Lecture presented by the University of Ottawa’s Teaching and Learning Support Service. Dr. Knapper is one of Canada’s foremost experts on university teaching and educational development, so I was eager to hear his thoughts. The topic of his talk was billed loosely as “teaching for better learning at a university.”

Educational development expert Christopher Knapper.

First, some of his bona fides: trained as a psychologist, Dr. Knapper was a university teacher for over 40 years and has been a professional education developer for more than 30 years. He was founding director of the teaching resources office at the University of Waterloo in 1977 and went on to establish the Instructional Development Centre at Queen’s University in 1992, where he is today an emeritus professor. He was also the founding president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (where there is a lifetime achievement award named after him) and a founding editor of the International Journal for Academic Development. If Dr. Knapper wishes to impart his wisdom on teaching and learning, you listen.

He covered a lot of ground in his talk, some of which may be familiar to faculty who’ve received some pedagogical training. Nonetheless, his tidbits of wisdom are reassuring. What follows are the parts that I found most interesting.

Universities in crisis?

Though it wasn’t the main theme of his talk, Dr. Knapper started out with a few thoughts on the present state of universities in Canada. His view: all is not well. “There is a bit of a ferment going on outside the Ivory Tower, with a lot of people questioning what we’re doing in universities, what the value of universities is, and what our future will be.”

University presidents talk constantly about having to do too much with too few resources, “while it seems fairly obvious to me they’re not going to get more money.” Meanwhile, politicians are beginning to ask what universities are doing with the money they get. Also of concern, he says, is that the public increasingly sees university as an individual good rather than a societal good – the commodification of higher education.

Interestingly, Dr. Knapper also sees technology as a threat – he says he’s “a bit of cynic” when it comes to much educational technology. On MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), he finds it interesting that the model is “almost entirely information-based.” But it’s not information we’re lacking, he says. “We are overwhelmed with information. The problem is how the learners process and deal with the stuff that’s out there.”

The five “-ations”

Asked what goes on at a university, most of the public would say “an education.” But Dr. Knapper says of equal importance to a student’s experience are four other “-ations,” three positive, one mainly negative.

Relocation: You move away from home and go to a place you’ve never lived in before, a “hugely important step” in becoming an independent person. This is linked to …

Maturation: The age at which most students go to university, around 18 to 22 years of age, is a transformative time for people as they move from adolescence to becoming adults, and that accounts for a lot of change that occurs with our students, he says.

Socialization: You meet new friends, which is an enormously rewarding and influential process.

Acculturation: Students come to university thinking it will be an exciting and truly transformational experience. But, what happens is “their high ideals rapidly get acculturated out of them.” They encounter large classes, trivial testing and very little interpersonal contact with teachers. They get told by older students, “this is the way it is; get used to it.”

Factors that promote deep learning

These may be familiar to many educators, but bear repeating.

  • Good teaching: staff are well prepared, confident;
  • Openness to students: staff friendly, flexible, helpful
  • Freedom in learning: students have a choice in what they study
  • Clear goals and standards: assessment standards, expectations are clearly defined;
  • Vocational relevance: courses are seen as relevant to future careers
  • Social Climate: good relations between students, staff (social, academic).

Changing university teaching and learning

There are already many changes underway, mainly for the better, in university teaching, says Dr. Knapper. Among these are a wider range of teaching methods, including many that stress research and inquiry skills, and a greater awareness of diversity and ethical issues. As well, teaching is better documented and evaluated than in the past, and there are more conversations and more reflection about teaching and learning happening at our institutions.

On the problematic side, Dr. Knapper says teaching remains overwhelmingly didactic and reliant on traditional lectures which stress content “coverage.” Assessment methods of student learning are often trivial and “lack authenticity,” and the evaluation of teaching effectiveness and learning outcomes is often superficial. Other problem areas:

  • Curriculum development relies too much on disciplinary traditions and faculty preferences, rather than on student and societal needs;
  • The “tyranny of the academic disciplines” can mitigate against integration of knowledge and insights from different fields;
  • Too much time is spent in formal classes instead of independent study;
  • Evidence for transfer of learning to students’ later lives is elusive.

Depersonalized teaching

A big worry for Dr. Knapper is that teaching is becoming increasingly depersonalized. “Interpersonal contact between teachers and students, to me, is something that is so important. … If you change universities to the point where that is not possible for most students, than I think you might as well abandon universities as teaching institutions.”

And, “it’s not just the interpersonal talk; it’s not just the conversation,” he says. Rather, these connections allow the teacher to be a catalyst. “The teacher plays a sort of validating role in allowing the learner to make leaps to the next thing, to do things that perhaps they didn’t think they were capable of doing.”

If there is one final message he wishes to convey, it is the following: Build into your class some way to meaningfully interact with students on a one-on-one basis (or one-on-two, or whatever is practical) so that “you can get to know them, you can get to know their needs, you can explore what they think learning is.” And, “listen to students, as well as tell them stuff.”

To students, he would say: the one thing you should do in your first year in university is go knock on the door of a professor in your department and ask if you can talk with him or her for 20 minutes about how your program’s going. “I’ll bet you any money that you will not be refused if you do that. Most professors, even the most belligerent, would be pleased to have such a conversation.”


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