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CAREER ADVICE

A bottom-up drive to transform tertiary teaching

How McMaster University's faculty of engineering is motivating new professors to improve their teaching effectiveness.

By OLDRICH BUBAK | FEB 26 2019

In my recent article on teaching and learning, I made a case for a reform in higher education. I argued the merits in bringing consistency and reliability into the classroom, attainable through a broad acceptance of a basic set of standards, including the key practices of good teaching. I also noted that before we begin to consider compliance and measurement, we require a general appreciation of the fundamental practice. The article stimulated some discussion from stakeholders around the world, not only due to the growing recognition that a change is needed, but also due to the fact that I stopped short of explaining how we may go about realizing it. To be sure, system-wide reforms, namely when mandated from above, can be very difficult to effect as they meet the forces of culture, habit, as well as economics. Yet, as deep change can be set in motion in less common places, there is a dual promise on the horizon – a bottom-up drive to improve teaching with a potential to expand career possibilities.

There is an effort underway at McMaster University’s faculty of engineering which holds such a promise. Mindful of the importance of teaching and the long-term goals of developing effective learning environments, the faculty’s dean and his team made an important decision – to require all new faculty members to complete the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW). Launched in the summer of 2017, the workshop has already been offered several times within the faculty as part of a new staff intake. Previously, the new faculty orientation was fulfilled by a one-day session focused on the basic elements of effective teaching, mentoring, and research. This was quickly supplanted with the decision to require completion of the internationally-recognized ISW complementing an introductory orientation day that covers various student-oriented topics and opportunities for mentorship.

This intensive 24-classroom-hour workshop follows a tried template: a combination of learning, practice, and reflection. Working in groups usually no larger than four, the participants begin by reviewing outcome-driven lesson planning, active learning approaches and effective feedback strategies, and observe a model mini-lesson. They are expected to draw on this knowledge while developing and delivering three 10-minute lessons to their peers, as well as collecting and providing feedback throughout the duration of the workshop. Notably, thanks to the ISW’s design, the participants have the opportunity to experience and reflect on the lessons from both the learners’ as well as the instructors’ perspectives, leaving a potent and lasting imprint.

For accessibility purposes, these workshops are held on the faculty’s premises, rather than at McMaster’s Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching, which organizes the workshops and provides the trained facilitators. Integral to these efforts, the MacPherson Institute is the most recent expression of the university’s long tradition of commitment to teaching scholarship and innovation. The Institute was an important source of information and guidance in the faculty of engineering’s decision. Economics, a frequent barrier in most public sector initiatives, was not at issue throughout the process; the training is not viewed as a cost, but rather an investment – and one with a high rate of return.

As such initiatives reach critical mass and get adopted across the university and beyond – while motivating the existing faculty to improve their teaching effectiveness – there will be a demand for educational developers, facilitators, and facilitator trainers. In fact, the MacPherson Institute is already registering an upward trend in its demand for the popular teaching workshops, as well as the more comprehensive, full-semester teaching and learning courses, now offered during all academic sessions. Note there has been over a 100 percent increase in the certificates of completion earned (requiring two to five education courses based on the type) in the period from Winter 2015 to Fall 2017. This is revealing considering one of the certificate courses, the Peer-Evaluated Teaching Experience, is often fully booked within hours of the registration’s opening, despite having a pre-requisite.

Given both the tangible and prospective trends discussed here, my career advice for postsecondary education departs from perhaps the expected emphasis on formalizing an instructor’s teaching expertise. As the evidence points to an increasing interest in higher education pedagogy – particularly by the current postdoctoral, doctoral and master’s cohorts across disciplines – there are merits to developing one’s teaching and learning skills as an educational developer, and primarily a trainer of instructional skills.

This is not only a strategic choice, of course, but also an opportunity to partake in a transformation of higher learning. If the above scenario is any indication, this will be an incremental, multidimensional process, which will be driven by those closest to the students – faculties, institutes, and individuals, rather than ministries and policymakers. Underpinned by a mix of motivations, this process holds the ultimate promise of better learning outcomes for those who have the future in their hands.

Oldrich Bubak is an author and an academic focusing on society, culture and technology. He is currently at McMaster University, where, among his student development and research responsibilities, he occasionally lectures on good teaching.

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