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Inquiry seminars help to engage students

Teaching conference attracts hundreds of faculty

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | DEC 03 2007

Students who enrol in the University of Guelph’s first-year seminar courses report having more experience in problem solving, more contact with faculty members and higher marks than their counterparts who don’t participate in the seminars, said Jacqueline Murray, history professor at Guelph, at a Toronto conference on good teaching practices.

The interdisciplinary seminars were introduced at the University of Guelph in 2003 to provide first-year students with an opportunity to participate in small discussion-oriented classes that focus on problem solving. Enrolment in the seminars is limited to 18 students per course. Topics range from sex and sexuality to climate change to human rights.

Instructors guide students through the inquiry and problem-solving process but “give up their role as teacher and knowledge expert,” Dr. Murray explained. The goal of the program isn’t to help students find the right answer – which usually doesn’t exist – but to help them develop analytical and research skills that they can transfer to other courses.

Dr. Murray, who leads one of the seminars, gave an overview of Guelph’s program at a recent conference on teaching, learning and technology sponsored jointly by educational publisher McGraw-Hill Ryerson and Ryerson University. The conference took place in mid-November and was one of three that McGraw-Hill organizes each year at campuses across the country to highlight good teaching practices. Some 300 participants attended the conference, which offered more than 40 presentations over three days.

Joe Saundercook, vice-president, partnerships and business development at McGraw-Hill, said the company has been organizing the conferences since 1998 to discover what challenges professors face and to develop better resources for them.

George Quan Fun, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, attended Dr. Murray’s presentation and said he will try to incorporate some elements of Guelph’s inquiry-base learning seminars in his accounting class. “I’m going to start doing this in my classroom for sure,” he said. “I hope [students] will say that accounting is interesting.”

Another session featured a group of engineering professors at the University of Toronto sharing their experiences on how to team-teach a “mega-course” such as their first-year engineering design course, which typically involves 1,000 students, seven instructors and 30 teaching assistants.

Gordon Pepper, a film studies professor at the University of Regina, gave an engrossing lecture on the impact modern communication methods such as cell phones and text messaging have had on student-learning behaviours and outlined teaching methods to better engage today’s learners.

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