Studying the teaching and learning process makes every institution its own learning lab

“Imagine someone who decides that they are interested enough in how their students are learning that, besides research in their own discipline [whether it’s law, chemistry, sociology or microbiology], they do research into the topic of teaching and learning. What sort of support do they need to do this kind of research? How do they make it second nature as part of their day to day work as an academic?”


That’s how Gary Poole describes his involvement in the field of study called Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). He’s an associate director at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, but he’s also a scholar of teaching and learning. “The whole world of SoTL is something I live and breathe on a regular basis,” he says, and that’s why he’s the closing keynote speaker at the sold-out Symposium on Scholarly Inquiry into Teaching and Learning November 14 in downtown Vancouver, hosted by BCcampus Professional Learning.

SoTL is multi-disciplinary

“SoTL invites people of any academic background to research their students’ learning,” said Dr. Poole. “Nothing in academia is as broad as SoTL. It’s a great opportunity to learn from each other regardless of disciplinary stripe.”

He says every educational institution, regardless of type or size, becomes its own kind or learning lab when its educators study the teaching and learning process. It makes an institution much more reflective of its impact. That’s a contribution SoTL can make that very few other endeavours can. Everyone at all levels of a college or university, from a teaching assistant to a dean to an academic vice president, can be involved in SoTL because “it teaches us something about how we’re all doing – and to think about the complexities involved when we talk about student learning.”

Jennifer Walinga, Associate Professor and Director of the School of Communication and Culture, Royal Roads University, is also presenting at the Symposium. “I’ll be speaking about a project using our own learning and teaching model,” she said. “The model is unique in higher education, but borrows from secondary education, embodying principles like: experiential learning, cohort models, transformational learning, personal change, and personal growth.

Such models are considered ‘soft’ in post-secondary education, but in reality, they are rigorously academic. Still, they challenge the perceptions and traditional expectations of a ‘higher learning’ setting. So, we’ve been researching how our faculty and students make meaning of and resolve personal dilemmas within the model. We are collecting data, writing, sharing at conferences, and now getting ready to publish in a scholarly journal.”

SOTL is student-focused

Dr. Linda Pardy, Associate Professor of Communications at University of the Fraser Valley, is also speaking at the November 14 event. She came to teaching through a previous career in student services. “We can have the most wonderful strategic enrolment and student engagement strategies, but unless our teaching staff has relationship and engagement in the classroom, students might withdraw. And they do withdraw. And no one talks to them about why they get fed up and leave.”

Dr. Pardy will be talking about how she got into teaching, from the student service perspective, and how it impacts her practice in the classroom today. She uses a “pedagogy of hospitality” – making an effort to get to know students, building relationships collaboratively, and remembering what it’s like to be a fresh student, what it’s like “not to know.” She sees her work as helping educators, as content experts, reframe their practice so everyone can see the connections between post-secondary education and the working world.

Jane Slemon is a lecturer at Emily Carr University where she has been teaching English and Science courses since 1997. As an RN and Director of Care at a hospice, Jane listens for the ways people reveal their narratives. She will be discussing her work in SoTL and blended learning at the opening panel at the Symposium.

“Students should be invited into online settings not just to walk through, see and absorb but to interact with what they find and to leave something of their work behind” she said. She will discuss the positive effects of “keeping the dialogue open in online courses about how students best learn and remember as well as apply that knowledge to their own work and practice.” To improve on the pedagogical strategies of instructors, “universities should ask instructors to engage in peer evaluations and sharing sessions because methods that work elsewhere, even in K-12 settings, can work in classroom and online higher education too.” 

The first province-wide event of its kind

The Symposium on November 14 sold out so quickly, we at BCcampus were caught off-guard and had to scramble to accommodate all the requests to attend. Gary Poole is not surprised. “This is the first event of its kind in British Columbia. I’ve been associated with this area for a long time and there have been some conferences on the Island and some in the lower mainland, but this may be the first formal event for the entire province … The folks organizing this knew where the appetite was and where the needs are.”

As for his keynote address, Dr. Poole will talk about his research into the most effective ways of supporting SoTL in institutions, using a social network analysis. He, along with collaborators in Sweden, has noticed SoTL happens best in small groups. “These ‘significant social networks’ are informal and serendipitous. This is where the work gets done. If one group of three or four has learned something important, they need to share it with another group. We need a connection between those groups. Certain people are good at making those connections: the local leadership. I will talk about the forms local leadership can take to support the small networks.”

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