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The Globe and Mail

Experiment giving undergrads more face time with profs a hit

University of Calgary Geoscience Professor Leslie Reid visits smaller groups of students in her class on Oct. 19, 2011.

Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

It's not your typical first-year lecture, with hundreds of students quietly taking notes from their auditorium seats while a lone professor lectures into a microphone.

Instead, 200 first-year geoscience students at the University of Calgary have broken into small groups to work through their latest assignment. Their professor, Leslie Reid, and her teaching assistants scramble over seats, spending time with each group, giving them something most first-year students crave but struggle to receive: face time.

"A lot of academic research tells us that students need very frequent and timely feedback," Prof. Reid said. "That sounds a bit obvious, but there isn't a really good model for what [that kind of]expert teaching looks like in higher education, especially when you are looking at large class sizes."

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It's an oft-heard complaint: Students say they don't interact with their professors enough in large classes and professors feel pressured to give a higher priority to their research in the race for promotion and tenure. The quality of undergraduate experience has become a hot-button issue on campuses across the country, with the latest report from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada acknowledging that increasing enrolment has created problems for professors who teach large classes.

Laval University is responding by announcing 50 new chairs over the next five years who will focus on exploring best practices and new approaches for teaching undergraduates. "Universities have been focused on investing in knowledge. Now we need to invest in the transfer of knowledge," said Éric Bauce, a vice-rector at Laval. Other institutions are experimenting with teaching-only streams or undergraduate campuses solely dedicated to teaching students.

According to Ian Clark, author of the coming book Academic Reform, the number of courses Ontario professors are generally expected to teach has gone down from three courses each semester 20 years ago to two courses a semester. This "substantially less teaching" coincides with a rise in full-time undergraduate enrolment, he said.

Universities have been getting around this decrease in teaching time in one of two ways – some hire more TAs and contracted lecturers whose only job is to teach undergrads, or increase the class sizes that regular full-time faculty teach.

Prof. Reid, who holds the Tamaratt teaching professorship at the University of Calgary, decided to use her grant money to experiment with replacing traditional lecture sessions for large classes with feedback activities, such as small group discussions and regular quizzes. This, she said, reinforces concepts better than straightforward lecturing.

Early data indicate that the new model is working – her students are understanding core concepts better and performing to higher academic standards. Speaking to the demand for more interaction with professors, the majority of students requested even more feedback sessions in their end-of-term surveys.

Lyndsey McKinnon, a third-year geology U of C student, said she liked the added face time with Prof. Reid and preferred this model to her other traditional first-year courses.

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"You hear all time, 'You are not in high school any more,' and 'You need to figure out things for yourself,' " she said. "I just never saw my other professors as much as her, and I think it made all the difference. Her class is the reason I decided to continue studying geology."

As Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance president Sean Madden points out, university professors are not required to have any training before teaching a class. "It seems questionable that kindergarten through [Grade]12 teachers go through years of training, but professors aren't required to do that," he said. "Their training, if not mandatory, should at least be enhanced."

Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost at the research-intensive University of Toronto, takes issue with the notion that professors are casting aside teaching duties for research, and said the two prongs have always been aligned in higher education.

"I'm worried about this rumour floating out there that professors don't care as much about teaching," she said. "We have some of the best professors teaching our incoming first-year students … and we do a very careful assessment of teaching, with a whole bunch of student input and student evaluations, and soliciting tenure recommendation letters."

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said when it comes to tenure, evaluating teaching skills is far "fuzzier and qualitative," compared with research output, which is easier to measure through grant money and number of publications. Professors can spend hours supervising graduate students and preparing for class time – all of which would count for their teaching hours, he argued, but not necessarily for face-time with undergraduate students.

Still, Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, cautioned that separating the enterprises of research and teaching would be a move in the wrong direction. "What we need to do is integrate those experiences, because students need research-enriched learning in a context of innovation."

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One such example is McMaster's Integrated Science program – iSci for short – where students spend less time in lectures and more in research-focused modules and field work. Carolyn Eyles, a professor and director of the iSci program, said the program had the unexpected benefit of being "more satisfying" for faculty.

"I think definitely some of the faculty are more comfortable with the idea of learning by research, and in this learning format, they do the same inquiry-based worked in class as they do in their research labs. It doesn't feel quite like teaching," she said.

Third-year iSci student Prateek Gupta said seeing his professors in their element made him appreciate the value of research. "You really get to know your professors and learn about science through research. My other elective classes felt so pie in the sky … this was more practical learning and the open-door policy really did make a big difference."

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