University of Toronto's Susan McCahan on the refocused world of academia and preparing students for life beyond university
What does re-imagining and reinventing the undergraduate experience look like under your leadership and that of U of T?
What we mean by reinventing the undergrad experience is that we are reframing it as a holistic and integrative learning experience through the years that the student is here as an undergraduate. Previously, we thought of the university experience as consisting of a set of courses tied together with a curriculum, and everything else was external to the undergraduate program. Increasingly, we understand the undergraduate experience to be cross-curricular. The students are learning both inside and outside the classroom.
How have you reframed cross-curricular/co-curricular learning holistically on campus?
A few years ago at U of T, we implemented a Co-Curricular Record [CCR].
It's not an academic transcript, but it sits next to it. It includes significant co-curricular activities the student has been involved with. The student can choose what activity goes on the [CCR]. However, the activity has to be identified by the university as one that has learning associated with it. There's a validator that confirms that the student completed the activity. So, for instance, the president of the Student Union would be a position that would be identified, and we would validate that this particular student held it for such and such a year when they request [that] it goes on their Co-Curricular Record.
How does a Co-Curricular Record increase a student's employability?
It not only has the title of the position and a description of what the activity was; it also has a set of competencies associated with that position. So, the
student would have been developing skills in the course of participating in that activity. Typically, we identify five to six possible competencies that the student may have developed and the student gets to pick up to three of those to go on their Co-Curricular Record. The concept is to make it readily apparent to the student that we view this as learning and that we value this type of learning. The other [aspect of the CCR] is that even if an employer is not that interested in looking at a Co-Curricular Record, the student learns the language to use on a resumé to talk about the learning that took place in that activity, allowing them to connect that to what they are doing academically. The words are similar to the words we would use around curricular learning.
Why is U of T increasing research opportunities for undergraduate students through its career centre? What value does this add to innovating the undergraduate experience?
The public often thinks of research as a product in that we produce research – there's a research paper, research results. In fact, when we think about research from the perspective of undergraduates, who may or may not be producing material that is earthshattering or groundbreaking, the act of being involved, the process of being involved with research, generates deep learning of transferable skills. It's very much one that builds some of those enabling or power skills that are difficult to develop in traditional classroom settings. Those include critical thinking, integrative thinking, strategic thinking, the ability to put ideas together in new and unique ways. The ability to analyze complex situations, to design solutions – those are things that are very difficult to teach in traditional courses. It's not just about learning the existing knowledge base, but also how you learn how to push forward into new and unknown areas. I think we are moving to an era where it's absolutely critical that students don't simply have a knowledge base that they're walking out of university with, but also that they have these important skills that are going to serve them for life. It's not just about preparing the student for their first job; it's about preparing them to take on their 10th job.
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