At the end of November, Jon Driver, Vice-President, Academic, sat down for a conversation about his academic vision for the next five years. He emphasized the importance he attaches to teaching within the university culture, addressed the subject of learning outcomes, and talked about some key priorities in the next Academic Plan. Here are excerpts from his comments.
What is the relationship between teaching and research?
There’s a real connection between teaching and research, a two-way connection. First of all, when people are active in research, that makes their teaching more interesting. But also, we can take our research methods and apply them to try and understand our teaching.
How would you compare the place of teaching vis-à-vis research at SFU?
We value teaching and research equally. We try to evaluate faculty members equally based on their teaching and their research. And so it would be nice if we had a culture in which people talked about “What have I done new in teaching” as well as “What have I done new in research.”
What can be done to make good teaching a priority?
On research we’re very good at being able to say, “Your performance is not as good as it should be”, or “your performance is satisfactory”, or “your performance is really good” … On teaching, we tend to say either “Your performance is not as good as it could be” or “It’s satisfactory.” And we stop at satisfactory … In fact, I just reviewed all of the guidelines that every department in the university has for how they evaluate their colleagues during salary review and during tenure and promotion, and what I found was that most – not all, but most – of the departments talk about satisfactory teaching, and then they talk about what you should be doing if your teaching isn’t satisfactory, but they don’t talk about how they’re going to measure outstanding teaching and how they’re going to reward outstanding teaching. And so, having reviewed all of these documents, I’m going to go back to the departments and make some suggestions about what methods they could use to identify the outstanding teachers and reward them through the salary review process or through the tenure and promotion process.
Are there other obstacles to good teaching?
The issue that would be raised by many people is the time issue. If I don’t get rewarded for being a really good teacher and I’ve got a lot of pressure to do research, why would I focus on teaching and learning? One of my answers to that is [that] I wouldn’t expect people to be doing this continually, but … that maybe every few years they would … spend a semester working primarily on some changes in their teaching or getting some new skills around teaching.
You’ve raised the issue of learning outcomes. Why do you think they are important?
I think one of the most important reasons for stating [learning] outcomes and trying to assess them is to communicate to students. Students want to know what the purpose of the course is. They want to know, “How does this course that I’m about to take fit into my overall major?” … The second thing relating to students is that you can explain to them how the evaluation that you’re using relates back to the outcomes … I think for students it’s really important that they get that sense of why they’re in a course and why they are doing the things that they’re being asked to do … The other component of learning outcomes is partly about ensuring that we’re getting the results that we think we’re getting. And one of the ways to do that is to define what you want students to get out of your course and then to try to assess that.
Some people see this process as a threat to academic freedom.
My attitude is [that learning outcomes are] up to the department. I don’t want to tell people what to do. We’re still in the process [of considering learning outcomes] here, but I think one of the outcomes of this project ought to be that assessing how well you are doing should not be a function of my office. It should be your own colleagues who [do that] in the context of external review.
But there do seem to be concerns about a loss of control.
The other problem is that we do have some external bodies that accredit our programs. So, for example, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board accredits our Engineering programs, and they have very specific requirements around learning outcomes that are much more narrowly defined than what I would expect a department to do, and there’s a tendency for what happens in Engineering to be cited as though this is what it’s going to be like for everybody.
In May you released an Academic Plan for 2013–2018. How would you compare that plan to the previous one?
I’ve tried to put less detail into the upcoming plan and I’m trying to encourage academic departments to come up with their own [approaches for] the way they would like to handle some of the goals of the program … My aim with the Academic Plan is to have some general goals and then encourage departments to find ways that they can meet those goals.
Is the new plan a continuation of the previous plan or does it represent a shift?
I think it’s more a continuation. The plan that we’re just wrapping up now certainly had a focus on the undergraduate student experience. I think perhaps the current plan has got more of a focus on teaching as a component of the undergraduate experience. It references some projects that we have actually already started – like the support we can give to students for whom English is not the first language, that’s mentioned, the learning outcomes [initiative] is mentioned very specifically, getting to a better system for evaluating teaching is mentioned – so there is some reference to ongoing projects, and there probably is more reference generally to teaching and learning rather than the overall student experience.
How do you see teaching contributing to the undergraduate experience in the next few years?
What I would like to see in terms of support for students in the classroom is, firstly, that a more supportive environment is created by having a greater range of teaching practices, so that the way in which teaching is done matches the learning outcomes better … We know that students or people generally don’t learn by sitting in a classroom and having people tell them things. They learn by doing things … We need to worry less about the content and speaking the content of a discipline to students, and we need to worry more about them getting the major principles and the theories and the methods and somehow experiencing that.
The Experiential Education Project concluded that there is breadth but not depth of experiential learning opportunities at SFU. Do we need to do more?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a large number of courses with a smallish component of experiential [education]. What we really need to do is select some areas of the university for a deeper experiential education, and when I say select, I don’t mean I would select them. I mean people could self-select … I think we just need to encourage departments to approach it strategically, to identify an area within their curriculum where they think a deeper experiential component would be really valuable to students and to try to build those areas first.
Academic Plan 2013–2018
Report of the Learning Outcomes and Assessment Working Group (draft report; see link in right sidebar)
The State of Course Based Experiential Education at SFU (report)