Teaching quality is of paramount importance to a student advocacy organization: with that in mind, OUSA needed the policy to back up our passion. This policy cycle, OUSA separated our Student Success paper into two papers: Broader Learning Environment and Teaching and Assessment, mostly in the interest of clarifying and highlighting our positions on pedagogy. We also put out a government submission earlier this year specifically about teaching practices (Those Who Can, Teach, which you can read here).
In attempting to talk about improving teaching broadly, we are under no illusions that there is a silver bullet quick-fix, or even a defined blueprint for the “best” way to run a classroom. There are aspects of quality teaching that are intangible- everyone has had a professor who stands out or who has made a noticeable impact for them, but many of us might find it difficult to pinpoint what specific characteristic elevated their style or influence. Equally as challenging to grapple with is the fact that two students can take the same course and have wildly different perceptions of its quality and of their associated learning. It takes only the briefest visit to RateMyProfessor.com to realize that “good teaching” is far from an objective assessment. It is exactly this variability that can make it intimidating for policy experts and decision makers to confront the issue of teaching quality. How do you try to moderate or standardize something that is so multiform; a skill that is really at it’s best when it is changeable?
Undaunted, our delegates and authors worked together to find common principles and characteristics to inform our advocacy for better student learning.
Firstly, we made recommendations to create the best possible conditions to allow quality teaching to flourish: infrastructure for collaborative and active learning spaces, hiring more teaching-focused faculty, and investing in teaching centres and teacher training, among other suggestions.
Secondly, we recommended practices that serve to make flexibility and differences in learning styles an asset, not a challenge, to good teaching: these include more diverse methods of assessment, participatory and student-led courses and projects, and providing high-impact learning experiences to “bookend” students’ degrees.
Thirdly, we insist that expectations and outcomes– what teachers can expect from students, what students can expect from teachers, and what the public can expect from university graduates– is clarified, catalogued, tracked and measured. This includes (among other recommendations) better articulation of learning outcomes, better feedback and evaluation for instructors, and more rigorous standards of when and how grades are evaluated and communicated to students.
We had many discussions that challenged our delegates to confront contentious issues in pedagogy and evaluation. One was the idea of “relative grading:” when is it appropriate to determine a student’s competency in relation to their peers? Is it ever appropriate? The final paper recommends universities move away from “curving” grades to reflect pre-determined outcomes; however, it encourages instructors to use “corrective” grading when necessary to account for instructional error (for example, the entire class fails a section due to insufficient coverage). Another point of contention was “differentiated grading:” the concept of offering multiple methods of assessment for the same learning outcomes. This debate eventually led to our first “Head to Head” blog series: two delegates argued each side of the issue here and here.
Despite many, many policy issues that prompted heated discussion, there was one issue on which all delegates seemed to agree: quality undergraduate teaching is chronically undervalued and under-recognized, often as a result of a post-secondary system that is still highly focused on research prestige. Saying that teaching and research are of equal importance is not enough; there needs to be institutional and infrastructural investment to match the rhetoric.
We are excited to continue advocating for the best possible teaching quality in Ontario, and this paper gives us lofty goals to work with.