Student Keynote Conversations: "Accommodation and Proactive Design"

CTL Executive Director's Reflective Debrief Report

In what follows below, dear reader, you will find the questions that guided conversations with our students at this year’s Festival of Teaching and Learning Student Keynote Conversations as well as two nested “blurbs” for each - the first, Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students, is a quick but not exhaustive high-level overview/abstract of the more robust conversation that our students engaged in at the Festival; the second, More Insights from Our Students, is a deeper exploration with more nuance, more examples, and more reflections from our students, re-created here in conversational prose form to both honour our students’ authentic voices and to capture as best as Tommy can (from the copious notes they took while listening to our students’ conversations) the incredible energy and spirit of these conversations our students so wonderfully and generously gifted us.

Q: What is access? And how would you explain access and accessibility to folks in the audience?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Access in education is where all students can learn in an environment that fits their needs, no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, abilities, etc. And each student has an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter the background an individual student is coming from, they need to be in an environment where they’re welcome and they’re safe. If universities increase access, they also increase opportunity which increases the quality of education rather than decreasing it - quite literally, universities can increase the percentage of success by investing in their students’ learning. And every student learns in different ways, so accessibility and accommodations aren’t about laziness but about making sure everyone can succeed.

More Insights from Our Students

Access is being able, as a student, to establish themself in the space of the university…especially when they are coming from high school into first year and they can feel like a number and not a person. So belonging, and having their voice heard and valued, is really important because when universities make students feel welcome in any place, students want to be there. And when students want to be there, they’re invested in their learning.

And this is especially important in the first year when students are just starting their degrees because that's when most students are or might be thinking, “Hey, maybe this isn't for me….” And maybe that is true for some people, that university isn't for them; but if the reason they think it isn't for them is because they feel like they don’t belong or because they feel like they can’t succeed because they’re not good enough or that they can’t do it, those are limitations that can be removed. When we increase access, we increase opportunities, and we increase the percentage of success by investing in students’ learning.

At the end of the day, if an individual doesn't feel cared for, doesn't feel like they belong, then they're not going to want to be as active or involved. And the way that we can increase their belonging in that case is by showing that we are invested in that individual. When instructors and the university can really show that there is care here and that all students are welcome here, university becomes not just about academics, but also thinking about everyone's mental health, wellness, and well-being, too.

And accessibility should not and does not mean laziness. As students, they hear a lot of generalized critique of students from instructors and administration intimating things about students being lazy for asking for course materials in different ways or about identifying that students just have to learn how to take notes eventually, they have to learn how to speak in front of a class eventually. And those are good skills, but different people learn those skills in different ways. And so even if someone does want to avoid taking notes or something, that is not on the professor to make sure that that student is taking notes toward developing that skill…that is on the student to learn what they need to learn. Unless it's on the syllabus as a key outcome of the course, if a student is not learning those side skills because for whatever reason they don't want to or can’t, that isn't the professor's responsibility. And when it’s thought of as the professors’ responsibility rather than on the student to learn what they need to learn and how, that’s when these notions of accessibility become thought of as laziness, which isn’t the case and isn’t helpful. It’s actually harmful.

Q: How have instructors supported your access to learning and participation in your classes and classroom spaces with digital networking/connecting platforms, like Zoom?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Giving students choices and options is really beneficial to their learning. For exams and lectures specifically, where choice and options are not the norm, making choice and options the norm is an incredibly accessible shift. Larger windows of exam sessions so exams aren’t one attempt of sit-down-start-and-finish but built to allow students to bring and be their best selves; and multimodal lectures and lessons with key moments of synchronous, asynchronous, and available to re-view and re-visit as, if, and when needed.

More Insights from Our Students

One of the first things that came to mind was exams. Traditionally, students would have to do the exam in class time and/or in the allotted time period; but then during the pandemic, professors gave them the choice of doing it within a 24-hour time period. So if they’re a student who is ready-to-go first thing in the morning, they can just get it done! But if sometimes they didn't feel like they were ready yet, or they were too nervous, etc., they could take it later on in the day when they were ready and confident. And sometimes students have last minute emergencies come up and they can’t take the exam at a particular time, so for them to be able to take it later in the day and after they have dealt with their emergency first is a much better way to test them. In that sense, they are able to relax before they begin an exam. So they could do the best they could.

Another first thought jumping to mind was lectures - having recordings of lectures and/or posting videos about it. That way, the actual lecture time could be more discussions of what students are struggling with and what didn't make sense, etc. And then together in class time everyone can elaborate on that in class as a class. So still having that component, which they would get in in person courses, where they could ask those questions. And some professors posted their lecture and lesson/class content in different mediums, which was great. 

Q: What has the pandemic taught you about how you learn best? And what might this mean for future students coming to university after you?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Learners and learning can be and are adaptable. Notetaking as a method of documenting class lectures and conversations is better and more efficient with more modes than just synchronous face-to-face. Professors themselves are one of the most important resources for student learning and accessibility. Open-book exams are better for deep learning and authentic learning and should become the standard summative assessment now and beyond pandemic teaching. Grades, contrary to popular practice, don’t show actual learning learned! And learning is more about the why.

More Insights from Our Students

With note-taking pre-pandemic, students always felt like they had to write everything down to be successful, and this added so much stress during courses…especially courses where they weren’t already super confident. But during online learning, with recordings and synchronous and asynchronous pieces, these were ways to make notetaking more efficient because working through it, they quickly realized they didn’t actually need to have every single detail written down. Learning online became more about making connections to better understand the concept, and it was through more ways than just notetaking because information was presented and available in different ways that help different students learn their best as well.

And one of the most important resources during this time are their professors. And especially when professors also understood that human interaction plays a really important part in learning and that that doesn’t have to only be synchronous. Posting lectures asynchronously, being available through email for clarifications as needed, having dedicated Office Hours set up or even sometimes using a whole lecture period as Office Hours so students can just pop by - all this made it easier and more accessible to learn and engage.

Open-book exams were increasingly used during online learning in the pandemic, and while the perception in the before-times may have been that it's not as constructive since it's not as higher order thinking being tested, the pandemic taught us all how it’s actually the opposite: it's really nice to realize that higher order thinking is a part of open-book exams, and especially seeing students make those connections that will be understanding the bigger picture and how pieces connected and all of that. Because with open-book exams, it isn’t about lower-level regurgitating facts in three hours but responding to harder questions and doing so over a couple of days. And when students get the answer for those harder questions and they come to them themselves with their books and their notes and the Internet, it's much more satisfying than doing a closed book exam where it's just based on memorization. The different form of assessment affirms that they actually learned things correctly and that they actually understood things as well, too. And this should have always been the goal. Even in classes without exams, giving students time to think through material without being put on the spot or having to just go from memory can be really helpful. For example, if a class is structured around class discussion, pre-circulating a few discussion questions ahead of time or giving students time to think about them in-class can produce stronger results than expecting students to have answers right away when the question is asked in class. Helping students feel prepared is one of the best ways to create a learning environment where students feel safe to participate.

And grades don’t actually showcase learning in any authentic way. In K through 12, the point was to get the grades to get to university. And then when students get to university, the point seems to be to get the grades to get on the Dean's List to get to their master's program or to get to their professional program. But in between all of that, when goals are related to marks only, learning actually comes last…and with actual learning coming last in the focus on grades, the wish to learn gets lost because students are so stressed and they’re plagued by anxiety because they’re so consumed with, “I have to be successful!” And those numbers determine their success. And if those numbers aren't correlating with exactly what students wanted them to, then they believe they are a failure. And this may sound like it’s said in really strong terms, but these are thoughts students actually have. And so if university is actually a time of change, a time of transition, we should change and transition out of the grade-focused metrics of K-12 as the be-all and end-all. And that's something wonderful to think about. 

And one more note: Because everything is so uncertain and new in the pandemic, a lot of profs very explicitly started saying how much they value transparency in their classes. And a lot of them are really good about saying when deadlines are or will be and having a syllabus ready, but also a lot of them explained why they're doing assignments the way that they do them because of the pandemic and tech shifts. And knowing why students are doing things or what outcome they’re supposed to get out of them helps them see what learning they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and that helps them frame how they want to approach the assignment and where the professor is coming from with it.

Q: How has the pandemic changed your perspectives on the best ways that you can learn and engage in course content and material?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Actually being centred as the student in the courses makes huge differences in learning and engagement. Transmodal approaches, for example, to course content and instruction that involves both delivering material in more traditional ways (like multimodal slides with diagrams, text, videos, etc.) and also in more innovative ways (like larger breakout discussion activities). And knowing and seeing that student feedback on courses is being taken into active consideration for course and curricular improvement. Community is also key to learning, and online learning does need to embrace the community that comes with in person learning.

More Insights from Our Students

Some things that are really useful in making a course engaging was having different ways of presenting material - including diagrams and having text on slides, yes, but also creating opportunities for listening to conversations and having those really constructive conversations where students are able to voice their opinions and hear other students’ opinions and perspectives, too, is really helpful. Maybe this could look like making lectures more student-centered with breakout activities where a question that can have multiple answers to it is posed and students go into their respective groups to discuss it as a team before coming back after maybe 10 minutes or so to share their respective answers and have conversations that are more deep and meaningful with the professor joining and sharing as well.

And instructors being more receptive of the feedback they're receiving from the students is also important. Sometimes instructors hear back about things that their students are saying and wish were different in the course, and these things are all changes that are reasonable. If a large chunk of the students within a class are saying, “Hey, this doesn't work for me,” or “This doesn't work for us as a group,” then that's something to pay attention to. Students know that professors take a lot of time and have had a lot of experience planning courses and executing them, so when there's a large chunk of students who are giving the same feedback of something that maybe is not working anymore, it's probably coming from a good place.

There also is an incredible value of community in learning. Some asynchronous classes were maybe less engaging or more difficult because students weren’t seeing faces or having conversations with other students, and so online learning does need to embrace the community that comes with in person learning. Being able to actually have conversations that build relationships with their professors and with other students instead of just taking the content as content. When students are actually talking about course content and they actually have a community, they can make more of their learning for themselves.

Q: What is something you wish your instructors knew about students?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Life is a big part of the identity of being a student, and being a student is a big part of the life of a student…but being a student is not the only part of students’ lives. Emergencies and unexpected/unanticipated things do happen that cause stress on top of deadlines, and so building in leniency or pre-planning for contingencies can go a long way. …and no one is really up and writing/marking at midnight (are they?), so instead of midnight submission deadlines, next morning or afternoon is more caring. And online and in-person learning is important for all students: being in-person can be really beneficial for students’ mental health, and without hyperbole online learning is life-saving for students with disabilities, so having options or capitalizing on the best parts of both could be a good way to go forward.

More Insights from Our Students

Thus far in students’ lives, pretty much a large chunk of their identity has been being a student. And then they come to university and maybe they move away from home for the first time. And maybe they move by themself, and now they’re responsible for a house, and for feeding themself, and for budgeting, etc., which maybe hadn’t been a concern until now. And all these things take time and a little adjustment to get used to. And for many students, they didn't really realize how much of an impact this stuff was going to have on their life as a student. And then all of a sudden, and perhaps for the first time, they start to realize that and need to have a life outside of school, too. And that's something that needs to be acknowledged. And the acknowledgement of it should be incorporated and acted on meaningfully.

Maybe that looks something like professors being a little bit more lenient in terms of giving students a 24-hour grace period on their deadlines. Maybe this looks like assignments not being due at midnight, for example, because the prof really likely isn’t awake at midnight waiting and ready to mark them as soon as they come in right at 12:01am. (And also…it’s midnight. So there’s that.) Having until the next day and/or until the professor is actually ready and going to mark them can alleviate some of the stress. And maybe this looks like planning for those just-in-case moments when something might come up last minute that no one did anticipate, and then the student has a bit of a buffer period where they’re not just stressed out like, “Okay, I need to get this done, I need to get this done. …but then there's also this emergency that I’m dealing with, too, so…” This all is a really, really great way to show care for students. 

And this needs to go both ways, too. On the student side, students should be seeing faculty as whole people, as people who have lives and families and jobs and dogs and what have you. At the same time, faculty should also see students as folks with families and other responsibilities and jobs and dogs and partners and everything, too. 

Students also wish their instructors knew that there is a really important place for both in person and online learning for us as students. One thing that's been clear is that it's possible to do some online things. And for certain people with disabilities, that's kind of been a question that they've had for a very long time so that they can have more access to schooling and education. And there are a lot of issues when trying to figure out school and their disability, especially when they are diagnosed with one during their studies.

For many students with disabilities, being able to go online for their classes is a lifesaver - literally. For someone with very reduced mobility and dexterity, being able to save that energy of having to walk around campus, and then barely being able to walk around campus, to be able to just have the time to sit at a desk and in a really have a comfortable chair and access that course information is life-saving. Yes, there's a really important community aspect, and in terms of mental health with being able to be in person, and so being able to pick and choose the best parts of what we've learned through this experience together and trying to implement them so that everyone has more access and success is something to keep in mind. There are different ways of doing things, and there are always ways to change things that have been done the same way for years and make it make it a little bit more inclusive and accessible for everyone. 

Q: What aspects of teaching in the pandemic do you think that we should keep in the future, regardless of in-person, online, asynchronous, or hybrid modalities?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Having lectures available and accessible should continue, and the increased awareness and responsiveness to accommodations should also continue. Continue, and keep increasing, too. Increasing, and getting to a point where we are destigmatizing the need for accommodations altogether as well developing our understandings of what disabilities are and how they impact student learning, engagement, and success. Even just a sentence on the syllabus toward this would be a great start, and then destigmatizing an entire first-year orientation and beyond. And let’s not lose the increased and empowered communication, flexibility, compassion, and multimodality of teaching and learning that has come to the fore during the pandemic either.

More Insights from Our Students

We should definitely keep having lectures available, and/or maybe even completed or semi-completed notes and resources afterwards. We also should definitely keep the increased access and awareness of accommodations, and we need to not just keep it but keep talking about it more and more.

There is both a stigma around accommodations and students seeking accommodations as well as simultaneously a lack of awareness about accommodations. It often takes someone saying something like, “Hey, I've noticed that you're struggling with this. Have you maybe thought about going to Accessibility Services and maybe just having a conversation?” for a student to go; and then when they do go, they find out they do need an accommodation, and then once they get the accommodation, they notice the difference and the decrease in stress. Then they can think, “Hey, I was struggling for a reason. It wasn't that I wasn't working hard enough. It's just that I wasn't in the right environment for me to demonstrate my learning.” And that is a big change.

And also educating students about it more, too - especially first year students. If the university and professors could talk more about accommodations in first year and how it's okay to have accommodations and that they are nothing to be embarrassed about because they are resources for helping students succeed, that can make a huge difference and help enhance students’ education and success.

Professors do have an accommodation blurb in their syllabi for students, but it’s far too often something that's just brushed past. Maybe part of it comes about because professors are not experts on accommodations and policies and such and so they don't feel comfortable talking about it because they don't want to give out any misinformation. And that makes sense, so maybe having something like a “Crash Course on the Syllabus,” or a workshop on “Accommodations for Your Course Design,” would be helpful so that professors would be able to make a statement that these resources are available and that they're there for a reason. And, importantly, that having accommodations doesn't make a student any less, that there shouldn't be any stigma associated with accommodations, and that they are available…so please go ahead and use this resource because it's there for learning, and it's there for student success! A sentence like that would make a huge change and impact. 

We also should definitely keep the open and honest communication, and flexibility. We have all had to be a little more flexible, from things like tech glitches to absences due to COVID, and this has allowed for people who do need accommodations to feel more comfortable with that flexibility because they're not the only ones receiving it. And students being able to connect with their profs and their profs’ flexibility is really what got many students through the term because they never had any doubt that they’d be able to get an extension if they needed one or that they’d be able to meet with profs to have an extra conversation if needed. 

And that kind of flexibility is absolutely crucial in pandemic and non-pandemic circumstances because we're all dealing with our own unique obstacles. Being able to have that flexibility really makes the difference in terms of making students’ learning what they need it to be. It's not necessarily about the requirements, but about the outcomes. So if someone needs an extra few days to make sure they can get those outcomes instead of just turning something in in order to turn something in, that's been really important and a really big difference.

Building off the idea of turning something in just to turn it in because of time and due dates, having the ability to critically think is so important for meaningful learning and assignment completion. And having the ability for an extension so that they have the time to be able to think about the assignments and to learn more with the assignments is much better than panicking to get something down and then just throwing something together until eventually they have something and that something is kind of like a little pile of trash but, hey, you know, at least it was turned in on time. Coming out of the pandemic, we now have the ability to use online learning and tools to our advantage, and now we know how to use them.

Also keeping the multiple modes of communication for contributing in class. Being able to ask questions via forums as well as asking questions in person. If a prof is asking questions in person to a class, there are some people who might not necessarily feel comfortable speaking out loud in class, whether that is because of public speaking in front of a big group of people or because of their English or not having the quick thinking skills or even just the desire to express their opinions that day in front of a bunch of people, etc. And during the pandemic, these kinds of questions that would normally be asked in class were asked over forums instead. And it is really interesting how students who normally in class were super quiet, who never wanted to speak up, now seemed to have had so much to say over these forums and have so many super interesting ideas. Absolutely there is merit in having class discussions, but if we can also keep those forum discussions as a part of class discussion, as well as a part of that class’ participation work, we could include more students and get a lot more varieties and opinions and perspectives in general.

Q: In everything we do, what can faculty do to make it easier, better, and/or more engaging for students to learn?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Try new things to see how they go with each class, and ask each class what they think of these new methods and how they are helping (or not) their learning in the course. Be conscious and even creative with tests and exams: pay attention to time restrictions; share outlines of the content categories to help students focus their studying; and provide graded opportunities for students to share what they have learned that wasn’t asked for on the test/exam. Try one thing at a time, and see how it works. And proactively build accommodations and adjustments into the courses, engage students in this process with you, communicate more thoroughly with other instructors in the department/faculty/campus, and don’t only teach and test improvisational skills and knowledge. There also should be dedicated time, resources, and funding for professors to be able to learn and keep learning all of this, too.

More Insights from Our Students

Try having more group discussions, and see if that makes a difference - maybe students are more engaged that way, or maybe everybody really hates it and that's not the right thing for that class. It doesn't have to work for every class, but try to find what works for each class. And being receptive to feedback can make a big difference…because who better to learn from about what works and what doesn't than the students who profs are trying to teach with this new method?

Time restrictions and tests are also a huge problem for students with accommodations. So for all students, try asking them after each test how much time they needed/would have needed, and then incorporate that into the next test. And to help students study and prepare better for tests, professors could release an outline of what the exam is going to look like in terms of the categories or content capacities that there will be questions on. So that way, students are focusing their attention in studying on things that are going to be on the exam, the big concepts, rather than all the little things that maybe they've already tested in the quizzes and/or stuff that won’t even be on the exam. 

And also giving space and marks for the opportunity to say and show what students have learned that maybe wasn’t asked for on the test - 5 marks for a final open-ended question on the last page of the exam with something like,  “What did you learn in this class that wasn't covered on this exam? Please reply here.” So it's not really a question, but it's an opportunity for students to still show what they’ve learned and get some marks for it. Because not all assessments test on or cover all information at the same time.

Instructors can also make accommodations and adjustments in how they provide the course material. What has been really valuable, especially in this transition to hybrid, is where profs actually allowed labs to be streamed, virtually allowing students to attend classes in case they get COVID, but also for those who may not even be in the province, international students who may be far away, or just students who might get sick with something other than COVID and shouldn’t physically come to class either.

Something else that the pandemic highlighted as well is the need to have professors have the ability to have time to learn for themselves, too. During the pandemic, there was a lot of shuffling around that was happening because there wasn't any kind of regulated education for professors and a lot of professors were just told to just find something that works. And it caused a lot of inconsistencies that were probably terrible for the professors but also terrible for the students. And this really highlights the fact that the university not only needs learning for students, but it also really needs the ability to have the time and the resources and the funds for learning for professors. Because if the university had that set up better to begin with, maybe the professors could have had a more regulated sense of learning about using Zoom and about using eClass and that could have helped smooth the process along. 

Engaging students in the planning of the course is also really important. Or just even including them in what's going on by having all syllabi ready at the beginning of the year that are accurate to the course materials so that students can plan their life for the year not just for the term. It really helps with anxiety to know everything that's going to be happening during the whole year to be able to compare it with their other classes so that they can work and plan well in order to make everything happen when it needs to happen and balance their job, family, bills, health, and everything . 

And it might not even require changing lots of material but more the processes. There can be a lack of communication between instructors even within the same department let alone the whole faculty or wider campus, and so when instructors are planning when things are due, it's very much individual. And so students can have one thing due and then not anything due for three weeks, or they can have five things on one day each worth 25% of each course’s mark. And so then it's not necessarily about those projects not being finished because of lack of skills or learning, sometimes it's about not being able to finish by the amounts. But that isn’t on the individual instructors to solve - that's a breakdown of communication that seems to occur above individual instructors.

Oh, and not having any pop quizzes or surprise assessments because “Surprise!” is not a great way to actually test students’ knowledge. It could be a great way to test improvisation, so if that’s the learning goal then that’s great, but testing improvisational skills and knowledge all the time won't accurately reflect what is actually being taught and well it is being learned. So again, planning, including students in all the planning, being transparent about instructors’ plans. 

Q: What are some of your thoughts on summative assessments?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to summative exams because students excel in different ways where what are strengths for some are the exact weaknesses for others. So having different types of assessments, different types of exams, different types of questions, modalities, lengths, genres, etc. One day even radically overhauling assessments altogether, but since that day isn’t today and this takes time, radically overhauling our thinking about assessments is a great start for today.

More Insights from Our Students

Summative assessments bring to mind those students who are very eloquent and can articulate their thoughts really, really well by speaking orally their ideas, and so they excel in discussion and groups and the like. But then when they have to do written assignments under time-restricted exams, that's when the issues can start to come up.

And this is not something with a quick, easy fix. Maybe there needs to be more formative assignments before; or if there are many, many assignments, maybe the time constraints need to be taken into consideration - i.e., why are exams three hours long when some people need one hour and leave? Why don't we just make them an hour and a half, and then that three-hour block is universal for everybody? This is also important to keep in mind because some students with accommodations for extra time have to start their exams earlier in the day than the rest of their class because the whole class needs to finish it at the same time, so for 8:00am exams, they’re starting their day way too early to be fair, healthy, or productive. And that’s really hard and part of the reason why many students who would succeed with accommodations don’t take them and just continue to struggle because the accommodation resolves one struggle by adding another new struggle. So maybe there's a better way of making questions that test concepts in a few questions but don't require those three hours to test everything, especially cumulative exams. There are ways to make better exams, and if we can do that, why not go about it?

Because at the end of the day, the idea of how important GPA is and how students are all sort of striving towards that beautiful 4.0 number is still super present. Students always look at their number and think, “Okay, this number needs to be better, so that means I need to be better.” Even in high school, their numbers were equated with who and how they were as students. And they take that to university with them. Like those phrases like C's get degrees and Let's get a piece of paper and get out of here - that’s not why our students are in university, or at least it shouldn’t be. 

Q: What are some of your thoughts on “academic rigor” and what makes something “challenging” in post-secondary education?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

There needs to be a shift in understandings of academic rigor and what makes something challenging from being about hardcore academics and prideful fail rates held up in glory to something more humane, healthy, and authentic. To do this, we should change the way we do assignments and exams, the way we connect/anticipate the real world/workplace with our assignments and exams, and we should always keep our students’ living needs (like drinking water, eating food, getting sleep) in focus in our work.

More Insights from Our Students

The idea of “academic rigor” and what actually makes something challenging and how to best challenge students is really interesting when it comes to exams. There should be shift from a “challenging exam” being something where only 40% of the students know how to do the question, or where the average grade at the end of it is something horrifying like 38% and so that was a really challenging exam, to the idea more of “We're going to challenge our students with an extended project of 36 hours” and where a larger portion of their final grade is based on this larger project where students then are applying their knowledge and skills in a more hands-on, real-world based way. 

Throughout the pandemic, we've had to do this shift from a traditional exam type where it's maybe 50 really difficult multiple choice and students are just running through them to something where maybe it's three or four more-focused questions, more-focused ideas, a project, where students are working and collaborating with others to discuss concepts to expand on their ideas. And the actual point is to learn new things while they’re doing the assessment or the exam or the project rather than just trying to regurgitate information that they may have seen in the textbook once. This shift in how we want to test students and how we want to assess learning has been really valuable, and it should be continued moving forward.

It's also interesting in how we evaluate challenge/academic rigor and the student classroom dynamics and how that doesn’t move on to the real world workplace very well. Having exams and assignments where students need to stay up all night and where people aren't able to take care of themselves isn’t a healthy or sustainable challenge, whether that’s academically rigorous or not. Students are human beings and do need to acknowledge the challenge of work-life balance, yes, so they do need to have the ability to do difficult assignments, but they also need to have the ability to drink water, to eat food, to get sleep, and just to take care of themselves. And to take care of other students around them because together they can make something even better. We need to shift that perspective of healthy challenges in school environments because that will help both in school and also in the workplace after school.

Challenge also isn’t just a matter of how hard an exam or an assignment is, but also workload for the course and how manageable that is. Students need to be challenged to engage with the material with depth and breadth in meaningful ways, but realistically a student won’t be able to devote their full attention to every aspect of every class they take, so having that kind of flexibility to prioritize and manage their workload while still being challenged where it really matters can be valuable. Basically, challenge is necessary for learning, but challenge requires support. There needs to be a balance where students can be challenged and push themselves and engage in meaningful learning, but also not be overwhelmed to the point where “challenge” just becomes “difficulty” or “stress,” because then it’s just counterproductive.

Q: What are some of your favourite moments where your instructors have been innovative or experimental in your courses toward profound results in your learning and engagement?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

Testing and assessing students on the process of learning rather than on the product is innovative, really engaging, and quite meaningful. And this contributes to lifelong learning as well as better equipping students in the course to actually learn and demonstrate their learning than focussing so much/only on the final grade number. Any discipline can also reward and mark draft work and process work for grades and for learning, even if it might not be obvious and natural in each specific discipline. And identifying, learning from, and specifically fixing/addressing mistakes is key to better learning…as is having the ability to make mistakes in the first place!

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Some professors know their courses are difficult and recognize that the most important part about teaching and assessing learning is not about assigning grades, it's recognizing and rewarding learning and dedication. One prof, for example, tells his students he never tests them on things without giving them different opportunities to put the effort in and to show they understood the material that he was presenting to them so that he could reward learning as a process not what they learned as an object or end result because, as he tells them, learning is a lifelong process and they won’t ever know anything perfectly at any point in time. 

The idea of lifelong learning is that you continue to develop skills, and university students certainly didn't have the understanding of, for example, very basic chemistry principles in Grade 11 when they first learned them and were tested on them so harshly, but if they go into STEM in university, they get to keep learning and developing these skills and keep going with them. Learning as a process, more and more. Like this one prof example above, he tells his students his mission is to make it about learning and not make it about that number. Make it about rewarding learners for learning not rewarding learners for regurgitating.

And for a non-STEM example, take Design in the Fine Arts and how at the end of their projects each term, they have presentations where they go over as a class what the project is, what each student’s thought process was behind it, and then present and critique the final thing. And one of the strongest parts of this presentation is when students are asked to go over their mistakes, and the specifically are encouraged to catalogue their mistakes, to talk about what they did wrong, not only so that they can learn from them, but so that other students can learn from each other’s mistakes as well. And it's really interesting and really important not only to see how things can go right, but also how things can go wrong - and you can’t really assign a number grade to that kind of learning! 

And they do that in Math, too, sometimes! Some profs allow students to, after they get their exam back and they did poorly, to have the opportunity to redo the questions and figure out and show the prof that they now know where they went wrong and can fix it. And the prof gives marks for that, too! It can be valuable in writing-heavy courses to have staged essay assignments where students submit early writing for feedback and advice so they can get ahead of it before they submit their polished paper at the end of the term. Except in Math it’s not really drafting but still being able to go back and try it again and be recognized and rewarded for that important part of the learning process, too. 

And in the Humanities, like English for instance, it can be really valuable to give students opportunities to participate in creating knowledge as a class. Some professors, instead of just lecturing on what a text is about or giving their own reading of a passage, give students time to do their own close readings and to think about and discuss their own thoughts which can then be taken up as a group, and that way the whole class is engaged in unpacking the text and creating their own knowledge about it, which can be so much more meaningful than just taking the professor’s interpretation at face value. These sorts of discussions don’t come with a grade (unless a prof designates a Participation grade for the whole term), but they’re one of the most effective tools for students to learn.

Q: How might university culture evolve simultaneously with the evolving culture outside of academia?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

The workplace seems to be evolving and changing much more rapidly than the university is or does, and it is ironic that the university of all places seems to be at times the most conservative and the most resistant to change for fear of leaving tradition(s) behind for innovations. The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” - but who is it “not broken” for, and more importantly, who is it “broken” for? It’s part of the university’s history to experiment and ask questions and see why and how things work and don’t work, and this should be part of our teaching at the university. Let’s try on a “If it ain’t broke, break it” approach and see what happens, especially for accommodation and proactive design!

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Older teaching methods absolutely have merit in some situations, but we also have to acknowledge that environments are changing all the time, and especially if the point of going to university is to get a degree and go into the workplace, the workplace is always changing, too. And the university sits in a really interesting spot in that it can actually be quite conversative in the sense of really trying, and very hard at times, to stay the same. And so a lot of the time, it becomes very cyclical that somebody was taught by a professor a certain way, and so they teach that certain way when they become a professor, and then someone in that class teaches that certain way again, and over time, the university atmosphere kind of gets stuck and held back and feels like it refuses to be innovative because that would be against the idea of tradition and against the “right way” of teaching.

It’s like that old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But what if we challenged that idea, especially with perhaps forgotten and old traditions? What if we said instead, “If it ain’t broke, break it”? Break it to see what can happen innovatively by trying something new to see if that something new works or can work, too. Perhaps the traditional ways of doing university are not broken, per se, on a surface level; but beneath that surface - and here’s where the pandemic forces us to look there and see that isn’t perfectly working - not everything is working. Some things are broken, and so we do need to fix them. Like accessibility. Like belonging. Like safety and wellness and definitions of success and challenge and good grades. So we need to sort of challenge our perceptions of education and challenge the ideas that have sort of been ingrained into us in that history of the university.

And ironically part of the history of the university is that it's good to experiment, it's good to break things open to see how they work and why…and even to see how they don’t work and why not and how they can be fixed to work. So why are we afraid to do this with the ways we teach at university? 

And when something is working and when we can say why it is working and how it is working - the reflection piece and that formal piece - then that’s a good thing. So it’s not necessarily that professors need to be experimenting all the time, because that's exhausting, but knowing the ‘why’ of how their teaching is working, for them and for their students, is important, and then being open and honest and transparent about why they may be not changing or “breaking” it. But just because something’s always worked until the present does not mean it has been working perfectly for everyone all the time or that it will continue working perfectly going forward. 

Q: In our last moments together before our session is over, what else would you like to cover?

Tommy’s “10-second Takeaways” from Our Students

No one signed up to do teaching and learning in a pandemic - not the students, not the instructors, not the university staff and all those who partner in teaching and learning. This is a big thing for everyone, and everyone is trying their best. Our students see this, know this, and appreciate this very much.

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Our students put forward some ideas of what is not working and what could be improved, but they do want to thank all the faculty, staff, and all of the people who help support their education for all the work that they have put in. Our students are so glad that they got this chance to come here and give a little feedback, and they’re also wanting to take this chance to thank their instructors for everything they have done. And they want them to know that they are appreciated.

Our students really appreciated all the ideas that they’ve had the chance to discuss and share at the Festival of Teaching and Learning. Events like this are really great opportunities for students to bring so many different ideas to the table. It’s really great to actually be able to have a platform to talk to people and have people who are open and listening and actively wondering how to improve and how to better educate. Our students hope there will be more platforms for teachers and learners to continue to explore how everyone can continue to develop and can continue to develop our education system, too.

Thank you so much for listening and/or for reading, everybody.