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From the principal: We are all students here

From the principal: We are all students here

The theme of this issue, “How we learn,” covers a wide terrain. The “we” is deliberate, because while we are obviously in the business of helping our students learn, our faculty and staff learn also. I remember the Dean of Arts and Science Duncan Sinclair telling his entering class (which included me) in September 1976, “We are all students here,” and the remark has stayed with me since then. All humans are lifelong learners by nature, and in a university environment we provide plenty of formal structures, from certificate programs to professional degrees, that allow people well beyond their undergraduate years to enhance their skills and knowledge.

[photo of Principal Woolf]

But the ways in which we all learn have changed to a considerable degree since I was an undergraduate. The teaching system of the past few decades was largely based on a type of pedagogy developed in the 19th century. Lectures to large groups were deemed an adequate means of transmitting knowledge, in essence “transferring” it from experts in their field (our faculty) to our students. Seminars and tutorials provided a means to make the process of learning more interactive; labs provided students in “STEM” disciplines (a term that did not exist) a hands-on experience of doing science. In a sense, the last major technological disruption to university teaching had occurred five centuries previously with the advent of the printed book and eventually the textbook.

On simple technological grounds, we are in a different world. The internet has changed the eans through which knowledge can be “delivered” and allowed such things as the posting of lecture notes and online programming in real time. Queen’s has made enormous strides in online learning over the past decade. Pioneering work by Smith School of Business and our Faculty of Education has now spread to our other faculties and schools, and in recent years Queen’s has led Ontario in successful funding applications to the provincial government for new online courses.

So much for different means of course delivery. But what of actual learning? Today’s students learn in very different ways from previous generations. They operate on a 24/7 clock and want to be able to download lectures at all hours. They live in a real-time, social media world and are used to both constant interaction and multi-tasking (there are dangers here too, and I do worry about information overload and the lack of quiet time simply to think and reflect). They also want to know where their degrees will lead. And the employers who hire them increasingly want to know what they can do, not simply what they know. As a result, there is a much greater focus at all Canadian universities on improving both learning and the means by which we measure its effectiveness.

At Queen’s we are increasing our opportunities for experiential education, whether through formal internship or hands-on research experience in a lab or through our Undergraduate Summer Student Research Fellowship program. And we are also paying close attention to the assessment of “learning outcomes” – that is, articulating clearly what it is we expect the “output” of a course or degree to be, as opposed simply to measuring the input via credit hours and number of courses. Last year for the first time I taught a course in which I had to think carefully about what I wanted my students to be able to do at the end of it.

Two things have remained constant amidst all this change at Queen’s: the commitment of Queen’s faculty to inspiring our students, and the boundless curiosity of the latter as they explore, discover, and prepare for the future. I’ll have more to say on both subjects in future columns.

"Some things I’ve learned going back to the classroom"

In a guest column for the publication University Affairs, Principal Woolf discusses how he incorporated competency-based learning, individual and group exercises, and off-site work in Queen’s rare books collections into his fourth-year history class.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2017]