Reinventing the classroom

How professors are learning to deal with social and structural constraints

Jessica Klymchuk, News Editor Ω

Faculty gathered on Feb. 17 for the TRU Teaching Practices Colloquium, starting with keynote speaker Russell Hunt. He instructed them to "ink shed," a form of free writing to discuss thoughts about constraints professors work under. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

Faculty gathered on Feb. 17 for the TRU Teaching Practices Colloquium, starting with keynote speaker Russell Hunt. He instructed them to “ink shed,” a form of free writing to discuss thoughts about constraints professors work under. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

While students were enjoying the first day of reading break, professors were learning how to overcome the constraints they face in trying to deliver quality and cutting edge education. The 10th annual TRU Teaching Practices Colloquium was themed “Beyond the Boundaries: 21st Century Education” and dove straight into the timeless concerns that professors continue to struggle to overcome: class size, timetables, course evaluations and the social paradigm that puts professors at the front of a lecture hall and students behind a grade.

These structural and social constraints were discussed early on by keynote speaker Russell Hunt.

“How do we deal with the boundaries we are given as teachers and as professionals? How do we get outside the boxes we’re in?” Hunt said. “Is it always a good idea to get out of the boxes we’re in?”

Although Hunt touched on constraints professors deal with on their own, such as how to conduct group work or discussions in classes of seven people or exercises when a class is only 50 minutes long, he discussed two constraints in which students have a direct influence: student course evaluations and interpretation of professor feedback.

“If you can measure it, it’s real. If you can’t, it’s someone’s opinion,” he said. “Those numbers come to be way more important than they ought to be.”

Hunt said course evaluations are concerning to young professors who fear their results will affect their contract renewal or their ability to get a full time positions, actual concerns he heard when he worked as a faculty advisor. With the TRU Senate recently passing a mandate for TRU to implement mandatory course evaluations, many in the room would have shared similar concerns.

“Course evaluations should be used only to provide information to teachers, and we have to find other ways of evaluating teaching, but as long as we are in that situation, that’s a constraint we labour under,” he said.

Hunt suggested that professors provide midterm course evaluations and then share the feedback with the class and discuss it. He said at the end of term students will better understand what they were going to say and that it might affect the way the course was taught in the future. Online forums could be used so the conversation is ongoing and doesn’t use class time.

Meanwhile, the social constraint of teaching and grading limits the potential of feedback since students only see grades, Hunt said. Everything a student does in school is evaluated. They expect it to be evaluated and if it’s not, they often won’t do it. It’s the simple idea that professors profess and students study, he said.

“Students very rarely read the comments and when they did, they read them as corrections – me fixing what was wrong, telling them what they should have done,” he said. “What they heard was the rationalization for the mark at the end.”

This also happens in the classroom when a student gives an answer and then the professor asks if anyone else has a different answer, Hunt said. The student hears that they got it wrong, which isn’t the case. He said he struggled for years with how to write comments to students so they wouldn’t hear them as criticism, but hasn’t found an answer.

Hunt introduced class projects students can publish to be editorially evaluated, which students interpret differently. He said this avoids assigning classic term papers but suggests the language be as dialogical as possible.

Hunt has been at St. Thomas University since 1968, holding various administrative positions over the years in addition to teaching. He has worked to make innovative teaching practices a reality at St. Thomas and continues to suggest changes to administrative constraints that he sees hindering the teaching abilities of professors and learning abilities of students.

“Those perceived boundaries – they may be less real than many people think they are, but they are real,” he said. “They have potential to constrain our activities, to unhook what we most value or believe for what we are actually doing.