Thinking and Doing
To many, the job of higher education is to develop informed, thinking citizens. To others, it’s to prepare students for the job market. But why not both?
U of T Scarborough prides itself on its experiential education, encouraging students to both apply and reflect on their learning. We asked faculty members from three disciplines what this looks like in their classrooms: Clare Hasenkampf, associate professor in Biological Sciences and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning; Garry Leonard, professor of literature and film; and Anya Tafliovich, associate professor, teaching stream, in Computer and Mathematical Sciences.
Garry Leonard: I have one class of 350. Ten per cent of their grade is what I call a journal. They choose any work that we’ve done. And I say a good journal will have three things. It’ll have an idea from the class, it will have the work that you chose to talk about and, most importantly, something that made it relevant to your life. It’s not a midterm. It’s not a final. I read them myself.
Clare Hasenkampf: Wow, 350!
GL: Students ask, “How are you going to grade it?” AndI say, “I’m going to grade it by the level of engagement. If it looks like you cared about it then I’ll care about it. And you can’t be wrong, so just do your best.”
They’re very heartfelt and they’re very experiential. I’m always trying to resist focusing too much on the almighty GPA. But I’m not naïve. I know grad schools really care and 3.8 is not as good as 3.9 and so on. I will often even bring that up in class. You know, why is everything standardized? Why do you reduce all this experience to a number? I see students making a choice about their grade, not making a choice about their learning.
CH: They’re thinking, “Oh, this is only worth 5% and I have this other midterm,” which they will admit has no permanent value to them, but they’re going to choose that.
For 90 per cent of our students, their exact GPA does not matter in terms of what they’re going to be doing. We need to think about ways to help them think about it while not hindering their own development.
That assignment is a really good example of it can feed into both. It’s feeding into a grade in some way.
CH: But it’s also prioritizing their development, their thinking. We need to think about those kinds of things more.
To me, thinking is doing. As an academic, a lot of what we do is think critically.
Anya Tafliovich: My field is software engineering. Over the last three years, I’ve tried to tailor the marking scheme because I gave up on the idea that students are going to choose learning over marks. Some of them will, but lots of them feel they need the incentive of the grading. So I was trying to tailor my marking scheme in such a way that it would grade the thinking, it would grade the engagement, it would grade the innovation, it would grade what matters at the end when they graduate, and what does it mean to be a professional software engineer? And that is why part of the grading is done not by me and not by my teaching assistants, but by the actual client of the software product that they’re developing.
Every term, every project begins with a client. There’s a competition at the end of the term and the panel of judges, which consists of clients, and only one computer scientist. Everybody else is just looking at the presentation and looking at the software that the students have produced. And does this software meet the requirements that the client wanted? It is impossible to do everything that the client wanted so that they have to constantly talk with the client and figure out what’s more important, what’s less important. They have to learn to talk. To think.
“Let’s think. What is the answer that you’re trying to get? Are they going to understand your question?” One client is a historian. Does a historian understand what you mean when you say, “Do you want this database or that database?” So how do we rephrase the question? And they come up with really innovative solutions.
It’s critical that they can succeed. It has to be challenging. It has to be open enough. It has to be useful to somebody. But they have to succeed.
They need to decide how to get there, what process to choose, and how to communicate.
GL: I’m teaching a D-level class with 20 students on Hollywood melodrama as a sort of construct relative to modernity and modern economies and so on. In the first class I gave them what I call a free write.
I said, “Think of the last time that you cried. Why did you cry? And what’s the difference between sadness and depression?” Now, part of what I was setting up here was the format of the whole class because melodrama, in my theories, the Hollywood melodrama attempts to unpack depression back into sadness. I was able to say, “What’s that line of sadness and depression and the difference between a reality that feels like it impinges on you and a reality and a reality that you can still affect?
The one question I would like to help them with is, genuinely, is, “Why do you think you’re here?” Because honestly, I don’t know that anybody, that they have not been invited to ask that. It could be parents, it could be career, it could be, “Well, what else do I have to do?”
I would love to give students a format in which we ask them, “You’re going to be here for four years. There’s a lot of hours. There’s a lot of choices you’re going to be making. What do you think’s going on?” And I don’t even claim to know. I mean, I’d like to hear it because then I could perhaps begin to offer experiential connections that I would know what I was connecting them to.
CH: They’re trying to connect the dots.
AT: A student came to me and said, “What is the smallest amount I can do so that I don’t fail in these other pieces of work? Because I’m only going to be concentrating on the part that’s teamwork.”
GL: Wow, on the team.
AT: I had to give them credit for that commitment to the team that was depending on them.
CH: What we have to make disappear is the dichotomy between assessing their learning for learning and assessing their learning for a grade.
I did get rid of some of the problems in one of my courses when I made the experiential component worth more and aligned it more closely with what was going on in the rest of the class.
AT: I’m getting the sense that you’re trying to see how to give incentive so that they don’t think they’re sacrificing their grade by actually learning.
GL: What my students will sometimes do is, because they feel time-pressured, they’ll want to go to the SparkNotes for Waiting for Godot, let’s say. And I say, “Go ahead and read it if you need to remember who the characters are.” But then I feel a responsibility that, okay, they did that because they can read SparkNotes in 20 minutes and Waiting for Godot in, say, two hours. So what I want to do is translate that into more points that they can get on a midterm if they will read the Godot.
So what I do is part of the test is that—and I tell them this upfront—is that they are short answers and they’re virtually empirical. If you read Waiting for Godot carefully, you can get an A on 20% of the midterm. If you read SparkNotes, you’re not, because the questions I’m going to ask are going to be really about the text. So I’m saying read Waiting for Godot and your time will be well-spent. Instead of just getting on my high horse and saying, “Well, who would do that? It’s Beckett!” or something. Well, it’s experiential.
Now for a textbook, maybe it matters less, but if you don’t read Godot, then I don’t know what we’re doing, you know?
CH: What I try to do, and I think all three of us are doing, is encourage students to be practitioners. Immediately, in first year, I try to say that you’re not just a student in science, you’re a scientist in training.
AT: That’s right.
CH: You may not envision you being an academic, but you may be envisioning yourself being someone who really takes the last bit of meaning out of something and applies it to something.
AT: I try to say that in first year classes, too.
CH: For 1,000 students, it’s hard. But give them the control over one variable. For example, “You can change the time or the temperature or one thing,” and it’s amazing how much just that shifted things. Because they had to make a decision and live with the consequences of the decision.
GL: That’s why I do free writes. I want them to be invested, and they’re not going to be invested if you don’t give them control over a variable.
CH: Right. They’re not spectators.
GL: But they will be if you let them.
GL: Initially they may not even thank you because they’ll say, “Just tell me if it’s on the test or not.” And I come along and say, “No, when was the last time you cried?”
CH: So you know, that to me is it’s trying to help them get into being the doers, even if the doers is a thinking doer, right off the bat.
Take the risks now. Why wait to take the risk after you’re on a probationary period in a job? Why not take the risk in first year? Then gain some confidence to take bigger risks. That’s why we’ve got to get them into active mode.
One of the clear-cut things that our campus really can stand by is the fact that we have co-op.
CH: In biology we’ll tell students, “You really have to keep a good notebook.” And they’ll yawn: “Who needs a notebook?”
And then we have students go work at a pharmaceutical company, and they come back and say, “One of doctor’s assistants forgot to initial the notebook after this particular event and six months’ worth of clinical trials were thrown away.” All of the students relate to that.
AT: When I start talking about how to do state-of the-art software development, how we’re doing this today and why, I will ask, “Did anybody experience this?”
Someone says, “Yes, in my first co-op term we had this and this,” and all of a sudden everyone’s listening.
GL: Because that’s an event that happened.
CH: It’s not us making up scenarios to motivate them.
AT: Another thing is that what they create in this course is not thrown away. It stays out there. It matters to the students. Here’s this functional product. They know somebody will be using it.
CH: Someone’s counting on them.
AT: And the clients say, “Yes. You know, you need to explain to us this and this because we will be now maintaining it and my graduate students will need to learn it. Will you be able to come and explain to my graduate students how to use them?”
And they get jobs out of it. What gets you a job in software engineering? Your transcript? Or a link to your project on the Web where they can go, click, and play with the site that you’ve built?”
CH: In any discipline, a close reading of literature is preparing you. Most of my students are not biologists after they graduate. But some of them will work for investment firms. Detecting a trend is detecting a trend, writing a report that actually says what you want it to say, in a transparent way.
We’re helping them see the value of habits of mind that we are asking them to develop, that they translate into whatever they’re doing.
GL: And it’s a bit of a translation. You know, one thing in my final exam, there are three parts and the third part I tell them is, “I’m going to give you a poem that will have many of the issues that we’ve discussed and it may even be by a poet that we’ve looked at, but it won’t be a poem we’ve discussed.” And again, you see the panic. And they’re, like, “Oh my God!”
AT: “A trick question!”
GL: Here’s the trick. It’s going to be in the form of a letter to a student who’s come to you with this poem who’s a friend of yours and has not taken the class, and has been told that it’s an important poem and they have no idea why. And you’re going to write them a letter and explain.
And then when you’re at a job and somebody says, ‘What does an English major do for anybody or do for you?’ hand them the poem and say, ‘Well, what do you think of this?’”
“And then show them how important it is.” I mean, it’s being a little facetious but not entirely. I get so tired of that question, “What can you do with an English major?” What can you not do with it?
It’s about life. It’s about metaphors. It’s about those things where you struggle to represent.
And what you can do now that you couldn’t before—I call it their road test. I said, “You know, up until now, it’s all been about the written test, and if I’m going to give you a license to discuss poetry, I have to make sure you don’t go out there and wreck yourself or somebody else.” They get a kick out of that, but it does emphasize, that you have a skill now that you didn’t in September. And it’s not me just saying that: you did it. You experienced it.
CH: A lot of the problems in the world are “fuzzy” problems. So there’s no right and wrong solution. There’s no perfect solution.
AT: There’s many wrong solutions, there’s many right solutions.
CH: That’s where it seems to me humanities thinking is really big. But even in biology, it’s more apparent that it’s real. You can have two strong arguments maybe that even don’t come to the same conclusion, but that have looked at it from different perspectives.
GL: Right, like economic versus psychological.
CH: And to me, those are going to be—that kind of thinking is going to be very important for solving these big, but fuzzy problems.