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The Skills Agenda

How universities can support student professional development by supporting instructors

Considering York University’s Envision YU initiative model.


University instructors, be they faculty or contract instructors, are facing unprecedented demands on their time and energy. They have experienced (and are continuing to experience) two academic years of “pivots” and adaptation. Many instructors are dealing with the challenges of uncertain childcare and schooling for their children.

Simply put, instructors are overloaded.

In this context, if universities want instructors to embrace new teaching ideas and approaches, universities need to take the lead to find ways to make this as easy as possible. York University’s Envision YU (EYU) initiative, led by Carolyn Steele seeks to do just that.

Creating an instructional toolkit

EYU makes it easy for instructors to adapt an existing course to, in the words of Dr. Steele, “equip students with the skills they need in order to have a sense of agency in their professional development.” The core idea is straightforward: create adaptable professional development resources that instructors can customize to fit the needs and context of their courses.

Importantly, these resources build upon the myriad experiential learning activities that many instructors already include in their courses, such as guest speakers, case studies, presentations, and applied projects. The result is an instructional toolkit that strengthens course-based career training while requiring only modest course adaptations. The goal is to make things easy for instructors, rather than making them feel they need to start from scratch or change their entire course.

The EYU team brought together an expert team, including an educational developer, an instructional designer and a career specialist, among others, to develop instructional resources that connect academic learning and careers. These resources will be made available to faculty on the York learning management system in both English and French.

Using the instructional toolkit to reduce equity gaps

Students often have uneven access to career skill opportunities. As Dr. Steele explained to me, “There is an equity gap in terms of which students have the opportunity to translate academic skills into careers.” While internships, cooperative work placements and other work-based learning opportunities are effective, they are inaccessible for many students.

EYU is designed to address this gap by embedding the meta-skills of how to apply degree learning to career development directly into courses. Dr. Steele says: “Students tell us they often genuinely enjoy course topics and experiences but aren’t aware of the many possibilities these could lead to with a little reflection and research. Usually, students are left to connect these dots between their courses and their futures on their own which can be a time-consuming and mystifying process, especially difficult for first-generation students, and students needing to work or care for family members.”

Allowing for customization

Rather than designing fully crafted one-size-fits-all materials, the EYU team provides sample resources such as “stems” (sample assignments) from which instructors can build. These pre-developed resource materials can inspire and show faculty how simple it is to incorporate career connections into classes in a way that enhances and reinforces existing course objectives. Instructors can choose to adopt as many or as few as they want and can adapt the materials as they see fit.

One set of learning materials focuses on the high impact learning practice of reflection activities. Reflection activities encourage students to identify connections between course learning and themselves. As an instructor, I use reflection assignments in my own teaching and in my graduate supervisions. The challenges, I have found, are to ensure that reflection activities are meaningful and to find ways to grade these assignments effectively.

EYU addresses both of these concerns. The toolkit includes sample reflection assignments to link the knowledge and skills they are developing in a course to their future goals. These resources include critical reflection activities regarding the syllabus, classroom experiential learning (such as guest speakers), assignment feedback and grades, course learning at the midpoint or end of the term, and cumulative reflection. Faculty can easily customize these samples to fit their course.

For faculty who prefer to create course assignments more independently, EYU provides written guidance on effective reflection questions and grading practices, tips for grading, and the opportunity to consult with the EYU team. Together, these various tools make it easy for faculty to develop effective reflection activities and assignments.

Another set of EYU learning materials centres on research assignments. These tools help faculty design research assignments that have students link their course material to their professional goals and to set up effective grading systems. These include, for example, research projects where students identify local organizations (businesses, non-profits, government agencies) whose work intersects with the course content, or where students analyze the local stakeholders who are affected by issues discussed in the course. These assignments are particularly appealing to me because they equip students with an understanding of the local relevance of the course material.

Looking beyond supports to instructors, EYU is also developing student-focused resources to support students interested in pursuing independent research as a co-curricular activity.

But what do the faculty think?

As part of the development process, EYU pilot tested the materials with a number of York faculty. I spoke with two faculty who participated in the pilot testing.

International studies professor Sabine Dreher’s pilot tested two EYU assignments in one of her classes: a syllabus reflection assignment and an in class exercise to find organizations in the Greater Toronto Area relevant to the topic of the course. She was so pleased with the impact that she plans to integrate components of EYU into all of her classes.  In her experience, “Envision YU integrated labour market questions into academic teaching in a way that compliments rather than takes away from academic content.” With the EYU resources, she found the work involved to adapt her course was small; the bigger part, she reports was “a mind shift to think about what students do after university.”

Dance studies professor Bridget Cauthery also pilot tested the EYU reflection assignments in one of her classes. . Dr. Cauthery has used reflection assignments in the past but found grading them to be problematic. She worked with EYU to adapt her existing assignments to include a meta-reflection at the end of the course to summarize the impact of on-going reflection exercises.

This adjustment advanced student learning and identified a way to grade the submissions based on depth of response. With the changes, she reports, students were more deeply invested in the assignments. She says, “I will definitely be including it again next year.”

The EYU initiative will soon move past its soft launch to formally launch at York this spring. I will be following it with interest, and hope that it inspires other universities to consider ways that they can support instructors. New teaching approaches and ideas take time and energy to implement. Creating tools and supports for instructors reduces that workload.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What are your own thoughts about how universities can make it easier for instructors to embed professional development into courses? Please let me know by commenting below.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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