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It’s time to transform undergraduate education

For real change, we need to radically rethink the teaching and learning process.


Next spring will bring university leaders together for a workshop on undergraduate education in Canadian universities, courtesy of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada*. Such a meeting is welcome, overdue and potentially transformative. Its success, though, will depend upon our managing to escape from the essentially nostalgic mindset that has hampered real pedagogical progress in our institutions for at least the last decade. We have been incapacitated by a witches’ brew whose ingredients are familiar to all – escalating costs, declining public investment, rising enrolments, proportionately declining faculty complements, and so on – yet we have failed to heed the advice we would normally give our students in such circumstances: to reorient ourselves to our goals and explore alternative or even radically different ways to approach them.

Universities have typically responded to resource pressures with the simple expedient of cost reduction on the input side of the educational equation. Thus we have seen the proliferation of sessional contracts and ballooning class sizes while the prevailing learning model – the “teaching technology” model – has remained largely frozen. In this model (as in the famous Figuier depiction of Aristotle instructing Alexander the Great), the knowledge expert (the professor) tells the novice (the student) about his discipline. The former does the teaching, the latter does the learning, and, as the context for this encounter has worsened under pressure of declining resources, it is questionable whether either does so effectively. Even in the best circumstances this approach trivializes the role of the student and exaggerates the professing function in the learning process. The teaching technology model brings to mind some old industrial processes, before the discovery of catalysts, in which a huge amount of fossil fuel was consumed to provide the activation energy for chemical reactions.

It may be that some students emerge from this process able to solve problems, communicate effectively and interact meaningfully, but that outcome is not inevitable or even likely. This has been noted many times before, but even so, recent attempts to address the resource crisis in higher education have failed to move far enough beyond the model of a teacher addressing a room of essentially passive students: witness the very problematic differentiation proposed in Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (Queen’s Policy Studies Series, 2009) between “research” and “teaching” institutions. The discourse is still lamentably focused on maximizing inputs, on feeding as many people as possible from the same basket of bread. But let’s be serious: none of us are miracle-workers, and when there are 5,000 minds to feed it is foolhardy to proceed as if there were five. We need to seek new and better ways to satisfy the hunger of our students.

What is required is a radical re-conceptualizing of the teaching and learning process, where the goal becomes “helping students learn” rather than “teaching.” We need to lift ourselves above the instructor-instructed dialectic, and above that equally factitious binary of teaching and research. Were we to see the terms in each dialectic as complementary rather than oppositional, then we could imagine a wider, possibly infinite, range of models for learning. We could craft processes of study better suited to the outcomes sought by students, more efficient and more encompassing in the deployment of resources, and less vulnerable to changes in our material circumstances.

When, bearing in mind the analogy of the catalyst, we focus on student learning and think of teaching as helping students learn, then a number of pedagogical and curricular design options become conceivable. “Course preparation” changes from an exercise in content selection and sequencing to a pedagogical design problem in which the ultimate objective is explicitly described. We can be much more creative and can choose among many more variables. The traditional lecture course is no longer the only model we consider. The professor is not the only person responsible for helping the student learn. Others can be involved, including the students themselves, their peers, community members, community organizations, societies and institutions. We, the teachers, become more concerned with what the students are actually doing. We begin to think more broadly about the kinds of situations in which students learn. For example, other cultures and environments become a resource for helping students learn when we take part in international internships. The challenges of professional practice or the problems of certain social groups become opportunities to engage in problem-based or service learning.

Bringing new resources and new pedagogies into play requires us to relax longstanding structures and barriers. This makes us question the traditional roles of students and faculty; a much higher level of engagement and responsibility is assumed by students. Service and experiential learning require coordination and a new or greater commitment of staff time; this may change the ratio of academic to professional staff. Faculty members bring their scholarship and experience into an altered dynamic in which they contribute significantly as designers and facilitators rather than mainly dispensers of formal declarative knowledge.

In our resource-limited context, five questions need to be asked – and asked without presupposing too quickly that we know the answers – if we are to realize the full value of this shift towards learning, away from teaching:

  • What do students need to be able to do by the end of their course or program?
  • What pedagogical and curricular opportunities can we design to help them learn to do it?
  • What resources can we consider as we design these learning opportunities?
  • What can we do as institutions or educators to bring those resources to bear on student learning?
  • How will we know whether we are successful?

An interesting example of the impact of asking these questions is to be found at Alverno College, a liberal arts college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where all students in programs ranging from religious studies to nursing must demonstrate eight college-wide abilities at graduation. Alverno College takes in a majority of visible-minority, first-generation, part-time students – groups that historically have encountered difficulty in postsecondary education. All the degree programs incorporate a high level of self-, peer and instructor assessment, as well as a curriculum designed to help students learn the eight abilities as interpreted for each degree program. The college uses no grades, relying on narrative feedback to help students meet learning objectives. One of the requirements for the highly integrated programs Alverno offers is frequent, well-prepared faculty planning and information-sharing activities. To help motivate students and provide student and program assessment, several hundred community volunteers assess the work of students and give them and the college feedback in assessments done outside class at strategic points in the program. The clarity afforded by explicit, college-wide learning outcomes makes it practical to use community assessors as an important learning resource. The lack of grades focuses students on the high-quality feedback they receive from a variety of sources. Frequent faculty planning sessions make it possible to integrate learning efforts over the whole curriculum. Alverno places well above the 90th percentile for National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) scores.

Students at Quest University, Canada’s first private, non-profit liberal arts college, based in Squamish, B.C., follow a “block program” consisting of just one course at a time for 18 class days. This approach gives faculty maximum flexibility on where and how they teach, since students aren’t required to be on campus for any other course during those 18 days. This opens the door to field studies, project work, international travel and a wide variety of experiential learning. Students concentrate on one topic at a time and build strong social interaction skills during project work and seminar classes. To attempt this, the university had to put in place a very different academic calendar and train faculty to make effective use of large, concentrated blocks of time with students. In 2009, Quest University had the highest NSSE scores in North America.

At Université du Quebec à Montréal, an ingenious program of intercultural exchanges is helping students learn from each other in education, social work, career planning and French as a Second Language (FSL). The program organizers create several events that bring FSL learners (most of whom are also immigrants or international students) into close contact with francophone students from education, social work and career planning. Each group of students learns different things from the encounters – for example, social work students learn about the challenges facing new immigrants in Quebec society while FSL students learn about that society and how to cope with their anxiety as novice language learners. In every case, students complete assignments based on the experiences. To implement the program across several faculties, staff and instructors have had to collaborate and communicate very effectively. Thanks to creative educational design and a broad-minded approach to the resources at their disposal, a modest number of faculty and staff in this innovative program generated substantial learning and high satisfaction among the hundreds of students across the collaborating departments.

At the University of Sudbury, the departments of religious studies and Native studies both operate extensive undergraduate research programs with honours students, engaging them in graduating-year colloquia and, in some cases, scholarly publishing. These practices substantially increase student engagement and provide the kind of experiences that are most valued by students. The practices are not resource-intensive since much of the work related to these is carried out in senior seminar courses.

In many institutions of all sizes across the country, faculty members make use of problem-based learning to help students develop content mastery, reasoning, and research and social interaction skills. McMaster University’s medical and chemical engineering programs pioneered this approach, but problem-based learning has found wide application in many fields, including medicine (Dalhousie University and Université de Sherbrooke) and forestry and leadership studies (University of New Brunswick). Recently, a similar enquiry-based approach at University of Guelph led to improvement in student performance across a range of traditional courses for little extra faculty time (Summerlee and Murray). At the end of third year, Guelph students who had taken the enquiry-based course in first year showed significantly higher average grades than those who hadn’t. Thus, well-constructed changes in pedagogy can lead to both substantial improvement across the curriculum and more student engagement. We could list many more examples.

What these initiatives have in common are the following:

  • they started with the question of what students should learn;
  • the learning programs they designed make creative use of non-traditional approaches and resources;
  • the academic unit was structured to make those resources available;
  • in most cases, they gathered systematic information about their results;
  • in most cases (except the examples of Quest and Alverno), the experiments are taking place in pockets in institutions.

To have a substantial effect on the quality and efficiency of university education as a whole, approaches like these need to be scaled to the institutional level. Change in any large and complex organization is constrained by a number of factors, including resources and regulatory and policy frame-works. In most universities, resources are overcommitted and funds are not available for substantial investment in innovation. In addition, government funding formulas typically, and not unreasonably, support policy objectives that increase access to postsecondary education (for example, through “growth funding”) rather than support objectives that improve learning.

To create the environment in which large-scale innovation takes place, such constraints need to be removed, reformed or at least appropriately mitigated to facilitate change and flexibility. The first and greatest impediment to change, however – and the one over which we have the most control – is our own habit of intellectual self-limitation: of conceiving the future always in terms of the past, and the possible in terms of the proven. As Thomas Kuhn argued half a century ago, advances in science depend upon some sort of profound escape – be it momentary, be it apparently insignificant – from inherited paradigms. In the case of universities, the change to thinking about learning rather than teaching will be the necessary first step.

Pierre Zundel is president of the University of Sudbury and a 3M Teaching Fellow. Patrick Deane is a professor of English and cultural studies and president of McMaster University.

*Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Workshop on Canadian University Undergraduate Education, March 6-8, 2011, Halifax. The workshop is designed exclusively for university presidents and vice-presidents, academic, who are encouraged to attend as a team and to bring a student to the dialogue.


Alverno College Faculty. (1994). Student Assessment-as-learning. Milwaukee, WI: Alverno College Institute.

Carignan N. (2006). Est-ce possible d¹apprendre à vivre ensemble ? Un projet stimulant pour les futurs enseignants et les nouveaux arrivants. Actes du colloque, Quelle immigration, pour quel Québec ?, dans le cadre du 25e anniversaire de la Table de concertation des réfugiés et immigrants (TCRI), 23-24 mars 2005, Montréal.

Clark, I., Moran, G., ,Skolnik, M.L. & Trick, D. (2009). Academic transformation: the forces reshaping higher education in Ontario. Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press.

Summerlee, A. & Murray, J. (2010). The impact of enquiry-based learning on academic performance and student engagement. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 40(2), 78-94.

Quest University. (2010). Quest University NSSE results.

Pierre Zundel + Patrick Deane
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  1. Don Wilson / December 6, 2010 at 17:13

    ” What do students need to be able to do at the end of the U.G. program ” – as a long time employer this is really welcome to hear . Too many come out the end and within a short time realize they are woefully under equipped to do many many jobs. The best student that I ever hired replied to my question ” what did you learn during the U.G. years ” ? – he said that he learned a little about a lot of things , and not a lot about anything in particular . He learned quickly during our training . It is very laudable to make a serious effort to educate students about what is needed to hold a job and earn decent money .

  2. Nino Corrado Fonte / December 16, 2010 at 04:23

    Shame on Zundel and Deane. They are brazenly advocating that a spike be driven through the heart of higher education as we know it. Someone should tell them that a university degree is not a certificate in credentialing. It is an EDUCATION. Now, what, exactly, is an education, Messrs Zundel and Deane? And what do you think, Don Wilson? I sincerely doubt that any of you have a clue.

    Allow me to provide a minimalist definition. An education is an opening of the eyes. That is all. At university, this opening-of-eyes is facilitated by professors who PROFESS, and, in so doing, engage their charges through the Socratic method, lighting a spark–the spark that is the love of scholarship, knowledge, critical reasoning, and curiosity about the world and how it works–that will burn brightly for the rest of their lives. And people who know how to THINK will succeed in life, and make better citizens than they otherwise would have.

    This is serious stuff the importance and significance of which is lost on Zundel and Deane. In fact, none of it matters to them, because, as they see it, an education is all about something they like to call “innovation.” Innovation of the sort that contributes to “the knowledge economy,” or something so-named. It is what you pay big money for, because it will impart the technical skills that “facilitate change and flexibility.” Such nifty catch phrases! Yes, an education is supposed to land a great job, succeed in the rat race, and, to repeat the silly phrase used by the previous poster, “earn decent money.”

    It is indeed disheartening to be reminded that universities are increasingly falling (pun intended) under the “leadership” of people whose vision of the University is barely more complex than a marketing jingle.

  3. Alex Ramirez / December 19, 2010 at 18:35

    In response to Nino Fonte’s comment:

    I acknowledge your critical analysis of the article. However, I strongly disagree with your assertions simply because the arguments you provide – accompanied with the language used – clearly demonstrate your inability to conceptualize the broader abstract notions and themes presented in this article. This is reflected in the irony of your comment ‘An education is an opening of the eyes. That is all.’

    …Many in society feel they speak the discourse, but it is the discourse that speaks for them.

  4. Robin Bright / January 4, 2011 at 16:57

    I thought this article astutely pointed out that education and students have changed over the past several years. Teaching students in the same manner that was appropriate before email, the Internet, texting, and cell phones does not make sense; and doing so increases the likelihood that schooling/education will become irrelevant and disconnected from the lives of those we profess to educate. What is wrong with telling our students the objectives of our courses? Knowing the purpose of their learning can only serve to help them understand not only the concepts but “why” they matter. I do not believe that a university degree should automatically guarantee a student a career, but that a sound education can and should lead to work that matters to the individual. Won’t students be in a better position to know what type of work will matter to them upon graduation if they have had opportunities to explore courses where the instructors helped them link material with purpose?

    It seems odd to me that these ideas about teaching students are considered by some to be controversial-students deserve to know the objectives of the courses they are taking in order to judge for themselves how successful they have been in meeting those objectives. In doing so, we will be helping our students learn to develop thinking skills, independence and self-reflection-all important to “getting an education.”

  5. Jill Scott, Queen's University / January 5, 2011 at 15:04

    I agree with Zundel and Deane that what is required for university education in Canada is a change in kind rather than a change in degree.

    There are, however, several major impediments to change on this kind of scale. First, incentives for faculty are oriented around research performance, and so time spent thinking about teaching and learning is time away from research, and much as administrators claim to acknowledge teaching, it is not rewarded or recognized in the same ways as are research achievements.

    Furthermore, many institutions have collective agreements with entrenched notions of teaching, leaving little flexibility regarding credit for teaching assignments. We need to find ways to build flexibility into course format and curriculum. If innovation on a grand scale is to be supported, we need to be able to unhinge the relationship between credit for teaching and credit for students. In the best of all possible worlds, we would also be able to move away from antiquated slot systems and make way for intensive courses or “intersemester” programs.

    Finally, university faculty enjoy an incredible privilege in the form of academic freedom — we can behave as if we are independent contractors with few defined deliverables. While top-down management is never a good idea, leadership in universities is a bit like herding cats. If university education is to be truly reformed to meet the requirements of a global economy, then there will have to be more serious incentives to attract the best and the brightest to tackle the teaching and learning objectives at hand.

    Universities are full of excellent researchers. If even a small percentage of that collective brain power were to be expended on “research on the institution” that were properly recognized and rewarded, Canadian universities could indeed rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of a global economy and succeed in their bid to be competitive in the international post-secondary education market.

    Unless Canadian universities manage to find effective ways to reward innovation, I predict that within the next couple of decades, dozens of private universities will spring up in Canada, and that these institutions will be the ones to top the innovation charts. They will then rapidly corner the market for the top international students, leaving sluggish public institutions to watch jealously from the sidelines.