UBC professors encourage more active learning
Universities are evolving as educators continue to integrate technology into the traditional classroom environment to create a more flexible, active learning experience. Simon Bates, senior advisor on teaching and learning at UBC, explains how this is changing the student experience.
What have we learned about how people learn?
If you ask someone how they got good at something – whether it be music, sports, chess, etc. – the word most people pick is practice. If you want to be a great chess player, you set up a board to mimic a chess master’s game and you try to figure out the moves.
We’ve known for some time that listening to a lecture is not the best way to learn, but until recently lectures were the most effective way to transmit information to a big group of people. Learning needs to include a sense of struggle, a set of complex, challenging tasks.
How has this knowledge changed the student experience at UBC?
Classroom time is a scarce commodity so it forces us think about how to make the very best use of this time. One of the challenges of higher education is preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Instead of focusing on content, we’re focusing on the demonstration of competencies. Don’t show us what you know, show us what you can do. We’re using technology to deliver more content outside of class, freeing up the classroom for more challenging activities. This more flexible approach to learning means students are getting more hands-on and “heads-on” experience.
What’s impressive about UBC’s efforts to change learning and education are their scale and scope. We’ve provided funding and support to professors and instructors who wanted to introduce new teaching and learning techniques into 140 different courses across all faculties.
How does this benefit students?
Students have a greater choice of courses, information, and skills. For example, I met a postdoctoral fellow who was starting a new research project that required her to learn a new statistical programming language. It’s a specific skill set she needs for the next couple of years. In the past, she’d have to buy a textbook and teach the content to herself. When we talked about it, I suggested she take an online course through one of the massive open online course (MOOC) platforms. She’s expecting a baby soon so this fits around her other life commitments. I think what we’re seeing is that people’s engagement with the university is not exclusively focused on a continuous four-year degree immediately after leaving high school.
How prepared are students for this brave new world of learning?
Students today are more connected: to their peers, to people they’ve never met, to communities, and places. They think more globally. But other things never change. Students want time to discuss what matters to them. They want to be inspired and challenged, and to have experiences that will stay with them.
As knowledge advances, there’s a temptation to put more and more material into university courses and never take anything out. We’ve all had the experience where a professor comes into class and says, ‘we have a lot to cover today if we’re going to stay on track’ and then proceeds to motor through the lecture. It’s as if the responsibility of teaching the material is dismissed if the material is covered. But as a student, you can’t make sense of that information. Students today have grown up with the Internet and they have a completely different relationship with information and technology than students of the pre-Internet era. They have a wider range of sources to draw on for the information they need.