The evolution of teaching: putting more learning into student hands
“I don't teach. We don't know everything, and we're not here to tell people what to memorize. Increasingly, as undergraduate and graduate educators, we’re more like ‘coaches’ or facilitators for learning,” explains Dr. Joseph Ferenbok, Director of the innovative Translational Research Program (TRP) in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
“Higher Education is becoming less about a top-down model - here is information, memorize it, and then do a test - and moving increasingly towards a self-directed student engagement model that incorporates problem solving, critical thinking and what students want to learn. There is more focus on skills and competencies than memorization,” he continues.
Dr. Ferenbok is an Associate Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology and has just been awarded the department’s award for ‘Teaching Excellence in Graduate Education’. He was also one of 26 faculty at the University of Toronto accepted into the Course in Effective Online Teaching Practices (EOTP), offered through the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) and endorsed by the American Council on Education (ACE), which he completed earlier this year.
The 26-week EOTP, also completed by fellow LMP faculty member Dr. Scott Yuzwa, addresses essential teaching skills and knowledge that are fundamental to being an effective university educator, both in person and online.
Although Ferenbok has designed and directed programs, he has only recently begun teaching modules and courses. Attending the course was “affirmation that many of the strategies we’ve been using in the TRP have merit and are backed by research”. Having never had any formal teaching training before, attending the course, and the recent LMP award, have given Ferenbok a confidence boost. “It’s great to hear that some of the tools we use, like reflections and Individual Development Plans, really do work and are the way forward. We got push back on some of these approaches initially because they were different, but I’m pleased to see how much these approaches are supported by evidence and expert opinion.”
Completing the EOTP was a big commitment for Ferenbok but incredibly rewarding. “It was really interesting being both a student and teaching at the same time,” he explains, “I could hear my students in the back of my head commenting on this or that and I’d understand exactly how they felt. It was a lot of work, but it was fun”.
The TRP is a program that pushes the boundaries of traditional teaching and learning and is experimental in many of its approaches. Its purpose is innovation – to facilitate how students learn to innovate and bring that innovation into the day-to-day lives of carers and patients, but also innovation in how that teaching, and learning happens.
“Many TRP students have more knowledge in certain areas than I ever will, and I learn so much from them. I'm not there to tell them what the definitive answer is to something and at first some don't like that – they want to be told, but that's not learning, that's memorizing. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning shows how memorization is at the lowest end, but creativity and generating new content is at the far end. That's where I want students to play - being able to understand context, situation, ideas, abstract them, and apply them in new and different ways”.
The TRP team continues to push boundaries; finding ways to measure and reward innovation “What is initiative? How do you give a grade to it?” laughs Ferenbok. Summative assessments for a program like the TRP don’t get at the nuances of self-directed learning as an iterative process, so the team is testing new ideas around formative feedback and reflections; and trying to understand how to promote, recognize and assess innovative thinking.
Following lockdowns during the COVID pandemic, the team is rethinking the TRP as a “Hyflex learning” or hybrid model – allowing mixed cohorts of students in person and online, where appropriate. “The challenge is how do you take the best of each part?” he asks. “It’s complicated but it all depends on how the course is designed.” The TRP will work with students and ask them to compare their in-person experience versus their online experience, combining that with their engagement in terms of performance and learning outcomes to see what makes a difference.
“Students are getting their social interactions through other means now that the pandemic has evolved so we’re getting more requests for online learning. We want to facilitate learning in the best way for our students to learn so this will be a fascinating exploration of what that could look like for the future,” says Ferenbok.