In the midst of increasing class sizes and decreasing faculty members and staff, quality of teaching in post-secondary education has been a question of concern for many students. Initiatives to maintain and integrate research and teaching are seldom, and at times, limited. McGill’s Teaching Inquiry Network is one of the groups attempting to integrate research and teaching to benefit students’ undergraduate learning experience by bringing together professors to share and develop teaching methods.
The Network is a “cross-disciplinary faculty learning community of approximately 15 instructors” according to Marcy Slapcoff, Educational Developer at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). The group of staff members from the McGill Writing Centre, TLS, and the McGill Library meet on a monthly basis. Formed back in 2008, the group aims to create stronger links between teaching and research to enhance student learning. According to Slapcoff, “The goal of the group from the beginning has been to understand how to best use coursework to promote students’ understanding and active engagement with research.”
Almost all McGill Faculties are represented in the Network. Geography professor Sarah Turner is one of the members of the Teaching Inquiry Network. Last semester, Turner implemented some of these ideas from the Network in her GEOG 409: Geographies of Developing Asia course by having students write journal entries for each week of readings. “From the student feedback [journal entries] seem to work really well as a learning tool and students appreciate the ability to take time crafting their responses rather than taking an exam that they have to cram for.”
“Although it might seem weird,” continued Turner, “Professors don’t have that many opportunities to really debate and critique different teaching approaches, because we’re so busy just getting all the parts of our job done. So this is a fun and productive way to think through new ideas.”
A student in GEOG 409 (who wished to remain anonymous) attested to the overall positive experience. “The course was structured really well. [...] It was my first time having to write journal entries for a course. It actually forced [students] to think about what the author was saying and relate it to the class, and ourselves personally. I thought it was really good.”
The Network has also received support from the University. In 2011, the Nework facilitated the Joint Board Senate meeting where the Board of Governors supported the Network’s idea that “enhancing students’ understanding of research is a powerful way to improve student learning and the overall undergraduate experience.”
“The goal of the group [...] has been to understand how to best use coursework to promote students’ understanding and active engagement with research”
McGill currently has a number of other services dedicated to promoting undergraduates’ involvement in research. Some of these groups include Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering, the Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award, and the Office of Undergraduate Research in Science. Though these services benefit students, they are not without their limitations, as they are only open for a limited audience. Many of them are very Faculty-specific or only available to students who actually apply to volunteer. According to Slapcoff, this stands in contrast to the Teaching-Research Project, which has the goal of reaching every McGill undergraduate through their coursework.
Enhancing and discussing teaching methods is a step toward improving the undergraduate experience at post-secondary institutions, where generally the main qualifier of a professor is their research rather than their teaching skills and methods. Turner maintained, “Hopefully students then feel they benefit from a wider and more dynamic range of teaching approaches and assessment strategies.”