With support from the EDC, instructors for Carleton’s Food Science program hold an annual retreat to discuss 3-4 different courses and their relationship to the larger program. Everything is up for discussion: they review and clarify the learning outcomes for each course; strive to align those outcomes with the next course in the program sequence and the larger program learning outcomes; and work to scaffold assessments within individual courses and, crucially, across the program.
What follows is an online conversation moderated by Morgan Rooney (EDC) in which Véronic Bézaire, Tyler Avis and Martha Healey (Food Science) reflect on their experiences, individually and as a unit, at these annual retreats. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Rooney: Food Science has been working with the EDC for a number of summers now. What do you feel like you’ve been learning about teaching, course design, and/or your program, both individually and as a department?
Tyler Avis: I now realize that course design was something totally foreign to me. Just because I had taken multiple courses as a student and had taught for a few years before starting this yearly process didn’t necessarily mean that I knew the difference between a well-planned out course and what I thought was a good course. Also, the interconnectedness of courses in a program is something that I didn’t give much thought to until we worked on multiple courses together. I’ve modified my content and assessment methods as a result of what is taught in other courses. Overall, I believe the biggest eye opener was that I needed to stop teaching only what I believed was important, and to start teaching the students what they need in terms of content and skills to be prepared for their post-graduation futures.
Véronic Bézaire: I think most of us now appreciate how learning outcomes can help us, as teachers, figure out what we expect from students and how to spell it out for them—in the syllabus, assignment descriptions and grading rubrics. I think we are also much better at designing meaningful assessments that incorporate knowledge and professional skills. We had several conversations that went like this: “Do you teach students how to write a briefing note?” “No. Do you?” “No. Do you?” “No. Well who does?” “No one.” “Ah, that explains it.” Such conversations have helped us scaffold skills and knowledge in our program.
Martha Healey: As a relatively inexperienced instructor, the collaborative process with you and colleagues in the department has been invaluable. The concept of identifying learning outcomes, and then framing those outcomes in a way that is meaningful to course delivery, was completely foreign to me prior to starting the process. Moreover, I had not given sufficient consideration to how all the courses interact and to the interconnectedness between my course and the overall program learning outcomes. Identifying and framing course learning outcomes for students forced me to focus on course delivery in a way that I had not previously contemplated.
Rooney: It sounds like one takeaway for each of you was a greater awareness of how the various “parts” of your program “fit.” And yet, judging from the wider university perspective, volunteering to undergo this kind of program review work in the years before and after the formal cyclical review process is not standard. What keeps you motivated to stay involved?
Avis: Perpetual improvement of courses and the program to the benefit of students is what motivates me. I’ve really enjoyed learning from others about how they have been successful and where improvements are needed, as well as the brainstorming and constructive criticism.
Bézaire: For me, the motivation is a strong interest in the quality of our program and the success of our students. Our program is small and needs to be of high quality to attract strong students.
Healey: This initiative has made the selected courses and the overall program stronger. And, from the perspective of a contract instructor, the process was a collaborative, non-judgmental one that allowed me to grow as an instructor. People often forget that no one is born knowing how to teach well or how to design and deliver a course that inspires students to learn. “Teach the teacher” sessions are uncommon at the university level. Being able to sit with colleagues to examine courses, discuss issues and problems, and come up with creative solutions or suggestions for improvement—these things inspire me to continue with the process.
Rooney: We’ve discussed a lot of tweaks and changes for a lot of courses in our time together, but one of the limitations of occupying a position that is external to the department is that I don’t always get to see the end result. What impact, if any, do you find that these changes have had on your courses?
Avis: I feel my courses have improved drastically! Although my teaching scores have remained relatively unchanged over my years at Carleton, I feel the students have a much better learning experience since we have been working on my courses.
Bézaire: I simply have more fun teaching. I have substituted some lecturing for learning activities. Students really enjoy learning activities, and I am encouraged by seeing them excited and engaged with the course material.
Healey: Without question, I have become a better instructor and my courses have improved significantly. I also feel I have a far better sense of the students’ needs, abilities and goals.
Rooney: It’s great to hear these things—who doesn’t want to feel more confident and to have more fun in the classroom, after all? I’m wondering, however, if you can speak to the perceptions of your current students as they go through the courses that we’re looked at throughout the years. What do your students report to you about your re-designed courses? Are you noticing any impact in terms of student performance and outcomes?
Avis: While I feel that the overall grades of my courses are similar from year to year, I believe retention of the material and skills has improved. I am in a unique position in this program because I teach students in a 1000-level course, then a 3000-level course, and then have some students work with me on their capstone course. Since implementing changes to my courses, I have noticed that students in my 3000-level course now more readily use the information from my 1000-level course, and that this continues in their capstone course, where I have found less need to re-train or re-explain materials or technical skills they would have seen in previous courses.
Bézaire: Current students may not realize that we have reworked most of our courses unless they compare notes with students from earlier cohorts. I do know, however, that current students are excited about new opportunities at the program level (new courses and co-op, to name a few) that are a direct result of this process. Personally, I think our program-level discussions and course mapping helps our students appreciate what food science is about much earlier in their degree. Because we know more about the content of each course in the program, we refer to them more regularly and encourage students to make connections between them.
Rooney: Improved knowledge/skills retention, greater student awareness of what the discipline/profession is about, more understanding among colleagues as to what’s happening in each course—those are some promising early returns on your investments. If you could “bend the ear” of any fellow program chair or director in another unit, what would you tell them about the potential value of taking part in something like an annual summer retreat that focuses on the relationship between your core courses and your program? Do you think, for instance, it will make your department’s job easier when you enter into your next cyclical review?
Avis: The value of doing this type of retreat is huge. Being able to improve individual courses and the interconnection between them not only facilitates student learning and development, but it has also vastly improved my overall ability to teach students effectively. It also makes the administrative part of teaching (assessments, grading, obtaining artifacts for cyclical reviews) much simpler. I would also argue that I now enjoy teaching more following modifications made to my courses.
Bézaire: I would say start small. Choose two or three core courses to review. Trust experts from the EDC in leading the retreats and trust your colleagues in providing constructive feedback. It can be intimidating to share your course content with your colleagues, but it’s incredibly helpful in identifying gaps at the program level. Faculty familiarity with all core courses certainly makes the ongoing assessment of learning outcomes much easier, especially after having identified key artifacts as a group.
Healey: Program chair/director support would be highly beneficial to the review. I would say engage with the EDC, and just do it! The process offers an unparalleled opportunity to improve individual courses and the overall program, and it also fosters a sense of community amongst instructors.
Rooney: Many thanks for your time and candour—it’s great to hear that not only is the process helping you, your program, and your students, but that it’s also added some fun and excitement to your teaching. See you all next summer!