By Shawn O’Connor (Student, BPAPM) and John Cadham (Instructor, NPSIA) 

I recall one of my first-year professors telling me the goal of higher education was to transform students from knowledge consumers to knowledge producers. In one sense, I suppose the undergraduate structure does support that goal, as students move from lectures to seminars to research essays. Yet, as I reflect on my undergraduate degree, I have come to realize that the path towards academic independence is often unforgiving, discouraging, stressful and difficult.

There is little wiggle room for students to mess up or experiment under the tyranny of university grading regimes and grade point averages. This is especially true in later years as work becomes concentrated in fewer assignments and the pressure to perform well is more acute. Students become increasingly uncomfortable with any points of ambiguity, fearing a penalty for straying from some unwritten instruction. Many students feel unable to discuss their struggles with university professionals, only amplifying their feelings of loneliness in a classroom setting. Students come to rely on learned behavioural patterns that might work in a classroom, but might also sow seeds of fragility in other environments, causing even greater anxiety and discouragement later in life.

These are a few of the issues I have noticed amongst my peers, observed in my students when I was a Residence Fellow, or even personally experienced. I was excited to be offered the opportunity to create a tool to alleviate some of those classroom stresses.

In 2019, Prof. John Cadham decided to revamp his fourth-year Development Studies Capstone Seminar for Arthur Kroeger College. In a bold move, he introduced a new design that combines cuPortfolio and Specifications Grading (specs). I was a member of the inaugural class cohort for this redesign.
While Prof. Cadham was pleased with the results the transition to specs and cuPortfolio produced, he was concerned by the level of anxiety caused by the change and its implementation – which, as he freely admits, was “a bit of a gong-show.” So, this summer, he jumped on the opportunity to hire a student under the Students as Partners Program (SaPP) to create a tool that helps incoming seminar members manage the transition.

The outcome was a collaborative cuPortfolio built by students for students. I was tasked with creating an online space where previous students can pass on knowledge, tips, advice or feedback to future cohorts. This space is intended not only to empower students through peer learning, but also to create resiliency within the course by diffusing best practices that would otherwise be lost as classes go through their annual turnover.

Specifically, this resource is useful because it:

Creates reassurance amongst uncertainty. Specification-based grading allows students to fail and learn from their mistakes, while not necessarily condemning them to a bad final grade. It is especially useful for conveying that there is wiggle room to learn, experiment and grow within the course.

Allows students to become familiarized with cuPortfolio. cuPortfolio is a fantastic tool that enables students to showcase their work both within and outside of their courses. It allows students to demonstrate their writing capacity and stand out in postgraduate and job applications. Students can independently discover the utility of the cuPortfolio medium.

Promotes and includes peer-learning techniques. The portfolio is by students for students. It is explicitly intended to help onboard students into a new assessment and submission environment that they may not be used to, but it provides various points of advice, caution, feedback and clarification. It also encourages greater independence amongst students, more creativity in their submissions from a greater breadth of learning strategies, and should evoke confidence.

Shares knowledge with new collaborators each year. Therefore, the resource can be improved upon each year, ensuring that it evolves as the course evolves and captures any significant changes in instruction.

Generates more relatability. The portfolio translates learning outcomes, assignments and assessment techniques in a more user-friendly way that students can relate to. Rather than merely conveying the learning outcomes of the course, it allows students from previous classes to discuss how those learning outcomes can be viewed as transferable skills. Likewise, since the portfolio comes from a student perspective, students should be, in theory, better able to relate to its content.

Offers an alternative onboarding resource aside from the syllabus. The syllabus is perhaps the staple of any university course as it acts as a contract between students and instructors. This portfolio supplements the syllabus and helps students jumpstart their term. Students can use this onboarding resource to grasp new or ambiguous concepts and clarify points of worry that may not be obvious to an instructor. It can also provide some diversity in learning strategies that can help students reach the course learning objectives.

Creates a space for students to be knowledge producers. At the end of each semester, the portfolio offers students the opportunity to influence the course structure by sharing what they have learned throughout the course. While the final word remains with the instructor, the portfolio empowers students to learn interdependently from the guidance of previous cohorts.

Although independent thought is important, I do not believe it has to be an independent journey –it rarely is in the professional world. Ideally, this tool will demonstrate the value of peer learning and interdependent thought in a classroom setting. I know I would have benefited greatly from a tool like this in many of my classes.

This is a pilot project that will hopefully evolve and grow over future years. I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which my peers leapt at the opportunity to provide input and feedback that helped me construct this portfolio.

It is well known that classes are stronger when no student feels excluded; sometimes all it takes is just another student’s helping hand. I hope this proves to be a useful resource for reminding students that they are not alone and that any confusion or anxiety they experience is more common than they might think. I hope this tool generates reassurance, guidance and confidence in future groups of students who might feel excluded from the vernacular of academics and university experts – or even just feel stigmatized for seeking such support.

My fellow contributors and I are happy to have had the chance to contribute to this effort.

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