Learning to Learn

Substituting traditional learning methods in higher education

Elli Slavitch

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

During exam season, endless streams of students file into McGill’s Tomlinson Fieldhouse, their heads bent low over their notes, desperately cramming crucial information into their minds. They spend hours studying with cue cards, storyboards, mind maps—anything to help them remember material for the duration of their exams and then to forget.

On McGill’s website, the “About” page lists “10 Points of Pride” including the University’s competitive advantage among peer institutions. It recognizes “the finest students” as those who earn “prestigious awards and prizes for academic and athletic achievement.” This is likely the first impression of the school that many potential students will have, and it is immediately clear that McGill values education as performance and competition over curiosity and learning.

McGill is unquestionably an academically stimulating environment, owing its reputation to its 50 research centres and institutes, its variety of academic programs, and its rich history. McGill’s prestige has allowed it to secure top spots in national and international rankings.

Despite this reputation, the learning experience for many students at McGill is hindered by the stifling effects of high-stakes tests. In 2003, the McGill Journal of Education published a critique of standardized testing, claiming that it was ineffective at revealing potential, and useless at measuring progress.

Yet, 15 years later, large-scale assessments continue to dominate our course frameworks. The majority of courses at McGill follow a well-known grading scheme, comprised of a few quizzes or assignments, a midterm, a term paper, and a final exam. This structure is useful to objectively measure scores through brute comparison, but neglects the notion that all students learn and express themselves and their intelligence differently. Knowledge is broadly seen as an external force which professors can quantify and categorize to evaluate their students.

Alicia Barry

Alicia Barry, U2 Arts, balances her schoolwork with creative writing and has published her poetry in the student publication F Word for the past two years.

“Our evaluation scheme is not a determinant of our intelligence or capabilities,” Barry said. “Measuring how much one can memorize will not effectively help them learn in the end. To throw everything you learned in one semester into a three-hour exam is unrealistic and meaningless.”

Not only do high-stakes tests erase the deeper meaning from learning, but they are also detrimental to students’ mental health. Canadian campuses have seen a significant increase in students with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations. According to a 2017 survey of students at 15 Canadian universities conducted by the Toronto Star and the Ryerson School of Journalism, campus mental health offices have seen a 35 per cent increase in the demand for their services over the course of the previous five years. Last year, a survey by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services also revealed that 13 per cent of students said they had seriously considered suicide, 3.5 percentage points more than three years earlier. According to Barry, the academically-demanding atmosphere at McGill contributes to students’ mental health troubles.

“I feel like, going to McGill, there is this sense of ‘you need to do well, or else you’re not going to succeed,’” Barry said. “There is this immense pressure to perform academically, with this highly competitive spirit, so my motivation is kind of this self-loathing that I need to do well in this or I won’t amount to anything in life.”

“We’re lifelong learners, and we have to be flexible learners.”

Susanne Lajoie

Susanne Lajoie, Canadian Research Chair Tier 1 and Educational and Counselling Psychology professor at McGill University, is an expert in the development of advanced learning technologies. Lajoie is interested in the ways in which emotions can enhance the learning experience. Lajoie views education as an ongoing process rather than as a one-stop venture.

“Anyone who is in university today knows that, even when you graduate, there is so much information that is ongoing and updated,” Lajoie said. “You have to keep learning your whole life, it does not stop when you graduate.”

The educational system is intended to prepare students to make their place in a world which is changing faster than ever before.

“The most important skill in the 21st century is learning to learn, and that’s where the notion of creativity comes into play,” Lajoie said. “We’re lifelong learners, and we have to be flexible learners.”

By relying so heavily on one-size-fits-all testing methods, McGill restrains students’ potential and makes them less adaptable to new environments. Instead of learning through interest, students learn through fear.

Lajoie uses different theories of learning and emotions to create new forms of technology to improve teaching and learning in different domains. She is currently developing a simulation which acts as a virtual hospital experience, where McGill medical students receive imaginary patients and must formulate diagnoses. Facial movement detectors and electrodermal bracelets measure users’ confusion, nervousness, stress, surprise, and other behavioural emotions relevant to the context of learning, to establish the relationship between their emotions and their performance. The simulation assesses learning through a unique and dynamic process and provides ongoing feedback.

“One of the best ways for teachers to create interest is by providing choice,” Lajoie said. “[It is important to offer] different types of assignments that are still equivalent in terms of grading but have different avenues to immerse [students] in the material.”

Hayley Mortin

Hayley Mortin, U3 Arts, currently feels that her classes do not offer enough of a variety of assignments. Outside of her studies in psychology, she paints, draws, and is affiliated with groups such as the Fridge Door Gallery and Folio magazine.

“It’s nice that there are those little pockets [of creative activity], but it’s very statically separated from academics,” Mortin said. “I often think to myself as I leave the library: ‘Now I’m going to go do something creative.’”

Mortin’s favourite course at McGill is ANTH 408, or “Sensory Ethnography,” because of the unique way in which it is taught. The class gives students space to choose their preferred method of learning, and create projects using film, photography, and sound.

“Having the choice to begin with is completely imperative to how well I’m going to do in the course, to be honest,” Mortin said. “It doesn’t need to be big, a five per cent assessment can make all the difference in helping students realize the meaning behind the course material.”

Professors also see the value in adopting divergent testing methods.

“Arts-based critical practices help interested students stay on top of course content, explain what they have learned, and experiment with engaging, interactive, and accessible forms of expression.”

Casey McCormick

Casey McCormick is a course lecturer in the Department of English at McGill, and recently completed her dissertation on the history of television finales for her PhD in Cultural Studies.

“I definitely had a very traditional education at Georgia State University,” McCormick said. “All of my assignments were very, very similar academic papers [....] I lost my creative voice as a writer. I wish I had more opportunities to do different kinds of writing.”

According to a 2016 survey conducted by Adobe across the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan, 65 per cent of students agree with McCormick and believe that their university stifles their creativity.

“I felt like it sucked out the creativity from my writing style, and it wasn’t until I was deep into my PhD that I got my creative voice back,” McCormick said.

Since completing her PhD, McCormick has aimed to move away from writing academic papers and toward arts-based critical practices, by utilizing multimedia to frame arguments.

“Maybe I [wouldn’t] have felt so burnt out [by] academia if I was exposed to these different expressive forms,” McCormick said.

McCormick keeps her own university experience in mind when trying to create dynamic modes of engagement in her classrooms. In addition to incorporating blogging, Twitter hashtags, and Facebook discussion groups into her courses, she also introduced the Social Media Artifact assignment to McGill as part of the course ENGL 391, or “Special Topics in Cultural Studies: Netflix,” in 2016. The assignment puts students to the task of analyzing course content through social media platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr. Artifacts are assessed based on creativity, mechanics, and relevance to the course material.

“Overall, the response from students has been very positive,” McCormick said. “Many people talk specifically about the online component as refreshing and engaging. Of course, it’s not going to work for every single student, that’s why it’s hybrid, why I offer a wide range of spaces to make students feel comfortable.”

Arts-based critical practices help interested students stay on top of course content, explain what they have learned, and experiment with engaging, interactive, and accessible forms of expression. To structure her grading scheme, McCormick gives students a wide range of assignments so that they have multiple opportunities to succeed. She weighs most assignments in the 10 to 25 per cent range to relieve pressure on students.

“That’s one of the purposes of having so many different kinds of assignments, it’s so that students can learn to learn in the way which suits them best,” McCormick said.

Brayden Culligan

Brayden Culligan, U3 Arts, has discovered the benefits of creative learning both in and out of the classroom. Over the course of his time at McGill, he has worked with several organizations, including the McGill Office of Sustainability, to help inform and engage their audiences through multimedia. In Fall 2017, he took CCOM 314, or “Communicating Science,” which gives students an opportunity to communicate scientific problems through a variety of creative multimedia projects, such as podcasts.

Adobe’s 2016 survey revealed that 69 per cent of students believes that being creative like the projects included in CCOM 314 call for, helps make people better workers. Culligan thinks that if a larger variety of testing methods were implemented at McGill, the positive impact could extend far beyond the classroom.

“I find creative expression to be more enjoyable and a better way of learning,” Culligan said. “The conversation about the value of creativity in everyday life is an important one. I hope it encourages someone to pick up the paintbrush, keyboard, or whatever they’ve been putting down for too long.”

“I have known professors who said that students are meant to suffer. To me, it was a sort of therapy to make sure this system isn’t transferred to the next generation.”

Nikolas Provatas

Nikolas Provatas, Canada Research Chair in Computational Materials Science and Engineering Tier 1, was also inspired to explore creative learning methods as a result of his experiences as a student in higher education. When an undergraduate student in the class of 1988, he found the learning experience confining.

“Back when I went to school, you worked alone and didn’t ask any questions because you didn’t want to look stupid,” Provatas said. “[I] suffered in absolute silence and alone. I felt it was my fault. At some point when I started to be self-sufficient, solve my own problems, figure things out, I realized it was because I was cutting through the opaqueness that teachers threw at me. I learned that learning and torture are not the same thing.”

Provatas now teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in physics at McGill, and runs the annual McGill Physics Hackathon. He launched the Hackathon in 2016 and it became an immediate hit. The Hackathon gathers fanatics of the discipline in a 48-hour sprint to solve problems in computational physics. It uses the same principles of teaching, but provides no university credits. Students participate and learn not because they are forced to, but because they enjoy the challenge.

The 2017 Physics Hackathon gathered elementary, secondary, and university students in a welcoming environment encouraging creativity, collaboration, and discovery. Judges evaluated students on whether they could understand the assigned problems, if they had the programming skills to debug code, and if they could sell their ideas to a panel of judges from academia and industry.

Provatas created the Hackathon as an antidote to his own discouraging experience as a student in higher education.

“I vowed to myself that if I were to ever become a [professor], I would throw away the archaic system of learning,” Provatas said. “I have known professors who said that students are meant to suffer. To me, it was a sort of therapy to make sure this system isn’t transferred to the next generation.”

The opportunity provides tangible outcomes for them to create original software, win prizes, connect with tech recruiters, and get a glimpse of the tech industry.

“I like to think of learning as a kind of play,” Provatas said. “In terms of atmosphere, it’s been electrifying.”

Students would greatly benefit from McGill creating more opportunities to directly embrace their passions. As they discover their talents and interests, students should be able to pursue them without feeling restricted by curriculum boundaries. Courses at McGill need to catch up to increasing demands for interdisciplinary learning from students and experts in the field.

“At the end of the day, we’re here to have fun, and there are no stupid questions,” Provatas said. “If you’re struggling, don’t worry, everyone is struggling.”

There are more creative approaches to learning than crowding students into a massive room, rushing them through an exam, and having the results determine even a fraction of their future.

“The best thing we can do is provide a relaxed and yet competitive atmosphere motivated by problem solving,” Provatas said. “Learning as fun.”