Haffie and Wahl: Tapping into talent, technology

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Tom Haffie has spent most of his career in front of “small towns.”

“I used to get this great idea of something I could do in class, then I would shut myself down because there are 800 students,” the Biology lecturer said. “But then again, it’s 800 people. What can you not do with 800 people in an hour?

“That shifted my thinking entirely. I didn’t seem them as 800 students but as 800 possible collaborators, possible partners in creating an environment. I have 50 minutes with them – really precious time. If I can engage the students to help create the environment where they feel more accountable to the class and their own learning, it feels much less daunting to me.”

Haffie and Math professor Lindi Wahl teach University Science Education, a third-year Science course that involves students in its design and delivery as co-creators. It is part of a larger initiative, Students as Partners, the pair created as Teaching Fellows in the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

The idea is for students to be engaged in collaborative course design – from what should be covered that term, to what sort of assessments should be used.

“We all work together on how the course will play out,” Wahl said. “They are engaged in this process and feel a huge amount of ownership because they’ve designed it. At Western, we have this body of incredibly bright, really talented students. They are motivated and invested in improving education.

“We would be crazy not to be consulting with them and partnering with them on improving things. There is such a resource we’ve been missing out on in so many ways, to consult on curriculum design, course design or how to re-design first year labs or exams – because they have been there.”

Wahl tries to include active learning, even if just five minutes, into each of her lectures. “It’s changed the way my classroom is working. I’ve learned to teach with learning outcomes in mind.”

She now focuses what students will recall from the course next semester, or even next year, and not obsess completely over what they take away from the final exam. “That makes me teach in a very different way.”

The influx of new technology in the classroom also plays a role in how professors can teach. If learning is a “social activity” built upon relationships, and technology can improve, enhance and deepen these relationships, then Haffie is “all in.”

“I teach a large number of students. It’s a cliché to say technology shrinks the room – but it does. If a student is so far away they can’t even tell if my eyes are open, they can still be engaged in the class and respond on their phone,” he said

He added a student can post a question if they didn’t hear what he said or are unsure what he was talking about, and a colleague will answer in the classroom, in real time.

“If they don’t get that answer they may waste the next 10 minutes being confused. We can use technology to help maintain a peer support community in real time in these huge lectures. Now, common-place technology around audience response, transforms a room. If I can harvest their understanding in 30 seconds, that’s powerful information for me to then feed back to them and literally change what I’m going to say in the next five minutes.”

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and policy-makers from around the world.

Both see benefits in the event toward improving their craft.

“The diversity of my students in the classroom is forever expanding and how I respond to that is ever expanding in ways I have difficulty anticipating. I don’t know the challenges next year,” Haffie said. “We know a lot about how humans teach and learn, but the dissemination of that knowledge in the academy, and among other teachers, along with implementation of that knowledge, is patchy and could be vastly improved.”