The Value of Great Teaching
September 6, 2011
U of T is committed to providing students with a unique, globally oriented learning experience
U of T regularly attracts international attention with the big ideas and cutting-edge discoveries generated by our faculty and students. We’ve never forgotten, however, that education is the cornerstone of our mission. To that end, U of T has intensified its efforts to support and value great teaching, and to create programming that helps our students learn more effectively and think more clearly and creatively.
The university’s various departments and faculties have long honoured excellent teachers with a variety of awards. Six years ago, the President’s Teaching Award was established to recognize academic staff who demonstrate sustained excellence in teaching. Awardees receive an annual professional development allowance of $10,000 for five years. As far as I’m aware, this represents a unique commitment among Canadian universities to honouring teaching excellence.
Many of our President’s Teaching Award winners are highly accomplished researchers. In fact, at U of T, about 90 per cent of the professors who hold major research awards teach at least one undergraduate course a year – a very different picture than what occurs in many elite institutions south of the border. This commitment by our professoriate means that U of T students are routinely taught by global leaders who are helping shape their disciplines.
At the same time, U of T has developed a strong teaching stream for academic staff who seek a career weighted in favour of pedagogy. These dedicated colleagues have had a big influence on teaching university-wide, and, not surprisingly, are well represented among winners of the President’s Teaching Award.
We are fortunate, too, that faculties, colleges and departments have developed a stream of exciting initiatives to improve the learning experience for U of T students. The philosophy department, for example, created the Socrates Project to give upper-level undergraduate students the chance to learn philosophy by teaching it to their first-year peers. Our renowned “Skule” of engineering has reworked its curriculum to help the next generation of engineers acquire the “soft skills” required to lead multidisciplinary teams and solve complex problems. Experiential or hands-on learning, already prominent in many disciplines, continues to expand, led by our Scarborough campus with its thriving co-op programs.
Fortunately, U of T’s decentralized administration leaves room for innovation and, as appropriate, diffusion. The exemplar here is the ONE program. Started at Victoria College several years ago, it gives first-year students the opportunity to study a subject in depth from a variety of perspectives, with some classes in a small, seminar format. The program was soon adopted by Trinity College, and this fall starts at University College.
For individual instructors interested in brushing up, U of T’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) offers ongoing workshops and consultations aimed at improving teaching skills. The CTSI’s course design institute also enables professors to work with leading experts in fields ranging from student assessment to effective use of the latest learning technologies.
Students’ views are an integral part of the equation. Recently, U of T’s Council on Student Experience conducted focus groups and surveys with students on all three campuses to ask them how their learning experience can be improved. We also ask students to participate in external surveys to benchmark our progress. Data from this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement show continued positive change in indicators such as student-faculty interaction. The trend affirms our belief that U of T can help students get the best of both worlds – a small college experience in a big globally oriented university.
As U of T prepares to embark on a major new fundraising campaign, we will ensure that teaching remains central to our mission. We plan to create more effective spaces for learning – both physical and virtual – in order to support a wide range of students, including distance learners and those engaged in continuing studies later in life. We also want to give students more opportunities to study or research abroad.
If, as the French writer Anatole France argued, great teaching involves the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds, the university’s role is plain. We can help our teachers to ply their art, recognize those who excel and provide an environment that helps our students learn to think more effectively – not just in their time with us, but for the rest of their lives. These are simple but large aspirations. When realized, I believe they define the enduring value of a U of T education.