How do we learn?

Looking beyond the classroom

For hundreds of years, educators have been preoccupied with the question: “How do we teach?”

But as technology, economic realities and the nature of work morph at lightning speed, institutions that once existed simply to provide instruction are undergoing a paradigm shift guided by a different question: “How do people learn?”

“I started my teaching career with the notion that I was the expert and my job was to somehow transfer that expertise from my brain to their brains,” says Shannon Dea, a professor in the Department of Philosophy. “Over the years, I shifted more from knowing what I can teach to how students can learn.”

Students and teacher at a desk

Philosophy Professor Shannon Dea (second from left) engages in active learning with students (left to right) Fiqir Worku, Clair Baleshta, and Amanda Fitzpatrick.

Donna Ellis (PhD ’13), director of the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence, says it’s a critical shift in thinking that will prepare students for the unknown.

“Students are keen to understand why they’re being asked to do what’s assigned to them,” Ellis says. “They’re looking for relevance … And they’re looking for things to be as authentic as possible. They’ll say, ‘If you’re going to give me an assignment, could it be about something real, not something made up?’ ”

Students engage with problem-based learning

Waterloo finance student Mitchell Busch, who recently took a financial management course focused on closed-loop, problem-based learning, believes the approach will ultimately make him a more successful professional.

“This was the one course where I was able to tie everything I knew together,” Busch says. “It’s been my favourite in terms of learning.”

So how does it differ from traditional teaching?

Covering eight problems over 12 weeks of classes, the professor provides guidance about learning objectives, and then it’s up to the students to do their own research, returning the following week to share and work through the results of that research together. Marks are based on participation, quality of research and professionalism.

“It was a cool process,” Busch says. “The professor always tried to say as little as possible. He’d really only jump in when we were about to move on from a topic and were missing a few key factors.”

Critical thinking and collaboration are key

According to Ellis, the key is developing critical thinking skills, collaborating and leveraging the intellect and experience of teammates.

“Students need to know how to learn, how to create knowledge, and how to apply what they’ve learned in multiple contexts,” she says. “As such, we need to move away from instructors being responsible for delivering content and instead put the primary focus on learning and what students do to hone and demonstrate that learning.”

The trouble with moving away from the traditional teaching scenario is that it can be tough to implement on a large scale because it involves cultural change. Some instructors have been designing learning-focused courses, but it’s a fundamental shift in thinking that can’t happen overnight. And while there hasn’t been an institutional push yet, it’s being considered as part of the University of Waterloo’s new strategic plan.

Mario“Problem-based learning is a much more holistic approach to solving problems – because in life there are very few things with very crisp answers – and that applies to all disciplines,” says Mario Coniglio, associate vice-president, academic.

“The tide is rising on this, and we are well poised at Waterloo to enable that cultural change to happen at an accelerated rate. Hopefully as time moves on, the value of problem-based learning is better appreciated.”

A problem-based learning approach to gender theory

Philosophy Professor Shannon Dea structures her classes as active learning opportunities, with students designing projects guided by their own passions and interests.

“I still guide my students but I no longer feel like my job is to shove a lot of content into their heads. I rarely give a lecture anymore. I expect the students to come with different capacities, interests and needs. My goal is to help guide them on what they might like to take out of the course.”