student engagement and provide the kind of experiences that are most
valued by students. The practices are not resource-intensive since much
of the work related to these is carried out in senior seminar courses.
In many institutions of all sizes across the country, faculty members
make use of problem-based learning to help students develop content
mastery, reasoning, and research and social interaction skills. McMaster
University’s medical and chemical engineering programs pioneered this
approach, but problem-based learning has found wide application in
many fields, including medicine (Dalhousie University and Université
de Sherbrooke) and forestry and leadership studies (University of New
Brunswick). Recently, a similar enquiry-based approach at University of
Guelph led to improvement in student performance across a range of
traditional courses for little extra faculty time (Summerlee and Murray).
At the end of third year, Guelph students who had taken the enquiry-based course in first year showed significantly higher average grades than
those who hadn’t. Thus, well-constructed changes in pedagogy can lead
to both substantial improvement across the curriculum and more student
engagement. We could list many more examples.
What these initiatives have in common are the following:
•they started with the question of what students should learn;
• the learning programs they designed make creative use of non-traditional
approaches and resources;
•the academic unit was structured to make those resources available;
• in most cases, they gathered systematic information about their results;
• in most cases (except the examples of Quest and Alverno), the experiments
are taking place in pockets in institutions.
To have a substantial effect on the quality and efficiency of university
education as a whole, approaches like these need to be scaled to the
institutional level. Change in any large and complex organization is constrained by a number of factors, including resources and regulatory and
policy frameworks. In most universities, resources are overcommitted
and funds are not available for substantial investment in innovation. In
addition, government funding formulas typically, and not unreasonably,
support policy objectives that increase access to postsecondary education
(for example, through “growth funding”) rather than support objectives
that improve learning.
To create the environment in which large-scale innovation takes place,
such constraints need to be removed, reformed or at least appropriately
mitigated to facilitate change and flexibility. The first and greatest impediment to change, however – and the one over which we have the most
control – is our own habit of intellectual self-limitation: of conceiving the
future always in terms of the past, and the possible in terms of the proven.
As Thomas Kuhn argued half a century ago, advances in science depend
upon some sort of profound escape – be it momentary, be it apparently
insignificant – from inherited paradigms. In the case of universities, the
change to thinking about learning rather than teaching will be the necessary
Pierre Zundel is president of the University of Sudbury and a 3M Teaching
Fellow. Patrick Deane is a professor of English and cultural studies and president
of McMaster University.
24 / www.universityaffairs.ca /January 2011
Alverno College Faculty. (1994). student
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