A classroom full of youngsters, not a consultant’s office, was the setting York University student N’Keyah Burton pictured for her third-year education placement.
Imagine Burton’s surprise when she was selected to participate in the Students Consulting on Teaching at York (SCOTAY) program, run by the Teaching Commons. SCOTAY is an initiative that offers education students the opportunity to work closely with the Teaching Commons staff to prepare and serve as consultants to faculty members who are interested in gaining insights into their teaching practice through the eyes of a student. It ran as a pilot program last year and is now an ongoing placement offering.
“I’m shy, so I was nervous about this program,” Burton said. “I’m used to being with younger people; this is the first time I have engaged with faculty and staff on an adult level.”
“In higher education, teaching and learning often work in parallel rather than in tandem,” said Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, interim director of the Teaching Commons. “While this is the result of structural constraints rather than intentional, it can lead to an unfortunate divide between the educator and their learners. For instance, instructors can be left to speculate on the student experience as students are uncomfortable being forthcoming with their insights.
“SCOTAY aims to provide opportunities to instructors to validate their impressions of the student experience by connecting with students directly. Because they are not enrolled in the instructor’s course, these students can provide candid observations with no hesitation. They do so after completing a full semester of training to prepare them for this task, so their newly acquired skills help them experience confidence and success in that role.”
Burton gamely plunged into the experience, along with Zigeng Liang, a third-year education student from China, and one other classmate; they committed to spending a minimum of two hours each week at their placement and are also responsible for a deliverable. This year, the deliverable is a poster that allows each student to share information about positive student engagement and universal design for learning.
Lisa Endersby, the Teaching Commons educational developer who runs the program, began meeting with the students regularly at the start of the academic year to discuss teaching and learning and how Teaching Commons approaches those topics from a theoretical perspective. These sessions included discussions about student engagement and universal design.
“The program trains these students in various aspects of pedagogical theory in order to get everyone on the same page,” Endersby said. “I also trained them to develop the observational and assessment skills they would need to put their knowledge into practice facilitating reflective conversations based on classroom observations.”
Jiang found the training sessions very helpful.
“I learned a lot from Lisa,” he said. “The educational theory made it easier to do the observations and will be very helpful in my own teaching practice.”
Once the students had the appropriate background, Endersby arranged “friendly” consulting training sessions with teaching assistants or faculty who regularly worked with Teaching Commons. They would go through the complete consulting process with these volunteer lecturers: a meeting to discuss what the lecturer wanted them to evaluate; a 10-minute lecture delivered by the lecturer; and a debriefing with the lecturer to discuss what consultant the student had observed. Endersby gave the students feedback on the sessions so they could improve their skills further in preparation for working independently.
“I wanted our students to understand what it means to be a consultant, how to do a classroom observation and what a conversation with a faculty member would look like,” Endersby said. “They learn about faculty perspectives in a way that is different from being taught about it in the classroom, such as what the thought processes are in making decisions about teaching and how faculty think about student engagement.”
The Teaching Commons encourages faculty members to request a student consultation so they can gain new insights into their teaching.
“Students are experts in their own experience, so faculty learn more about how students think,” said Endersby. “There is a lot of sharing of perspectives and the students bring a lot of concerns to life. Both parties talk to each other in a way faculty and students rarely do. It shifts the perspective of both parties.”
The goal is for the students to conduct at two to three consultations per term during the year-long placement. Burton conducted two assessments prior to the COVID-19 crisis and had three others scheduled, but they are unlikely to take place. Nonetheless, she is very pleased by the outcome of her placement.
“I learned the evaluation steps and gave feedback more from the perspective of a student,” Burton said. “As I observed, I imagined how I would receive the information if I were taking the class. It was interesting seeing the classes from an outside perspective.
“It has been a different experience to talk to faculty members in person and each meeting was getting easier. I don’t usually communicate with faculty, but it was interesting to talk to them in person. I’m feeling so much more comfortable.”
Added Liang, “It was a new, exciting experience, because students don’t usually talk to faculty as equals.
He was also pleased to be part of a group working on similar goals.
“Other students I know who have placements off campus are on their own,” he said. “I learned a lot from my fellow students and I liked having their support.”
Burton says the biggest lesson she learned was how to give feedback.
“I learned a lot about constructive criticism and I improved my communications skills,” she said. “Everything I’ve learned will definitely help me because I want to be a principal someday, so what I’ve learned will help me further down the road.”
As the program manager, Endersby says that she, too, has learned from the experience.
“SCOTAY has informed my work as an educational developer,” she said. “The conversations with students makes me a better consultant. I like the ability to broaden and deepen my perspective.”