It will be a Happy New Year!

We are sometimes consumed by financial constraints, employer skepticism about skills we impart to students, and disinterest in support for higher education.

But we do good – lots of it. Our students will become the foremost leaders of tomorrow. 

Keeping students in mind, here is a simple prescription to guarantee an optimistic 2020.

We can often assume a false trade-off between academic rigor and course pass rates.  Many introductory university classes have DFW rates – the percentage of students in a class who get a D, or an F, or who withdraw – that exceed 20%. In McMaster Engineering, we monitor this rate, but include the proportion of students who receive the grade of C minus as well.

High DFW rates, particularly in lower division “gateway courses”, result in a cascading problem. Poor performance begets even more poor performance. Considering a curriculum to be a sequential exercise in developing expertise in a domain, students are unable to properly build the prior knowledge they require to succeed in the courses that follow.

Rigorous academic standards and high student failure rates are not interlinked. We can become convinced, and seek to convince everyone else, that the only way to lower DFW rates is to diminish either academic rigor or “dumb down” the academic assessment, such as a final exam.

This incorrect view must change.

We recruit the smartest, most hardworking students into McMaster Engineering programs. The first-to-second year retention for our engineering programs hovers around 97%. Therefore, our responsibility now is to focus not simply on how many of this cohort will graduate successfully, since a very large proportion will, but on further enriching their life and career outcomes. 

Thus, we must ensure that our graduates leave with deep learning to become exceptional technological, business and civic leaders who will flourish and induce positive social change.

Considering the large public and private investment in university education, we must become more proactive in ensuring students’ success rather than rely overwhelmingly on punitive assessments. A high DFW rate is not just an indicator of student performance, it is also a signal about the design of a curriculum. 

By adopting better ways of teaching and learning, courses should become pumps that promote the success of diverse learners rather than filters that “weed out” poorly performing students. The problem does not always lie with the learner; the method for teaching and learning might also be to blame.

There is strong evidence that more active attention from instructors and academic advisors, introduction of active learningproject-based learning and integrated learning, and use of frequent assessments enhances students’ engagement and their learning. This improvement in prior knowledge allows students to learn more effectively and perform better in upper level classes. 

My colleagues are student centred big thinkers who have a solution. In September 2020, we will all welcome a first-year engineering cohort into The Pivot, a massive transformation of the McMaster Engineering undergraduate experience. 

The Pivot focuses intensely on students and their learning, not the specific projects they tackle. Design thinking, an innovation mindset and entrepreneurship are embedded in all programming. Our students learn in the context of grand challenges and are encouraged to view these complex problems with a multidisciplinary lens.

We have redesigned our curriculum, combined courses and changed our approach to teaching to create an integrated learning experience. We encourage depth and breadth of knowledge and experience.

Traditional “chalk and talk” have been replaced by self-directed and group learning activity, amplified by robust problem-solving and integrated experiences applied to real-world problems. 

This approach allows for deeper more integrated learning. It connects experiences that students have inside and outside the classroom to their future careers and well being. 

Learning is no longer an obstacle course that must be mastered by our students. It is now a fulsome experience for them so that they become even more flexible to succeed in a rapidly changing world. 

It’s going to be a Happy New Year!

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