Linking theory to practice – A little more action, please

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

Linking theory to practice is an important learning aspiration. Let’s be honest: how many times have you heard the one about the undergrad who steps out of his/her cap and gown into the real world to realize a split second later that they know so much but know so little. You’ve heard it, right? (Perhaps even experienced that feeling yourself). It is the shared responsibility of lecturers and instructors to try to mitigate that moment — to work together so students are prepared for life after graduation, equipped with enough theory to understand the world, and enough practical experience to challenge that same understanding. So how do we create opportunities that inspire students to seek out links between theory and practice? Here are some ideas already put into practice by McGill professors….

Option one: Take students out into the field often.


Prof. Caroline Begg, at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, takes her students in the AGRI215 Agro-Ecosystems Field Course on local farm visits every Friday. The students tour the operation and interview the farmers. For many of the students this is their first time visiting a farm; some of these farms are doing well and others are not. Prof. Begg asks students to take notes on-site, and think critically about what they have observed and learned from each visit. On the Monday after each visit, a group of four students discuss their observations in front of the class, and the rest of the students write up their thoughts. The purpose of the three-part assignment is to nurture the students’ ability to summarize and communicate their observations of farm life, and to come to terms with lived experience that may differ from the theory in their textbooks.

Option two: Encourage students to think about policy holistically.


Prof. Nigel Roulet, in the Geography Department uses a bit of role-play to help students think about how theory links to and affects practice. His students assume the role of Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, and are asked to produce a memo/briefing note for the Prime Minister’s Office regarding greenhouse gas reductions. Prior to writing the memo, students receive information on Canada’s history with global climate change accords, and a description of six greenhouse gas emission scenarios. The students construct the memo with the following questions in mind: Where does anthropogenic carbon ultimately end up for each scenario. Assuming a ‘business as usual’ scenario is a reasonable projection if we do nothing, what is the net benefit of Kyoto if all countries met their targets? Can the Canadian Government’s plan prevent dangerous climate change? What level of reductions would we need to avoid dangerous climate change? Taking on the perspective of a policy advisor reinforces how complex and multidisciplinary these issues are. Having to write a memo rather than a research paper is also great preparation for the life after graduation where this type of writing is common practice.  For more information of this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.

Option three: Inspire students to interact with the community.


Think big, and inspire not just your students but also the faculty. The Dentistry Outreach Program at McGill is effective for multiple reasons. It is open to students of all years, who, based on their level, are assigned tasks that provide them with invaluable experience, from learning how to handle dental equipment to assisting on procedures. The program is also centered around providing dental healthcare to people who may not have access otherwise; it inspires students and dental professionals to work together in the community and teaches the value of volunteerism. Many students often go back to the communities and help in ways that do not necessarily focus on dental care.

This is a step beyond linking theory to practice — it allows faculty and students to engage with community members and build stronger relationships based on important issues. Something we could all use a little more of.

Check out the other posts in the Apirations to Action blog series:

For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

*McGill Dentistry Outreach photo taken from Run for Outreach website.

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