Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) is McGill University’s teaching support unit. TLS hires students from within the university to contribute to the success of various projects. In the Fall of 2017, I responded to a job posting for a Graduate Student Assistant position. Experience running and/or organizing large scale events was required, as were strong computer-literacy and communication skills. My experience and skills seemed suitable for the position: I’m a former business student and high school teacher, and I have a passion for learning. I applied for the position because it seemed like a good opportunity to utilize my skills and strengths, follow my passion, and find a place for myself in my new university. My interviewers clearly saw the same strong fit for me with this position, and I was hired.
I’ll be honest … until my first day of work at TLS, and maybe even until my second or third week, I really didn’t know what my job was going to be. One of the first responsibilities I was given was taking notes at monthly Assessment and Feedback Group (AFG) meetings. I had never heard of the AFG, so I decided to research the group before attending my first meeting. I read on the web that the AFG “engages the McGill community in considering effective methods for assessing student work and strategies for providing feedback to students, particularly in large classes.” AFG members come from many departments and faculties, and have a variety of roles within the McGill community. There are students, librarians, professors, staff and academic associates. I was excited to engage with this group that could make me think more critically about the relationship between assessment/feedback—as part of teaching—and learning.
As with many life experiences, I was eager to learn through being a member of the AFG and was pleasantly surprised at the opportunities I was given to not just learn, but also to share my opinions and add value to the conversations. In fact, I soon realized that my role was to represent the student voice, to contribute the student perspective to the conversation and even be an advocate for students. I was able to do this because I’m an active student in the McGill community. That provided me with a unique opportunity to share a different perspective on the topics discussed. I immediately noticed the credibility and weight my voice had at the meetings. I was treated as a participant with an equal voice. I particularly remember a conversation that exemplified my unique perspective. We were discussing students’ engagement with course material. Some profs felt that students weren’t doing everything they could to engage with course material. I felt compelled to provide my opinion: students are often overworked in a system that is not necessarily built to truly support our learning. Instead, it’s built more for us to achieve a grade so that we fulfill institutional requirements to obtain a degree. Very often, we can get the grades with surface learning, like memorizing for an exam, but what we want is deep learning.
My comments were taken seriously and we had a meaningful discussion about how to support students’ learning by offering students opportunities to engage in deep learning with course material while taking into account that they are often overworked.
While I feel I was able to advocate for students at these meetings, I also feel I’ve learned an incredible amount about the McGill community, the role of the professor, and the different needs and strategies for teaching and learning within the different faculties. It had never occurred to me that students in the extremely large first year science classes probably have to be assessed with different methods from students in smaller classes or that practical application assignments in engineering classes, where students might build things, are different from practical application assignments in music, where students might give a performance.
This is the first time in my post-secondary studies that I am aware of a group of professors and other university members getting together to try to improve assessment and feedback methods in order to benefit both students and professors. It has been enlightening for me to sit among this group who work hard to give students meaningful learning opportunities and enriching for me to work with them towards something I truly believe in: learning and knowledge creation, not just grades and performance evaluation. It truly makes me hopeful for the future of the student learning experience.
Simone Tissenbaum is a second-year grad student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University and a current Graduate Student Assistant with Teaching and Learning Services. Outside of the world of academia, Simone is a dancer. She has blended these two worlds together in her research, which uses dance to explore the topic of safe and healthy relationships with youth.