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EPS Learning Community: Exploring our “write” to learn

Our meeting place has a few different names: Frank Dawson Adams 232, The Gill Room, but when we met together, it was home to the Earth and Planetary Sciences Learning Community. As the only student in the room of professors and university staff, would I be taking an exam? It turns out, I would wear many hats as part of the Learning Community, including that of a facilitator…

Thanks to the efforts of the EPS Learning Community, not even the spectacular geology of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges could distract these EPS students from their new-found fervour for writing. (Photo: Anna Hayden)

The Learning Community is a diverse group – with members from the Office of Science Education, Teaching and Learning Services, the McGill Writing Centre, the McGill Library, professors from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and me – an M.Sc. student and former undergraduate in the same department. What then did we all have in common? Each member of the Learning Community is interested in improving writing in undergraduate courses.

At the initial kickoff meeting in December 2018, the professors were asked to brainstorm their priorities for engaging undergraduate students in writing. The blackboard soon became filled with learning outcomes that needed attention – would it be possible to address all of them? Drawing on the expertise of the planning group – a subgroup of the Learning Community that included McGill staff and me – the long list of priorities was distilled into four categories: writing for different audiences, information literacy, formal and informal writing activities, and grading and assessment. Each monthly meeting with the Learning Community would explore one of these topics.

Image: Learning Community to the rescue! Our goal is to tackle the priorities brainstormed by professors in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

In our department, experiments seldom exclude rocks. However, in the Learning Community, experiments were of a different genre. In order to reconcile faculty expectations and student competencies, the planning group introduced the professors to novel approaches to writing. The A.P.O.S (Audience, Purpose, Organization, and Style) writing framework, frequently taught in McGill Writing Centre courses, was central to many of the activities presented in Learning Community meetings, from assignment design to informal writing to providing feedback. The professors welcomed these exercises with enthusiasm, and some even integrated these writing activities immediately in their own classes. The Learning Community is already making an impact! Positive change is underway.

From the Learning Community meetings, it is evident that faculty in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences are invested in addressing student concerns, opinions, and suggestions. The professors wanted to hear my experiences with writing in the Department, to know what is working and what could be improved upon, and how they might introduce changes. Making space for student voices confirmed that we truly are a community, and that we can all learn from one another. And while there’s no right way to learn, we can certainly write to learn.

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