Center on Student Growth

March 16, 2020
Ideas That Matter
A conversation with Alison Flynn of University of Ottawa



We work with students in chemistry, education research, and we have started to go into the area of growth and goals, so supporting students in their learning journeys. We want to empower students in their journeys toward careers, so they get the more of their time in higher education.

Time frame for research

I did my PhD research in organic chemistry, so when things were going badly, it could take years and years in the lab. When things were going well, though, you could really run off a series of experiments and be done in a week! But in chemistry education research it’s quite different, I’ve yet to wrap something up in a week. On the short end it would be one year, but many years is more typical. So that was a big learning shift for me.

The messy process of education research

We like to start with the questions that need to be answered. How are we supporting students and what are students saying they need? Where are they going in their next courses or in their careers? What do they need to know and need to be able to do? And then working back from that we ask, What do we already know? What are the issues that keep coming up? What can we learn without doing research? And then what do we really need to figure out and research?

There is some hypothesis testing, where we might have an idea that one (educational) method is better than another or we think students think a certain way. Other times we’re really not even that far and need to explore what people are thinking about a given concept which could lead to a hypothesis. No matter how we start, we’re constantly questioning what our assumptions are, what our biases are and what do we know from our experience.Because if we just go with our own experience, we're not thinking about the students and their learning. We come from a very select, very narrow slice of a population. And so we really need to think about what other things might be out there and challenge ourselves as researchers to ask, what else? What if, what if not, how will we find out? How do we know? What do we need to know? I would say we're constantly questioning.

What are the lessons from your research that a teaching practitioner can best use?

For me, the thing that I keep coming back to, it's to really think about what we value in students learning and what students value.Students are the ones doing the learning. And so maybe they don't know yet what they'll need in their careers, but they certainly bring experiences and they bring their own beliefs and their own values. So together with the educator and the learner, identify what's truly important for that learning and then using that as the anchor upon which we design our assessments, the educational opportunities that we have, and the instruction that we do. Everything else gets built around that value of what we need to learn. Sometimes what we realize in that process is that the things that we've been typically testing on or asking students to do are maybe the easy things to get at, but we don't assess and we don't teach what we truly value, such as what we do as scientists or what we hope that students will walk away knowing or being able to do. The first nugget is coming back to that place of what we value in terms of knowledge and skills, and values themselves.

How do you communicate that to your students, especially in a large class in college, that they know you are on their side?

I tell them.

And to expand on that, I mean one of the things I really strive to do is to always communicate that the line of communication is open for students. I tell them that we're in this together, that they are ultimately the ones doing the learning and going on to the next course or to their careers, and I'm their partner in that. I then provide opportunities and feedback and scaffolding much like a coach does. In fact, that's where a lot of that came from coaching in different kinds of kinds of sports and thinking about, okay,well what do I need these athletes to do? What did they need to do? What kind of feedback did they need? What kind of opportunities? How are we going to set them up to fail in different ways?

How to help students through failure?

In thinking about how we talk about failure being part of the process, there are two avenues there. One is that the system itself, I mean if we're going to say that failure is just a part of the process, then we have to be really careful about what opportunities we give to fail and what we do and what we offer as “ramification” for that failure. Because if the failure is failing out of your program and costing you thousands and tuition, there are some very serious ramifications.

But if the failure is not doing well in a classroom exercise, or not doing well in practice when you're on athletic team, then that's a much lower stakes kind of failure. So, what are the stakes? What are we saying to students about failure, and what are we doing actually in terms of our own actions to communicate that we believe that it's important, and we're going to support them in it? I think that we have a responsibility to look very carefully if we're going to talk about failure as being an important and valuable and bright and shiny thing. We have to change parts of our system. One of the things we're doing to help to build that communication bridge with students is through that Growth and Goals module that we've been developing. It has aspects around growth mindset and goal setting and reflection. We're also building in components around mindfulness and resilience in the face of failure.

The Growth and Goals Module

We recognize that learning goes far beyond the subject at hand and to a much broader picture. Our Growth and Goals Module is meant for any discipline at any level, and it's integrated in the course, especially with respect to the course’s intended learning outcomes. It’s also moved beyond the University of Ottawa, to at least five institutions and more than 10 courses now have tried it out  with really positive results. So far, students are loving it. We are also seeing development in their skills, such as their metacognitive abilities,specifically, their ability to identify what they know and what they don't know. We're really thrilled with what's happening with this module. Because one of our values as a group is around access and accessibility and equity in education,it's an open education resource. It’s available to anybody to use, to adapt, and to change.

(Here’s the link to the Growth and Goals module at Alison Flynn’s Website.)

Listen to more of the podcast here! We talk about graphic design, a student’s natural tendency to want to know why, and the goals laboratory learning. All in the last 10 minutes!

Co- Author