Student Reflections from ISSoTL and the MRU Banff Symposium 2016

By Galicia Blackman, Chris Ostrowski and Brit Paris

As first-time attendees to the International Society for the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (ISSoTL) Conference (held this year in October in Los Angeles), we went for a divide and conquer approach. Session topics included student as partners in research, the ethics of SoTL, critical thinking, collaborative writing, research methods, and public discourse about teaching and learning. The conference theme centred on stories we tell within and about SoTL and there were indeed a range of stories from all over the world.

The Banff 2016 Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning In and Across Disciplines (November, 2016) hosted by Mount Royal University is a gathering of teacher/scholars is a practitioner’s conference dedicated to developing teaching and learning research, sharing initial findings, going public with results of completed projects, and building an extended scholarly community. Many of the attendees were from the region and/or were veterans of the conference, so it had a very familial feeling to it. Being much smaller than ISSOTL (approximately 240 as opposed to over 600), the conversations felt more relaxed. It was easier to recognize familiar faces and jump into meaningful conversations without having to spend as much time explaining (sometimes) vast differences between institutions and countries.

The highlights

One of the highlights at ISSoTL was a project out of the University of Auckland that examined how technology could affect student feedback. New tools such as Piazza, and live student feedback system, were found to enable conversations that wouldn’t be otherwise possible. Students could give each other feedback more easily and see what others in the class were thinking about a given topic.

Another highlight at ISSoTL was a project out of Australia, which spanned the gap between Teacher Education and SoTL. Through the discussion of re-engaging partner schools to improve the teacher preparation program and involve in-service teachers, we discovered that different areas of interest don’t have to live in silos but work quite well together.

From students’ perspectives

As students, we found ISSOTL and the MRU symposium great opportunities to see how different disciplines approached teaching and learning scholarship. It was exciting to see first-hand just how passionate instructors can be about teaching and learning. It was also an extremely welcoming community where conference attendees were curious about others’ projects, even though they fall outside of their specialization or interest area. Everywhere we turned someone was interested in where we came from and what work we were doing, often then offering to connect us with someone else they knew.

The meeting of multiple worlds

language is metaphor and when one is passionate about language and meaning, the metaphors stand out – decoding the disciplines and student bottlenecks, to name a few. We were fascinated at how the multiple disciplines could speak to each other. There were moments where discussions could have turned into a tower of babel scenario because understanding was elusive. Then there were moments where the crossover into understanding occurred because the motivation underlying it all was unanimous and palpable-how can we enhance teaching and learning? It felt like a kind of academic home to us, because we relish the meeting of multiple worlds. We enjoy tensions and conflicts, because let’s face it, that’s the stuff of good storytelling and it can look to an imminent resolution. We emerged, confused, confounded, enlightened and inspired, and bothered all at the same time—and we liked it!

Takeaways and how it’s influencing our work at the TI

The conferences were a gateway to diverse ways of thinking about teaching and learning from across the globe. We were re-inspired to bring the advances in teaching and learning back to our work at the U of C, not just through the TI, but in our everyday interactions with instructors and graduate students.

We were also struck, particularly at the Banff Symposium, by the different styles of presentations. Some were very “scholarly”, presenting research that had been done on a area of teaching and learning, while other sessions felt more like a “show and tell” of what’s going on in the presenter’s classroom and what’s working or not working. They provided interesting contrasts for us to engage with topics in both formal and informal ways. It also prompted us to reflect on how we might approach such presentations of our own work. We enjoyed the passion people brought to their presentations and their excitement for having an audience to share their work, negotiate meanings and interpretations, and just generally talk about teaching and learning among like-minded individuals.

Indeed, the Banff Symposium had a different tone. It felt more intimate even though there was still multi-disciplinary dialoguing. It was softer and gentler, and we’re not sure if that was the effect of the mountains or the general mood. It felt like there was some insulation from the turmoil of the rest of the world, that participants were interested in the human connections that happen in teaching and learning. The tone was optimistic and we thought perhaps, watching a plenary where an activity was played out, gave us a sense of what can be done. Yes, there were times where some sessions felt theoretical, even mystical but the practicality of that performance plenary gave us a sense that the participants came to SoTL with a spirit of optimism for possibilities. It was an infectious kind of optimism. Coming back to the TI, our work is now infused with knowing what others are doing in SoTL. It helped frame where our contributions can fit within the broader SoTL community.

From the international stories at ISSoTL to being nestled in the mountains at the Banff symposium, we noted that SoTL is truly interdisciplinary and diverse. As we move forward with our various projects, we have new insights and ideas we can incorporate. Some of us have already begun thinking of ides for other SoTL conferences and next year’s ISSOTL, which we are hosting in Calgary.

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