Queen's University

A bold plan: It's all about the four pillars

The first Academic Plan in the 171-year history of the University is being hailed as a milestone document, one that’s vital to the future of Queen’s.

A bold plan for new student learning experiences

Nowadays, we have a plan for just about everything in life,” says Dr. Joy Mighty, the director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. “To be honest, I’m amazed that we haven’t had an academic plan before this.”

Mighty regards the Plan as a kind of academic roadmap that will guide Queen’s in its quest to teach students the knowledge and life-long learning skills they’ll need in order to adapt to life situations and workplace conditions in a fast-changing global economy.

Should alumni care about the Academic Plan? “Yes,” says Mighty. “Alumni should be very interested. This Plan will affect the kind of education that their children and their children’s children receive if they study at Queen’s.”

In the following articles, four members of the Senate Academic Planning Task Force explain how and why the document they have written is vital to the future of the University.


It’s all about the four pillars

By Prof. Peter Taylor, Artsci'64, MSc'65

Almost every academic institution is finding the current economic times challenging, and Queen’s is no ­exception. What most of us have yet to realize is that to thrive – and for some schools even to survive – the next decade will require a fundamental change in the way we relate to our students. Let me tell you about the issue that is currently of most significance to me.

Let’s start with Queen’s new Academic Plan. I had the honour of serving as chair of the eight-member Academic Planning Task Force (APTF) that crafted this document. The bases of the Plan are the four “Pillars” that we want our scholarly endeavours to focus on:

  • fundamental academic skills;
  • a balance between specialized and interdisciplinary knowledge;
  • global awareness and inclusion; and,
  • community health and wellness.

They are all important, but here I concentrate on the first pillar: the skills that are fundamental to learning – the ability to inquire, to “drill down,” to ask the right questions and follow them up, to read well and to think carefully and critically, to write clearly and incisively, to handle quantitative reasoning, to know what to do with all the information that floods our environment, to organize ideas, to communicate effectively and work creatively with one another.

A high school student who comes to university without knowing how to write a good essay has not learned how to ask good questions and wrestle with the answers.

Of all these I take two to be central: inquiry and writing. They seem a bit different, but they are, in fact, the two sides of the same academic gold coin. Each depends on the other. A sustained journey of inquiry requires a frequent articulation of place and progress, and in setting this down, we review the process and sharpen our conclusions. Conversely, we cannot construct a compelling story without being able to inquire. A high school student who comes to university without knowing how to write a good essay has not learned how to ask good questions and wrestle with the answers.

Inquiry and writing – these are the skills that are most needed not only to proceed in school, but also to succeed in most careers. At the same time they are exactly the main weaknesses of most of my students.

We need to start with the observation that there is no quick fix. What is needed, for both of these, is focused reading and critical thinking over a sustained period of time, starting as early as possible. I believe that the main reason so many of my students today find inquiry and writing so difficult is that they spent a huge number of hours of their early life in fast-moving creative enterprises requiring agility and coordination, but too little time at any form of slow, careful, deep reflection.

[word cloud showing the four pillars of the academic plan]

Margaret Atwood recently was quoted as saying that the social network Twitter was a positive force for literacy among the young, and indeed it likely means they read more text than they otherwise would. However, tweets do not generally invoke the measured critical reading I am talking about here.

The problem is that teaching a student to inquire incisively and to write well requires considerable one-on-one teacher-student time. And that’s what we seem to have less and less of nowadays. My response to this is to try to spend my time at the cutting point, to use the various instructional resources at my disposal in the best possible way. The general principle that underlies most of the changes I have recently made is that my students must take more responsibility for their own learning and for the learning of their fellow students. There are two aspects to this:

  1. Self-reliance, independence, and being clear about your goals, and,
  2. Peer interaction, collaboration, and teaching one another.

Queen’s has always had the latter at an informal level, and it’s an important part of its community spirit, but many of us on faculty are augmenting that with more-formal structures in which students are given instructional responsibilities either for students at an earlier stage, or (more interestingly) for classmates, those who are struggling to gain some mastery of the material. In Math & Stats we are running a number of such programs at the undergraduate level, all funded from alumni donations.

I want to end with an example of (1, above). For two first-year courses in the fall semester, I get a marking budget (of time), but it’s not nearly enough to handle my 450 students. Many faculty have begun to use on-line computer-marked homework, and that can work well to develop technical mastery; however, the heart and soul of my own undergraduate years were the challenging problems I was given to solve and write up, and I need and want to give the same experience to my own students. How do I do that?

I give them problems, the best I can find. They can work together to solve them but they need to write them up individually as elegantly and incisively as they are able. Finally, I ask them to give themselves a mark of 0, 1, or 2 based on their own efforts and an estimate of their success in solving the problem. I then have my marker spend an average of one minute per paper (that’s my budget), not to check details, but just to make an eyeball judgement of whether the student’s self-assessment is at all reasonable. If it is, the mark gets entered; if not, the assignment gets flagged for a closer look by me, and possibly a meeting with the student.

A few weeks into the semester, I find that most of my students are doing a good job on the assignment and are taking their self-assessment seriously. That experience ought to give them a good preparation for whatever future awaits them.

Let’s not forget what the task of the University really is: to prepare our students to go forward as leaders into a world that increasingly needs to understand how to live together as a global community, sharing the life-giving resources that our small planet has given us.

Read the next article in this series, "Planning for a diverse, inclusive, and globally minded academy."

The Academic Plan 2011 is the result of an 18-month campus-wide collaborative process that was rooted in the ideas Principal Daniel Woolf put forward in his 2010 vision document, Where Next?

These concepts were discussed and refined in a 2010 Academic Writing Team report entitled, Imagining the Future. And ­finally, an eight-member Senate task force chaired by Prof. Peter Taylor further consulted with the broader Queen’s community over several months. The fruit of their labours, the University’s first Academic Plan, was given unanimous approval by the Senate in November, and the ­University community is now preparing for the next phase of the process, which is implementing the Plan.

For more information or to read the Academic Plan, please visit the Queen’s News Centre website and search for Academic Plan.

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2012 Issue #1
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