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Creating confidence and competence through conversations

Let's Talk Business

If flexibility is about responsiveness, then the Let’s Talk program offered by the Student Learning Commons (SLC) is a prime example of a flexible approach shaped by and to the needs of its participants.

Donna McGee Thompson, head of SLC, says the program is designed for English as an Additional Language (EAL) students who want to become more comfortable communicating in English, and its structure is deliberately informal. Tim Mossman, EAL coordinator, was the SLC lead responsible for developing the program and training peer facilitators.

“Once per week students come to the group and participate in a series of fun and engaging discussion-based activities led by peer educators to gain confidence and proficiency in spoken English,” says McGee Thompson. “The activities are individualized—students speak about their own experience and then hear from others. It’s not a lecture or workshop format. Instead, the focus is on the individualized conversations to facilitate reflection on personal experience.”

The conversational format in a setting where they are not being evaluated means students relax and share more about their issues, says McGee Thompson. This element is a key pedagogical underpinning of the program.

Let’s Talk actually has three iterations: Let’s Talk Business for Beedie students, Let’s Talk Psychology for first-year psychology students, and the general Let’s Talk program for EAL students from all disciplines. In every case, says McGee Thompson, the secret of success is the program’s use of peer mentors, students who are willing to support their peers in their educational —and cultural— journey.

While general guidelines exist, Let’s Talk has no limitations and is designed for flexibility to ensure the comfort of all who participate. Some students attend regularly for an entire semester; others may drop in once or twice. Participants discuss a new topic each week that incorporates vocabulary development, listening comprehension, pronunciation, and critical thinking—but it’s all malleable, based on what the participants are keen to discuss or need at a given time.

Although the program is not directly related to students’ academic work, its goal is to increase their confidence and comfort level in approaching their TAs and professors with questions, and to participate in group work with other students. It’s also an example of how flexible education extends to the ways in which we establish a supportive environment around learning activities.
Let’s Talk is designed with international and new Canadian students in mind, but the program is open to all SFU students, as well as interested faculty and visiting professors. Any groups interested in exploring a customized EAL communication program for their students are encouraged to contact Tim Mossman to talk further:

For more information:
Let’s Talk:
Let’s Talk Business:
Let’s Talk Psychology:

Research Commons helps grad students reach the finish line

Grad Pres

The Task Force on Flexible Education recognizes that flexible learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom. This is part one of a two-part series highlighting two flexible programs offered by SFU Library.

The notion that a student’s sole responsibility is degree completion is becoming obsolete. Today, many students are forced to juggle multiple life roles, and school is just one of the many priorities on their never-ending list. Finding adequate support and work-life balance may be even more difficult at the graduate student level. Flexible education within the context of that reality is about providing the resources and support students need to complete their programs despite the constraints—and it’s something the SFU Library understands well. Nicole White, Head of the Library’s Research Commons, leads a team that is providing a remarkable integrated solution: Thesis Boot Camp.

Ideal for students nearing the end of their dissertation or thesis, the 3 day intensive program is designed to propel participants toward the finish line. Each three-day Thesis Boot Camp provides a comfortable working environment, with librarians and writing facilitators available for writing and research support. Students establish individualized goals at the start of the camp and choose how best to use the three days. While some use the time to get feedback on their current thesis draft, others take the time to write, review, or further their literature searching. Many take advantage of workshops on obtaining ethics approval, copyright permissions and other topics.

Thesis Boot Camp has engaged staff members from Health and Counselling Services, the Office of the Ombudsperson, the Office of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Fellows, and the Graduate Student Society to educate students on topics like maintaining well-being, working effectively with a supervisor, and accessing relevant resources. White emphasizes the importance of recognizing that participants are at various stages of their writing and must be empowered to be “masters of their time.” Thus, the program is flexible and personalized as students are free to plan their itinerary for maximum benefit.

The workshops foster a peer support network that also enhances the participant experience: “[Students] mind each other’s experience and generate tips and tricks from one another.” White points out that it’s common for participants to make connections across different disciplines, stay in touch and provide mutual support beyond the sessions.

For more information:

Thesis Boot Camp:

“All in a day” workshop series:

The world cafes: Charting a path toward implementation

World Cafe DAC
Participants at the Burnaby world cafe at the Diamond Alumni Centre on January 26.

Over 70 faculty members, staff and students attended world cafés hosted by the Task Force on Flexible Education at the Burnaby campus on January 26, and in Vancouver on February 2.

The participants, supplied with refreshments, writable table covers and a collection of coloured markers, moved from table to table to discuss key questions related to flexibility and relevance in education. The result—captured visually by graphic recorders—was a compilation of thoughts ranging from the cautionary to the visionary to the practical.

The world café series, which will conclude with a session at SFU’s Surrey campus on February 17, will help guide the task force as it develops recommendations to ensure that SFU instructors and programs receive the support they need to continue providing relevant and flexible learning experiences to their students.

The conversations during the completed events centred on five themes:

– Relevance
– Teaching approaches
– Infrastructure and support
– Student agency
– Program design

The challenge for the task force will be to sort through the many ideas proposed by participants in order to identify clear goals and actions. Participants did seem to agree about certain broad principles, including the following:

– Progress will require institutional support, including a financial commitment, to foster cultural change.
– Change will require talking to various partners (unions, faculty members, administration, etc.) about the implications for SFU’s organizational structure.
– The university should build on existing “flexible” initiatives, in part by sharing current achievements more widely with the community.
– Long-term transformation will require changes to the infrastructure that supports teaching and learning activities.

In addition, they suggested a number of concrete steps:

– Address students’ desire for marketable skills by being more explicit about how the strengths of a university education—including critical thinking, literacy, citizenship and writing skills—deliver what employers want.
– Conduct research to define the meaning of relevance within different departments and student populations.
– Incorporate experiential learning into all programs through capstone projects, community-based courses and other forms of active learning.
– Encourage and support inter-disciplinary work and provide budgetary incentives for faculty members to undertake such activities.
– Investigate new approaches to course structure, length, delivery modes and scheduling.
– Introduce a foundational course on lifelong learning in which students could learn study skills, critical thinking methods, assessment of scholarly materials, and other related skills.
– Provide better advancement opportunities for good teachers.

The final Surrey world café on February 17 is open to participants from all campuses. For details and to register.

Personalization and an emphasis on competencies: How B.C.’s new education plan will shape our students’ expectations

Jan Unwin
Jan Unwin provides an overview of changes happening in the K-12 sector that will impact future teaching and learning
approaches at SFU.

Passion, purpose and personalization are three elements that public school (K-12) students view as fundamental to the ideal education system of the future. These are some of the core findings of a study presented at SFU on January 16 by Jan Unwin, superintendent of graduate and student transitions with B.C.’s ministries of Education and Advanced Education.

Unwin’s presentation was arranged by the Task Force on Flexible Education (TFFE) to provide a glimpse into the changes that could shape SFU’s incoming students—and their expectations—in the years ahead.

According to Unwin, the provincial government is taking a bold leap towards reimagining and restructuring the K-12 public education system to make it more reflective of today’s diverse educational needs. “It’s a mind shift,” she said, adding that the current K-12 system is built on “systems and models and structures that were set up for a different age.”

Unwin indicated that the government has identified five key areas of focus for the next B.C. Education Plan: personalized learning, quality teaching and learning (including mentorship), flexibility and choice, high standards, and learning empowered by technology. A key question guiding the exploratory study went like this: Why should our education system be one-size-fits-all when we know that no two students are alike and that they come to us with different goals, aspirations and competencies?

Perhaps one of the largest pedagogical shifts within the proposed plan is the focus on competencies rather than content as the driver. Unwin described the vision is one in which teachers take on a coaching and mentoring role to assist students with finding their passion and a successful pathway to their future.

“We want to create the best possible life chances for kids and young adults, and we want them speaking about their entire educational experience with passion, purpose and pride,” said Unwin. “We need to work collaboratively to get it right.”

The proposed transformation of the K-12 system will have enormous implications for post-secondary institutions like SFU. The TFFE is highlighting these types of issues and working to generate discussion around how the university can be more responsive to, and prepared for, students who will expect approaches to teaching and learning that mirror, at least to some degree, the reimagined K-12 curriculum.

Want to know more about Jan Unwin’s presentation? Follow the links below to view the presentation webcast, see the presentation slides, or download the new B.C. Education Plan.

Click here to watch the webcast.
Download a copy of Jan’s slides.
BC Education Plan:

Change Lab: Becoming comfortable with discomfort

SFU Change Lab
In Change Lab, students confront “real-world” challenges and develop solutions that have an immediate impact on people in the community.

By Candy Ho

Creating student discomfort in the classroom may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a positive teaching experience. However, this is exactly what instructors in SFU’s Change Lab aim to achieve.

The objective of this seven-credit experiential course, co-offered by the Faculty of Environment and the Beedie School of Business, is to challenge and empower students while equipping them with the skills required to create positive social change in a rapidly changing world with complex social and economic environments. From the beginning, students and instructors co-create shared values and rules of engagement to set the tone for the class. Depending on students’ interest areas and level of understanding in creating change, instructors engage various speakers to share their expertise on relevant topics such as social change, design thinking, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Students are mandated to be self-directed. They develop an idea for a socially relevant project and execute that plan. The plan must be meaningful and must address a social problem that exists for real people in a real community. That’s the whole experiential aspect.

“Try and learn, and try again, and fail, and learn, and try again.” This is the so-called “secret sauce” for doing change work according to Jenn McRae, Change Lab co-instructor. “It’s very iterative. Through this process students cultivate attributes such as agency, empowerment, and feeling a sense of efficacy in launching their own creation.”

McRae cites the example of one student group that completed a zero waste project, developing an online platform that matched food-based charities with distributors who had food that was edible but not sellable.

The lack of structured lectures, assignments and typical course expectations can be a jarring experience for students, says McRae. To ensure that projects align with the course learning outcomes, students are required to present regularly on their progress, with immediate feedback and ongoing mentorship provided by both instructors and peers.

Immersing students in an environment that emulates reality and real problems gives learners the confidence that they can develop the skills needed to tackle some of our more pressing issues. Change Lab provides students with awareness and the ability to make a positive impact in real-world settings.

For more information:

Public events:
World Cafes: Relevance, flexibility and the student learning experience at SFU

World Cafe

An invitation to SFU faculty members and instructors, staff and students on all three campuses

Burnaby World Café
Monday, January 26, 2015 | 10:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m. (lunch included) | Diamond Alumni Centre
To register:

Vancouver World Café
Monday, February 2, 2015 | 1:30 p.m.–4 p.m. (refreshments provided) | Harbour Centre 1400
To register:

Surrey World Café
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | 1:30 p.m.–4 p.m. (refreshments provided) | 3280
To register:

What does it mean to say that a university education is “relevant?” And what is the connection between relevance and flexibility in education? How can SFU provide more relevant learning experiences to its students? Share your thoughts about the directions in which university teaching and learning is—and should be—headed at one of three World Cafe style consultative events hosted by the Task Force on Flexible Education in January and February. The cafes will provide a forum for large- and small-group dialogue centred around five themes:

  • Relevance
  • Program design
  • Teaching approaches
  • Infrastructure and support
  • Student agency

This is your opportunity to contribute to the development of principles and practices that will shape the future of SFU. We are eager to hear from faculty members, staff and students on all three campuses. Register today!

“Relevance is the goal. Flexibility is the enabling strategy. Responsiveness is the practice.”