Autumn 2016 / Life on Campus
Helping Undergrads Refine Their Skills

New feedback tools from engineering will help students home in on weaknesses – and strengths


Photo of students taking notes in class

Photo: Jason Krygier-Baum

Researchers in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engi­neer­ing are testing a new way to provide feedback on undergraduate assignments that would give students more useful infor­mation about their strengths and weaknesses in career and life skills.

The feedback instruments are being developed to give students more consistent and detailed descriptions of their performance in five areas – communication, teamwork, problem-solving, design and investigation skills.

Graduates of all Ontario universities are expected to perform well on these skills and others – called “learning outcomes” or, in engineering, “graduate attributes.”

These new feedback tools are also being developed to help bring greater consistency to how students are assessed throughout their university career, says Susan McCahan, vice-provost of innovations in undergraduate education. The tools would also make it easier for undergraduates to recognize the specific skills they need to improve, she says.

As McCahan explains, with the current approach, a student may score 60 per cent in a course on game theory and 80 per cent in Canadian literature and conclude he is just not very good at game theory. But if students are assessed in different courses on a consistent set of skills (as well as the content related to that course), they may discover that they need to improve their problem-solving, for example, or learn to construct written arguments better. “They could then seek another course that supports learning in this area,” she says.

Another option for students would be to look for a co-curricular activity that supports relevant skill development. The point, says McCahan, is to enable students to tailor their university experience so they acquire the skills and experience they want, rather than trying to design a curriculum that will slot them into a specific job. “That’s not what universities should be designed to do,” she says.

McCahan emphasizes that learning outcomes are one way of helping students get more out of their university education: “It’s like when you go through an art exhibit and someone tells you about the art, the artist and how their work relates to other art. It’s not about reducing your experience of the art to just those facts. It’s about enriching your overall experience.”

Although the new feedback tools are being developed – and tested – in the Faculty of Engineering, they have been designed for use across the university. The tools will be available on a public website for any instructor to use, says McCahan.


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