University of Calgary Faculty of Law associate dean Alice Woolley insists she is not tech-savvy. She can check her e-mail on her smartphone, and recently learned to set an alarm, but a technological whiz she is not, she says.
Standing at the front of the class lecturing just doesn’t work anymore, so Woolley is not letting her Luddite tendencies keep her from finding new ways to connect with students. And she says her innovative teaching methods shouldn’t deter students who consider themselves less technologically inclined from taking her courses either.
Woolley says people always think the tools are harder than they are, but nobody should be intimidated — she clearly isn’t. Woolley has been adding innovative methods to her teaching for a while now.
“I’m always trying to make my teaching better,” she says.
Woolley explains she had become “fundamentally skeptical” that a “stand-and-deliver” model of teaching was an effective way to facilitate student learning.
“If we want students to be able to not just regurgitate the law but actually be able to use it to analyze a problem then they have to start practising analyzing problems in class, we can’t just have them doing it in the exam,” she says.
Students need to learn the skills they will need when out in the profession — not just applying legal doctrine but thinking critically and making policy assessments in a systematic and rigorous way.
“The method I use allows that to happen.”
So if something new and interesting comes to her attention — and it makes sense for her course — she incorporates it.
The latest addition is the use of the Top Hat app in her second-year administrative law class and upcoming ethics class. It allows her to ask the class a question, and the students text in their answers. It takes her ability to continually assess their learning to a whole new level.
“I know what every single student in the class thinks, and it gives me a way better sense of where they’re at and if they understand the concept,” she says.
It allows her to track her students’ learning and generates feedback not from the few willing to speak out in front of the class but from everybody.
Woolley can also measure participation with Top Hat — the app tells her who is there and who answered the questions and she can give grades for participation which, she adds, creates a more “vibrant” classroom atmosphere.
“It’s the best teaching experience I’ve had in ten years,” Woolley says. “I’m able to connect with them so much better through this delivery mechanism.”
As for the students, they are enjoying the new approach as well.
For Laura Comfort, a second-year student in Woolley’s administrative law class, the professor’s reputation preceded her.
“I heard she uses more of a problem-based learning method,” says Comfort, who has some experience in her past educational experience with that method. “The technology helps her use the problem-based learning. Once I learned the technology I was interested. It’s quite effective, especially for the material.”
The Top Hat question, with which Woolley begins every class, allows the professor to see what the students are struggling with “right then and there,” says Comfort.
Students come to the class having watched a short, usually 15-minute podcast and class time is spent diving into longer written problems and discussion of the concepts.
“Her theory was that it makes no sense for the exam to be the first time you’re faced with a problem,” Comfort says of Woolley.
Comfort feels more prepared going into the exam because she has become familiar with how the professor frames questions, what is expected of answers, and students have been getting direct feedback during the classes which helps them navigate how they’ll be marked.
“It helps you learn the teacher,” Comfort explains.
Woolley tends to agree.
“One of the things is how you teach and another is how you evaluate,” she says. “I’m always trying to find ways to evaluate the students that go beyond the traditional exam. It’s harder to do that, but it’s a nice option to have.”
Jonathan McDonald, another 2L, is having his first experience with this kind of learning platform.
“I find it pretty good, I find it pretty helpful to learn, because we get to go through smaller questions on issues rather than looking at the bigger picture, which we always do in law school,” he says.
There are two sections of administrative law — one with Woolley and one with a more traditional lecturing model. Of the two, McDonald says the people in Woolley’s class are finding the information easier to absorb. McDonald says he switched sections for his ethics class next semester in order to stick with Woolley and continue with the more high-tech approach.
While the inaugural class hasn’t written final exams yet, Woolley says the midterms were promising. Her approach seems to be spreading — other faculty members have started using Top Hat now too.
The culture at the University of Calgary is very supportive of new and innovative ways of teaching, says Woolley. There’s a strong push to maintain a strong academic rigor, but also ensure the faculty is using best practices and updating their methods.
“There’s an atmosphere at U of C where we’re trying as a faculty as a whole to be innovative in our teaching,” she explains.