14 My Undergraduate Journey … Upon Reflection – by Felicia Vulcu
The concept of student-centred learning is not a new one. I first read about it from a paper written in 1987 entitled “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). To this day, I remember reflecting on the content of this paper and trying to fit my undergraduate education to these principles. Experiences that truly engaged me as an undergraduate student took place in small spurts spread across a few courses. The common threads between these experiences included team learning, an interaction with the instructor, and a truly awesome problem we had to tackle. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing problem-based learning in its true form: engaging students with each other, the course facilitators, and content.
What I realized later in my life is that these wonderful student-centered learning experiences were much more than just the content presented: the environment I was in added more to my engagement in this process than any content matter ever could. I was so fortunate in my undergraduate degree to be constantly surrounded by a group of truly amazing peers. We took the same courses, we studied together, we learned from one another, and we supported one another—and together we invited student-centered learning whenever it was offered. Keep in mind, this was the late nineties and many courses were still taught in the traditional style of passive lectures, midterms, and finals.
But once in a while we encountered moments of learning perfection. These moments came from course instructors who sought to infuse student engagement in their teaching styles: from relating fundamental knowledge to real-life cases, to introducing ethical and social debates to scientific content. What made these moments truly perfect was the environment itself. I know, it sounds odd at first, but the environment trumped content. In these perfect student-centered moments, I felt safe, respected, and appreciated. Everyone in the room shared their opinions, and everyone’s viewpoint mattered. We were all equal in every way.
My hope is that everyone who reads this has an idea of what I am referring to. The perfect moment: when time almost stops, and the environment is charged with happiness, optimism, and excitement. All individuals in this environment collaborate together, all stigma is forgotten, and the only thing that matters is the task we have been challenged to undertake.
One of these perfect moments revolved around the topic of amino acid structures. That’s right, something most people think of as a fairly dry topic. I still remember it like it was yesterday: an entire group of second year biochem undergraduate students crowded around a wooden table in one of the Mills library group study rooms. We all stared at the assignment with awe and wonder. None of us knew how to tackle it, so we spent a good 20–30 minutes staring at it with nothing to offer. Then slowly, a few of us brave people started to talk. What did we say? Well, the truth really. We voiced what everyone thought, “I have no idea how to tackle this problem and I am absolutely terrified.” From there it was like something broke and everyone felt relief that we were all in this together, and no one was stupid or incompetent. We tackled the problem once again, we chunked it out into workable pieces that we could easily digest, we divided the work, and we came together as one team with plausible solutions to the assigned problem. It was such a wonderful moment—a bonding event that allowed us to experience not only content skills, but also transferable skills like teamwork, optimism, resilience, and hope. We created a milieu filled with kindness, compassion, nurturing, and happiness.
As a result, I stand here, many years later, a teaching professor at McMaster University with only one mission: to create learning environments conducive to student-centred learning. Every day, I strive to ensure that my students feel safe, happy, and optimistic. Every day, I listen and share, and through this process learning occurs. The content I teach is biochemistry, biotechnology, and drug discovery, but these are just scientific concepts. At the core of my teaching philosophy is the pursuit of these perfect learning moments, driven by student engagement, where all societal barriers are removed and all that is left is learning.
Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin 3: 7.