When it comes to research informing teaching, states Sociology Teaching Stream Assistant Professor Mitchell McIvor, “The research says that it’s good for students and good for us, so why wouldn’t we do it? It’s just about making sure that we’re making evidence-based decisions in regards to how we teach.”
McIvor’s work in academia focuses on bridging the gap between research and teaching. In an online interview, we discussed his background and values, and how he incorporates them into a teaching style that encompasses both recent research and student satisfaction.
Looking back on how his own experience in university shaped his view on teaching, McIvor described a class structure that relied entirely on students taking notes, without the aid of lecture slides or handouts. Courses relied on the student’s ability to attend every class and write fast enough to keep up with the professor. This structure was an entirely frustrating experience for him: “I hated that. I felt like I couldn’t listen and learn.”
One thing offered in university classes that he took as a student, but which he rarely sees today, was the opportunity to participate in community-engaged learning – a feature that he implemented in the courses he taught at the University of West Georgia and integrated again this past year into his courses at the University of Toronto. Formal academic environments where students are tested through assignments and exams are replaced in community-engaged learning with experiential learning, where students develop an understanding of the course material by reflecting on course-based volunteer experience.
To improve upon his own experiences in academia, McIvor kept the things that worked, such as community-engaged learning, and replaced what did not, for example, the standard lecture structure. The idea, McIvor says, came from his time teaching in Georgia. In the US, schools are funded differently based on local property taxes, which results in a disparity in the quality of education of incoming college students. He realized, when teaching a course to students with such disparate educational backgrounds, that it was inequitable to hold all students to the same standards with no accessible ways to achieve the same goals. “It occurred to me that if I was just giving everyone one shot at everything, I was just reproducing that inequality,” he explained.
“We’re sociologists, right? So, how can we structure the course to allow for people to grow and learn and maybe have a shot at reducing that inequity.”
One important research focus for McIvor is equity-based teaching, and he attributes his interest in this field partially to his experience at the University of West Georgia. To help his students succeed, he implemented structural changes. Essays, for example, could be revised and resubmitted once a student had received their grades, to encourage students unfamiliar with essay writing to try their hand at improving their skills. The weight of tests also was dependent on how a student did. If a student did poorly on their term tests, their final exam grade could replace those grades. The goal, for McIvor, was to allow students to make mistakes and to learn from them without being penalized. His final major teaching implementation was to allow a seven-day grace period for all assignments. Structurally, it was beneficial for both students and teachers. Students would feel less stressed about meeting a hard deadline, and professors and TAs would not have to deal with a barrage of extension requests. To McIvor, the reality of deadlines is that many of them are not strict. “Most things, if you’re a day late, no one’s going to yell at you.”
Beyond using current research to learn how to make his teaching more accessible, McIvor also learned to structure courses according to how students would best respond. McIvor decided to put this research to the test in his SOC225 course. Despite both tradition and his own experience warning him it would be poorly received, McIvor went into the class without any PowerPoint slides, lecture notes, or lesson plans, and instead opened a discussion with his students. “We just went in there, and we had conversations,” explained McIvor. “We’d go in there and be like, okay, gender inequality in Canada – what do you all know? Share information, figure out what we know, and I would add to it how to solve it. The whole class was just a discussion.” McIvor reiterated that he was sure his students would think him ill-prepared – he had notes to give them and discussions planned, but without the formal lecture-style structure most students and professors are accustomed to. He assumed students would dislike the class. But the most current research on teaching emphasized that this was the way to go, so McIvor complied and continued his novel teaching structure. To his surprise, by the end of the course, he had received some of the highest course evaluations of his teaching career.
“It’s like learning how to cook,” explained McIvor. Instead of saddling a person down with textbooks on the theory behind cooking, it would be much more fruitful to put them in the kitchen and let them figure things out on their own. A university education, in this sense, needs to be transformed into the practical rather than just the theory – although McIvor also emphatically reiterates that theory is still important and has its place in learning.
McIvor’s attention to detail within his classes seemed to me a rarity among lower-year classes. When asked about how he is able to organize his courses in a way that makes students feel prioritized, he compared his own responsibilities with those of a tenured professor. “I’m a teaching stream professor,” McIvor answered. “I have the benefit that this is what I get to focus on.” In McIvor’s experience, the reason professors seem to rush through lectures or do not branch out into different styles of teaching is a mixture of a lack of time and too many commitments.
In the end, McIvor understands why today’s academic structure is the way it is. However, by consistently following new research in the sociology of education and applying it to his own classes, he has seen beneficial results. Rather than viewing leniency as setting students up for failure, McIvor understands it as creating accessible ways to succeed.