Looking Back, Looking Forward: A short history of teaching and learning at Western

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By Debra Dawson, Director Emeritus, Teaching Support Centre

In July 2016, I retired after 36 years of working at Western University. As I reflected on the changes I have seen in enhancing teaching and learning at Western, I realized what a central role our university has played in shaping higher education in Canada. This article will briefly summarize the pivotal role many at Western have played in transforming university teaching throughout the last 40 years.

The first Canadian teaching and learning centre was at McGill University in 1968 (McDonald, 2016) with Western’s Educational Development Office (EDO) being established in 1979. Chris Knapper (2010) has written that the creation of centres in the 1970s and 1980s was driven by the perceived need to enhance the quality of teaching in order to attract students to the expanded universities. By opening the centres, the universities wanted to demonstrate that they were committed to providing students with a high quality education.

By the early 1980s many Ontario faculty were very interested in enhancing post-secondary education sector and for several years, starting in 1981, they held annual conferences throughout the province. The first conference was organized by Bruce Squires (Schulich) at Western and primarily focused on medical education. In 1984, the fourth Canadian conference on higher education was held at Western with Harry Murray (professor emeritus from Psychology) and Shirley Murray (a former staff member of EDO) being the principle organizers from our university. The conclusion of the conference led to the founding of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) with Knapper becoming the first President. All those attending the first conference (including me) became founding members of this brand new national organization.

Around the same time period, John Myser, the president of 3M Canada, had had a vision about creating an award for teachers in higher education that would be what he referred to as the “Stanley Cup” of teaching (Roy & Knapper, 2013). He first approached faculty from Western to develop the award and later broadened that request to include other members of STLHE. This prestigious national award, the STLHE 3M National Teaching Fellowship, was established in 1985 in conjunction with 3M Canada with the first Fellows being selected in 1986—not surprisingly Western faculty were among the first cohort of 3M National Teaching Fellows (3MNTF) including Jim Erskine (Ivey) and Eileen Gillese (Law). Later in the 1980s Peter Rosati (Engineering) and Paul Sills (Dentistry) would join this growing group of faculty who would be recognized Canada-wide as truly outstanding teachers.

The EDO office in the 1990s was small but productive. The two Directors during the early 1990s were Marilyn Robinson (Schulich) and Colin Baird (Science), both 3MNTFs. Together they hosted Western’s second major STLHE in 1995, now with 371 participants up from the 110 that had attended the first conference in 1984. In 1996 Western became one of the first Canadian universities to adopt the use of teaching dossiers as part of the review process for promotion and tenure and also to have a common student evaluation of teaching instrument used by all faculty. Instrumental in leading these changes at Western were both Colin Baird and Harry Murray. In addition, Murray, a 1992 3MNTF, led the way in developing the STLHE guide to “Ethical Principles in University Teaching”. The document was created by five of Western 3MNTFs (Murray, Madeline Lennon, Eileen Gillese, Paul Mercer and Marilyn Robinson) and endorsed by a long list of others. To this day this document is extensively used in discussions about ethical teaching.

In the late 1990s, Western became very interested in expanding our global reach and started actively recruiting students internationally. This initiative was led by Francis Chan, an incredible teacher of Anatomy and not coincidentally another 3MNTF. At the same time, two other Western 3MNTFs were making their mark nationally through their knowledge of large class teaching. Allan Gedalof, from the English department became the author of the first STLHE Green Guide entitled “Large Class Teaching”. Just one year after it was published in 1998, it had sold close to 1000 copies Canada-wide and remains to this day the best selling Green Guide. Meanwhile at Western in the same year we launched our first large class with Mike Atkinson teaching 1200 first-year students in Alumni Hall. His expertise in creating large interactive student-centred classes has made him a sought after speaker on this topic throughout the years. All of these 3MNTFs took a very involved role in shaping the development of the teaching and learning centre at Western by speaking at Perspectives on Teaching conferences, facilitating the August course on teaching at the university level, performing consultations, and being involved as Faculty Associates with the EDO.

I was hired in 1997 to work in the EDO and became the sixth Director of the centre. This was my dream job as I had always wanted to be an educational developer, having completed my PhD in educational psychology in 1994 under the mentorship of Harry Murray.

In 2002, I hosted a meeting at Western of Instructional Development Officers, a sub group of STLHE composed of staff and faculty who were interested in enhancing post-secondary education. Much to our surprise, interest in educational development had grown to the point that we needed to have concurrent sessions as we were simply too big to sit around a boardroom table any more. A working group was established to develop the terms of reference for a new constituency of STLHE, and in 2003 the Educational Developer’s Caucus (EDC) was formally established. I recently completed my second term as Chair of this group of developers that now has over 250 members.

2003 also marked a landmark year for EDO as we transitioned to the Teaching Support Centre (TSC), a one-stop-shop for teaching and learning. The new centre was a collaborative initiative between EDO, Western Libraries and ITS. We grew from having less then two full-time staff in 1997 to having six full-time staff that year. Our model of a teaching and learning commons including a librarian in our work and with a focus on new technologies would become a common model Canada-wide in the 2000s. Also, with the expansion of graduate students and the focus on internationalization in the early 2000s we needed to broaden our programming. We wanted to hire someone with expertise in both these areas to lead our next evolution. Luckily, Nanda Dimitrov (the current Acting Director of the TSC) applied to work with us and created the graduate education model we called “360” that offered programming to graduate students from entry to exit of university. This highly successful program was again used as a model by numerous other universities in Canada.

Also during this period we saw the first significant renewal of faculty since the 1970s. It was critical that this group would transition successfully to Western. I therefore asked Don Cartwright (Social Science) another 3MNTF to develop a faculty mentoring program to ensure that all new faculty had the opportunity to join this community of practice and to be supported throughout their pre-tenure years. In the last 6 years this program has been wonderfully facilitated by Madeline Lennon (Arts and Humanities) and this year this essential program will be coordinated by Gloria Leckie (Information and Media Studies).

The 2000s also saw a new interest nationally in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Led initially by Boyer (1990) who proposed that faculty be engaged in this area which he saw as the nexus between their own scholarly research, research on teaching, and scholarly teaching. I asked Allan Pearson (Education) to lead this venture at Western in his post retirement years and much to my delight he accepted. Starting in 2003, I also served on the board of STLHE as a member-at-large. Lynn Taylor (AVP, Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary), another STLHE board member, and I recognized that for the scholarship of teaching and learning to take a firm hold in Canadian higher education there needed to be more avenues for faculty to publish their classroom research and so we created The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CJSoTL). This open source online journal of the STLHE, launched in 2010, is housed at Western and the Managing Editor is Ken Meadows from the TSC. Many members of Western’s community such as Allen Pearson and Joyce Garnett have served on the editorial board of the journal. In 2016 we again hosted the national conference of STLHE with over 800 registrants. 95 Western faculty and staff gave presentations –the scholarship of teaching and learning is thriving at our university.

Throughout the years we have had many dedicated Western faculty and staff who have supported numerous ventures to enhance teaching and learning of our students at our university and beyond. I have been fortunate to spend my working life with the very best faculty, staff and students. We have an incredible history of working collaboratively with Canada’s national society (STLHE) devoted to transforming teaching and learning throughout the post-secondary sector. I have completed my term on the board but this year Gavan Watson from the TSC joined the board as its secretary. Western has the largest number of 3MNTFs in Ontario, national recognition of our excellence in both teaching and educational leadership. Just in the last five years, new faculty from Western, Cam Tsujita (Science), Mark Goldszmidt (Schulich) and Marjorie Johnson (Schulich), have joined their ranks.

Many people have asked me over the years what is “the secret ingredient in the sauce” that has led to our success at Western in enhancing teaching and learning and although I credit our dedicated faculty and fantastic team in the TSC there is one staff member who deserves recognition for the role she has played in our centre for over 20 years and that is Judy Purves— her wisdom and dedication to enhancing teaching and learning at Western has made all the difference. Luckily when I retired she stayed on! Having seen how far we have come in the last 35 years at Western, I cannot wait to see what initiatives the TSC will next launch.


Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching. Knapper, C. (2016). Does educational development matter? International Journal for Academic Development, 21(2), 105-115.

McDonald, J., Kenny, N., Kustra, E., Dawson, D., Iqbal, I., Borin, P., & Chan, J. (2016). Educational development guide series: No. 1. The Educational developer’s portfolio. Ottawa, ON: Educational Developers Caucus.

Murray, H., Gillese, E., Lennon, M., Mercer, P., & Robinson, M. (1996). Ethical principles for college and university teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996(66), 57-63.

Roy, D., & Knapper, C. (2013). Origins of the 3M – “The Stanley Cup of Teaching” [video]. Canada: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education