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Improving the Learning Experience, One University Student at a Time

  • 5 Min Read

To pivot is to progress. For Lorie Laroche, a bilingual social worker with a background in research and psychotherapy, that notion lies at the heart of a teaching ethos that strives to help every student reach their true potential. 

Currently an educational development and digital learning specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Teaching and Learning Support Service, Laroche helps faculty understand how to use digital tools to teach more effectively. She also teaches students at the university’s departments of Health Sciences and Social Sciences. 

A D2L Champion, Laroche sat down with us to talk about the evolution of her teaching style. From experimenting with asynchronous, hybrid and HyFlex models to equipping faculty with strategies to keep pace with evolving student needs, Laroche’s tactics may change but her goal remains the same: Everything she does is in the service of improving the learning experience for the student, no matter who they might be.

Driven to Improve Every Student’s Learning Experience

I’m an educational development and digital learning specialist. I work with profs from the faculties of science and math on pedagogical and techno-pedagogical issues. Essentially, I help them navigate the tech and try to help them improve their pedagogical skills. I also teach part time in the Social Sciences and Health Sciences departments at the University of Ottawa. Outside the classroom, I am part of various mental health and academic support committees. I believe all of these have an impact on teaching and student well-being.

I don’t quite recall what brought me to education. When I look back on it, I believe it was my passion for broadening my worldview and for guiding people to help them reach their potential that ultimately drew me to the field. I remember commenting during my postsecondary schooling that education courses should be mandatory for faculty. Teaching gives me a chance to give my students a learning experience that I did not always have during my own schooling.

Teaching Practice Is Continually Evolving, So We Need to Pivot to Keep Pace

I’ve been in my current role for about two years. My main area of focus is techno-pedagogy, which involves helping professors understand how to use the learning management system (LMS) and other digital tools to teach. For example, I helped professors switch from paper exams to online ones using rubrics in Brightspace.

Many professors I work with have been teaching for years but had no or limited experience using Zoom or an LMS. My role was quite crucial to them being able to upskill quickly given the speed with which things changed in 2020.

I find working collaboratively with faculty to design their courses is the best approach. I’ll ask them to start with the big picture, explain the nature of their course and share their end goals for students.

Then, we identify the learning objectives, breaking them down chapter by chapter and/or lecture by lecture. We do this so that everyone is on the same page. It’s almost like we reverse-engineer it.

I taught an Intro to Social Work course in the fall of 2020 and quickly learned that teaching asynchronously is not easier or less time-consuming! I used takeaways from that experience in a subsequent winter term course (History of Healthcare). I ended up teaching it in a hybrid way: I’d do one class session asynchronously, where my students had readings to complete, videos to watch, discussion forum contributions to make and weekly reflections to do. It worked well.

Then, in the fall of 2021, I taught a course called Introduction to Aging for the first time. I did that one in a bimodal (HyFlex) manner. It worked well, but it was quite the adjustment having to monitor the chat on Zoom while also interacting with students in class and on Zoom.

As teachers, we’re always adjusting and learning from our experiences to provide the best experience for students.

I’m teaching History of Healthcare again this semester and it has been another adjustment—we started the semester online then transitioned to in person. At this point, I’m teaching it in a hybrid style again. As teachers, we’re always adjusting and learning from our experiences to provide the best experience for students.

Rethinking Assessment and Helping Students Better Manage Their Time

In my Introduction to Aging course, I had students work in groups to do presentations. Their final course project was to each watch a film on aging and make links with course concepts (e.g., ageism). It was great to hear them comment on how eye-opening that exercise was.

I like using groups and discussion forums as a tool for learning and assessment. At the beginning of the semester, I’ll put students in groups and ask them to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses and their goals. They then must come up with their own “contract,” or list of rules and expectations, as well as the consequences for not following the contract. They need to tell me what they expect me to do if a problem surfaces with a team member.

I tell my students that when I use groups, it’s because I want to help them develop communication skills, build friendships and improve teamwork skills—all things that are important in the workplace. But I’m also transparent and tell them that it decreases the grading load.

One of the strategies I use to help students learn to better manage their time (and reduce procrastination) is incorporating checklists into my classes. I do this because I want to model a strategy that works for me. In doing so, I hope my students will start using them in their other courses. Not every student uses them, but I see attitudes shifting. I had a student tell me that they started making their own checklists in classes where professors didn’t provide them.

Strategies That Help Faculty Approach Learning in Different Ways

I recommend creating a module under the table of contents in the syllabus called “assessments,” where you put all the assessments for the course. This not only helps you track key analytics but also makes it easier for the students to access.

It’s also important to ask yourself as the educator, “What am I trying to evaluate? What are the outcomes I’m after?” I find when you keep this top of mind, it helps streamline everything you do, from presentation slides to handouts.

Another thing that seems easy but that many faculty might not do is make it simple for students to contact you. I put my contact info in many places—for example, it’s on the course homepage as a widget, in a quick link widget and in the table of contents of the syllabus. I also use the announcement widget on the homepage to ensure that students will see them. It’s just about making information accessible in many ways.

Being able to witness a student finally understsanding a concept they previously struggled with is very gratifying.

In the End, Teaching Is About Making a Positive Impact on Someone’s Life

Hearing comments like “I used to see healthcare one way, but taking your class made me step back and think of it in another way,” mean so much to me. Even if it’s only one student, seeing that progression and development of critical thinking is wonderful. Being able to witness a student finally understanding a concept they previously struggled with is very gratifying.

Learn More About Our Champions Program

The D2L Champions Program recognizes innovative learning leaders. The program is designed to celebrate the achievements and impact of educators who are helping shape the future of learning technology. Champions who participate in advocacy activities can earn passes to D2L-sponsored events, creative and advisory services, and more.

Sign up today and start sharing your experience with D2L.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Featured image provided courtesy of Lorie Laroche.

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