Vantage College instructor Brett Gilley is transforming classroom learning

In an ideal world, professors would be passionate innovators, researchers and dedicated teachers, with the ability to give students motivation to look forward to finals week. At UBC, Brett Gilley is helping to turn this ideal into reality.

An instructor on the tenure track, Gilley teaches at UBC in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences (EOAS) and at Vantage College. His time as a student was spent entirely at Simon Fraser University, where he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees specializing in sedimentology, with his thesis focusing on the sandstone bedrock that lies beneath Vancouver.

Gilley started teaching courses during his graduate degrees, and became an instructor at Douglas College, where he was involved with teaching workshops. From there, he joined an initiative to improve teaching in the science departments, and found himself employed at UBC, where he has spent the last eight years improving teaching methods and instructing courses such as EOSC 114. The next step in his career is Vantage College.

“Last year there was a position open at Vantage and I applied for it,” Gilley said. Gilley was hired and has since become an integral member of the faculty.

As a Vantage College faculty member, however, Gilley has recently had much criticism thrown his way. The announcement that a new $127 million building is being erected for Vantage College has sparked intense debate, with some castigating the use of ‘Canadian Money’ on international students. To quote a CBC article, “while UBC pours money into Vantage College and its 1,000-room tower, it faces a student housing shortage with 5,200 people on the waiting list. Students are also looking at a 20 per cent increase in housing fees.”

Gilley believes that much of this criticism is ungrounded and self-contradictory.

“Buildings are expensive. EOAS just had a new building built and it was in that ballpark [$100+ million],” Gilley pointed out. He understands that such a large investment geared towards international students is upsetting news to many, but points out that the new building will serve the whole community.

“People seem concerned about the huge capital investment of the building, but the building won’t be only used by Vantage College, it will be used by everybody,” said Gilley.

Gilley points to the current number of Vantage College students to validate his point.

“[The] integrated residence at Vantage is for everybody, and this year, we have something like 160 students.”

Although this number is likely to increase when the project is finished, the new Vantage College with its 1000 room tower will be a net increase in the availability of campus housing.

Second, Gilley argues that Vantage College is a project engineered for the joint benefit of international students and of the whole campus community. Students who enter the college meet the university’s academic requirements, but do not have the necessary level of English proficiency for direct entry. Some criticism has been directed at this admissions system, as domestic students who meet these requirements are not able to enrol.

“The trick is, if they’re a domestic student, they’re probably not going to want to pay the international student rates,” Gilley said.

Tuition at Vantage costs $33,000, five times what the domestic first year student pays. Add another $20,000 for living costs, and any domestic student would balk at the price. “Vantage is run on a cost-recovery basis. So the money that the students are paying in tuition is what’s paying for Vantage College.”

The college offers immense educational value to UBC as well, since it serves as a testing ground for innovative teaching methods.

“My big class [EOSC] 114 has 700 students, so you don’t want to try new things there,” Gilley said. “But I have another class with 29 [Vantage College students], so I can try these things with 29. And if it works with a small group, it can work with a large group.”

The best example of this to date is the two-stage exam.

“They’re really cool. The students write their individual exam, just like normal. They then hand that exam in, and get into groups of four. And we give them the exact same exam again, but they write it with three friends,” said Gilley. “It’s the same thing that students do in a hallway after an exam, but we’re just formalizing that, and it’s primed people for really good discussion. The [increase in] retention is huge.”

Two-stage exams already feature in physics and geology courses. Due to the method’s success, students can expect to see more widespread use of two-stage exams in the future.

Gilley’s work has certainly improved teaching standards at UBC, and our campus can look forward to many more contributions from this gifted educator in coming years.