Blog 66

The Subway Emergency Exercise as Reflective Teaching and Learning

Genevieve Maheux Pelletier, Teaching Commons

For the longest time, the idea of the subway coming to York seemed like a diffuse dream, a target that kept moving further and further down the road. Even though I can now see a metro station standing next to Kaneff Tower, I am still skeptical it will ever materialize and catch myself trying not to blink, just in case it was only a mirage.

One sure sign that the subway is coming is the emergency exercise planned on October 25. The TTC, in conjunction with York University, Seneca College, and municipal emergency responders, is in fact seeking volunteers (students, faculty and staff) to participate as train passengers. As with any simulation, it will be an interactive experience capable of evoking substantial aspects of the real world. While individual volunteers will gain valuable insights about how to react during a large-scale emergency, this exercise is also a great experiential learning opportunity for York students from a wide range of disciplines, from disaster and emergency management, communication, and the performing arts to civil engineering, nursing, psychology, and the humanities. At any rate, it is an experience that resonates quite well with York’s commitment to foster learning-centred experiences and ‘prepar[e] educated, engaged citizens’ who connect with community (Canada’s Engaged University: Strategic Directions for York University 2010-2020, p. 58).

Hence, York faculty may want to leverage this opportunity in their classroom from a variety of perspectives. And while the emergency exercise, because of its magnitude, is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, York is the organizer and host of countless community events year-round that can be the catalyst for academic learning, whether it is a simulation or an actual real-life event such as the Invictus Games taking place right now. Chances are at least one of these events could be the focal point of experiential activities for a large number of courses, therefore making experiential education more readily available to York students. Here are just a few reasons why course directors may want to consider using this mock emergency and other events happening around campus as an experiential learning opportunity for their students.

It provides a safe learning environment: The emergency exercise will allow students to safely experience firsthand what happens during a major safety incident. During and after the event, they may have an opportunity to observe and/or practice the skills and knowledge they acquired throughout their studies. They may be able to express their emotional response to a major incident and channel it in creative forms. They may be better equipped in the future should such an event happen to them for real. Whatever it is, they will experience something unique and learn a thing or two about their field, and perhaps more importantly about themselves, in the context of a hypothetically dangerous situation occurring in a controlled environment.

It increases engagement: Learning that occurs via a lived experience has a greater chance of being relatable to the student. This kind of personalized learning path leads to greater engagement as it connects students to their sense of capability (they experience learning success), connectedness (they live a meaningful experience with others), and purpose (they see the relevance of their studies for the real world) (see Lizzio, 2006). In other words, student-centred experiences increase engagement in the learning process in ways that the traditional lecture rarely can.

It connects theory to practice: A concrete experience can boost learning because it enables learners to look back at what occurred and critically reflect on their experience to question their prior understandings, seek ways of integrating the knowledge stemming from that experience into their existing schema and/or make new hypotheses about what they thought they knew.

It can lead to transformational learning: When the reflective learning cycle is triggered by a memorable experience, it is more likely to lead learners to grasp threshold concepts, internalize understandings, explore new ways of thinking, and understand that knowledge is often highly contextual.


At the Teaching Commons, we can help course directors think about how to prepare students for an experience and debrief them in a way that encourages deep reflection. Thus, we invite faculty to participate in two upcoming workshops specifically designed around the subway emergency response exercise:

At your mark, get set, evacuate… and reflect!

This is an invitation we extend to course directors to experience the emergency exercise for themselves and follow it up with a workshop in which an educational developer will debrief participants using an experiential learning framework. This is an excellent opportunity to be part of a large-scale emergency exercise while using a shared experience to explore how to use reflection for teaching and learning in the classroom.

Course directors interested in participating in this learning opportunity are invited to promptly contact Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, educational developer, at A pre-activity will be offered online to help participants prepare for the exercise (they will be briefed on what to expect and prompted to reflect on their own expectations). Course directors  wanting to participate must be available for the entire duration of the emergency exercise, taking place Wednesday October 25 from 8 am to 12 pm.  The date and time of the follow-up workshop will be determined based on registered participants’ availability.

The Subway Emergency Exercise as Reflective Learning

This workshop is designed as a collaborative space to share and discuss reflective learning practices and brainstorm about how to effectively prepare and debrief students participating in the subway emergency exercise and other simulations. After reviewing the reflective learning cycle, we will consider strategies and activities to help students critically examine their experience and use it as a springboard for deeper learning.

To register to the workshop, taking place October 12 (10 am to 12 pm), please follow this link:

If you think your students could benefit from participating in the subway emergency exercise, promptly contact Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, educational developer, at to coordinate their participation.


Lizzio, A. (2006). Designing an orientation and transition strategy for commencing students. A conceptual summary of research and practice. First Year Experience Project. Brisbane, Australia: Griffith University.

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