Case #21: Engaging Staff in a Professional Development Program


DISCIPLINE:Actuarial Education, Professional Education
RESEARCH AREAS:Pedagogical methodologies in professional education, teaching in higher education, international students’ experiences


The actuarial profession is marching into the age of Big Data. Increasingly, employers in various actuarial fields require university graduates to have sophisticated knowledge in statistics and data science. The profession has also become diverse in its knowledge and skill base. The external credentialing body is changing the educational component to accommodate those demands. The major curriculum redesign at the University of Toronto aims to stay current with new trends and demands from the profession.


During the 2017-2018 academic year, the undergraduate associate chair in actuarial science led a team to undertake major curriculum redesign in the actuarial science Specialist program at the University of Toronto. The associate chair worked with various stakeholders to develop a new curriculum that will better meet the demands of the profession and the larger data economy. Data science and computational courses were added into the actuarial program to improve training in those areas. Various pathways that cater to different subfields of the actuarial profession were provided so that faculty members and students can choose courses that best match their own academic and professional interests. The curriculum redesign team demonstrated action-oriented leadership both within the university community but also in the greater actuarial programs across Canada.


The 5-Pillar Model Educational Leadership model (Fields, Kenny, & Mueller, 2019) is useful to conceptualize and reflect on our major curriculum redesign process. From the outset of the project, the undergraduate Associate Chair emphasized the use of affective qualities and a collaborative approach to curriculum redesign. Adopting an action-oriented stance, the Associate Chair undertook an extensive needs assessment process where she consulted with all stakeholders – students, faculty members, external credentialing body, and industry professionals. From a careful study of the needs assessment results, it was clear that there were competing interests and priorities among stakeholders. The profession has become more diverse in the past decade and the amount of technical content and professional requirements have significantly increased, which was reflected in the new curriculum set by the external credentialing bodies. It presented a challenge for our undergraduate program to accommodate the growing body of professional knowledge. In the meantime, the actuarial science Specialist program needed to comply with the Faculty-wide rule of limiting the number of required courses to 14 full-year courses (i.e. 28 semester-long courses). The Associate Chair and her team devised innovative ways to accommodate various stakeholders given the limited curriculum space. The team started by identifying the most important knowledge, skills, and values to be obtained through our Specialist program, given the changes in the industry and profession, as well as the broader economy. We then recognized that students have different academic and professional interests in pursuing an actuarial degree and that there are various paths to success within the profession. With those understandings, we redesigned the upper-year curriculum from a fixed set of required courses to a combination of core courses and two lists of “key elective” courses, the first of which includes advanced theory courses for each pathway, and the second a set of “practicum” courses covering a variety of subfields. Students were then able to construct their own pathways to complete the program requirements, after obtaining core knowledge and skills from a set of foundational courses.

The new curriculum reflects mentorship and empowerment, in that it builds capacity for growth for our teaching staff by allowing them to strengthen their teaching practices in fields that are most relevant to their expertise and academic interests. In this process, we also facilitated teaching excellence in the long term, by eliminating barriers to learning and matching teachers’ and students’ academic interests in each pathway. After this major curriculum redesign and based on information gathered from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA), the University of Toronto became the first Canadian university to have an undergraduate curriculum fully aligned with the recent professional curriculum. Because of our “early-bird” status, the professional organization and credentialing bodies have invited us to present our new curriculum to other universities and the broader profession at academic and professional conferences. We are currently undertaking pedagogical research resulting from these presentations and conversations, which will support further redesign and improvement at both the course and the program levels.

“The new curriculum reflects mentorship and empowerment, in that it builds capacity for growth for our teaching staff by allowing them to strengthen their teaching practices in fields that are most relevant to their expertise and academic interests.”


The University of Toronto’s actuarial science Specialist program has long been recognized as one of the most rigorous academic programs in Canada. In the past, the program had a focus on theories and practices of “long-term” insurance coverages (i.e. life, annuities, pensions). After the curriculum redesign, the program has achieved further balance between theories and practices related to long-term and short-term coverages (property and casualty). More importantly, students in the new program will have a better statistical foundation and be better prepared to work with data. The first student cohort benefiting from the new curriculum was enrolled in March 2019. We plan on following this cohort over 2019-2021 to assess their performance in both professional exams and entry-level positions. The preliminary feedback from fifteen insurance executives who reviewed our curriculum indicated that it has great potential to boost students’ knowledge in data science and modern statistical methods, which will be extremely valuable in their future careers as insurance professionals. With the new addition of “practicum” courses to the elective list in the upper years of study, students will be better equipped to connect theories with real world applications. Those courses taught by seasoned industry professionals will provide students with hands-on knowledge in modeling, together with business and communication skills. Finally, the new program enhances students’ learning experiences in the actuarial science Specialist program by providing pathways that best suit an individual’s academic and professional goals and interests, especially as the profession itself becomes increasingly diverse. This curriculum has become a pioneering model that represents the gold standard among such programs in Canada.


Fields, J., Kenny, N.A., & Mueller, R.A. (2019). Conceptualizing educational leadership in an academic development program, International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2019.1570211

Macdonald, A. S. (2006). Actuarial education: Does it compute? Annals of Actuarial Science, 1(2), 199-201.

Michael, S. (2006). Actuarial education and research: A perspective from down under. ASTIN Bulletin, 36(1), 1-3.•Staples, S. G. (2014). The role of an actuarial director in the development of an introductory program. PRIMUS, (24)9-10, 883-890.


Headshot of Vicki Zhang

Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Vicki Zhang is the Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Actuarial Science at the University of Toronto (U of T). She has been a passionate course designer/redesigner as well as a pedagogical researcher at U of T’s Department of Statistical Sciences since 2013.


As Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Actuarial Science at the University of Toronto, Vicki oversees all aspects of actuarial undergraduate programs. She is also the Accreditation Actuary for the University Accreditation Program (UAP), which is a partnership between U of T and the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA). She teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in actuarial science, insurance mathematics, and financial regulation. She has created a capstone actuarial course which explores the complex history of the life insurance product design and regulation in the US and Canada, while providing students with hands-on experience with the widely-used industry software AXIS. She wrote the textbook for the capstone course (Uncalculated Risks, Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2014). She also developed a pedagogical approach of “narrative mathematics” to improve concept linkage and active-learning among students in large-classroom courses.



Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE)
Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA)
Society of Actuaries (SOA)
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSoTL)