Saturday, 16 July 2016

is the criticism of the lecture a result of poor oratorical skills?

A recent article posted on The Atlantic website revisits the issue of lecturing vs active learning. Maryellen Weimer, Lolita Paff, Carl Lovitt and I discussed this at the Sunday plenary of the 2016 Teaching Professor Conference this past June in Washington, DC. Similar to Christine Gross-Loh, we suggested that good teaching requires a mix of active learning and lecturing dependent upon the needs of the student. A good teacher doesn't simply leave their students to forage for themselves. On the other hand, a good teacher also guides students to construct their own knowledge structure. As I wrote in my editorial for the 2016 volume of CELT, teaching is similar to tuning the dial of an analog radio between the two continuums of lecturing (teaching by telling) vs active learning (learning by doing) and this is dependent upon the intellectual level of the students. Actually, rather than being dependent upon the intellectual level of students, it might be better to say it is dependent on how developed students are as independent learners. The primary task of higher education is to train students how to learn. The best result of a bachelor's degree is the ability of students to research the answers to their own questions. As I have said elsewhere, the ultimate independent learner is a researcher - when the knowledge is unavailable to answer a question a good researcher will collect the data and produce the knowledge required to answer the question.

But I digress....

What Christine Gross-Loh suggests is that the problem with lectures stems from a lack of training of higher education professors in the skill of public speaking. This is a skill that was once taught and developed in colleges and universities but declined during the 20th century. If graduate students were taught to publically speak in an engaging manner (and this does not mean continuous exposition but rather speaking, discussing, thinking, active learning, and telling) then perhaps the lecture (broadly defined) would not be so maligned. Perhaps the wealth of data that indicates that lecturing (continuous exposition) is hazardous to students' grades is a result of the decline of training the professoriate in properly lecturing/teaching. Christine Gross-Loh would not be the first to suggest that this may be a result of increased emphasis on research at the expense of teaching.


Arum R, Roksa J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Bart M. 2016.Lecture vs. Active Learning: Reframing the Conversation [internet]. Faculty Focus, June 24.
Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP. 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–5.
Grow GO. 1991. Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125–149.
Gross-Loh C. 2016. Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture? [internet] The Atlantic, July 14.
Haave NC. 2016. Practical tuning - achievable harmony. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 9: iii-x.
Pocklington T, Tupper A. 2002. No Place To Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Monday, 2 May 2016

teaching compressed courses

I read this paper for the Augustana Spring Workshop in preparation for our transition to teaching 3 and 11 week blocks from the 12+ weeks we currently teach in a term. Many of the best practices that the study suggest are practices that I am already trying to implement in my current courses. It seems, that best practices are to flip the classroom and holding students accountable for their pre-class preparation, and using the in-class portion for applications of the material. To do this, I have had to seriously consider what to keep in a course and what to throw out in order to keep the cognitive load for students reasonable. What I have most trouble doing when I flip a course is to vary the activities in class so that active learning does not become tedious. This is difficult. I find it relatively easy to find and design applications of learned content and to make those into team-based activities, but that invariably ends up being some sort of MCQ type problem. However, I have experimented with versions of the digital art walk with posters and communal slideshows - those work well. Also, sometimes turning the problem-solving activity into a game or competitions with M&Ms as the prize is sufficient to entice students to become engaged. But still, sometimes students are just tired and are in need of some guidance. This is where it takes experience to be able to judge what is needed at the time.

One of the things that I disagreed with in this article was the recommendation to supply students with notes. I really believe that short-circuits students learning. It is the process of developing notes that is valuable not the notes themselves. I suspect that what this best practice is really trying to promote is instructors to find and assign reasonable reading assignments and if none are found to produce their own textbook for students (rather than notes). This makes some sense but of course, how many of us are going to find the time to write our own tailored textbook for compressed courses? An alternative is to provide students with detailed reading guides that indicates which parts of the reading are critically important to attend to. I have gone to either extreme with reading guides that are overly detailed vs those that are too sparse. There is a happy medium between these two extremes.

Finally, I was surprised that by their suggestion that instructors plan the entire course rather than planning only one or two days in advance. Do many faculty plan that last minute? I have been planning my course daily instructional schedule since I started teaching in 1990! I can only assume that my mentor, Morley Riske, must have been an exemplary instructor to have been this far ahead in best practices. Actually, I don't have to assume..... I know he was an exemplary instructor. I cannot imagine teaching a course without the goalposts at the end of the term to guide where I am going with the course.

In sum, it seems that the best practices for teaching compressed courses basically distill down to flipping the classroom and using in-class meetings to apply course material in an active engaged manner. To do this requires careful planning and forethought using backwards design which includes carefully choosing preparatory reading (or other) assignments and holding students accountable for their pre-class preparation with quizzes or assignments completed at the start of a course chunk. In addition, students need frequent formative feedback to guide their learning and to also guide instructors to determine what students need help with. I also like the idea of dividing current course content into must know, need to know, and nice to know. Again, this is the approach that I have taken when redesigning courses as flipped classrooms. To reduce cognitive load for students' pre-class preparation and in order to make room for in-class application of learning, peripheral content must be ejected from the course.

Best practices for teaching compressed courses overlaps significantly with my experience in retooling courses for team-based learning.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

transitioning students to independent learners at ACURIT

So, I have spent the last couple of days immersed in Augustana's Conference on Undergraduate Research and Innovative Teaching hosted at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta. It is an interesting conference for a number of reasons but above all, it gathers both students and faculty to discuss teaching practices and the place and impact of undergraduate research. A couple of themes arose for me for during the conference. One was the desire to move students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset: Students often come to university thinking that they are gifted in a few disciplines and topics and that it is impossible to develop other areas of their intellect. Students with a fixed mindset are typically those that have a performance orientation whereas those with a growth mindset have a mastery orientation. Students who have a mastery orientation tend to have better academic success. I have heard so many students complain or think that they cannot do math. Or other students indicate that they cannot write. And the students think that is a fixed property of themselves. It is so odd because if you are coming to university, you are coming to learn how to do something you cannot yet do. So, it implies that you should have a growth mindset - that you can grow abilities that you do not yet have or that are under-developed. It reminds me somewhat of the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development in which students come to university with a dualistic understanding of the world in which they are fairly certain of their knowledge but then transition over their four years through stages of multiplism (everyone is entitled to their own opinion and  grades simply reflects the opinion of professors) through to relativism and  commitment in relativism in which students understand that some opinions are better informed than others and that context matters when it comes to matters of judgment.  The Perry Scheme is interesting in that students' certainty in knowledge first decreases markedly in the multiplism stage and then slowly increases as they move through relativism and commitment.

Our primary role as undergraduate researchers is to develop students into independent learners over the course of their four years of an undergraduate degree. I often tell students that, really, their professors are simply professional independent learners. This is what a researcher is - someone who understands how to go about generating the knowledge required to answer their own questions - the ultimate independent learner.

A couple of students presented their independent research experience doing field research in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica at the Piro Research Station this past term. Two of my colleagues take a class of 12 students every other year down to the station to conduct research on the flora and fauna there after the students spend weeks preparing their research question and the methods they need to gather the required data to answer their question. It was interesting to hear the students at the conference describe their transition from expecting their instructors to tell them what to do, to give them their question and methods to independent learners who knew how to go about gathering what they needed for themselves. One student indicated the difficulty they had in transitioning to trying things out without knowing for sure that they had the correct approach or answer. The other surprised themselves at how she became comfortable doing the best she could with what they had prepared and adapting their question and methods as needed.

So, the question I came away with from their presentation was how do we support and nurture our students' transition to become independent learners as these two had done? When I attempt something similar, though at a lower level in my first and second-year biology courses using team-based learning, students are initially very disoriented at needing to use my reading guides (lists of learning objectives and keywords for the assigned reading). Many don't yet know how to read for learning nor how to actively engage with their reading. I have to teach them how to read and make notes for themselves and explain that it is not the notes themselves that are important but rather the process of constructing the notes that produces learning. Also, students are initially uncomfortable with being held accountable for their assigned reading with readiness assurance tests (RATs) that they write before I, as the instructor, do any teaching. Even though these RATs are worth a very small amount of their final grade (often a fraction of a percent) they stress out at not knowing for sure whether or not they know it completely. Students do not seem to have an understanding that learning something takes time and active effort. And those formative assessments are useful in informing them what they do and do not know. The team discussions of the freshly learned material are formative learning experiences which also informs them what they do and do not know and thus what they still need to work on in order to grow their skills and abilities in the subject matter.

I wish I knew how to alleviate the stress levels of my students when they are in that uncomfortable space where they are not yet sure of their knowledge because they are still learning it. Part of the problem, I think, is that so many of my students in biology are keen on getting into a professional programme (e.g. medicine or dentistry) and due to the competitive nature of those programmes, there is no forgiveness for not getting it immediately right and scoring a perfect grade. No matter what we do at Augustana with our liberal arts and sciences curriculum designed to give students the opportunity to explore and develop students'  knowledge and intellect, it seems that the expectation and requirements of professional programmes dampens students' curiousity and ability to explore their own interests and develop their own intellect. Which is odd, because I think professional programmes really do seek to admit those students that are intellectually flexible and have breadth and depth of knowledge.

I don't know what the answer is. All I know is that to continue teaching with integrity I need to continue encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset and give themselves the freedom to explore their heart's desire.


Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate~, 7(1), 39 – 47.
Kloss, R. J. (1994). A nudge is best: Helping students through the Perry Scheme of intellectual development. College Teaching, 42(4), 151–158.
Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1-2), 113–125.
Weimer, M. (2009). Mastery and performance orientations. Faculty Focus (Oct 22).

Friday, 22 April 2016

ESWE and social justice

Back in August of 2014 Barbara Walvoord delivered a teaching workshop at the Augustana Campus. She was great. One of the things that stuck with me was hearing for the first time about Edited Standard Written English (ESWE). Dr Walvoord spoke of it as a social justice issue. I hadn't really thought about teaching students to write English as a social justice issue before. But that perspective makes sense. Without the ability to write English well, students may be barred from certain professions and employment.

This year I was again teaching the capstone course for Augustana's Biology degree programme which is the last chance we have as biology faculty to ensure that our students are leaving Augustana with well-developed writings skills. I tried something different this year when I returned students' first written assignment back to them with my comments about their structure and style in addition to their thinking. What I explained to them was that they would be judged on their basis of their writing by future employers and professional schools. Without even having a chance to speak with a potential employer or supervisor or admissions counsellor, their ability to succeed will be judged on the basis of whatever writing they have submitted to the programme or employer.

It was interesting to see my students pay attention when I said that. Even those students who already had good writing skills paid attention. I think this may be another example of promoting student engagement in their learning by making explicit connections between what teachers are teaching and what students need or will need. It is another way of making learning relevant to students.

Did it make a difference in student learning? I don't have any hard data to show that actual student learning outcomes improved but I do have one anecdote. One student who had been avoiding classes requiring writing discussed her aversion to writing and her new understanding of what that could mean when she graduated and moved into her working life. She knew that her writing ability was weak. I suggested that she make it a habit to meet with the Writing Centre on our campus to help develop her writing skills. She did that - and I could clearly see the improvement in her writing in the MT submission of her writing dossier and again with her final submission.

Explicitly stating the impact writing can have on students' lives after university clearly had an impact on one of my students this year. From that perspective, it does makes a difference on student learning outcomes.


Weimer M. 2012. A Strategy for Grading Student Writing Assignments. Faculty Focus. January 31.
Haave N. 2015. Developing students’ thinking by writing. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 25(1), 5–7.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

using labs to teach critical thinking

Yesterday oCUBE hosted their monthly online journal club during which we discussed this article from Carl Wieman and colleagues. In this paper, they describe the results of an approach to developing students' (first yr) critical thinking skills when analysing and designing experiments. The cohort under study were first-year physics students from 2012 and 2013 (n~ 130). A limitation of the study is that the experimental and control groups are in different years. However, the investigators seem to have controlled for this with their tests of understanding physical principles - the two cohorts (control and experiment) did not differ significantly between the two years. The interesting finding from this study is that students who were prompted to consider the accuracy of their measurement in relation to how close the data supported the physical model was encouraged over the first few weeks of the course. But the support was gradually removed from the students (instructions from the text/lab manual, then explicit instructions from the instructor and finally no longer included in the marking rubric). What they found was that by the end of the course students in the experimental cohort without being prompted continued to assess their data and develop and implement ways to improve their measurement accuracy and implement these modifications which lead them to consider whether the theoretical model was representative of the data. That is, students no longer just attributed differences between their data and the theory as being due to "human error". And what was remarkable about their findings is that this difference seemed to persist into 2nd yr PHY courses. A limitation of the study is that only ~30 students continued on into 2nd yr PHY but the differences are still striking. Another limitation of the study is that the researchers evaluated students critical thinking from what students had written in lab reports and notebooks. There is the possibility that students were engaged in higher order thinking with their peers when discussing the data but that this analysis never made its way into their writing. It could be that students in the experimental (prompted to think) cohort were encouraged to write this down and include this assessment in their lab reports whereas students in the control never realized that this was something that was valuable and insightful to include in their lab report and notebooks.

Regardless, the data indicate that by being explicit about the epistemic values in science and how to do the science needs to be made explicit to students. Similar to what I have been finding regarding student awareness of their academic skills being developed in their Augustana degree. The data also suggest the importance of giving students the time in class to reflect on what they are doing/learning. As Kimberly Tanner has written in her oft-cited article on student metacognition, just because students are being active in their learning doesn't mean they are actively learning. What this means is that the experience (activity) is only meaningful if students are given the opportunity and prompted to reflect on that experience. Without the reflection, students will not necessarily integrate the learning activity into their existing knowledge structure. Learning is a developmental process that takes time to synthesize our learning with our prior experiences/knowledge. What I find ironic, is that our labs in the sciences are ripe with active learning experiences, but that we so often pack the three hours of a lab with activities that students don't have time to process what they are doing leading to the accusation that science labs are just about following a recipe. This is likely true if students are simply following instructions in their lab manual without taking the time to consider why they are doing things they way they are. I think the prompting to think described in this article is a way of breaking the routine so that students are encouraged to consider what, how, and why they are doing things in the lab.

And that should produce a deeper learning experience.


Thursday, 3 December 2015

implementing active learning by assessing the current state of our teaching practices

A few articles have been published over the last couple of years in an attempt to facilitate the development of faculty teaching. One is a simple self-assessment that consists of a checklist that faculty check off and then are returned a score and assessment of where in their teaching practices active learning is well implemented and with suggestions of active learning practices that could be further developed or implemented.

A couple of others are assessments that are conducted by classroom observers. The PORTAAL is directly linked to active learning practices that have been shown in the literature to improve students learning outcomes. The COPUS does something similar. Both tools are designed to try and produce an objective glimpse of how student learning is facilitated in the classroom but does not include other elements that contribute to the design of learning environments (e.g. how out of class assignments or exams are designed).

All three of these tools are designed to facilitate faculty development of their teaching and contribute to developing a multi-faceted assessment of teaching praxis. However, they only provide glimpses from two points of view: the instructor and objective or peer observer. The third viewpoint that needs to be included is that of the student. Granted, virtually all post-secondary institutions gather end of term student reviews of teaching, but I suspect that my institution is no different than others that our student surveys of instruction have not been updated to accurately portray the active learning teaching strategies that have been demonstrated to facilitate student learning. And this needs to be done. Instructor's reflective self-reports are useful in engaging faculty in thinking critically about their own teaching but what the instructor thinks is happening may not always be what is experienced by the student. On the other hand, what the student experiences in their learning environment may not be appropriately interpreted by students. Learning is hard work and an excellent learning opportunity may be misinterpreted by students as being uncomfortable and thus an unwelcome experience. Students are not always the best assessors of what constitutes good teaching and learning while in the moment of being challenged that is required for learning to occur. This is where the objective or peer observer is important to provide perspective of what the teacher and the student report.

It would be nice if a tool could be developed that incorporated all three viewpoints. As it is we have different tools for each which require considerable interpretation, translation and contextualizing to truly understand the quality of students' learning environment. This will likely always be the case. But I think there is still room to make this process easier and usable for faculty as they develop their ability to design educational experiences. We need formative assessment tools that are not onerous to use or interpret otherwise they will never be used. They will instead end up being one more item that is added to the pile of things that would be good for faculty to do but likely never will given the time constraints imposed on us by research, service, & teaching.


Eddy, S. L., Converse, M., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2015). PORTAAL: A Classroom Observation Tool Assessing Evidence-Based Teaching Practices for Active Learning in Large Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14(2).

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–5.

Lund, T. J., Pilarz, M., Velasco, J. B., Chakraverty, D., Rosploch, K., Undersander, M., & Stains, M. (2015). The Best of Both Worlds: Building on the COPUS and RTOP Observation Protocols to Easily and Reliably Measure Various Levels of Reformed Instructional Practice. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14(2).

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H. M., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A New Instrument to Characterize University STEM Classroom Practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618–627.

Wieman, C., & Gilbert, S. (2014). The Teaching Practices Inventory: A New Tool for Characterizing College and University Teaching in Mathematics and Science. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 552–569.

Wieman, C. (2015). A Better Way to Evaluate Undergraduate Teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 47(1), 6–15.

Monday, 16 November 2015

on liberal education

A recent paper (Chaddock & Cooke 2015) considers the history of liberal education and how our understanding of what it means has changed over time. It was once termed liberal arts which focused on content. In recent decades it has changed to liberal education which emphasizes process. What I found interesting in the paper is how liberal education always seems to be stretched between two opposing views:

  • general vs professional education
  • classics (e.g. the Great Books) vs current context
  • shared (imposed) curriculum vs freedom to set own course of study
  • sciences vs arts
  • skills training vs education for citizenship
  • research vs liberal arts
  • creating knowledge vs disseminating knowledge
  • liberalism vs utilitarianism
  • culture vs science
  • past vs present
What Chaddock and Cooke discuss in their paper, however, is that these tensions were much more nuanced than is typically understood. Often opposing sides were simply in opposition in terms of degree and not that liberal education should be this vs that. For example, some would argue greater emphasis on a common experience whereas others would emphasize giving students greater freedom in choosing their courses. But neither side would say there should be no common experience or no freedom of choice. The argument typically distilled down to the number of credits assigned to each.

The AAC&U have attempted to hold on to these tensions by advocating their essential learning outcomes (skills and knowledge) without imposing them on any one discipline and thus do not contrast general vs specialized education. Their learning outcomes simply need to be embedded throughout students' curricula. The advantage is that attention to these outcomes has the potential to produce coherent learning throughout the degree rather than having skills and knowledge parceled out to individual courses. A different compromise between shared experiences vs student freedom to explore learning was developed in the early 20th C with students being required to complete a distribution of courses across the arts and sciences in addition to a concentrated focus in one discipline. In recent decades this has become the general education requirements and major that all students must complete to earn their undergraduate degree. This is the compromise the Augustana core developed in the mid-2000s with our general education + major requirements being within a choice of courses but our skills being met across the curriculum. Thus our core is a hybrid of what was developed in the early 20th C plus what is being advocated by AAC&U.

I like what the AAC&U are recommending especially in the light that they encourage institutions to implement their essential learning outcomes in a manner that makes sense for individual colleges and universities - they understand that local context matters. However, these still seem to me to be recommendations about what to teach. I am beginning to wonder whether how we teach plays a greater role in students' education than what we teach.....