Monday, 22 December 2014

bridging constructivist and instructivist teaching strategies

A colleague forwarded this article to me awhile ago. It discusses the need to bridge traditional teaching strategies (instructor-centric) with more constructivist (student-centered) approaches and to ensure that there is a sound pedagogical basis for using educational technologies. That is, that the educational technology actually aids student learning.

It contains some really interesting conclusions about being careful to bridge instructivist and constructivist teaching approaches for students not yet familiar with taking responsibility for their own learning and also how students still seem to equate lectures with better learning/teaching as opposed to student-centered teaching strategies. That certainly confirms the experience I have had with the student evaluations for my courses that use team-based learning. But what is really interesting is that there is a seeming sweet spot. In my first and second year courses in which I used TBL all of the time, students wrote on the course evaluations a request for more lecturing. In contrast, when I used TBL for only a couple of course sections in my more senior biochemistry course, students indicated that more TBL activities would be appreciated.

Perhaps that also goes along with the conclusions in this paper by Venkatech et al that we, as instructors, need to vary the teaching strategies we use as necessary for the particular educational context and the particular student cohort. This is one of the things that makes teaching both interesting and difficult. A cookie-cutter approach is not appropriate. Rather, as instructors we must constantly engage the act of teaching at a metacognitive level to continually assess how we are teaching while we are teaching. We need to use the instant feedback we receive from our students while teaching to make adjustments on the fly. I think this is why I find online teaching difficult and unsatisfactory for myself - my teaching is too far removed from the act of learning that my students are experiencing. The instant feedback that I can sense while in the classroom is so delayed when teaching online. Mind you, I have never had the experience of teaching online in a synchronous environment. My suspicion, however, is that it would be like communicating with a friend or colleague through Skype or Google Talk - simply not the same thing as being in their physical presence while working through an issue.

For me, teaching is a physical, visceral experience, and it is difficult to do when disembodied.


Venkatesh V, Jedwab J, Rabah J, Thomas T, Varela W, Alexander K. 2013. From disconnected to connected: Insights into the Future of Distance Education and Web 2.0 Tools in Higher Education. Revue internationale des technologies en pédagogie universitaire ● International Journal of Technologies in Higher Education, 10(3): 6-13. Available at

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

machine grading

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that machine generated essays can fool machine graders. It reminds me of a science fiction story by Isaac Asimov that I read years (decades?) ago about countries waging war on each other using machine offense and defense. It was so automated that the general public ignored it as it had all become computer hacking and had no physical impact on the populace.

Imagine software/machines writing/grading essays with no one attending to either the input or output resulting in no real impact on students and instructors..... weird.


Asimov I. 1959. The feeling of power. In Nine Tomorrows, p 69-78. Doubleday & Co. Inc. Available from:

Kolowich S. 2014. Writing Instructor, Skeptical of Automated Grading, Pits Machine vs. Machine. The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 28.

Friday, 12 December 2014

jargon in academic publishing

 A friend passed this Ottawa Citizen article to me awhile ago. Basically it shows that it is fairly easy to publish garbage in predatory journals for a price and that it may have a negative impact on the integrity of science writing.

It reminds me of the Sokal Hoax ( in which physicist Alan Sokal published an article in the 1990s in the journal Social Text basically arguing that aspects of physics were a social construction. The article was fiction but was accepted as academically sound.

The similarity between then and now, is that it is possible to publish in academia with jargon that is impenetrable by most people. It is something that has been developing since the early 1900s as science became professionalized and disciplinary jargon became used as short-hand to quickly discuss complex concepts without having to unpack the meaning.

It appears we may have gone too far and perhaps should hold ourselves to a standard which demands that anyone with a reasonable intellect should be able to understand our writing and not be accessible only to those with years of disciplinary experience. I suspect that many of us try to teach our students this when they are writing term papers for our courses. We need to model the same for our students.


Spears T. 2014. Blinded by gobbledygook. Ottawa Citzen, April 21 (updated May 20).

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

using formative assessments to focus teaching

This is a good blog post discussing the role that formative, rather than summative assessments can play in students' learning and in facilitating instructor's ability to tailor their teaching to their students needs. But as I responded on the Faculty Focus forum, there are two difficulties I have in implementing this practice:

1. It is not easy to design a formative assessment that will truly provide instructors with a window to students understanding of the material. For myself, I need to overcome the habit of producing objective tests that as a result tend to examine at the lower end of Bloom's taxonomy. I know Eric Mazur makes a good argument for constructing such assessments, and I agree that this is the way to go. All I am saying is that it is not easy.

2. Once a good formative assessment is in place, the next problem is that instructors must be granted the time to respond to the data and adjust their classroom activities for the day in order to respond to and meet the learning needs of their students. This is a good thing to do. However, I don't think I am an atypical academic who finds himself running from one meeting to another and finds that he only has a couple of minutes to think about what is happening in the next class - thank goodness I prepared this class last week (last year?). Formative assessment demands that instructors are given the time (make the time) to respond to the information provided about students' understanding of the assigned material and quickly tailor their class activities to what students immediately need for learning to occur.... that day. This is basically what Just-in-Time-Teaching facilitates.

Both of my points are not criticisms of using formative assessments. Please don't misunderstand me. All I am saying is that implementing formative assessment takes work and time and a change in our habits and academic culture.


Dreon, O. (2014). Formative assessment: The secret sauce of blended success. Faculty Focus, July 23. 

Marrs, K. A., R. Blake, and A. Gavrin. (2003). Use of warm up exercises in Just in Time Teaching: Determining students’ prior knowledge and misconceptions in biology, chemistry, and physics. Journal of College Science Teaching 33 (1): 42–47.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

if the medium is the message... what does that say about online learning?

I wanted to follow up on last week's post has the internet traded wisdom for knowledge? Marshall McLuhan's assertion that the medium is the message is something I have always found intriguing but have difficulty understanding. A quote from the Marshall McLuhan website explains that the medium is the message in the way that it controls, shapes, and impacts the pace of the message. By doing so it affects how the message is read or interpreted and thus has an effect on the message itself. So when Carr asks the question whether Google is making us stupid he is clearly applying McLuhan's analysis of mass media: the internet is impacting the message by encouraging us to be distracted and superficial.

A McLuhanian analysis of educational technologies does suggest that there are some trade-offs as McLuhan asserted for any new technology (Bates 2011, Morrison 2014). As a result of reading Carr and thinking about McLuhan (I have to be honest: I have read about his work but have never read his work) I wonder if my embrace of using educational technologies needs to be tempered? If the internet is a distracting technology as Carr suggests, what does this do to educators' desire for their students to deeply learn? Is providing online texts with hyperlinks enabling the connection of different sources of knowledge enabling deep learning or is it distracting students from learning? I know that question will annoy a lot of people and it is odd coming from me because I am a proponent of using digital tools for education. I like having access to the vast educational literature by simply querying Google Scholar, Wikipedia, or if I am deep into an investigation, the myriad of library databases available through my university. In addition, I believe that there is value in integrating knowledge: finding and investigating the connections that exist among the academic disciplines. To some degree it might be argued that the internet/Google is breaking down the academic silos that have existed in academia for so very long.

However, I still come back to Carr's implied question: is connectivity worth it if in exchange we give up deep reflective analysis? Newstock (2013) argues for this deeper approach to learning. We need to design learning environments/experiences for our students that enable their deep consideration of our current understanding of our world. Perhaps this is simply a problem of the tension that exists between breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding. Deep understanding requires considered focus on a very narrow topic. Yet breadth allows one to scan the horizon for connections to that knowledge.

On the surface this sounds like an argument for the merits of truly blended learning. Blended learning that does not trade in-class learning for online learning but rather completely blended learning where both focus and integration are encouraged: both breadth and depth of learning are enabled.

But we still have the problem of the distracting internet - that can still cause problems for considered thinking about which connections are meaningful and which are simply.... a distraction. And if Carr's review of the neurobiology is correct (Carr 2010) then the internet is rewiring our brains for shallow thinking.


Bates, T. (2011). Marshall McLuhan and his relevance to teaching with technology. online learning and distance education resources, July 20.

Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? Atlantic, 302(1), 56–63.

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (p. 276). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Morrison, D. (2014).What Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ Tells Us About Education Technology in 2014.  online learning insights, June 9.

Newstok, S. L. (2013). A plea for “close learning”. Liberal Education, 99(4), 16–19.

Monday, 17 November 2014

has the internet traded wisdom for knowledge?

I remember this article when it came out. It still makes for interesting reading and I find that some of his concerns about reading habits and thinking resonate with my own experiences of reading. Carr likened surfing the internet to shallow thought with minds being stretched thin over the connections of the network. It inhibits deep thinking and instead promotes superficial skimming of text while being bombarded with suggestions for where else to focus your attention. He suggests that this is in the best interests of advertisers and data miners for commerce. Deep thoughtful consideration does not promote concentration on how to best spend your salary. Somehow the medium is the message in Marshall McLuhan's terms. The medium/the internet is changing the way we think looking for connections rather than consideration of the text at hand. Rather than carefully considering what has been written, rather than carefully considering the meaning laden within the text we would rather look for how it is connected to other knowledge - we wish to see how far the network can spread.

I found it an ironic experience to be reading Carr's article online at the Atlantic website. Exactly what he describes in his article was happening to me. While reading his article about how reading on the internet is a distracted activity, there were advertisements and suggestions for connected reading popping up in the midst of his article. I suspect that Carr would have laughed or cried at that.

Carr does acknowledge that with new technologies (printing press, writing, the computer) come new capabilities that improve human interaction and knowledge. He acknowledges this despite his scepticism about how Google is changing how we think. I wonder if one of the blessings of the internet is the integration of knowledge. But does it come at the cost of deep understanding of the knowledge? Have we gained integration of knowledge at the expense of wisdom?


Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? Atlantic, 302(1), 56–63. Retrieved from

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

evidence that learning is better in smaller classes

So this is something that most of us intuitively know: class size impacts learning. Yet, I have never been able to find a peer-reviewed paper that explicitly states that better student learning outcomes occur with smaller classes. I finally found a review that does a meta-analysis of a number of published studies and comes to the conclusion that small class size produces a demonstrably better learning environment for our students (Cuseo 2007).

So what is the sweet spot for student learning? On this issue Joe Cuseo is carefully vague invoking the disparity of study methods. However, he goes out on a limb to state that his reading of the literature indicates that an enrolment of 15 students is probably as big as a class can get before student learning outcomes are adversely affected. Having stated that, he goes on to explain that this needs further study.

The major findings of Cuseo's meta-analysis are (these are the sub-headings in the first section of his paper):
  1. Large class size increases faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction.
  2. Large classes reduce students’ level of active involvement in the learning process (and both Weimer 2013 and Ambrose et al 2010 have argued that active learning is key to improving student learning outcomes).
  3. Large class size reduces the frequency and quality of instructor interaction with and feedback to students.
  4. Large-class settings reduce students’ depth of thinking inside the classroom.
  5. Large class size limits the breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning outside the classroom.
  6. Students’ academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades) are lowered in courses with large class size.
  7. Students report less course satisfaction in large-sized classes.
  8. Students give lower overall ratings (evaluations) for course instruction delivered in large classes.
The problem with finding #1 is that it has been shown that didactic lectures are not really good for anything else other than information transfer (Bligh 1998). Finding #2 is a problem because there is much evidence indicating that increased student engagement and active learning positively impacts student learning outcomes (Weimer 2013, Amborse et al 2010). Granted, there are methods of active learning that can be employed with large classes to ameliorate these problems (see the resources below by Weimer 2013, Ambrose et al 2010, Bain 2004, and Bligh 1998). Finding #3 above is corroborated by another meta-analysis of the literature showing that instructor-student relationships impact student learning outcomes in a manner characterized as person-centered teaching (Cornelius-White 2007). Attending to the the relationship with their students is something that has been observed to be the practice of the best instructors (Bain 2004). Relatedly, I also wonder how the size of a class impacts the ability of an instructor to motivate their students. Christensen and Menzel (1998) found that both verbal and nonverbal immediacy behaviours of instructors impacts students' perceived learning.

So for those of us who have experienced the joy of the seminar and the pain of the lecture theater, you now have a review of the published literature that shows that seminar sized classes are the better learning environment for students.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures? 5th ed. Exeter: Intellect.

Christensen, L. J., & Menzel, K. E. (1998). The linear relationship between student reports of teacher immediacy behaviors and perceptions of state motivation, and of cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning. Communication Education, 47(1), 82–90.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.

Cuseo, J. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. The Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), 5–21. 

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2nd ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Monday, 3 November 2014

education is not simply information storage

What a good article. Marshall Gregory criticizes the idea of knowledge being information and education being information storage. Iit makes me wonder about my discipline of biochemistry. It seems much of its educational content is information to be memorized. I have always rationalized that by considering it to be a language that must be mastered before it can be spoken or understood. I think that is still true but it does make it difficult when trying to make assessments authentic. Especially when trying to follow Eric Mazur's assertion that if an assessment is authentic, it shouldn't make a difference if that assessment is open-book or even open-internet. After all, biochemists do not limit themselves to using only what they have in their head. If they don't know something or have forgotten something, they google it or use their favorite database to research for what they need. So what are we doing in our classrooms? This is why I have been trying to use more active learning in my classrooms and asking students to learn what they need outside of class to perform as biochemists inside the class. But there does seem to be a balance. Students often don't know what they need to know - they don't know what they don't know. It is much easier to solve a problem if the information is at your fingertips (i.e. in your brain) than if you are always needing to look it up. So, there is a balance. Some information is needed to be known by us and our students to successfully perform in whichever discipline we have made our home as asserted in Michelle Miller's recent post in the Teaching Professor: we do need to help our students remember those facts necessary for them to develop expertise in their chosen discipline. I guess the point that Marshall Gregory is making in this article, and I think is echoed by Eric Mazur is that information gathering and storage should not be the goal of education. Rather the goal of education is preparing students to be thoughtful, insightful and creative with how they use what they know. But our students will only turn out that way if we model it and give them opportunities to practice being so inside of our classrooms.

Information is necessary but insufficient for the educated mind.


Gregory, M. (1987). If Education is a feast, why do we restrict the menu? A critique of pedagogical metaphors. College Teaching 35(3): 101-106.

Miller, M (2014). Helping students memorize: Tips from cognitive science. The Teaching Professor 28(9): 3.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

what was old is new again - flipping the classroom

Maryellen Weimer published a great post on the Faculty Focus website yesterday. There she raised some concerns about the current trend in flipping the classroom. The issues discussed are worth consideration and are ones that I have thought about myself since implementing Team-Based Learning in a couple of my courses. One that I think is worth serious consideration is the content dump I sometimes see in flipped classrooms - make room for active learning in the classroom by moving everything else outside of the classroom for students to complete. Actually this could be a problem for any course regardless of how it is delivered: online, traditional, blended, or flipped. We need to consider carefully the work and cognitive load we are placing on our students. In the flipped classroom, rote work (reading, podcast viewing) is done outside of class individually by students and what was once considered to be homework is done inside the class under the guidance of the instructor and often in collaboration with classmates. However, I have seen many flipped classrooms where additional projects are assigned to be done outside of class. This can easily get out of hand in terms of students' workload and cognitive load. Students are often encountering course material for the first time when doing the assigned reading or podcast viewing and this requires careful thinking on their part. Flipping the classroom means that homework is now the initial encounter with course material and assignments are done inside of class. We need to be careful to not load too much more on our students to complete outside of class.

I also wanted to address the title of this blog post. I, along with others, sense that flipping the classroom is a familiar idea. Didn't we used to be expected as students to have read the assignment and come to class prepared to discuss the material? Seems like at its essence this is what flipping is. I think what is different and improved since I was a student is that we are being more aware of holding students accountable for what we have assigned. JiTT and TBL both make use of pre-class quizzes to both check what students know or misunderstand from the assignment and also as a means of ensuring that students are responsible for their out-of-class preparation. So many times I remember while a student coming to class unprepared and quickly flipping through the textbook before the instructor started the day's class. I wonder if I would have better prepared if I knew there was going to be a quiz on the material before it was discussed in class? And I also wonder with the growing prevalence of in-class collaborative work if the pressure to contribute to my group would have given me the drive to be prepared. Peer pressure can be a wonderful inducement for making students responsible for their own learning.


Weimer M. 2014. A Few Concerns about the Rush to Flip. Faculty Focus, October 29.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

ruminations from the 58th ACUBE meeting in Portland OR, Oct 16-17, 2014

I just returned from the annual meeting of ACUBE in Portland, OR. This is a great group of biological educators interested in providing the best learning environment for their students. ACUBE publishes the semi-annual journal Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching. You may contact their editor, James Clack, if you are interested in reviewing manuscripts for the journal.

I presented my survey of capstone courses in biology. It was at 8 am so we were a small but engaged group - we had an interesting discussion. I am preparing the manuscript for publication but if you can't wait you can view the PDF of my PowerPoint presentation here.

The following paragraphs are my summaries of the presentations I was able to attend.

Community Engagement in Undergraduate Biology: Opportunities and Challenges was presented by Amy Boyd from Warren Wilson College and presented her experience in developing a community service learning program for her students. She provided examples at all levels of college in which her students completed projects for community partners: middle school, community gardens, public gardens. She explained that there were pedagogical advantages of having direct contact between students and community partners: students consider alternative career tracks and it places students' learning in a larger social context.

James Clack from Indiana University-Purdue University presented Online Biology courses - Five Years In which was a reflection of his experiences with online learning in biology. There were a couple of take home messages for me. One was that online courses really benefit from being blended with a face-to-face component because his students didn't seem to make use of the online interaction opportunities he provided. In addition he found that far more students did not show up for the final exam compared to his in-class courses. Online students seemed to drop out of the course without officially dropping it resulting in an incomplete or failing grade. Some of the discussion mused about whether students simply forgot they were enrolled in the course or whether they were unclear about the need to take the initiative to drop or withdraw from a course before the deadline.

Matt Kropf & Denise Piechnik from the University of Pittsburgh presented An Approach to STEM Education in the Biology Classroom and Lab in which they suggested that it is not difficult for students to learn how to produce their own sensing instruments for their biology labs and projects. They acknowledged that the initial learning curve is steep but short - their students learned how to use the inexpensive kits within an afternoon (2-3 hrs) producing equipment that worked (e.g. moisture sensors). The kits were relatively inexpensive ($100 from Open Source Hardware & Open Source Software) and could be re-used. For those interested they are looking for collaborators for a grant in which they would complete a careful assessment of the impact of sensor development on student learning outcomes. Their argument and experience suggests that if students build their own equipment they have a better sense of the sensor's capabilities and limitations.

Lisa Felzien from Rockhurst University presented  Assessing the Impact of Integrated Research in a Molecular Biology Course in which she argued that embedding authentic research experience in courses produced increases in understanding experimental design, and improved critical thinking. A survey of her students' experiences indicated that they still perceived lectures to be the best teaching/learning method and that learning from their peers was not as valuable. However, they did highly rate their experiences in analysing their own data. Based on an analysis of student pre/post-tests she found that there were large learning increases for hypothesis making and testing but not as much for lecture based content/learning and that there was not much difference in students' ability to answer lower vs higher (Bloom's) order questions. She concluded that students appreciate working on research projects with a good perception of the learning involved but that there was little difference in their preference for lecture vs project-based learning and that students' perceptions of their learning do not always align with their performance and is more likely related to what they like.

Tom Davis did a great demonstration of flipping the classroom in Flippin' the A&P Classroom: Why Didn't I Do It Before? He had us complete an exercise very similar to TBL but without the IF AT cards. We used chalkboards (yes chalkboards!) on all walls of the classroom for students (us) to complete a relatively short assignment (similar to TBL Apps) on the material. His desired outcomes from flipping are: students are talking to each other and to the instructor rather than sitting passively in their seats; students prepare before class; the instructor is doing less telling with students instead more speaking to each other while they collaboratively engage with the course material. He provides a short interactive summary for each lecture section called Lecture Note Outlines (LNOs) that students have to complete while reading their pre-class assignment. This is very similar to TBL reading guides. A funny misunderstanding during the presentation was that a participant heard him describe his LNOs as lecture no outlines and couldn't figure out how this was an advantage for students.....

Marlee Marsh from Columbia College presented Improving Lab Report Writing & Student Confidence. In her freshman introductory biology course she found that students' lab reports were poorly prepared and that even a guide to lab reports did not improve them. She developed a plan of attack which involved scaffolding the assignments and partnering freshman biologists with senior students. Meetings between the upper classmen and freshmen were part of the grade. The classroom partners (CP) attended the labs and lectures and provided feedback but did not edit freshman's writing (lab reports). CP were paid, trained and recruited (strong biology student with good writing skills). She found that it was important to be intentional in her writing instructions to students (e.g. writing M&M in past tense and third person). She has noticed improved results over the last three years. A third of her freshman met more than the required three times with their CP. Most (> 80%) of her students thought they had improved their writing and learning. Students' comments reflected a positive change in attitude toward their assignment. Going forward she will continue to communicate clear expectations of writing to her students and ensure communication among instructors, students, CP. She also found that timely feedback was important and that time is easier to secure than funds. She hopes to follow up on this program in upper level courses.

Finally Christopher Price presented the keynote entitled Promoting Academic Integrity in the 21st C. He is a Political Scientist at SUNY, but on this day he was presenting in his role as Academic Programs Manager of the SUNY Center for Professional Development, and Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching at the College at Brockport, SUNY. He discussed a couple of questions from Lang's 2013 book Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty

1. what does it mean for biology students to do their own work?
2. why does it matter?

Some of the answers we generated were:

  • students need to practice their discipline - copying doesn't enable that.
  • students need to engage in the construction of their own knowledge structure - again copying someone else doesn't enable that
  • if assignments are plagiarized then instructors can't assess students' understanding of the material
  • difficult for students and instructors to sometimes distinguish between what is collaborative vs copied work
Christopher presented the alarming statistic that 65% students have engaged in some form of cheating (this has been reported previously elsewhere), but that students don't consider cheating to be a problem - they don't value academic integrity. I have had this discussion with my colleagues at Augustana and concluded, similar to Dr. Price, that we need to teach our students why it is important: the academic enterprise rests on trust and honesty. For example, in the sciences imagine the problems of advancing our knowledge if data are fabricated. Thus plagiarizing is not as serious as fabricating data but plagiarism does indicate their trustworthiness. In the sciences attribution is less important than accuracy but there are the sociocultural issues that if we don't properly acknowledge each other's contribution, there will be much less collaboration on the issues that can't be solved by one person alone.

One of the problems unique to the 21st C  that Christopher presented was that our current ability to socially engage through the internet of things makes it difficult to determine unique authorship - intertextuality & collaboration are much more common now than a couple of decades ago due to social media. In undergraduate courses, this problem can be addressed by assigning team assignments which includes peer assessment.

Another problem of the 21st C is the corporatization of higher ed: the professional pressure on faculty produces a careerism at the expense of focusing on the needs of the students. From the student side they assume that with their tuition dollars they are purchasing a degree that will lead to a career and monetary success. Thus weak performance in college has real potential of impacting people's lives resulting in the perceive necessity by students to sometimes cheat. Other issues include greater diversity of the student body making some traditional approaches less effective (e.g. honor code) and the hidden curriculum (norms, values, beliefs) unreliable.

Dr Price suggested some strategies including enforcing existing rules but its reliance on fear produces questionable results. Here he cited Parker Palmer and his assertion in The Courage to Teach that a culture of fear is antithetical to learning. Another possibility is to develop ethical orientation & behaviour in our students but this typically become a delegated responsibility to someone or some dept and thus becomes marginalized. A better approach that Christopher suggested is to develop a mastery rather than performance orientation in our students by changing the nature of how our courses are designed. This might include multiple attempts at assignments or the possibility of permitting students to design/suggest alternative assessments. Similar to Mazur, Price advocated for authentic assessments. These are assessments that are not in and of themselves the learning objective but rather are opportunities for students to show what they have learned. This may involve a change in practice moving from few high to many low stakes assessments and to provide students with practice to prepare them for assessments . This altered learning orientation from performance to mastery emphasizes intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation for students and thus promotes the development of self-regulated learners. Similar to Maryellen Weimer in her book Student-Centered Teaching, Price advocated for approaching course content as a means to the learning goal not an end in itself leading to grounded assessments - something students will do in the work or research world rather than a content dump. Similar to what I have been thinking, Price suggested that the incorporation of metacognitive activities into course work will promote student self-efficacy and may help to develop students' ability to assess themselves by asking the metacognitive question "have I mastered this material?" This approach can be facilitated by how instructors approach their teaching. As educators we need to express that we have something great to teach our students, that we will challenge them, and that they are capable of meeting that challenge.

For those of you interested, the next ACUBE annual meeting will take place Oct 23-24, 2015 at
Missouri Western State University in St Joseph, MO.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

transformation an ontological condition for learning?

Nope, I changed my mind about this article - it really is getting at the idea of students' developing their own learning philosophy. The first time I read this article I thought it was another article that was conflating teaching philosophy with learning philosophy discussing what the educator does for the learner. A teaching philosophy to my mind is an educator's philosophy for how to set the learning environment for students and thus takes into consideration a philosophy of learning - how do students in general learn? In contrast, a learning philosophy is something the learner develops for themselves. Learners, when taking a course, do not design the educational environment; that is the work of the teacher. A learning philosophy, in my opinion is something that a student discovers and constructs for themselves.

However, the argument that Bramming is making here is that transformation of the student is an ontological condition for learning. If transformation does not occur, then true learning really has not happened. This actually makes sense to me - if learning does not change a student, then what has happened in the process? Nothing, it has not impacted their knowledge structure - they have memorized without processing. Transformative learning will alter students' learning structure - they should see their world in a new way as a result of their education.

Bramming makes an interesting appeal to Nietzsche's acting and reacting forces linking it to Piaget's assimilative (surface) and accommodative (deep) learning. The author, notes however, that Nietzsche did not denigrate one over the other - both are necessary for learning: the actor is the accommodative force (interior) and the social learning structure being the assimilative force (exterior). Learning requires encouragement and the establishment by mentor (authority) of the degree to which skills will be mastered whereas the will/desire to master derives from within the student.

So Bramming is suggesting that we should be considering strong and weak learning experiences rather than strong and weak students. Has the educational environment set the challenge such that students must be actively engaged in their learning? Students need to transform their expectations and desires for learning from passive to active engagement with the course material and consider what the material means for themselves rather than memorizing what it means for an author or instructor - they must construct their own meaning. To do that students must question why and how they are learning something and not only what they are learning. These are the basic questions that undergird my understanding of developing one's own learning philosophy.

The analysis of Nietzsche's strong and weak learning forces is counter-intuitive because the weak forces can actually negate strong learning - they interfere with students' active engagement with the educational experience.

Thus, the argument here is to not allow the nature of the educational experience be determined by students' satisfaction, because for transformation to occur, frustration, anger, and loss may be part of the learning process as students experience a deconstruction/reconstruction of their knowledge structure which forms the filter through which they view their world. Thus real learning - deep learning - alters the way we see the world.


Bramming P. 2007. An Argument for Strong Learning in Higher Education. Quality in Higher Education 13(1): 45-56. DOI:10.1080/13538320701272722

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

to provide instructor's notes to students or not: that is the question.

Today is a guest post about whether or not to provide students with the instructor's notes. I have had student requests for this in the past but have always resisted on the grounds that it is the process not the product that promotes student learning. Giving students my set of notes does nothing to encourage the construction of their own knowledge structure. However, similar to Jeffery Stowell at  Eastern Illinois University, I do provide students with copies of the slideshows that I use during class because they are incomplete - I develop them during the course of the class. Students have indicated that this allows them to to stay on course during the class while still needing to be engaged with the flow of the conversation.

Below is what Jeffrey provides his students at the beginning of the courses he teaches. It provides a scholarly rationale for why he does not give students a complete set of notes. This was posted on the discussion forum and was forwarded to me by a Psychology colleague . When I read it I contacted Dr. Stowell requesting permission to repost it here. He gladly gave his blessing.

"Why I Provide Partial PowerPoint Notes"
Jeffrey R. Stowell
Eastern Illinois University

1)      Students with partial notes (before the days of PowerPoint) did better on an essay exam than students who received full notes (Annis, 1981). In contrast, students who were provided a text outline of PowerPoint slides did more poorly than a comparable class without the outlines (Weatherly, Grabe, & Arthur, 2003). However, in a study looking at full versus partial PowerPoint notes, there was no difference in quiz or exam scores (Stark-Wroblewski, Kreiner, Clause, Edelbaum, & Ziser, 2006), which was similar to results by Vandehey, Marsh, and Diekhoff (2005) who found no effect of providing full notes on grades or attendance compared to providing partial notes or student-generated notes. Comparing partial PowerPoint notes to no instructor-provided notes, there was no difference in student attendance or grades (Bowman, 2009).  Yet, another study showed that students assigned to receive partial PowerPoint notes did better than those receiving full notes on conceptual exam questions (much like mine) and final grades (Cornelius & Owen-DeSchryver, 2008).  Although students like having PowerPoint notes available (Frank, Shaw, & Wilson, 2009), there appears to be no significant benefit of providing full lecture notes compared to partial notes. In fact, providing full lecture notes may have harmful effects on attendance or grades.  An additional review of the benefits of providing partial notes is found on page 74-75 of the book "Applying Science of Learning in Education" (

2)      Partial notes are a nice balance between instructor- and student-generated notes.  Students who come to class can take additional notes on material not included in the PowerPoint outline. Regardless of the detail provided in the notes, attending class will generally result in a higher grade for the course.

3)      Also, please consider that the PowerPoint slides contain copyrighted materials that I may not be authorized to share publicly.


Annis, L. F. (1981). Effect of preference for assigned lecture notes on student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 74(3), 179-182.

Bowman, L. L. (2009). Does posting PowerPoint presentations on WebCT affect class performance or attendance? Journal of Instructional Psychology, 36(2), 104-107.

Cornelius, T. L., & Owen-DeSchryver, J. (2008). Differential effects of full and partial notes on learning outcomes and attendance. Teaching of Psychology, 35(1), 6 - 12.

Frank, J., Shaw, L., & Wilson, E. (2009). The impact of providing web-based PowerPoint slides as study guides in undergraduate business classes. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 37(2), 217-229.

Stark-Wroblewski, K., Kreiner, D. S., Clause, C. B., Edelbaum, J., & Ziser, S. B. (2006). Does the generation effect apply to PowerPoint handouts? Psychology and Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 43(2), 28-37.

Vandehey, M. A., Marsh, C. M., & Diekhoff, G. M. (2005). Providing students with instructors' notes: Problems with reading, studying, and attendance. Teaching of Psychology, 32(1), 49-52.

Weatherly, J. N., Grabe, M., & Arthur, E. I. L. (2003). Providing introductory psychology students access to lecture slides via Blackboard 5: A negative impact on performance. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 31(4), 463-474.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

does in-class technology use by students enhance or diminish learning?

A couple of weeks ago this issue was raised on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative email forum. Members were asking whether or not instructors should allow students to use their tablets, laptops and smartphones in class. Does it enhance or diminish students' educational experience? Does it impact student learning outcomes?

I think there are two things to consider here. One is the use for whole class testing/polling which I think makes pretty good sense - there is plenty of published data suggesting that personal response systems (clickers), for example, enhance student learning.

No, the real issue here is whether or not student use of these devices during lecture enhances or detracts and whether it enhances learning when used to research in-class assignments. This is the real question.

It seems to me that their use during lecture will diminish student learning because students cannot multitask. However,this point is probably moot because there should be less lecturing and more active learning going on in the 21st century classroom. I think students will be less inclined to send texts and check email if they are actively engaged in the class. If the technology is used to complete in-class assignments as can happen, for example, during the application phase of Team-Based Learning then I think this is similar to Eric Mazur's assertion that if it is an authentic assessment (formative like TBL apps or summative as in a final exam) it should make no difference. If the question or problem being considered by the student is directly searchable by Google, then it probably isn't an authentic assessment. Which means that this is a difficult task for instructors: setting authentic assessments.


Brady, M., Seli, H., & Rosenthal, J. (2013). “Clickers” and metacognition: A quasi-experimental comparative study about metacognitive self-regulation and use of electronic feedback devices. Computers & Education, 65(July), 56–63. doi:

Curzan A. 2014. Why I’m Asking You Not to Use Laptops. The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 25. Available from:
Fulbright S. 2013. Cell Phones in the Classroom: What’s Your Policy? Faculty Focus, April 15. Available from

Mazur E. (2012) Promoting ownership of learning with authentic assessment. Allen ISD/November Learning Webinar at the Harvard Universtiy in Cambridge, MA, October 2. Available from

Orlando J. 2010. Using Polling and Smartphones to Keep Students Engaged. Faculty Focus, October 4. Available from

Robinson, D. H., & Walker, J. D. (2008). Technological alternatives to paper-based components of team-based learning. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 2008(116), 79–85.

Strauss V. 2014. Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class. The Washington Post, September 25. Available from

Weimer M. 2014. The Age of Distraction: Getting Students to Put Away Their Phones and Focus on Learning. Faculty Focus, January 8. Available from

Weimer M. 2012. Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t. Faculty Focus, September 26. Available from

Monday, 6 October 2014

Kimberly Tanner to be keynote speaker at AIBA 2015

The Alberta Introductory Biology Association will be having its annual meeting on the North Campus of the University of Alberta on May 12, 2015. We are very pleased that Dr. Kimberly Tanner will be our keynote speaker. The Center for Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Science, and Department of Biological Sciences are supporting her visit to Edmonton and in return, Dr. Tanner will also be hosting a couple of workshops and presentations on the day before our AIBA meeting, May 11, 2015.

Dr. Tanner is a perfect fit as keynote speaker for AIBA. AIBA is an organization of biological educators in higher education who come together each May to share teaching practices, innovations and simply enjoy each other's inner BIO geekiness. Good grief we love biology! And we love to share our love of biology with our students through our teaching. Dr Tanner was trained as a biochemist and neuroscientist and has since become a researcher and advocate of student learning in general and the biological sciences in particular.

Here is her detailed biography:

Kimberly D. Tanner is a tenured Professor of Biology and the Director of SEPAL: The Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory within the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Trained as both a biochemist and a neuroscientist, she received her B.A. in Biochemistry from Rice University in 1991 and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1997. She was awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science Education (PFSMETE) from 1998-2000, during which she pursued additional training in science education research methodologies, investigating the impact of involving scientists in K-12 science education partnerships. After completing her fellowship, she joined the UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP), her fellowship study site, as a Senior Academic Coordinator from 2000-2004. Most recently, she was hired at SFSU in January 2004 as a tenure-track faculty member with a specialization in biology education, the first such hire across the SFSU science departments. Her research group – SEPAL – investigates how people learn science, especially biology, and how teachers and scientists can collaborate to make science teaching and learning in classrooms – Kindergarten through university – more like how scientists work. SEPAL research addresses a couple of lines of inquiry:

  1. developing novel assessment tools to better understand conceptual change and misconceptions in biology that can guide strategies for curriculum improvement and teaching reform,  
  2. studying the impact of involving scientists in science education, whether in K-12 classrooms, as undergraduate or graduate teaching assistants, or as college and university Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES). 
SEPAL also offers courses designed to teach scientific trainees how to teach the science they know and programs that promote science education partnerships between scientific trainees and instructors from Kindergarten through community college. Dr. Tanner is a founding member of the Editorial Board for CBE: A Journal of Life Sciences Education and co-author of the Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning series, which translates education research and pedagogical strategies into language accessible to undergraduate biology faculty. Professionally, she has served on committees for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Research Council, the Society for Neuroscience, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Her scholarly activities have been funded by multiple NSF grant awards, an NIH Science Education Partnership Award, and multiple, internal SFSU awards. Most recently, Dr. Tanner received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER research award, was elected a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and received the 2012 Outstanding College Science Teacher Award from the Society for College Science Teaching, an affiliate of the National Science Teachers Association.

This is a list of articles she has published in CBE-Life Sciences Education. My personal favourites discuss student metacognition in the classroom, how to assess to make room for active learning, and how to deal with student resistance to active learning teaching strategies:
  • John D. Coley and Kimberly Tanner. Relations between Intuitive Biological Thinking and Biological Misconceptions in Biology Majors and Nonmajors. CBE Life Sci Educ March 2, 2015 14:ar8; doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0094
  • Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sci Educ June 2, 2014 13:159-166; doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054
  • Gloriana Trujillo and Kimberly D. Tanner. Considering the Role of Affect in Learning: Monitoring Students' Self-Efficacy, Sense of Belonging, and Science Identity. CBE Life Sci Educ March 3, 2014 13:6-15; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0241
  • Shannon B. Seidel and Kimberly D. Tanner. “What if students revolt?”—Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation. CBE Life Sci Educ December 2, 2013 12:586-595; doi:10.1187/cbe-13-09-0190
  • Kimberly D. Tanner. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE Life Sci Educ September 4, 2013 12:322-331; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115
  • Kimberly D. Tanner. Promoting Student Metacognition. CBE Life Sci Educ June 4, 2012 11:113-120; doi:10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033
  • Sara E. Brownell and Kimberly D. Tanner. Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE Life Sci Educ December 3, 2012 11:339-346; doi:10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163
  • William B. Wood and Kimberly D. Tanner. The Role of the Lecturer as Tutor: Doing What Effective Tutors Do in a Large Lecture Class. CBE Life Sci Educ 2012 11:3-9; doi:10.1187/cbe.11-12-0110
  • John D. Coley and Kimberly D. Tanner. Common Origins of Diverse Misconceptions: Cognitive Principles and the Development of Biology Thinking. CBE Life Sci Educ September 4, 2012 11:209-215; doi:10.1187/cbe.12-06-0074
  • Kimberly D. Tanner. Reconsidering “What Works”. CBE Life Sci Educ December 1, 2011 10:329-333; doi:10.1187/cbe.11-09-0085
  • Julia I. Smith and Kimberly Tanner. The Problem of Revealing How Students Think: Concept Inventories and Beyond. CBE Life Sci Educ 2010 9:1-5; doi:10.1187/cbe.09-12-0094
  • Kimberly D. Tanner. Order Matters: Using the 5E Model to Align Teaching with How People Learn. CBE Life Sci Educ 2010 9:159-164; doi:10.1187/cbe.10-06-0082
  • Kimberly D. Tanner. Talking to Learn: Why Biology Students Should Be Talking in Classrooms and How to Make It Happen. CBE Life Sci Educ 2009 8:89-94; doi:10.1187/cbe.09-03-0021
  • Katayoun Chamany, Deborah Allen, and Kimberly Tanner. Making Biology Learning Relevant to Students: Integrating People, History, and Context into College Biology Teaching. CBE Life Sci Educ 2008 7:267-278; doi:10.1187/cbe.08-06-0029
  • Jonathan D. Knight, Rebecca M. Fulop, Leticia Márquez-Magaña, and Kimberly D. Tanner. Investigative Cases and Student Outcomes in an Upper-Division Cell and Molecular Biology Laboratory Course at a Minority-serving Institution. CBE Life Sci Educ 2008 7:382-393; doi:10.1187/cbe.08-06-0027
  • Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen. Cultural Competence in the College Biology Classroom. CBE Life Sci Educ 2007 6:251-258; doi:10.1187/cbe.07-09-0086
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Putting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart: Using Visions and Decisions about High-Quality Learning Experiences to Drive Course Design. CBE Life Sci Educ 2007 6:85-89; doi:10.1187/cbe.07-03-0017
  • Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen. Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning: On Integrating Pedagogical Training into the Graduate Experiences of Future Science Faculty. CBE Life Sci Educ Spring 2006 5:1-6; doi:10.1187/cbe.05-12-0132
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Rubrics: Tools for Making Learning Goals and Evaluation Criteria Explicit for Both Teachers and Learners. CBE Life Sci Educ 2006 5:197-203; doi:10.1187/cbe.06-06-0168
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Infusing Active Learning into the Large-enrollment Biology Class: Seven Strategies, from the Simple to Complex. Cell Biol Educ Winter 2005 4:262-268; doi:10.1187/cbe.05-08-0113
  • Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen. Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning: Understanding the Wrong Answers—Teaching toward Conceptual Change. Cell Biol Educ Summer 2005 4:112-117; doi:10.1187/cbe.05-02-0068
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning: From a Scholarly Approach to Teaching to the Scholarship of Teaching. Cell Biol Educ Spring 2005 4:1-6; doi:10.1187/cbe.04-11-0052
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Learning Content in Context—Problem-Based Learning. Cell Biol Educ Summer 2003 2:73-81; doi:10.1187/cbe.03-04-0019
  • Kimberly D. Tanner, Liesl Chatman, and Deborah Allen. Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning: Science Teaching and Learning Across the School–University Divide—Cultivating Conversations through Scientist–Teacher Partnerships. Cell Biol Educ Winter 2003 2:195-201; doi:10.1187/cbe.03-10-0044
  • Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen. Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning: From Assays to Assessments—On Collecting Evidence in Science Teaching. Cell Biol Educ Summer 2004 3:69-74; doi:10.1187/cbe.04-03-0037
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Mapping the Journey—Concept Maps as Signposts of Developing Knowledge Structures. Cell Biol Educ Fall 2003 2:133-136; doi:10.1187/cbe.03-07-0033
  • Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen. Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: A Primer on Standards. Cell Biol Educ Winter 2002 1:95-100; doi:10.1187/cbe.02-09-0046
  • Deborah Allen and Kimberly Tanner. Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Questions about Questions. Cell Biol Educ Fall 2002 1:63-67; doi:10.1187/cbe.02-07-0021
More information may be found at the AIBA and CTL websites. I hope to see you on the North Campus of the UofA on May 11 and/or 12.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

enabling student consideration of instructor feedback

This paper in Higher Education considers the role of continuous assessment in student learning. Continuous assessment, if I understand it correctly, is simply assessing students throughout the term on their learning of the course content. This is in contrast to discontinuous assessment in which students might get assessed once or twice throughout the course (e.g. midterm and final exam - nothing else). Continuous assessment, might include weekly or even daily quizzes or assignments. The advantage of continuous assessment is that students can chart their development in mastering the course content. The problem with continuous assessment, however, is the marking load for instructors - if it is going to be effective for learning it needs to be accompanied by meaningful feedback - and that it commonly mixes formative and summative assessment. The assessments are used to both provide corrective feedback to students but are also counted as marks towards students' final grade. The effectiveness of the feedback thus seems to degrade with the summative aspect due to student performance anxiety. In addition, to be effective, continuous feedback must be timely: effectiveness decreases the longer the period of time between student completion of the work and their receipt of the feedback. Timely feedback is difficult in large classes but there are ways around this problem if marking/feedback is constructed such that it happens in-class rather than out of class. See Schinske & Tanner's article on marking and also this website on the use of IF AT forms.

One of the interesting things Hernández suggests is to have students consider the feedback and reflect on how they will use it to improve work on a subsequent assignment. Thus it brings in a metacognitive component in which students must consider how they will develop their ability to learn the material. It seems similar to me to the concept of exam wrappers in which students reflect on how they performed on an exam comparing the exam results to how they approach their studying and consider how they could improve or strengthen their learning process.

In the case of continuous feedback I can imagine having a post-assignment wrapper followed by an assignment wrapper:

  1. students submit their work for marking/feedback
  2. upon receipt of their graded work they write a reflection on how they will use the feedback to improve future work
  3. with the subsequent assignment students attach a short reflection indicating how the feedback from the previous assignment was actually used to improve the current assignment
Only problem with this is the extra marking and grading involved for instructors. But perhaps there is a way around that difficult by incorporating the wrappers into peer discussions. The point with the wrappers is not to create more marking for instructors, but rather to enable student consideration and incorporation of the feedback we provide them.


Dihoff, R., Brosvic, G. M., ML, M. L. E., & Cook, M. J. (2004). Provision of feedback during preparation for academic testing: learning is enhanced by immediate but not delayed feedback. The Psychological Record, 54(2), 207–231. Retrieved from

Hernández, R. (2012). Does continuous assessment in higher education support student learning? Higher Education, 64(4), 489–502. doi 10.1007/s10734-012-9506-7

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054

Weimer, M. (2010, July 29). Exam Wrappers. Faculty Focus - The Teaching Professor Blog. Retrieved from

Monday, 29 September 2014

do we need to teach everything that we know?

The Faculty Focus website just re-published an old post from the Teaching Professor which asks the question: why don't we teach the telephone book? It relates back to thinking about learner-centered teaching and using disciplinary content to teach skills that cut across disciplines: thinking, researching, communicating, inter-cultural competence, citizenship, to name a few. The argument here is that for many disciplines, and in particular the sciences, the amount of knowledge to be learned has increased to such a great extent that it is no longer possible to teach or learn it all. So why do so many of our science courses try to do this? I am torn because I teach molecular cell biology and biochemistry and these are very content heavy courses. I appreciate how Maryellen Weimer in her book, Learner-Centered Teaching argues that we should not do away with content but rather need to think about it as a vehicle to also teach students the other transferable skills I listed above. In my courses, students need to have a grasp of biochemical language and concepts, but learning this should not interfere with students ability to learn how to learn. Students still need to be given the guidance and time to become metacognitively adept about how, why and what they learn. I am still not sure how to do this in my content-heavy courses, except that I will provide metacognitive prompts for students to consider how we know something and how they learn the material. And perhaps along the way students might even consider the real reasons they are taking my class.


Daniel J. Klionsky. (2006). Why Don’t We Teach the Telephone Book? The Teaching Professor, 20(3), 7. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2013). The Function of Content. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 114–142). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

re-thinking the role of course content

Maryellen Weimer has a good post on The Teaching Professor Blog today that discusses the role of content in our courses. It is a reflection on a recent article published in the History Teacher by Peter Burkholder. Basically both Weimer and Burkholder advocate for using course content in a myriad of ways. This echoes Weimer's argument for the same in her 2013 book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. In there she asserts that as professionals we still must ensure that our students learn the knowledge of our disciplines necessary for them to take their place in the work-world. However, this same course content should also be used as a vehicle to teach students how to think, communicate, research and the other general education skills that are so sought after by employers. So, rather than lecturing for content delivery, as educators we need to consider how to design learning experiences for our students such that they learn the knowledge within different contexts becoming comfortable and capable with using that knowledge in a variety of ways: to clearly communicate a position, as a basis for researching a question, to inform their thinking, to be able to work in teams.

So how do this? The Burkholder article provides a number of different teaching strategies, none of which will be new to readers of this blog. All are active learning in nature and all involve some aspect of flipping the classroom, backwards design, class discussion, immediate feedback, and group testing. One teaching strategy he notes in his article called the "Castle-top" model looks remarkably similar to Team-Based Learning in which students prepare before class, take a test as an individual and within a team followed by application of the learned material in class.

Our courses are not only about teaching our students disciplinary content. They are also about providing venues for our students to become thinkers, researchers, and communicators. This is what is going to enable our students to succeed once they leave the university - these gen ed skills are transferable to other diverse contexts to a far greater extent than the disciplinary knowledge they learn.


Burkholder P. 2014 A content means to a critical thinking end: Group quizzing in history surveys. The History Teacher, 47(4): 551-578. Available from

Weimer M. 2014. Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays. The Teaching Professor Blog, Sept 24. Available from

Weimer M. 2013. The Function of Content. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 114–142). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Monday, 22 September 2014

on note-taking

Maryellen Weimer has a short article on developing students' note-taking ability posted on the Teaching Professor website. It explains why note-taking is so important - it promotes learning. This is the primary reason why I do not make my own course notes completely available to students: I think that taking notes during class enables students' thinking of the material. Note that this is not the same as recording every word an instructor states during class. Good note-taking is a skill that requires judgement - a metacognitive skill. I resisted placing my lecture slides online for students until students informed me that they used them to write their notes on - they rarely simply relied on the text on the slide but rather embellished the text I had already typed. So that was great! students were engaging with the material in-class.

This blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses a study that suggests that handwriting notes on paper is better than typing notes on a laptop during a lecture. This was measured in terms of learning/recall by the participants in the study. This article from the Atlantic discusses the same research. I think the important point from the research is to think while taking notes rather than simply recording verbatim what an instructor is lecturing.

My own personal experience is that typing is far more effective for me than writing: I cannot read my own handwriting after taking notes during a lecture or conference presentation. This is the reason why I started carrying around an iPad and using Evernote to jot down notes. In addition, it is way easier to search for notes when it is organized by something like Evernote. When I started to type to take notes I found that it improved the conversation within my own mind with the material being presented. Hand-writing notes I found I became too worried about the quality of my handwriting so that I could read it later!  :P

When I type my notes I am not transcribing what the speaker is saying. Rather, my typing is writing to think. And I think that is the important point to impress on students - note-taking is not transcribing. Note-taking is writing to think not thinking to write. My typing is my form of writing which is my way to think. I believe that this should be the take home message to students: Don't think about writing - write to facilitate your thinking. If approached this way it becomes clear that transcribing a lecture or presentation is not thinking, and this is the reason, I think, that many typists do not do well on subsequent quizzes - they haven't been thinking while they type on their laptop.

So I think one of the comments posted to The Chronicle blog-post is correct; it depends on the typing and handwriting skills of the particular student. And, of course it depends upon the level of engagement the student brings to the lecture.

I wonder if this issue will be moot in a few years when we are all using active learning strategies in our classrooms and rarely lecturing?


Meyer R. 2014. To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand: Students do worse on quizzes when they use keyboards in class. The Atlantic [online - May 1]. Available from

Perez-Hernandez D. 2014. Taking Notes by Hand Benefits Recall, Researchers Find. The Chronicle of Higher Education [online March 28]. Available from

Weimer M. 2013. How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills. The Teaching Professor 27(6): 7. Available from

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

does the prospect of grading interfere with designing educational experiences?

Another great article co-authored by Kimberly Tanner. I so like how she thinks about teaching as evidenced by her many articles in CBE - Life Sciences Education. This article takes our current grading practices to task considering both its history and assumed purposes. She and co-author Jeffrey Schinske suggest that grading on the curve is counter-productive because it promotes competition rather than learning among students. Indeed, curving assumes that intelligence is innate and thus there will always be a proportion of the student population that will be outstanding, excellent, very good, satisfactory, etc (i.e. A, B, C,  etc.... BTW whatever happened to Es? they consider that).

To my way of thinking, and their research into the literature I think supports this, a large number of high grades for a given course section should indicate that learning was successful - the instructor should be lauded for being a great teacher! However, they are not so naive to assume that all grading practices are similar nor that all teachers have the same criteria for grading. And thus raises their point that comparing grades between teachers, courses, programs, institutions is a messy, unreliable process.

So what is to be done? They suggest keeping a critical perspective on what grades mean and to consider changing our grading practices so that we are not discouraged from the potential increase in marking that sometimes accompanies active learning strategies.

Indeed, I suspect this is Tanner's reason for publishing this paper. Her body of work supports a change in how we teach from one that is instructor-centric to one that is learner-centric. This paper, I think, is an attempt to provide instructors with an approach to grading that will free them up to consider using more active-learning strategies in their classroom. Active-learning teaching strategies do not necessarily mean an increase in marking load - if we re-consider how and what we grade.


Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054

Sunday, 14 September 2014

why implement backwards design?

This post from the i-clicker blog discusses backwards design in the development and design of a course. This is very similar to what Team-Based Learning also advocates:

  1. Start with the learning objectives. 
  2. Design the assessments that will determine whether students meet those learning objectives.
  3. Then determine the content and activities that will develop students' abilities to master the learning objectives. 

I still have along way to go in properly implementing this in my existing courses. It's difficult to re-tool courses that are already received well by students. So what propels me to retool them using backwards design, TBL, authentic assessment, or flipped classroom approaches? Even though my students provide feedback indicating that they enjoy my courses and that they think they learn much, I am unconvinced that true learning is happening. I say that because students often forget what they have learned from my classes between one term and the next. I need to change my teaching practice such that the memorize-regurgitate-purge learning cycle is no longer successful in getting students through my courses.

Friday, 12 September 2014

does liberal education and integrative studies prepare for creativity?

What I found interesting in Secrets of the Creative Brain from the July/August 2014 issue of the Atlantic by Nancy Andreasen is the finding that creative people are prepared, tend to teach themselves, have broad interests and persevere. The finding that creative people tend to be polymaths seems to be connected to creativity because the creative act is about making novel connections unapparent to others. As a result, school should not narrow students too early on a particular subject or discipline. Education needs to first prepare the mind with a broad spectrum of understanding and knowledge so that creativity has been nurtured for when connections become available.

So, does a liberal education and integrative studies have an advantage in preparing minds for creative ideas?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

changing the learning paradigm

Maryellen Weimer published a great post yesterday on her Teaching Professor Blog: "She didn't teach. We had to learn it ourselves." She discusses the comments that a colleague recently received on her end-of-term student evaluations and suggested that this is a result of student-centered learning or active learning in which students are given more responsibility for their learning. Comments such as this typically arise because students resist shouldering this responsibility. However, Weimer suggests that instructors could do a better job of unpacking the teaching and learning strategy used in the course so that students might better understand why they are shouldering the burden of their own learning - teachers cannot learn the material for students. If students understand the reasons for the implementation of a particular teaching and learning strategy they are more likely to accept responsibility for their own learning and more deeply engage in the learning environment. 

I have also received this sort of comment on my student course evaluations when I have used the teaching strategy Team-Based Learning. Some students felt that I had abdicated my teaching responsibilities when I didn't lecture every class and instead had students doing work (under my guidance) during class. I thought I had explained why I was using the teaching strategy and presented the data suggesting that deeper learning happens with collaborative active learning. What I have read over the past summer, and am reminded of again by Weimer's post is that as instructors we need to constantly be explicit about our teaching strategies and about the metacognitive development that is happening in our students as a result. The objective of every educator, I am sure, is to produce independent self-regulated learners that are no longer reliant on instructors to tell them what is the right and wrong way to do things. But this is something that requires work on the part of both learners and instructors in the sense that teachers must resist the easy way out and not give students the answers they seek instead guiding them to produce their own answers. And for their part students must be patient and understand that learning is hard difficult applied work and is not easy, quick, or simple.

Otherwise we graduate students who are unable to contextualise situations resulting in an inability to think on their feet when conditions change. As instructors we have an obligation to develop students intellectual ability.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

is higher ed knowledge transmission or skill development?

Some recent articles about the future of higher ed appeared in the 2014 June 28 issue of The Economist. In a nutshell: academics will lose their jobs to MOOCs, MOOCs deliver low cost programs throughout the world, and the demand for higher ed is still there because of the lifetime earning power with a degree, though that has diminished in recent years.

Part of the problem with their analysis is that it seems to me that the authors still view education as transmission of knowledge rather than the development of learning skills. However, part of that perception is likely due to many classes in our universities being run with lectures dispensing knowledge to students rather than using class time to develop students' thinking, researching, and communication skills.

One of the things I found interesting, though, is their analysis that the lifetime earnings potential is markedly higher for graduate degrees than for undergraduate degrees - the earnings differential for undergraduate degrees has decreased over the last couple of decades but not so much for graduate degrees. Some will likely say that this simply reflects the fact that bachelor's degrees have become the new high school degree.

A great rebuttal to this issue of The Economist can be found at the Behind The Numbers blog. It discusses the dangers of linking education with profit. Public not-for-profit education is accountable only to the citizenry. In contrast, for-profit education may not have students best interests at heart but rather its investors. 

Higher Ed articles in The Economist, 2014 June 28 issue

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Minerva: a non-traditional for-profit university

This article from the 1 Sept 2014 issue of The Atlantic discusses an alternative to MOOCs being offered through a new for-profit university: Minerva. No bricks and mortar institution here. Rather students live in a different part of the world each year and attend online real-time classes - not lectures. And enrolment is selective, not massive. What I do like about this approach is that it does away with the traditional lecture assuming that students are smart enough to google things they don't know and instead uses class time (online) for applying the knowledge. Pre-class reading is encouraged by short quizzes administered at the beginning of each class in a similar manner to Team-Based Learning. To encourage that students remain focused throughout the class, students are warned that sometime during the class there will be a surprise pop quiz on the material being discussed. Students work in teams on problems that apply the material learned outside of class. Sounds like Team-Based Learning to me.

I still believe that being in the real-time physical presence of instructors and fellow colleagues improves learning - humans are a social species. However, I do think that moving rote learning out of the classroom and instead using class time for active learning activities will produce deeper learning. There is ample published evidence to support this claim. Interesting that students of Minerva indicate that attending class is exhausting because there is never a moment when they can let their attention wander - active learning requires focus on the task at hand whether that is solving problems or discussing learned concepts with fellow students. Forty-five minutes of exhaustive focus on learning, however, will likely pay dividends later when the learning, knowledge, skills are still deeply embedded within students, accessible when needed during their post-university lives.


Wood G. 2014. The Future of College? The Atlantic, [Internet] August 13. Available from