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 p├ędagogie 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.