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.....


Friday, 23 October 2015

why do teachers feel personally attacked when the lecture is critiqued?

A recent post in the New York Times by Molly Worthen has provoked a number of responses both for and against the lecture as pedagogical strategy (See Eyler and Franke below for two different responses). This is apparently not new as exemplified by Cath Ellis' post from 2010 reflecting on the response of Donald Clark's conference keynote on the pitfalls of the lecture. Indeed, those that call for the evidence which indicate that the lecture is not a great teaching strategy seem to be unaware that the evidence has been around for some time. As Cath Ellis suggests, read Bligh's 1998 book. In the first couple of chapters he reviews the evidence that lectures are no better than assigning reading for impacting student learning outcomes. And then of course there is the 2014 meta-analysis of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which shows that active learning strategies have very real positive effects on student learning outcomes.

I think that for whatever reason lecturing vs active learning touches on people's sense of self identity. Teaching is such a personal act. What makes some teachers naturally good is that the teaching act meshes so well with their personality or that they have a very good sense of self. Thus a critique of lecturing or active learning is received as an attack on the self as teacher/person rather than a consideration of what produces the best student learning outcomes. In addition, I think Cath Ellis makes an insightful assessment that lecturing is the normative discourse in academia and thus its critique creates unease as the icon of university teaching is called into question.

However, as others have suggested, this really is a false dichotomy. It is not that instructors must choose between lecturing or active learning as their teaching strategy. Teaching is like science - we use whatever will get the job done. Sometimes that means that a particular class needs more lecturing than activities to help students understand a particular assigned reading. Other classes will use activities to help engage students in the concepts being considered to produce deep learning. What I aspire to as a teacher is to be able to read my class and be able to pick out of my bag of teaching strategies what will best deepen my students engagement with and understanding of the material and make their learning stick. Even those of us who use the most student-centered teaching strategy of all (IMHO), Team-Based Learning, still need to  make use of the mini-lecture.

The lecture is not dead. The lecture simply needs to make room for the other teaching and learning strategies which enhance student learning outcomes as shown by the published evidence. Perhaps what is really at stake is the understanding of who the class is for: is it for student learning or is it for instructor self-identity?


Bligh, D. A. (1998). Evidence of what lectures achieve. In What’s the Use of Lectures? (5th ed., pp. 10–23). Exeter: Intellect.

Ellis C. (2010). Tweckling, iconoclasm and lecturing as a normative discourse: reflections on two ALT-C keynotes. cathellis13, Nov 16.

Eyler J. (2015). Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen. A Life Time's Training:Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Oct 20.

Franke D. 2015. Why Lecture Matters: A View from the Trenches. The Winds of War, Oct 18.

Friesen, N. (2011). The lecture as a transmedial pedagogical form: A historical analysis. Educational Researcher, 40(3), 95–102.

Weiman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23), 8319-8320.

Worthen M. (2015). Lecture Me. Really. New York Times, Oct 17.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

is teaching not a scholarly activity worthy of tenure?

I don't understand why there is the assumption that a teaching track professor should be non-tenured? I suspect that it is a result of thinking that teaching is not a scholarly activity that requires the same sort of protection that tenure gives researchers. Is discovery scholarship the only thing that counts? The only scholarly activity that requires protection? Is it not equally important to nurture (protect) the scholarship of application? The scholarship of teaching? Or is it assumed that teaching is simply delivery of whatever the institution wishes to be taught? Are scholarly teachers not risking themselves when they determine what is relevant to teach even when those decisions may go against the prevailing views of the university or government of the day?

To flip it around to make the point, what about doing away with tenured faculty researchers and instead hiring short-term or long-term contract researchers? Why the assumption that that cannot work for research but that it can work for teaching?


Chiose S. 2015. Rise of the teaching class. Globe & Mail, Sept 30.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

laptops in the classroom are not the problem - it is the lack of engagement

An interesting discussion on CBC's The Current about whether or not laptops should be banned in the classroom. I am glad that the second interviewee takes a more nuanced view than this oft cited study from last year by Mueller and Oppenheimer. The argument is that students do not think about what they are taking notes about in class when using a laptop whereas taking notes by hand requires more cognitive effort on the part of the student and thus produces better retention/learning of the taught material. However, this assumes that the classroom is the place where information is imparted from the instructor to the student. I agree with Chris Buddle in this interview that if we understand learning to be an act of knowledge construction within the learner, then the classroom should be a place where this is supported. Classrooms and the teaching that goes on in them need to be redesigned re-imagined such that students are actively engaging with the material rather than only taking notes.

Don't get me wrong - there is a place for note-taking. But that is certainly not all that should be going on inside of our classrooms. And active learning instructional strategies often are able to capitalize on laptops/tablets/smartphones as a learning tool for personal response systems, crowd sourcing research, or collaborating on a common project.

Educational technologies can be used poorly or ignored resulting in a distracting learning environment. But if they are properly used, they can enhance the active engagement students can make with course material.


Bart M. December 5, 201. How Technology Can Improve Learner-Centered Teaching. Faculty Focus.

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

Mueller P.A. and Oppenheimer D.M. 2014. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25: 1159-116.

Tremonti A.M. September 07, 2015. Laptops in classrooms distracting students, teachers call for ban. CBC - The Current.

Weimer M. February 20, 2015. Why Students Should Be Taking Notes. Faculty Focus.

Weimer M. January 30, 2015. How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills. Faculty Focus.

Willis L. June 29, 2015. Using Google Web Apps to Improve Student Engagement. Faculty Focus.

Zipp G.P. June 11, 2012. Be Not Afraid: Embracing the iPad and the Wonderful World of Apps in the Classroom. Faculty Focus.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

science, learning, and environments that produce eureka moments

Is there a similarity between how science operates and how we try to construct the learning environments of our classrooms?

I was speaking about this with Duston Moore, one of our educational developers in the UofA's CTL. It goes back to my attempts at using active learning strategies in the classroom with the goal of producing deeper learning by engaging students. What we discussed is how giving students the answer short circuits deep learning because knowledge sticks when we discover it for ourselves: when the light goes on in our head as understanding dawns and we experience our own personal eureka moment.

Science, in some sense is always searching for those eureka moments - those flashes of insight where, moments before, seemingly disparate pieces of information suddenly come together and we understand the world in a new way. Sometimes the eureka moment builds over time with repeated attempts at showing something is true only to have the experiment appear to fail - or at least fail to give the expected results. But by attacking the problem from different vantage points, using different techniques or conditions, eventually we see what was an anomaly actually makes sense when viewed in a different way.

Perhaps teaching and learning are similar. As instructors we need to produce a learning environment for our students whereby they are able to put the pieces together themselves constructing their own internal knowledge structure made robust by its integration with their personal experience. And when our students are unable to put the pieces together we need to think of other ways to present the material or concept fresh that sheds light on what students cannot yet see and understand.

How do we learn? How do we know? I wonder if there are some similarities between learning and how science is done? I wonder if making students aware of how we ourselves learn, will strengthen their ability to learn? The literature on metacognition of learning certainly suggests this to be the case.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners? In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188–216). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Increase your abilities. In Make it stick: The science of successful learning (pp. 162–200). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate~, 7(1), 39 – 47.

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (pp. 152–168). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

is it malpractice to not use active learning teaching strategies?

Any teaching and learning strategy can be poorly implemented resulting in a poor learning experience: Active learning included. A 2011 article by Andrews et al suggests that implementation of active learning strategies does not lead to improved learning outcomes without a fundamental change in instructors' viewpoint from didactic teaching to constructivist learning. Plugging in a technique will not transform a poor teacher into a good teacher. There are many facets that must be considered when implementing active learning; for example the impact of peer learning or giving time for students to first process the answer themselves.

But I do think that active learning is an essential component of learner-centred teaching which rests on a constructivist understanding of learning. We (learners of all ages and disciplines) construct our own knowledge structure by integrating new learning with what what we have learned before. Passive didactic lecture is no better than assigning textbook pages for students to read (Bligh, 1998). Notice that I qualified that with passive didactic. This is what active learning is typically compared to. Socratic lecturing is not passive didactic - that is a form of active learning IMHO. Is active reading a form of active learning? I believe it is. But not just passive reading with highlighter in hand. But rather active reading with pencil in hand and perhaps a set of guiding questions to consider/answer while reading.

In a  related study a flipped classroom approach was compared to a non-flipped approach in which both versions of the class were constructed using the 5E learning cycle. What they found was that flipping makes no difference if active learning is already taking place regardless of whether the instructor-mediated, in-class portion is during the content attainment phase or during the content application phase. They suggest that the improved student learning outcomes apparent with flipping the classroom are solely a result of the active learning that typically accompanies flipping. oCUBE discussed the flipped vs non-flipped paper at a recent journal club meeting and one of the interesting issues that came up for us is whether or not flipping the classroom is reliant upon technology. Jensen et al (2015) certainly assume that this is the case but oCUBErs felt that flipping with active learning can happen by simply assigning textbook readings prior to their active application in class. What makes the flip so powerful compared to the olden days when reading was assigned is that students in the flipped classroom are typically held accountable for their out-of-class preparation (quiz, assignment, blog post).

In contrast to all of the positive findings on the efficacy of flipped learning, another study found that flipping works in the short term but not necessarily the long term with the suggestion that impact on student learning outcomes might be sustained if flipping was more deeply embedded in the educational curriculum (i.e. students experience flipping in more than one course). If it is active learning rather than flipping that results in improved student learning outcomes, I wonder if this implies that active learning has long lasting effects only if implemented across students' curriculum (i.e. experience active learning in more than one course). Of course this is speculative given the different natures of the studies and what they were measuring (course outcomes vs metacognitive/collaborative skills). But it is interesting to consider.

The July 15, 2015 issues of Scientific American and Nature were coordinated to address the changes that need to occur in science education to improve student learning outcomes. While they both focus on the sciences, their advocacy of the the impact of active learning cuts across all academic disciplines. Given that the evidence for active learning is becoming overwhelming (Freeman et al 2014, Weimer 2013, Michael 2006,  Prince 2004; note that the Allen 2014, Weiman 2014, and Weimer 2015a & 2015b resources below are all commentary on the Freeman et al 2014 key reference) it seems almost like malpractice if instructors are not using active learning strategies in their classes. Freeman et al (2014), make the startling conclusion that 12% of the study's students would not have failed the course if active learning had been used. Could those students sue the institution/instructor for malpractice given the evidence of the efficacy of active learning?


Weimer M. 2015b. More evidence that active learning trumps lecturing. Faculty Focus (June 3).

Weimer, M. (2013). Research: Evidence that learner-centered approaches work. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 28–55). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Mind the Gap III: Assessing students' development from novice to expert

Kimberly Tanner's 3rd workshop in the Mind the Gap series considered how we assess students developing level of expertise. This one dealt with similar issues I have read before in Ambrose et al (2010) and what Smith (1998) suggested: novices do not connect their knowledge and focus on superficial features when trying to make sense of new experiences and learning. Kimberly's research shows this using card sorting exercises. Experts in a field will sort/connect features which are not immediately apparent but have deeper meaning/significance to the task or material at hand. In contrast, novices sort/organize according to what they can immediately see/sense/understand. This makes sense of course because novices are still learning the underlying features/connections/significance/meaning of what they are learning - they don't yet know what the connections are. Educators need to lead students to make these connections to produce a robust knowledge structure that is able to be applied to new situations. An interconnected knowledge structure is robust in the sense that it can be applied in new unexpected situations. It enables creativity of problem solving. We need to facilitate students' creation of their own interconnected knowledge structure. This is a constructivist approach to learning. I think this is what students are craving when they feel as if they are set adrift in my active learning classes. They are wishing to have me model how to make the interconnections. The balance in good teaching and learning is to have knowledge construction both modeled and enabled for our students. We have to show them how we organize our interconnected knowledge structure plus support them in students' own attempts/practice at organizing their own knowledge.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010a). How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learning? In How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 40–65). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Smith, B. L. (1998). Curricular structures for cumulative learning. In J. N. Gardner, G. Van der Veer, & Associates (Eds.), The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Integration, Reflection, Closure, and Transition (pp. 81–94). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Monday, 20 July 2015

sources of student resistance to active learning

This article from by Seidel and Tanner in CBE-LSE is an interesting analysis of research into student resistance over the use or introduction of innovative  teaching strategies (i.e. active learning). Seems that it is not resistance to the active learning strategy itself but rather barriers that may develop as a result of instructors struggling to implement the strategy. These barriers may include unintentional actions on the part of the instructor such as being late to class, or not having instructional materials adequately prepared for class. Students take this as an indication of the quality of the learning strategy itself rather than the quality of its implementation.

Some techniques to alleviate student barriers to innovative teaching:
  1. Explain why using a particular strategy at the start and at different times throughout the course. 
  2. Share the research with students that illustrates its efficacy. 
  3. Structure the course such that inter-student interactions are thought by students to be fair. For example, provide a mechanism for peer evaluation. 
  4. Instructors need to be present to students. Ensure that your interactions with students inside and outside the classroom are affirming, genuine and occur on a daily basis. Don't hide behind the lecture podium. 
  5. Make marking and grading transparent by, for example, providing the markng rubric at the time an assignment is assigned or when an exam is returned. 
  6. Vary the instructional strategies used throughout the term to appeal to a wider cross-section of students.
The article also provides some suggestions for how to deal with student resistance when it does arise.


Seidel, S.B. and Tanner, K D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—Considering student resistance: origins, options and opportunities for investigation. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 12 (Winter), 586-595.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Economist - is college worth it?

This 2014 article from the Economist may perpetuate the idea that there are too many university graduates and that the degree they earned has not resulted in higher earning power. However, it is somewhat more nuanced than that. It does state that many university graduates do have higher earning power than those who have only a high school degree, but that the earning power depends upon the degree earned - degrees in engineering, for example, seem to produce greater earning power than degrees in the arts & humanities. One thing this article is spot on about is the rising cost of a post-secondary education and how that can limit access to education.

It troubles me that the Economist repeats the idea that online education is going to decrease the cost of higher education. That simply is not true. People who think that online education is cheaper than face-to-face education do not understand that knowledge is constantly changing requiring constant maintenance of courses - whether they be online or F2F. In addition, to do online learning properly, requires a large investment of resources to prepare the online materials. The idea that the talking head of an expert will be sufficient is ludicrous.


Editors. 2014, April 5. Is college worth it? The Economist.

Monday, 1 June 2015

sharing the moments that bring us back to teaching, part 2

This term I marked my final exams, submitted my grades and then immediately departed on my family vacation for two weeks. I was keen to leave the university behind and re-energize myself swimming, hiking and spotting wildlife. When I returned to my office, the folder in my door used for people to drop off envelopes, memos, assignments, etc contained a couple of items which I quickly scooped up and dumped on my desk for later consideration. I immediately sat down to start clearing the many emails accumulated during my vacation.

A while later I turned to the pile of envelopes and noticed a book. Had someone returned a book I had loaned? I didn't remember loaning anything out this term. But no, it was a book of post-impressionist paintings from the Musee d'Orsey in Paris. A gorgeous book!

Post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay

Where had it come from? Who had left it for me? On the inside title page was printed:

"My favourites from the best museum in Paris. Here's to being more than our biology determines, here's to being able to get in your car and drive down to Mexico at any given moment."

I was overjoyed. Someone in my History and Theory of Biology class this term had understood.....

Monday, 25 May 2015

sharing the moments that bring us back to teaching, part 1

My last final exam this term was for my 3rd year histology class. A great class to teach; my students often enjoy it. But they also find it very difficult to master the material - so many details, so many interconnections to synthesize. One student who worked particularly hard and was particularly anxious about being accepted into medical school kept in touch with me throughout the term discussing her term paper, discussing her learning strategies seeking help to master histology. She was wound up so tight! As could be predicted, she was the last to submit her final exam to me. After handing in her exam she pulled out her smartphone and looked up and said to me "I just received the email informing me whether or not I got into medical school." Her trepidation was readily apparent on her face. She opened the email and gasped for joy. Doing her little happy dance she came over and gave me a hug. On her way out I asked her to keep in touch and let me know how her first year in med school goes. She bounced out the door of the classroom, feet barely touching the floor.

Was my face a little damp?

I smiled and was content.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Mind the Gap I - Cultural Competency in the Classroom

Kimberly Tanner's first workshop for the Mind the Gap series used a mobile construction exercise. It produced an interesting dynamic in the workshop because different teams had different resources. It was weird because both my partner and I were simply in our own bubble trying to construct something worthy from the scraps of paper, string, and hangers that we had with us. When I noticed that some groups had other resources (scissors! tape!) I realized what was trying to be simulated and then simply focused on trying to produce the best bad mobile we could produce. It was a game! One that was stacked against me and as a result I had checked out of taking it seriously. The other interesting thing that I noticed afterwards was that so many other teams had used interesting themes for their mobiles: education, science, organisms (we were mostly biologists/scientists attending) that I had never considered. What my team did was to produce a mobile consisting of different geometric shapes (triangle, square). Why? The only other time I had ever constructed a mobile was in grade 7 when our class created mobiles of different shapes for our geometry section of math. That was my only experience making mobiles and so that is what I used to model our approach to the workshop.

So a couple of interesting things here. One is how I checked out of the assignment once I realized that that the playing field was not fair. The other thing that is interesting is that I locked myself into approaching the assignment based on my limited prior experience. While unpacking the exercise with Dr Tanner during the workshop I began to wonder how many of our students have similar responses to poorly structured assignments? Poorly structured in the sense that the rules and expectations are not clearly explained with unstated possilibities left assumed. It was interesting that I did not consider asking for extra resources to complete our "high resource" bag (we had glitter glue in our bag). Especially since Kimberly had laid out the extra resources on a desk in front of us. She had not pointed them out or suggested we could ask to use them. But no one (no one!) in the lecture theatre even considered asking if they were available to be borrowed. Why did I not consider asking for assistance from other teams? Was that permitted? Why didn't I ask? Why did I not look around for what other resources might be available? Why did I limit myself to what was present in our bag and to our limited experience? How many of my students have similar responses when I assign a term paper, learning dossier or e-portfolio? How can I make my own assignments more clear and transparent?

These were the questions going through my mind. What Kimberly was trying to emphasize is that our resource bags were representative of what baggage our students bring to our classrooms and are as varied as what she gave to us. Students come to us with different family cultures, educational backgrounds, different experiences and prejudices both projected and experienced. As educators, it is our responsibility to consider the cultural variety in our classroom and try to respond to the different needs of our students. Not try to make students the same, but try to tailor the educational environment we construct for our students such that all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured in our classrooms. One way of doing that is being explicit in our expectations such that students know what questions to ask to clarify what they themselves need in order to achieve excellence given their own background.

No easy task. No way of using a cookie cutter approach to all students. When I design the learning environment I need to try to respond to each student's individual needs as they become apparent. One thing I learned is that making the course/assignment structure clear, that better levels the playing field and creates the conditions in which all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured.

technology will not replace motivation for learning

A recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website suggests that technology will not save/improve/enhance education without student motivation. That student motivation may have its origins in the intrinsic goals of the student, peer pressure from student colleagues or inspiration and support from instructors. I wrote a short piece some time ago (see page 8 here) which suggested the same thing: that the digital divide will be those who have access to ed tech vs those that have access to in-the-flesh instructors, with the ed tech students being the impoverished and those being taught in the physical presence of peers and teachers will be the advantaged. It also echoes what another suggested about the history of educational revolutions: the revolutions never alter the fact that the educational enterprise requires hard work following on the heels of student motivation nurtured by instructors.


Cook P. 2014. This Will Revolutionize Education. YouTube.

Haave NC. 2010. Considering online learning technologies at CeLC 2010. The International Commons, 5(3): 8-9.

Toyama K. 2015. Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 19).

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Mind the Gap: Nurturing Our Students Toward Expertise (Resources from Kimberly Tanner's presentations)

We had a great meeting over the last couple of days with Dr. Kimberly Tanner leading us through three interesting and invigorating workshops: Mind the Gap - Nurturing Our Students Toward Expertise. Her slideshows, handouts and articles are linked below. One additional article that is worth reading for those of us interested in implementing active learning in our classrooms is "What if Students Revolt?" and is well worth reading especially after receiving end of term student evaluations (which a number of us are doing now!). In addition, CBE-LSE has collected Dr Tanner's  collection of essays on approaches to biology teaching and learning here.

I - Cultural Competency in the Undergraduate Classroom: Cross-Disciplinary Tools, Insights and Strategies to Promote Student Success



further reading

II - Order Matters: Becoming Metacognitive about Teaching Choices



further reading

III - AIBA Keynote Address: Beyond Assessing Knowledge – Card Sorting, Superheroes, and Moving Towards Measuring (Biological) Expertise among Undergraduates


further reading

Saturday, 9 May 2015

lectures can still illuminate

This article helps explain to me why, despite understanding the efficacy of active learning strategies, there are still some lectures that illuminate me. The best lecturers do not simply disseminate information; they interpret and make connections between different sources and different media. It reminds me of what Parker Palmer explained in The Courage to Teach of how some teachers are able to make the subject come alive by treating the material with respect while lecturing. There is a place for the lecture,  I think, mixed with the use of active learning strategies within the classroom. I think this is also what informs my understanding of the in-class experience as being synergistic and much more than the transmission of knowledge.


Friesen, N. (2011). The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form A Historical Analysis. Educational Researcher 40(3): 95-102.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (10th anniv.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

metacognition and students' learning process

This article from the Teaching Professor website discusses how active learning - engaged learning - needs to go hand-in-hand with students' meta-cognition of their own learning process. This is why I have been advocating the use of ePortfolios (or a learning portfolio) to enable students to think about how they learn in addition to why and what they learn. How did they come to a particular decision? How did they solve a particular problem? Why did a particular concept in the course give them difficulties and how did they overcome it? These are some of the issues that students need to consider in order to become actively engaged in their own learning and which, I believe, will produce deeper learning in students. Another way to think about this, is that students need to be supported in developing their own learning philosophy.


Weimer M. 2013. Three ways to help students become more metacognitively aware. Faculty Focus, Oct 10.

Monday, 6 April 2015

TBL challenges both introverts and extroverts

In this article, Nicki Monahan discusses the challenge of ensuring that active learning classrooms do not disadvantage introverts. The learning strategy, Team-Based Learning (TBL), could be charged with producing a course structure that gives priority to extroverts over introverts. However, I would argue that TBL actually ensures that the active learning environment is designed to ensure that this does not happen due to the nature of stable teams. Because students are placed in teams of 5-7 students that remain in place for the duration of the entire course, this produces the conditions in which students within each team are given time to get to know each other and develop a working relationship. Thus, the difficulty that introverts may have in participating in large groups (e.g. the entire class) is mitigated by enabling students to first discuss course material among their team-mates. In addition, the nature of the stable team enables introverts to become comfortable with their team-mates such that they will more likely participate in a small group discussion; TBL removes the need to engage with unknown peers every time a discussion occurs during class.

Some might argue that this still requires introverts to step outside of their comfort zone in order to complete course requirements. This is certainly true. But it also does the same to extroverts in that it requires all students to initially prepare for class activities on their own, outside of class. Thus, I believe that TBL places both extroverts and introverts equally outside of their comfort zone in different ways. And, indeed, isn't that what a good learning environment should do? Stretch students beyond their preferred modes of interacting with the world to prepare them for a world they will experience in ways they cannot begin to imagine.


Monahan N. 2013. Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom. Faculty Focus (Oct).

Sunday, 29 March 2015

grading homework for completion vs a portion for quality

The March 2015 issue of the Teaching Professor has an interesting commentary on a recent study that considers the impact on student learning of awarding completion marks for homework vs grading a random portion (10%) of student homework according to a quality control rubric (grading rubric). What they found was that the quality of the student work was higher when a random proportion of their homework was graded rather than simply receiving a mark for attempting (completing) the homework. In addition, they found that student learning outcomes (exam marks) were modestly improved with the randomized marking.

I am glad to read this because I have been using this approach for many years with students' writing dossiers in my biology capstone course. There, my students must prepare a two-page type-written response to the day's assigned reading for entry into the class. That is a lot of pages to mark! Many years ago I attended a critical thinking conference by Richard Paul in which he advocated that it was important to encourage students to write daily to help them articulate their thinking. To encourage attention to the assignment he advised that only a portion of their writing dossier need be marked.

My tweak to this approach has been to have students identify what they consider to be their weakest and strongest piece in their writing dossier explaining why they think each is so. To reward their critical analysis of their own writing I assure students that I will mark their best but only comment (not grade) their worst provided they articulate what they think makes each strong or weak. In addition, I'll randomly choose a couple more writing pieces to grade.

It's nice to have the evidence in support of this approach to marking selections of student work.


Galyon CE, Voils KL, Blondin DA, and Williams RL. 2015. The effects of randomized homework contingencies on college students’ daily homework and unit exam performance. Innovative Higher Education, 40(1): 63-77.

Weimer M. 2015. Designing homework that enhances learning. The Teaching Professor 29(3): 2-3

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

McCalla Professorship and learning philosophies

This year I was awarded a McCalla Professorship by the University of Alberta. So, for the next year I am carrying out a study that will investigate whether or not developing students' learning philosophies have an impact on their intellectual development and the learning outcomes for the first year biology course I'll be teaching in Fall 2015. Many of you have requested more information about the study, so I have posted below the rationale for the study that I submitted to the awards committee.


Developing Students’ Metacognition through Learning Philosophies:
Impact on Student Learning Outcomes
Neil Haave

"We do not learn from experience . . . we learn from reflecting on experience" - John Dewey

A McCalla Professorship will allow me to investigate whether developing students’ learning philosophy enhances their intellectual development and course learning outcomes.
While I was Divisional Registration Officer for Augustana in the 1990s, I met with students to discuss their programs and advise them which courses to take in the coming year. Their Program Planning Form nicely organized their courses into the different requirements for graduation. However, students seemed to view their education as a list of boxes to be checked. Students did not understand the overarching coherence in their major and general education requirements. Curricular coherence was present but Augustana never explicitly explained it to students. As a result students collected a pile of bricks without assembling them into a home1.
I subsequently served as Chair of Science for ten years and my accumulated curricular experience later enabled me to effectively chair the ad hoc core curriculum review committee which produced Augustana’s current core. We constructed a general education that met the breadth needs of our students, inculcated in our students the particular values held by the Augustana professoriate, and developed students’ communication, thinking, and research skills. In the late 2000s then Augustana Dean Roger Epp noticed that students displayed difficulties articulating their skills to potential employers. Similarly, I had noticed students having difficulty applying prior learning from pre-requisite classes. Students engaged in a learning cycle of memorize-regurgitate-purge as a result of not integrating their learning experiences into an interconnected and robust knowledge structure.
Dean Epp appointed me Associate Dean (Teaching) from 2010-13 to consider how to better engage students’ in their education so they could articulate their learning and skills to themselves and others. This resulted in the 2012-13 Augustana e-portfolio pilot during which I realized students were not asking questions about their own learning. I had inappropriately assumed that students were metacognitively engaged in their learning processes2.
During the e-portfolio pilot I began having my students consider the what, why, and how of their learning while they reflected on the artifacts they collected in their e-portfolio. Each of these questions metacognitively engaged students in their learning through development of their own learning philosophy3 enabling students to make connections among their different learning experiences in addition to their own personal lives.
Developing students’ metacognition has been suggested to improve students’ academic achievement2,4,5 possibly by developing students’ critical thinking6. A lack of metacognition has been correlated with students’ inability to assess their own knowledge and academic abilities7,8. Evidence exists that student learning outcomes may be improved by attending to metacognition through activities that use personal response systems9, in-class writing and discussion assignments10, and correlates with students’ mastery goals11. Long term benefits of using metacognitive prompts during students’ learning have been shown for primary and secondary school students12 but not for post-secondary students. Other studies have indicated that metacognitive prompts on their own, without cognitive prompts, have no impact on student learning outcomes13, and that their usefulness decreases as student skill increases14. In addition, one Australian study has shown that metacognitive and self-efficacy abilities are not correlated to student learning outcomes as measured by GPA15.
There are theories and practices that consider students’ intellectual development16, but the impact of developing students’ intellectual level has been assessed by considering general education learning outcomes (critical thinking, citizenship, intercultural competence, communication) not students’ understanding of their major subject, although this has been proposed to improve17. My proposal considers whether the development of students’ metacognitive ability through the creation of their own learning philosophy is able to positively impact students’ content mastery in a course. I will use AUBIO 111 – Integrative Biology I as my lab. My aim is to show that as students consider their own thinking and learning processes, they will also be engaged in the epistemology of science18. Thus, by performing the metacognitive task of asking themselves what, why and how they know something, they will also begin their intellectual development as scientists asking themselves how we know what we know about biology: what is our basis for the knowledge claims we make in biology? Thus metacognition about their own learning may aid their cognitive development as biologists and scientists.
My specific question is do first year biology students score higher on the Perry Scheme of intellectual development19,20 when they have produced a learning philosophy to develop their metacognition, and does this enhance their content mastery of the course as indicated by their course grade and exam results?
The research carried out will directly impact my own teaching and potentially the way that others teach. By guiding students in the development of their own learning philosophy my aim is to metacognitively engage students with course material at a deeper level and avoid the unengaged learning cycle of memorize-regurgitate-purge. Funds from the professorship will be used to hire undergraduate students who will aid in the organization and analysis of the collected data. The proposed research aligns with the University Academic Plan by attending to the student experience. By promoting students’ metacognition through the development of their own learning philosophy I hope to show that they more deeply engage in course material by moving them to a higher level of intellectual development as measured on the Perry Scheme as a result of a transformative learning experience21.

Proposed Project
In Fall 2015 I have the opportunity to teach two separate lecture sections of AUBIO 111 – Integrative Biology I. I will use these two classes to investigate the impact of developing students' learning philosophies on student learning outcomes as indicated by their general intellectual development and more specifically on their ability to understand the particular course content. The impact of the metacognitive exercises on student learning outcomes will be assessed by using a mixed-methods approach (a qualitative student self-assessment + quantitative effect on ability to answer final staged exam questions) comparing student understandings of their learning philosophy at the beginning and end of the course using an assessment index to determine students’ level of intellectual development22–24. One course section will encounter activities designed to explicitly develop their learning philosophy and metacognitive ability whereas the other will not. A staged question on the final exam and on a pre-test at beginning of term tiered according to Bloom’s taxonomy will determine if developing students’ metacognitive ability impacts their ability to perform at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning25. This will be compared to students’ metacognitive ability as mapped on to the Perry Scheme of learner developmen 19,20.
This study will thus answer two questions. Does developing students' metacognitive ability/learning philosophy impact their: 
  1. intellectual development as mapped by the Perry Scheme, 
  2. depth of learning the course content as mapped by Bloom’s taxonomy of learning.
1. Smith, B. L. (1998). Curricular structures for cumulative learning. In J. N. Gardner, G. Van der Veer, & Associates (Eds.), The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Integration, Reflection, Closure, and Transition (pp. 81–94). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.
2. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners? In How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188–216). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
15. Zeegers, P. (2004). Student learning in higher education: A path analysis of academic achievement in science. Higher Education Research and Development, 23(1), 35–56.
20. Allen, R. D. (1981). Intellectual Development and the Understanding of Science: Applications of William Perry’s Theory to Science Teaching. Journal of College Science Teaching, 11(2), 94–97.
22. Moore, W. S. (1989). The learning environment preferences: Exploring the construct validity of an objective measure of the Perry Scheme of intellectual development. Journal of College Student Development, 30(6), 504–514.
23. Baxter-Magolda, M., & Porterfield, W. D. (1985). A new approach to assess intellectual development on the Perry Scheme. Journal of College Student Personnel, 26(4), 343–350.