Saturday, 29 October 2016

ACUBE 2016, Milwaukee, WI, Oct 21-22

Dr. Annie Prud’homme-Généreux was the keynote speaker for ACUBE 2016 and is the reason I received the TLEF PD grant from the UofA. She is one of the founding faculty of Quest University. I wanted to hear what she had to say about teaching biochemistry and molecular biology in the Quest block system because Augustana is beginning its hybrid program in 2017 in which the first three weeks of the term consist of one course (one course enrolled by students and one course taught by faculty) with the subsequent 11 weeks being a little more typical in which students enrol in 4 courses and faculty teach two or three courses (dependent upon whether or not they taught a course during the initial three week block). I was also interested to hear how Annie used Team-Based Learning to teach her biochemistry and molecular biology courses, something I have implemented in my own courses. I learned a couple of things from her:

  1. Biochemistry and molecular biology are best taught with TBL using case studies during the App phase. She ran a workshop at ACUBE where we experienced a case sutdy using a genetics problem (mother finds out her son has an incompatible haplotype to hers yet she remembers giving birth to him!). I can really see how this works well and is what my Apps are attempting to be. But the ones she showed us are a much more engaging story! She suggested I review what is available in the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. I'll have to investigate it. It seemed to me that they were more geared toward 1st and maybe second year. But that could work well for AUBIO 111- Integrative Biology I and maybe AUBIO 230 - Molecular Cell Biology.
  2. Annie suggested that teaching a course in a three week block period is a great way to get students to dive into a topic in depth, but that it is not very good at giving breadth to students. She opined that survey courses do not fit well with a 3 wk block. Thus, I am not sure that any of my courses will really work in the 3 wk block. They are all survey courses to some extent. The only ones that I could see working, as I suspected are AUBIO/AUCHE 388 - Biochemistry Laboratory, and AUBIO/AUCHE 485 - Selected Topics in Biochemistry. I think, and Annie confirmed, that the three-week intensive immersion blocks of teaching are great for learning applied skills or developing a project. So a lab where students are doing a lab project once a week or where they are presenting seminars on their research project in a Selected Topics course could work very well. But the more typical surveys of biology, molecular cell biology, biochemistry, or histology do not lend themselves very well to the three-week block format.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

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

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

But I digress....

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


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

Monday, 2 May 2016

teaching compressed courses

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

transitioning students to independent learners at ACURIT

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, 22 April 2016

ESWE and social justice

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

using labs to teach critical thinking

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

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

And that should produce a deeper learning experience.