Category: teaching

When opportunity knocks, answer the door

Six weeks ago, at the end of July, new campus leadership at UBC Okanagan decided to restructure the Centre for Teaching and Learning and eliminated the position of Director, and therefore, me. When the day comes post-covid-19 when we can sit around and laugh over drinks, I’ll add some details.

My neighbour, Raymond, had the best advice for me after he saw the For Sale sign go up in front of my house:

When opportunity knocks, answer the door.

Over the last six months at UBC Okanagan, my team and I helped course instructors pivot to “emergency remote teaching”. Then we turned our attention to preparing them for the Fall, which included facilitating many, many online workshops. That’s when I realized, again, I really, really I love teaching.

So I’m pursuing opportunities that will bring me back into the math classroom. That’s where I started teaching, more than 20 years ago (!) as a graduate student in Mathematics at UBC.

They say I was a pretty good teacher back then, and later when I taught introductory astronomy. I know so much more now about teaching and learning, and I’ve witnessed so many extraordinary course instructors develop and lead their classes. Honestly, I’m a little nervous about being instructor-of-record again, anxious that I can live up to their (and my) standards. Let’s see who’s at the door…

Supporting SoTL

Scholarly teaching. Education research. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. These are all activities related to applying valid research methods – typically developed in other disciplines – to study teaching and learning.

For faculty members who’s merit, tenure, and promotion is based, in part, on their research output, publishing articles about education can’t hurt but it may not be seen as important as their disciplinary research. UBC, like a growing number of universities, has a tenure-track stream of Assistant, Associate, and (full) Professor of Teaching. We call it the Educational Leadership stream because success and promotion requires demonstrating impact and leadership beyond your classroom. For faculty in this stream, engaging in SoTL is a powerful way to demonstrate that leadership.

It’s my Centre for Teaching and Learning’s mission to “promote, inspire, and support excellence, leadership, scholarship, and technologies in teaching and learning.” I find supporting scholarship is one of most difficult part of our mission because when we start talking about research, each faculty member immediately snaps to the kinds of disciplinary research they do – if any – and tries to force education into that methodology. I struggle to support them because (i) I don’t know what kind of research they do and (ii) I’m most familiar with research methods found in STEM.

I’m writing this post because something happened last week, something good, that’s changed my approach and, I hope, the success of the faculty members I work with. Here’s the story. Dr. Jasmin Hristov, a research-stream Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Sociology, Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences gave me her permission to tell it.

Professor Hristov teaches upper-level sociology. She plans to bring in a series of guest speakers via video conference and asked if she could use my Centre’s workshop room. “Yes, of course,” I replied. And then, thinking about my Centre’s mission, I added, “You’re doing something innovative – would you be interested in talking about how you could study whether or not it’s effective?” She was, and we met.

First, Professor Hristov described her motivation: introduce the students to six experts from around the World, with careful attention to diversity of gender, race, location, and rank. For each guest speaker, the students do some background reading, prepare questions to ask the speaker, and lead a discussion. After class, the students write a reflection about the experience.

“How can we tell if it was effective? How can we tell if students learned anything?”

We nearly got lost down a dead end. Professor Hristov: “I’ve taught this course before without the video conferencing but with different students and, obviously, without the reflection.” Both of us nearly concluded, “Without a control group to compare grades against, I don’t see how we can study this.”

We didn’t go there, though, because serendipitously, I started the conversation with,

How can we find evidence of impact?

This question opened up whole new ways of thinking, without sending us on that narrow “research = A/B study with statistical significance” path. It led quickly to a couple of possibilities that could produce interesting results that don’t rely on the success or failure of p < 0.05.

Text analysis of students’ reflection

4-page reflection × 6 reflections × 30 students = huge amount of text

Imagine examining all that text with powerful tools like Voyant or NVivo. Will students naturally comment on the diversity of the speakers? That was one of the elements deliberately built into this intervention, recall. Do they need a prompt? Not a heavy prompt like, “Please comment on the diversity of the speakers.” That will only get the answers the students think Professor Hristov wants to hear. Something more subtle, like, um, not sure yet.

But imagine the kind of evidence of impact she could include in the SoTL article:

“I carefully chose the speakers to expose my students to a wide range of races, locations, genders, and ranks. In their reflections, students made the following associations…”

This isn’t cherry-picking an individual student’s comments – that’s a helpful exemplar or supporting anecdote but it’s not evidence. Instead, we have legitimate connections and insight students are making.

Quantitative analysis of reflection grades

Just because we can’t do a controlled A/B study doesn’t mean we can’t do quantitative analysis. Imagine this: imagine we compare the students’ marks on the reflections with their marks on the rest of the course. The reflections are worth around 1/3 of the total mark, so the reflections are worth enough that students will put legitimate care and effort into them. In other words, the reflections are not some incidental marks students can blow off, and they’re not so important that nothing else matters in the course. I made up some data (thx, RANDOM.org) to see what kinds of conclusions we could make (click to enlarge):

Hypothetical student marks on the reflection and other course assignments, with a range of correlations and conclusions about impact. (Data via RANDOM.org. Graphic: Peter Newbury)

The left graph shows there’s a relationship between the students’ success on the reflections and the rest of the course. Do the reflections help them succeed with the other assignments? Do the other assignments help them write better reflections? Can’t tell. Better look at the text analysis…

The center graph isn’t telling a compelling story. Success on the reflections doesn’t seem to have any connection to success on the rest of the course. We can probably conclude the same about what the students are getting out of the video conferences. Time to rethink how the video conferences are integrated and supported.

The right graph is a worst-case scenario: success on the reflections comes at the expense of the their success in the rest of the course. Oh c’mon, this would never happen, right? Well, I’ve seen courses where there’s a “capstone project” that takes all the students’ time. If the capstone is that important, it should probably represent a significant fraction of the overall course mark, so success on the capstone guarantees success in the course. I’ve also seen cases where success on the capstone requires sacrificing the other courses you’re taking – time for the Department Head to get the course instructors together to coordinate their assignments!

No matter the scenario, there’s something here for Professor Hristov to share in the discussion of her SoTL paper. The conclusions will be useful to others thinking about integrating video conferencing into their courses.

Evidence of Impact

This will be my new conversation starter when promoting, inspiring, and supporting scholarship. It’s also a good prompt for the faculty members, themselves, who want to (need to?) demonstrate educational leadership. This prompt invites us to be curious and creative, instead of trying to jam teaching and learning into the same research methods that we’re familiar with from disciplinary research.

Open Classroom pop-up thank-you card

Every Fall, I follow along as Derek Bruff @derekbruff tweets out inspiring stories from the open classroom event his Center for Teaching runs at Vanderbilt. Course instructors from across campus volunteer to open their classrooms and welcome their peers to come observe. While we may have 25, 60, 300, or more students in our classrooms, it’s rare to have a colleague, and open classroom events provide an opportunity for all the educators in the room – the ones at the front and the ones at the back – to share some formative feedback.

We hosted our first Open Classroom Week at UBC Okanagan October 1-5, 2018. Twelve course instructors from across the campus, across disciplines, and from 1st-year to 4th-year invited their peers into their classrooms.

Opening your classroom to your colleagues takes courage and confidence and demonstrates educational leadership. So, I wanted to thank those twelve course instructors. Sure, I could send SW-S, RT, RP, WSM, CL, RF, GD, TE, TF, NL, CS, and AK a letter (or a letter to their Department Heads) on Centre letterhead, formally thanking them for participating in the event. But I wanted something they could put on the shelf in their office so remind them, and any visitors, that they did something valuable. Combine that with my obsessi–, er, interest in pop-up cards and you get this:

The pop-up thank-you card I made for the UBC Okanagan course instructors who opened their classrooms and welcomed their peers and colleagues to come and observe. A template and instructions available below so you can make your own.
The pop-up thank-you card I made for the UBC Okanagan course instructors who opened their classrooms and welcomed their peers and colleagues to come and observe. A template and instructions available below so you can make your own. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Do it yourself

Want to make one for your Center? Here’s the PPT file I used to create the card, plus a set of directions for editing the text, printing the card, and making it. I think the instructions are clear but by the time I wrote them, I’d already made 5 prototypes and then the dozen cards I gave to my UBC Okanagan colleagues so I could pretty well do it in my sleep. If you get stuck, feel free to tweet me at @polarisdotca. And then send me a picture of your finished card (and permission to share it)!

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