Category: teaching

The hardest part of teaching?

Today was the faculty and staff Welcome Back BBQ at UBC Okanagan. My Centre for Teaching and Learning had an information table among 25 or so other campus organizations. Always on the lookout to inject a little interaction and teaching and learning, I set up a laptop and i>clicker gear to survey my new colleagues about teaching:

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)
Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Lots of people stopped at our table to talk, both faculty and staff. Many had heard of clickers but this was their first time ever holding one and clicking. It was really interesting to hear people say, “All of the above!” and then struggle to select one answer. Which is the point of a good peer instruction question – to make you stop and think carefully and deliberately so you decide for yourself which answer to select.

I was pleased by the results:

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Here’s what I’m thinking about the responses and how my Centre can respond:

A) knowing the material (selected by 18% of the respondents)
It’s true that the instructor needs to know the material. That’s why they were hired/selected to teach the content, after all. What my Centre can add is “pedagogical content knowledge”, that is, knowledge about how people learn the content. For example, we can let an instructor know which topics students struggle with and what are the common misconceptions. We can help the instructor see through their expert blindness.
B) preparing the lessons (21%)
No question that preparing lessons (and the bigger task of designing the course) is hard. There’s nothing my Centre can do to create time for an instructor to prep but we can help make that time productive. We promote the “backward” approach to planning a course by 1) establishing learning outcomes, 2) creating summative and formative assessments aligned to those outcomes, and 3) selecting instructional strategies and education technologies to support the outcomes and assessment. I tell anyone who’ll listen that investing your time in creating learning outcomes pays off many times over. That’s where I recommend people spend time.
C) speaking in front of a group (4%)
As important and critical as this is, public speaking isn’t something my Centre teaches. Sure, we all have experience in front of groups and can offer our own advice but we’re not experts. And, it turns out, people aren’t so concerned about this. Whew.
D) connecting and interacting with students (32%)
This is the answer I pick. There’s technology and templates and guidance for making the other answers easier. Connecting and interacting with students in a meaningful way, which to me means recognizing each student as an individual with their own strengths, that’s hard. It requires sparking a relationship the moment they walk through the door on the first day and then every day, building and maintaining that trust. I distilled some great advice from another group of colleagues about connecting with your diverse collection of students. My Centre is always ready to have conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and learning communities.
E) keeping up with the marking (25%)
Ahh, yes, marking. When there’s a lot to do, it’s a circle of Hell. And my Centre isn’t going to do it for you. But we’re ready to help instructors re-imagine and re-design their assessment techniques so that in the limited amount of time available, they can provide formative feedback that supports learning. Maybe that means getting the computer to autograde multiple-choice, not because multiple-choice is a such a good tool but because that could free up time to mark short- and long-answer questions. Maybe there’s a way students evaluate each others’ work. Maybe it’s better to ask fewer, but more probing, questions. My Centre’s goal isn’t to help instructors find ways to do the same marking faster but rather, to help create different assessments.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the responses I got from my colleagues today. And by the enthusiasm for, and recognition of, excellence in teaching and learning.

What do you find the hardest? And what choices should I put on the survey next year?

Getting to know you

Every one of our students brings their own identity – age, gender, ability, language, ethnic background, orientation, experiences, knowledge, skills. You want to recognize and support and build on each student’s strengths but how do you support one student without accidentally alienating others?

I recently had an opportunity to draw out the experiences of more than 100 colleagues, every one of them leaders in their higher education communities, at the June 2016 meeting of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Network at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Before I get to their advice, a quick story of how this came to be.

The CIRTL Network recently expanded from 23 to 46 institutions and this meeting would be the first time everyone was together. Bob Mathieu, Director of the Network, asked me to run some kind of “getting to know you” icebreaker early on the first day of the meeting. I’m a big fan of icebreakers, maybe not as a student (I hated it when my professors did anything like this) but definitely as an instructor. Icebreakers let you kickstart the learning community you’re going to spend the next 6, 10, 13, 16,… weeks building, maintaining, and relying on in your class. In my opinion, icebreakers are also an opportunity to introduce students to the kinds of thinking, communicating, and collaborating they’ll be doing for the rest of the course. In other words, yes, I’d do an icebreaker at the CIRTL meeting. But it has to be meaningful. Authentic. Inclusive. Valuable. I came up with an idea and I’m  grateful and honoured by the trust Bob put in me to go ahead and push my new colleagues, potentially upsetting some of them:

The rest of this post is divided into 3 parts:

  1. A detailed description of the jigsaw activity, mostly so I can remember what I did because I’d really like to do it again. I’ve written about jigsaw activities before so if you’re not familiar with them, you might want to take a look.
  2. A summary of the remarkable input I received from my 100+ colleagues.
  3. The documents and other resources I used, in case you want to try something like this yourself.

1. Exploring student diversity

In a jigsaw, recall, participants first build/refresh their knowledge of one particular case or example from a collection (like a collection of 4 artists, 5 calculus/integration problems, 6 National parks,…) Then they gather in groups containing one representative of each case or example to share what they know and learn from others.

For the CIRTL meeting, the examples were 6 students you might encounter in your class:

Six different students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they're colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness) can also find each other by letter. (Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Six students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they’re colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness, say) can also find each other by letter.
(Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each meeting participant was assigned to one of these students according to which  coloured worksheet they found in their meeting information packet. The meeting room was set up with tables with 6 chairs, with a coloured/lettered sign on each table. As participants entered the room, they sat at a table with their colour/letter/student.

In Part 1 of the jigsaw, I asked everyone to take 10 minutes to introduce themselves to their new colleagues and then reach consensus on the advice they’d give to a new instructor to

  1. assure their particular student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
  2. build on that student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
  3. what not to do

When I said, “…You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!” the room flipped from hesitant, anxious silence to loud, engaged, boisterous conversations. It was great!

As we approached 10 minutes, I reminded everyone to write down their group’s best advice on their worksheets [available below] so they’d have notes/reminders when they moved to Part 2 of the jigsaw. At 10 minutes, everyone re-arranged themselves into one-of-each-student groups (quickly and easily accomplished because of the coloured/lettered paper: look for a group without your colour and sit there!)

I asked them to introduce themselves to 5 more new colleagues and then take turns addressing each of the 3 prompts — assuring students they’re welcome, building on their diverse contributions, and what not to do. Notice I didn’t ask them to go around with the advice for their students, one after another. That would invite each person to talk once, for a while, and then not contribute again. And the representative of the last student might not have time. (Similarly, you’d ask your students to take turns describing the medium preferred by each artist, not all about Picasso, then all about Rodin, then…) I gave them about 20 minutes — many more conversations this time!

In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others. (Photo: Peter Newbury)
In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others.
(Photo: Peter Newbury)

At the end, I asked them to hand-in their worksheets with all their advice and notes and ideas. My plan was try to summarize what they discussed and report back the next day.

In terms of an icebreaker, I think this worked really well. There was no way anyone would be able to introduce themselves to 100 others with any chance of remembering anything. Instead, I opted for deeper, memorable connections with 10 new colleagues. The jigsaw activity met my other criterion, too, that the activity would engage them in an authentic, meaningful discussion, because teaching people to recognize and celebrate the diversity of their audiences is one of CIRTL’s core ideas.

2. So what did they say?

My colleagues wrote 2400 words in 420 responses on their worksheets. I know, I know, I should have approached these data clean and unbiased, ready to let them speak for themselves. Realistically, though, I wasn’t going to be able to properly analyze the responses in the time between Day 1’s conference dinner and the start of Day 2.

I needed a strategy in order to get something done. So I cheated and when looking for the presence (or absence) of something:

What I hoped NOT to find was special advice for students of colour, special advice for students with disabilities, and so on for each student, even if that advice seemed helpful. Why not? Because I fear that in carrying out those recommendations, an instructor would call out the students of colour, the students with disabilities, and each of the others and treat them differently:

“Alicia [the woman of colour], could you tell us what a black person would think of this?”

“Brian [who needs a laptop], you come sit down here at the front where you won’t distract other students with your laptop”

Instructors trying to connect and support their students but may end up doing more damage than if they’d done nothing at all.

What I hoped for, and gloriously found, was the same advice on every worksheet, advice that supports all students and treats all students fairly:

what not to do

  • make assumptions
  • ignore them
  • ask them to speak on behalf of their race/culture

how to assure each student they’re welcome to contribute to the class

how to build on each student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences

  • have student highlight their own strengths, potential, life experiences
  • “build a community where students value others’ perspectives and listen to each other”

That last suggestion? Wow. If that was the ONLY sentence that came out of this 45-minute icebreaker activity, I’d call that a success.

The excellent news is you don’t need a huge toolbox of techniques, one for each student. Instead, the same behaviours and strategies — respect, acknowledgement, structure, equity — support every student.

3. My diversity jigsaw resources

If you have the opportunity to run a diversity-awareness workshop or discussion with instructors, and are interested in using a jigsaw approach, here are the resources I created for mine. They’re shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so you’re welcome to adopt and adapt, with a link back to me, thanks.

  • worksheets (PDF) – Each participant received a coloured worksheet in their conference info packet
  • here are the slides I used

Flip or flip not, there is no try to read Chapter 3 before class please pretty please

Every learner needs to build new concepts into their own pre-existing knowledge. That’s the constructivist model for teaching and learning and ultimately, I believe, the rationale and justification for active learning. Like I said on Twitter a few weeks ago,

So what goes into that “prep” to support every students? Here’s my train of thought:

A guide for preparing students

For now, I want to focus on these steps:

To manufacture time for active learning and to create the guide for students, the instructor should look at the topics, section, ideas, learning outcomes — whatever unit of knowledge they’re using to plan the course — and decide which of these are easy enough the students can learn on their own, and which are challenging and need to be explored together in class. There should be clear distinctions between what students are responsible for, what will be covered together in class, and what won’t be covered. My friend, Robert Talbert, gives a nice description of using Bloom’s Taxonomy to classify his learning objectives and picking a cutoff between what students can do on their own and what they need to do together.

Here’s how I picture it, with students responsible for the blue topics, leaving the orange topics for class:

Students are responsible for learning lower level (blue) topics before class, leaving the higher level (orange) topics for class. (Graphic: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

I have privilege of teaching a large group of UC San Diego graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning. At the end of the course, each student backward-designs a 50- or 80-minute lesson with learning outcomes, assessment, and instructional strategies. They also select readings and other pre-class activities, including guidance for their students about how to prepare for class.

They’ve all done a great job recognizing students don’t need to read all of Chapter 3 and 4 in order to prepare for tomorrow’s class. But many wrote guidance like, “Read Chapter 3, paying attention to the notation and the differences between the 3 theories presented by the author.” Full disclosure: that’s how I suggested they write the guidance and and that’s how they did it. Only after listening to my own faulty advice 50 times did I realize there’s a problem:

To me, that kind of guidance looks like this:

Students are asked to learn a little about everything before class. In class, the instructor goes over everything in more detail. (Graphic: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

To prepare for class, the students learn a little about everything. Then in class, the instructor goes over each topic, expanding on what the student started to learn. And that can lead to problems:

  • students don’t know how much they have to learn about each topic – there is no definition of mastery — and so they don’t know if they’re ready for class
  • the instructor is probably asking students to learn conceptually-challenging concepts they’re not capable of learning on their own — that’s why they come to class!
  • if a student doesn’t do the pre-class readings, that’s okay, the instructor will go over most of it in class. In other words, why bother reading next time?
  • a student who does the pre-class readings may not see the value of that effort because the instructor went over it anyway. Again, why bother reading next time?
  • there’s a risk in the “clear distinction” version of guiding the students, too: if a student doesn’t do the pre-class reading, they will struggle in class because the instructor is assuming they have the required background knowledge.

How to you get them to do it?

If you’re going to ask your students to invest a considerable amount of work in the class, they need to know why. “Because I said so” isn’t sufficient. Here are two ways to get buy-in:

  1. Show them it’s valuable by letting them use their new knowledge and skills in class. If a student prepares for class and gets to, or better yet, has to, contribute to their and their classmates’ learning, they’ll do it again next time. And similarly, if they didn’t need to prepare,  because the content wasn’t used or because the instructor went over it anyway, they’ll think twice about preparing for the next class.
  2. Along with the pre-class guidance, instructors should plan for a pre-class reading quiz. The quiz questions assess students’ mastery of the (blue) topics they’re responsible for learning. A student who follows the guidance should have no trouble getting 100% on the quiz and a few percentage points toward their grade. Bonus: the instructor can check the students’ success on the reading quiz to ensure they’re prepared for class (or plan to cover a topic that was shown to be too difficult for students to learn on their own.)

Guided Practice and Preparation

Robert Talbert wrote an excellent description of the guided practice he gives his students before each class. I’ll leave the last word about supporting in-class, active learning to my friend, Beth Simon. She’s infectiously enthusiastic about flipping her class in order to create an engaging and rich learning experience when she and her students meet face-to-face.

(Graphic courtesy of Beth Simon, UC San Diego)
(Graphic courtesy of Beth Simon, UC San Diego)