Category: UCSD

Old dog, meet new trick

I’m a little scared to estimate the following number: how many times I’ve welcomed students to the first class of the term. It’s around 40, I think. Over the years, I’ve changed what I say and do in that first class. I used to spend a lot of time going over all the details of the syllabus. Yawn. After working with instructors via the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at UBC and the Center for Teaching Development at UC San Diego, and reading these great resources, First Day of Class and Motivating Learning (both PDFs from the CWSEI), I do things differently now.

Sampo Icebreaker cruise - Kemi, Finland

Yesterday, I tried something new in my teaching and learning class, The College Classroom. For the first time ever (for me), I did an “ice breaker” activity. You know, one of those activities where the students get to know each other. I want to describe why it took me so long to do it, what I think ice breakers can (should?) do, and what I actually did yesterday.

Ice-breaker activities make me uncomfortable. I don’t like striking up conversations with strangers, in class or anywhere. I’d rather stay quiet and anonymous. And so, I never asked my students to do it.

The educator in me knows, however, that there are incredible benefits to working and learning with others. So called “social constructivism” says students need to construct their own knowledge based on their own backgrounds, skills, experiences, and motivations and that construction is a whole lot easier when you do with your peers. It’s the basis for peer instruction, the activity where the instructor poses a conceptually challenging, multiple-choice questions, students think about it and vote with a clicker, discuss their understanding with their peers, in some cases vote again, and then participate in an instructor-moderated, class-wide discussion. Peer instruction is something I use in The College Classroom (and also something I teach in The College Classroom. Sometimes that gets confusing.)

I’m also keenly aware, through my association with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network, of the importance of learning communities. I want my classroom to be a learning community where people of different backgrounds and interests can come together to learn. Sparking and then maintaining that learning community is one of my responsibilities as the instructor.

Okay, the pieces are starting to come together now: social constructivism, peer instruction, sparking a learning community, the first day of class, motivating learning,…

Aha! Let’s start the class with an icebreaker activity. Not some forced and awkward activity that makes people uncomfortable. Let’s do something that’s relevant to the class and initiates the kinds of interactions I want to choreograph in every class that follows.

Here’s a slide from near the beginning of my first day’s slidedeck:

The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.
The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.

And here’s what happened: the room erupted in conversation. It was seriously loud. Okay, going great, going great, uh-oh conversations are dying off, time to do something Peter, what are you going to do Peter to make this useful, do it now before you lose them, do it now, Do It Now, DO IT NOW.

I asked for people to share a few of their stories. Good experiences and bad. I wrapped up the discussion by highlighting all the different factors that made those experiences memorable, factors like

  • student motivation
  • the instructor’s enthusiasm
  • the instructor’s skill as a teacher
  • the relationship between the student and the instructor

These are what I — we — will teach and learn in this course, and also how we’ll teach and learn in this course.

So, I’m converted. I’ll do icebreakers from now on. But not just any ol’ icebreaker. It’s got to be something that’s relevant to the class and with a purpose other than getting students to introduce themselves. It shouldn’t be this awkward, uncomfortable, artificial interaction but rather, something the students will continue to experience in every class that follows.

What about you? Do you run icebreaker activities in your class? What do you do (and why?)

Target your feedback

The other day, I was talking about assessment that support learning in my teaching and learning class. Like I do often, I started the class with a “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” picture:

on target
What do you notice? What do you wonder?

The more I heard what my students noticed and wondered and more I thought about it, the more I like the analogy between learning archery and learning calculus or history or engineering or any other class at university.

Let’s Learn Archery!

(I’ve never shot an arrow, other than the usual bendy sticks and string thing that kids do during their summer holidays, so I could be totally *ahem* off-target here. If you know about archery, please, leave me a comment!)

Let’s suppose you want to learn archery. At first, the archery instructor will give you some direct instruction to get you to a level where you’re able to safely shoot an arrow in the general direction of the target. Now it’s your turn to practice and build your skills.

But imagine this: Imagine that the archery target is just the bull’s-eye. A little red circle, what, a couple of inches across, at the other end of the archery range. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get when you practice? You’d know when you did things 100% correct and hit the bull’s-eye. Otherwise, nothing. That would be frustrating and I suspect you’d give up. (Did you try Flappy Bird? And get angry and delete it? Yeah, like that.)

What’s so cool about a real archery target, then, is the instantaneous and formative feedback it gives you. When your arrow hits the target, you know immediately how you’re preforming (how close to bull’s-eye are you?) and, more importantly for learning, what you need to do to improve your aim. Hit up and to the left? Next time, aim more down and to the right.

You know what else is cool? It’s obvious and “well, d’uh, what else could it be?” that it’s you shooting the arrows, not the instructor. Sure, it would be extremely valuable to watch an expert, especially as you learn what to look for, but in the end, you have to do it yourself.

Let’s Learn Calculus!

After all that fun at the archery range, it’s time to head home. That calculus homework’s not going to do itself, you know.  Imagine the instructor gives you a list of questions to do each week (“all the even numbered questions at the end of Chapter 7”). You work through them,  and hand them in.

Mean Mode

The teaching assistants don’t have time to mark your homework thoroughly. The most they can do is look at your answers to Questions 4, 6 and 12 and give you a check mark or an X. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get from this? That you’re 100% correct on some questions, wrong on a few others, and nothing at all on the rest.

I’m not trying to pick on math. I’ve heard students say they only feedback they get on an essay is a letter grade on the front page.

How is anyone supposed to learn from that?

The feedback helps students learn calculus and history and whatever they’re studying depends critically on the discipline. Each field, each course has its own set of skills and/or attitudes. The instructor’s job is to help the students become more expert-like. There are some underlying patterns to the practice and formative assessment that support learning, though. These are drawn from Chapter 5 of a great book, How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose et al. (2010):

  • practice needs to be goal-directed: everything the instructor asks students to do should support one or more of the course’s learning outcomes. If the assignment doesn’t, why are the students wasting their time on it?
  • practice needs to be productive: the students need to get something out of everything they do. Do they really need to answer twenty questions at the back of Chapter 7? What about 5 representative questions from Chapter 7, plus 4 questions from Chapter 6 and 3 questions from Chapter 5 so they also get some practice at retrieving previous concepts (like they’ll have to do on, say, the final exam!)
  • feedback needs to be timely: when do I need feedback on the aim of my arrow? Right now, before I shoot another one. Not in 2 weeks when the TAs have finally been able to finish marking all the papers and entered the grades.
  • feedback needs to be at an appropriate level: A checkmark, a letter grade, or only circling the spelling mistakes are not sufficient. Neither is referring the student to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. A good rubric, for example, lets each student know what they’re acheiving and also what success looks like at this level.

Frequent productive, goal-directed practice with timely, formative feedback at an appropriate level. That’s what an archery target gives you. We need to find the target in each course we teach.

What does the target it look like in your course?

Learn your students’ names. No, really.

I have a thing about learning my students’ names. And it’s not a good thing.

I think I have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning people’s names: I believe I can’t do it. So whenever someone introduces him- or herself, a piece of my brain shuts off for a couple of seconds and the name go in one ear and out the other. That’s really annoying when I can’t call them by name just 5 seconds later!

The first step is admitting I have a problem, right? These days, I deliberately “activate” my brain when I’m about to meet someone: Okay, here comes somebody new. Listen for their name. Listen…listen…listen…got it! “Nice to meet you, [insert name here]”

Of course, I ignore all this advice when it comes to students in my classes. I used to teach introductory astronomy with 200-300 students. I mean, c’mon, what am I supposed to do, learn all their names? Bah, forget about it.

A Critical Moment

Then something happened last summer. I was observing a class at UCSD taught by one of our Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars — Ph.D. students selected to teach a course in Summer Session  with support from the Center for Teaching Development. David was teaching an anthropology class about multiculturalism to about 50 students. His goal was to regularly spark discussion in class, getting students to share their own diverse cultural experiences. At first, David easily called on about half a dozen students by name, most of whom sat near the front of the room. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself, “he knows the names of the enthusiastic students, potentially excluding the others from the ‘teacher’s pet’ club.” Someone else put up a hand and then David did something that still sticks in my memory: he looked right at the student, said, “Yes…uhhh…” and looked down at his classlist with student photos and names, found the right person, “…John*, what would like to add?” [*it wasn’t John, I don’t think. I wasn’t listening. See above.] David made it clear he wanted to learn their names and they saw the effort he was putting into it. Later in the same class, he called on someone at the back of the room, by name, who he remembered had written something about the event they were discussing.

Even though the room was narrow and dark, with the studnets on one end and David on the other, it felt like a community. They were all  learning together. People engaged all over the room, not just the front rows. Wow. I believe that David knowing his students’ names was a critical factor in that success.

Fall 2013 – My Turn

When it was my turn to teach again, a class for 40 grad students and postdocs about teaching and learning in higher ed, I vowed to learn their names. I made a print-out of their names and photos (pro tip: alphabetized by first name). When they were working in small groups, I took the time to deliberately look at each student and recall his or her name, consulting my cheat sheet only when necessary. Honestly, it didn’t take long before I was comfortable calling them by name. And it was great, especially since I was able to link their blog posts with their faces and could say, “Amy, you wrote about that on the blog. Could you share what you wrote with us?”

Winter 2014

I’m about to teach this same class again, this time with 64 students. As I spent a precious holiday afternoon sitting at my computer downloading and formatting students pictures into a class list, I wondered if it was really worth the effort. Wondered on Twitter, that is:


What a thrill to open Twitter a few hours later and see my timeline full of responses. Almost everyone agreed that it’s crucial but more difficult to accomplish, the larger the class:










Some were clear that it’s not easy in really large classes:


  On the other hand, class size doesn’t bother @raulpacheco:


  @bfwriter noticed that @kellecruz says she learns the names of her engaged students:

To which Kelle elaborated




The last words, for now, go to @ProfNoodlearms for viewing name-learning as a consequence, not a catalyst, of learning

…and to @DRPicardHIS for using names to build these connections amongst the students, too:


Is it worth the effort?

In a word, yes. Learn as many names as you can. Even if you only learn half of them, it may seem to the students that you know them all. And that feeling of connection and community might be enough to get all of your students engaged and learning.

How do YOU do it?

Do you learn your students’ names? If you have a good method, would you leave a comment to share it with us? Thanks!

Update: January 24, 2014

Writing this post motivated me to learn my students’ names, all 60 of them. I made a PPT deck with 1 slide for each student’s name, program (“grad student, Biology”) and photo. I printed these slides as 9-up handouts and cut them, to get a stack of index cards I carry around and continually flip through. I worked hard at it and within a few days, I could name each student.

I mades cards, one for each student, giving their names, programs and pictures.
I mades cards, one for each student, giving their names, programs and pictures.

I’ve been teaching my class for 3 weeks now and knowing my students’ names and faces is working great in both directions, faces-to-names and names-to-faces:

  • when a student walks into the classroom, I can say, “Hi, Bob. How’s your week going?”
  • when a student asks a question or makes a comment, I can say, “Yes, Bob, you’ve got something to add?” and “Thanks, Bob, that’s really interesting.”
  • when they write blog posts (and they wrote some good ones), I read the author name, and picture the student in my head. Later, when I see that student in class, I can say, “Great post, Bob, I really like how you wrote…”
  • similarly, when I’m teaching and remember something relevant that I read in a blog post, I can look around the room and say, “Bob, you wrote about that. Would you tell us about it?”

On the first day, I’d see them coming up the hallway to class and could have said, “Hi Bob, great to meet you in person.” That felt a little creepy because we’d never met. Instead, I stuck out my hand, “Hi, I’m Peter” and then listened very deliberately to make sure the name they replied with matched what I was expecting. That gave me a way to check the pronounciation, too.

The students sit in 3’s and 4’s at tables in my classroom and I notice they often introduce themselves when they do group work. As Danielle writes in the comments, the students benefit from knowing each other’s names, too.

Update: February 21, 2014

“Oh sure, I learned their names,” I convinced myself. I stopped quizzing myself with my stack of index cards. And the next week, drew a blank on student after student! I guess it’s no surprise I’d forget the names of people I see only once per week in a group of 20 but it’s really frustrating to forget students’ names when you know you knew them.

So, I’m back to quizzing myself with the index cards. Before each class, I flip through the cards, slipping the ones I get wrong back into the deck. Seems to be working because this week, I didn’t make any mistakes.