Tag: instructional strategies

Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 2: Discipline-specific Content

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, I designed and facilitated, again and again, a series of discipline-specific workshops called “Foundations of Teaching and Learning in X” where X is Health and Exercise Sciences, Digital Literacy, Nursing, Engineering, and others. In this series of blog posts, I describe the motivation, how the content was made discipline-specific, the format of the sessions, the process for organizing the series, and the outcomes. In this post, I cover the content of the workshops and how we made it discipline-specific for the participants.

One of the key features of the Foundations series is that the distance from the examples we examine in the sessions and what the participants can actually use in their courses is as short as possible. That is, there is only “near transfer” from an anatomy example to an anatomy course, rather than “far transfer” from a physics example to a nursing course. In collaboration with the local champion in the discipline, we worked to provide meaningful examples wherever possible.

Let’s look in depth at the sessions in the series with many discipline-specific examples.

Session 1: How People Learn

This foundational session sets the stage for all the others in the series. Participants read Chapter 1 of How People Learn. The session revolves around a card-sorting activity where participants work in groups of 2 or 3 to match three key findings with three implications for teaching and three descriptions of classroom environments.

Participants sort cards to match three key findings about how people learn with three implications for teaching and three descriptions of classroom environments. Different groups get differently-coloured sets of cards.
This is one way to sort the cards, giving participants ideas about what to do with the key findings.

Session 2: Creating Supportive, Inclusive Learning Environment

No matter how much you carefully backwards-design your course and lessons, students are unlikely to learn if they don’t feel welcome and safe. Session 2 revolves around a “jigsaw activity”. That’s when participants first go into “focus groups” to learn about a specific element in a collection, and then into “task groups” to share their new-found expertise with others from other groups:

In a jigsaw activity, students work in “focus groups” to develop ideas about one element in a collection. Then they re-form in “task groups” to share their knowledge with others. (Graphic: Vanderbilt Centre for Teaching)

In my jigsaw, the participants consider 6 different students in a typical class. I work with my colleague to tailor the collection to students they’ll encounter in their Department, School, or Faculty.

In their task groups, they answer these three questions:

What advice would give your new colleague to

  • assure the student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
  • build on the student’s diverse knowledge, strengths, and experiences
  • What not to do.

They break into focus groups, then task groups. Then we all come back together and I get them to record their best advice about each student on a big chart. We all step back and look at the big picture.

I’ve run this session many times and the same magic happens every time: the same advice shows up for each student like, don’t call them out to represent others and provide structure so everyone knows what to expect and what’s expected of them. Once again, effective teaching is inclusive teaching!

Session 3: Learning Outcomes

Sessions 3, 4, and 5 lead the participants through a backward design approach to their courses. Course instructors aren’t always enthusiastic about learning outcomes, so it’s important that if they do see them – oh, and they will! – the learning outcomes need to be relevant.

I remind everyone about topic- and course-level learning outcomes:

Then we see examples of learning outcomes, tailored to the discipline of the participants:

Learning outcomes in Health and Exercise Sciences, Engineering, Information Literacy, and Nursing.

This is an example of an element of Foundations that requires very little extra work from me – I have “holes” in my master slides that my colleague fills in for me.

Session 4: Assessment for Learning

I make a point of highlight this is assessment FOR learning, not assessment OF learning, to spark the discussion of formative, not only summative, assessment.

While there’s potential for showing assessments connected to the discipline-specific learning outcomes, I take a more foundational approach. First I share this excellent advice from Ken Bail (2004): Students need safe yet challenging opportunities to try, fail, get feedback, and try again, all before facing a summative assessment. This makes our discussions of formative feedback more meaningful.

In the next part of the session, we explore fixed and growth mindset and honestly, it’s very easy for this discussion to last for the rest of our time. It’s not uncommon for workshop participants to suggest their students should have this discussion, too.

I usually wrap up the session with a quick discussion of rubrics. The next time I facilitate this workshop, I’ll be sure to include links and references to Robert Talbert’s excellent blog post, Steps toward excellence: Making sure you assess the right things. He outlines how rubrics provide you, and your students, with a “line-of-sight path” from learning outcomes to assessment tasks to students’ grades to formative feedback.

Session 5: Effective Active Learning

There’s an opportunity to tie together discipline-specific learning outcomes with discipline-specific assessments to discipline-specific instructional strategies. We start this session with something more fundamental, though: a review of Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (Freeman et al., 2014) and Wieman’s accompanying commentary, Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. The reasons are multi-fold.

First, it gives me a chance to reinforce the flipped learning approach. I send guidance to the participants several days before the session with guidance about reading Freeman (or the more-accessible summary  Active Learning Leads to Higher Grades and Fewer Failing Students in Science, Math, and Engineering by Aatish Bhatia) and Wieman, so that everyone is familiar with the big picture and the results. Then, in our session we can immediately dig more deeply into the results.

Second, this is me “walking the walk” when it comes to advocating for evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning. This also helps the participants (especially in STEM fields) get familiar with the evidence they can cite in their annual reviews, teaching statements, and job applications.

Finally, and equally importantly, we interpret the Freeman results with active learning in small, collaborative groups. In-person, I hand a copy of this slide to each group of 3 or 4 (and more recently, I’ve done this in online workshops using breakout rooms and a shared set of Google slides.)

In STEM classes with active learning, students’ marks increased on concept tests by about ½ standard deviation compared to classes taught with traditional lecture. What does this mean about the number of students who succeed or fail?

What’s important is that the participants experience active, collaborative, small group work and witness some of the choreography needed to support it.

For the rest of the session we explore active learning strategies that help students practice the learning outcomes, especially strategies that are more frequently used in their disciplines like peer instruction with clickers, case studies, demonstrations with predictions, and group discussions.

Session 6: Chosen by the participants

The co-facilitator and I remind participants through the series that in the sixth and final session, we’ll dig deeper into something covered earlier or explore another topic that’s valuable to them. Sometimes we look at course syllabi. Often, though, we talk in detail about peer instruction. That’s the powerful and evidence-based active learning strategy where

  1. the instructor poses a conceptually-challenging question
  2. each student thinks about the question submit their answer using a physical or virtual “clicker”
  3. students discuss the question and their answers in small groups
  4. students may vote a second time, depending on the nature of the question
  5. the instructor leads a class-wide discussion where students share their thinking
  6. the instructor models expert-like thinking and confirms why the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong

In this session, participants have an opportunity to draft and share some peer instruction questions, after seeing examples in their discipline. It’s vitally important they see familiar concepts so that they recognize conceptually-challenging concepts, identify common misconceptions, and can make the near transfer to their own course in the same discipline.

Peer instruction (“clicker”) questions in Engineering, Health and Exercise Sciences, Nursing, and Information Literacy.

To be honest, customizing my generic workshop resources to each discipline is quite simple. It’s a great opportunity to work closely with the co-facilitator before each session. And, in my experience, the session participants are visibly relieved to see examples from their discipline. The examples spark conversations between colleagues about what they teach and how they teach it, strengthening the teaching-focused cohort in that Department, School, or Faculty.

I’ve hinted here what some sessions look like, with flipped learning and active learning. The next post will have more details about the format of the sessions. Spoiler: it’s all about modelling.

Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 1: Motivation

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, I designed and facilitated, again and again, a series of discipline-specific workshops called “Foundations of Teaching and Learning in X” where X is Health and Exercise Sciences, Digital Literacy, Nursing, Engineering, and others. In this series of blog posts, I describe the motivation, how the content was made discipline-specific, the format of the sessions, the process for organizing the series, and the outcomes. In this post, I describe my unhappy experiences that sparked the idea for Foundations.

It’s a familiar story to anyone who works in a Center for Teaching and Learning. There’s a topic that course instructors want to know about like, say, learning outcomes. (Note: I use “course instructor” for the person doing the teaching,  whatever their rank or appointment.) CTL staff plan a workshop, promote it through all the usual university channels, book a room, maybe even arrange for catering. The workshop facilitator designs an interactive workshop and prepares the resources. When the day comes, they excitedly arrive at the room early, get the presentation set up, arrange the furniture, set out the whiteboards, dry erase markers, clickers, handouts…

(If you can’t tell, I’m writing about my own workshops. And you know what’s coming next, right?)

With the workshop about to begin, they throw open the doors, and jump back out of the way of…no one. Well, except for those two engaged course instructors who attend every workshop, frequently drop into the CTL to chat, and honestly, could probably be facilitating the workshop, themselves.

What went wrong?

The “you can lead a horse to water…” explanation is too simple. Plus, it blames the audience for not coming. After years – yes, years – of facilitating low-attendance workshops, being one of those few participants, and connecting with course instructors, Department Heads, Directors, and Deans, here are some of the reasons why I think course instructors are choosing not to attend:

  1. Generic content: Maybe you’ve witnessed this: the facilitator gives an example of a learning outcome from a History course and the physicist in the room rolls their eyes. And vice versa. For the next workshop, the CTL facilitator anticipates there will be participants from different Departments and Faculties and prepares examples that are sufficiently generic that no one feels excluded, ignored, or unserved. In finding examples that are not meaningless to someone, the examples can be meaningless to everyone. Course instructors come to workshops looking for value, which often means something they can easily adapt and integrate into their own courses. Just as with our students, “far transfer” from generic concepts into the context of their discipline and course is difficult.
  2. Time and place: workshops are often scheduled for a time, and especially place, that’s convenient for the CTL facilitators. If a course instructor isn’t sure if they’re going to attend the workshop, the added inconvenience of having to walk all the way across campus could be what convinces them to skip the workshop.
  3. Who cares: For course instructors, recognition of effort in their annual review, tenure and promotion file, or job applications is important. One more bullet in their CV, “● attended CTL workshop on learning outcomes,” doesn’t draw much attention.

This comes down to value: busy course instructors carefully allocate their time and energy. They spend those resources where the investment pays off.

Key features of Foundations

Here’s the idea behind Foundations: I collaborate with a “local champion” to facilitate a series of six, 90-minute workshops to a cohort of educators from a specific Unit – the Department, School, or Faculty where the discipline lives.

These are features of the series to make it as valuable as possible and to reduce reasons for people not coming:

  1. The topics give people what they’re expecting, a foundation in teaching and learning:
    1. How People Learn: Key findings about how people learn and how instructors can use those findings in the design and delivery of their sessions.
    2. Creating Supportive, Inclusive Learning Environments: Students will not succeed if they don’t feel welcomed and safe. Creating and maintaining that classroom environment requires thoughtful, deliberate, and on-going attention.
    3. Learning Outcomes: The first step to designing and teaching a concept, a lesson, or an entire course is determining the learning outcomes: what must a student be able to do to demonstrate they understand?
    4. Assessment for Learning: It’s one thing to teach a lesson; it’s another thing entirely whether or not students learned it. We’ll explore formative assessments.
    5. Instructional Strategies: There are times when a short lecture is the right tool to share your expertise and model expert-like habits of thinking. The evidence is clear, though, that more of your students will achieve higher levels of success in classes with effective, active learning.
    6. The topic for the last session will be chosen by the cohort. This session could be specific to teaching in the Unit (e.g. group work, small and large classrooms, assessment, active learning, technology etc.) or being a successful educator (education research, teaching philosophies, etc.)
  2. The content is discipline-specific because I work with the local champion to include learning outcomes, assessments, activities, habits of thinking, expert-like skills, demonstrations/artifacts, common misconceptions and difficulties, relevant educational research, and more that are specific to the discipline. This makes the support and resources immediately relevant to the participants. I’ll share more about the “local champion” in the post about process and give examples of tailoring the content to the discipline in the post on the workshop content.
  3. The local champion also give me, and the series, credibility with their colleagues. This isn’t someone from the CTL parachuting in to tell them how to teach. Instead, it’s one of them working with the CTL to provide professional development and to ensure the content stays relevant.
  4. The 6 sessions run every 2 weeks so the entire series occurs during one academic term (when course instructors have a mostly predictable schedule) while giving people enough time to prepare between sessions. The sessions occur at a time that works for the participants (sometimes a Unit has a half day set aside each week for unit meetings, for example) and in a location that’s convenient for them (the local conference room or a classroom in their building, for example.)
  5. The cohort remains when series is over, creating a learning community led by the local champion that’s immediately available in the hallway, in the mailroom, or before and after a meeting to share teaching and learning challenges and successes.
  6. The series is supported by a shell in the LMS that remains open after the series ends, so that all materials are available to the participants. I typically share everything under a Creative Commons CC-BY license which forces me to find copyright free resources.
  7. The CTL provides any documentation, recognition, or acknowledgement the participants need to describe this professional development. Each participants lets me what will be most useful to them.

In Part 2, I’ll give examples of customizing the content to specific units.

Engage EVERY student with a jigsaw

(This is a long, detailed post about creating and running a “jigsaw” activity. Mostly, I wrote it for myself before I forget all the details. Reinventing the wheel is bad enough – reinventing your own wheel is even worse!)

The other day, I ran a jigsaw activity in my teaching and learning course. Jigsaw’s are a great activity if you have a lot of content to cover in a number of contexts. My colleague, David J. Gross at UMass Amherst, explained it to me this way: Suppose your lesson is about 5 National Parks. A traditional lecture about those 5 Parks, with N PowerPoint slides giving the details about each Park means 5N slidezzzzzzz.

Here’s how a jigsaw activity works. In Step 1, you group students together, with each group exploring one National Park. They become the local experts on that Park, working together to bring themselves up to shared, higher level of knowledge:

In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC.)
In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

In Step 2, you take it all apart and put it back together, like a jigsaw puzzle, so that each group has an expert about each of the 5 National Parks. In each group, they teach each other about each Park. In the end, every student has learned about each Park.

In Step 2 of the jigsaw, the students re-arrange themselves so each group has an expert about each National Park. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

Did you notice how much lecturing about National Parks the instructor did? Zero. Zippo. Zilch. Instead of a single long exposition by the instructor, there are 4 student-centered conversations happening in parallel. It might even take less class time, or, if the time is already allocated, it gives more time for each National Park.

Cool, huh? Instructor gets to do nothing!

Well, nothing except a whole lot of planning and choreographing so students can stay engaged in concepts and not wondering what to do or wandering around looking for a group.

My jigsaw: Formative assessment that supports learning

In my teaching and learning class, we were discussing practice and formative feedback that supports learning. Following Chapter 5 of How Learning Works, instructors should ensure

  • practice is goal-directed
  • practice is productive
  • feedback is timely
  • feedback is at the appropriate level

To help explore these characteristics, I decided to use two tools:

analogy: How People Learn advises us that “students come to the classroom about preconceptions about how the world works” (p.14) and therefore, “[t]eachers must draw out and work with that preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.” (p.19) I wanted my students to think about those 4 characteristics first through their experiences of a sport or hobby and then in the context of teaching and learning.

contrasting cases: Again from How People Learn, “[t]eachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.” (p. 20) Contrasting cases are a way to present the same concept twice. And sometimes, the a good way to figure out what something IS, is to figure out what it’s NOT.

For each characteristic, like timely feedback, I wanted students to come up with scenarios of

  • untimely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“bad, sport/hobby”)
  • timely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“good, sport/hobby”)
  • untimely feedback in teaching and learning (“bad, teaching and learning”)
  • timely feedback in teaching and learning (“good, teaching and learning”)

That’s 4 characteristics x 4 scenarios each = 16 different scenarios in total. There’s NO WAY I’m going to make 16N slides and flick through them.

Let’s jigsaw, I said to myself. But how? How do I choreograph Step 1 (prepare expertise) and Step 2 (share expertise)? I started from the end and worked backwards.

Here’s what I wanted the Step 2 conversations to look like:

Each group has an expert about each characteristic, and they teach and learn from each other. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each group would have one student sharing expertise about one of the characteristics

  • practice is goal-directed (green)
  • practice is productive (blue)
  • feedback is timely (purple)
  • feedback is at the appropriate level (orange)

and each student would be prepared to share 4 scenarios

I. “bad” in sport/hobby
II. “good” in sport/hobby
III. “bad” in teaching and learning
IV. “good” in teaching and learning

I have about 20 students in each session of the class, so that means I’ll have 5 groups at the end. If there are additional students #21, #22, and #23, they can double-up in some groups. As soon as I have 24 students, #21 thru #24 can form their own discussion group.

Look back at the picture of the final discussion groups showing Step 2 of the jigsaw activity. To create that (5 times), in Step 1 I’ll need 5 people teaching each other about green, 5 blue, 5 purple, and 5 orange.

Choreographing with Colored Paper

There’s a lot of “structure” that needs to be built into this activity

  • each student is assigned to a characteristic / color
  • each student needs to know what their Step 1 discussion is about
  • students need to sit in a one-color groups for Step 1
  • students need to move to an every-color groups for Step 2
  • probably more…

I can’t waste a lot of time making this happen during class. What tools do I have at my disposal for structuring this activity? COLORED PAPER (As simple as it sounds, colored paper is one of my favorite pieces of education technology.)

I created 4 worksheets, one for each characteristic, and copied them onto colored paper. I interlaced the worksheets and put the stack at the classroom door. I arranged the tables and chairs into 4 stations with 5-6 chairs each, and placed a colored sheet of paper on each station [Oh yeah, I forgot about that! That’s why I’m writing this.] When the students entered, they took the top worksheet and sat at that color’s station.

I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups.
I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

The ultimate goal is for us to have a class-wide discussion of good teaching practices to support learning. The jigsaw activity should prepare every student to contribute to that conversation but I didn’t want students to spend too much time in Step 2 sharing their experiences and ideas about sports/hobbies and about “bad” teaching practices. I also wanted students to discover how intertwined those 4 characteristics are: to provide productive practice, you need it to be goal-oriented, and so on.

I needed a way to slice and re-mix the scenarios so the students discussed them by scenario (“bad” in sport/hobby,…,”good” in teaching and learning) rather than by characteristic (practice is goal-directed,…, feedback is at the appropriate level). So that’s exactly what I did: I sliced. Well, they sliced.

If you look at the picture of the worksheets above, you’ll notice some dashed lines. At the end of Step 1, I instructed the students to tear their colored worksheets into quarters along the dashed lines. (Notice, also, each quarter has a I, II, III, IV label.) Then I invited them to re-organize themselves into groups so that each group had a representative of each color. That was easy for them to do because they could easily see what colors were already at each table. Since there were equal numbers of each color (because the worksheets were interlaced in the stack at the classroom door) there was a place for everyone and everyone had a place.

Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. Note: I scribbled over the students’ names on their name badges. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Settled in every-colored groups, they worked their way through the 4 scenarios I, II, III, IV of practice and assessment that supports learning. I could easily see what scenario they were discussing and could nudge them towards the important, scenario IV discussion if they were lagging behind.

Darn, I forgot to keep track of the time while I ran this jigsaw but I seem to remember it taking about 20 minutes for Step 1 and Step 2, and then another 10 minutes or so for the class-wide discussion about the characteristics of formative assessment that support learning (scenario IV).

The classroom was loud with expert-like discussions about teaching and learning. Twenty brains were engaged. Twenty students left knowing a lot about practice and assessment that supports learning. And knowing that their own experiences and knowledge played a critical role in the learning of their classmates. They can ask themselves,”Did I contribute to class today? Was the class better because I was there?” Yes and yes.

Big question: why bother?

If it took me this long to write down on these steps, you know it took even longer to design (and re-design) the materials, plan and rehearse the choreography, prepare the materials, re-arrange the classroom furniture, and more. It would have a been a helluvalot easier for me to present 4 slides, one on each of the characteristics of formative assessment (or easier still, one slide with 4 bullet points.)

But that’s not what we do.

Of course there are practical considerations but how easy it is for ME is not what drives how I design my lessons. Rather, I challenge myself to create opportunities for EVERY student to practice thinking about and discussing the issues and concepts. One thing I love about these jigsaw activities is that every student has a well-defined job (share their expertise in Step 2) that gives them the opportunity to make critical contributions to the discussion. The steps of the jigsaw and all the colored-paper-driven activities prepare them for that discussion.

I’m happy to share the resources shown here, talk through any points that are unclear, chat about how to adapt it to your learning outcomes – leave a comment, email me at peternewbury42 at gmail dot com, or hit me on Twitter @polarisdotca.