Tag: Ken Bain

There and back again.

I’m thrilled to announce that in July, I’ll be starting a new job as Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives in the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal Academic at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

polarisdotcanadaFor me, this is a return to Canada, to British Columbia, and to the University of British Columbia community, though in Kelowna, rather than Vancouver where I went to graduate school, taught, and was part of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

My 4 years at the Center for Teaching Development, now part of the Teaching + Learning Commons, at UC San Diego gave me the incredible chance to run a Center and then witness and contribute to the growth of a campus-wide teaching and learning network. For the opportunity to try, fail, get feedback, and try again (h/t Ken Bain) I thank my colleagues Beth Simon, Gabriele Wienhausen, Kim Barrett, Martha Stacklin, Steve Cassedy, the many faculty and staff I’ve worked with, and the hundreds of graduate students and postdocs who voluntarily participated in my teaching and learning course, The College Classroom. Their enthusiasm and dedication is inspiring.

I’m also incredibly grateful for the chance to learn with, and learn from, my colleagues in the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network. I couldn’t help myself from observing how Bob Mathieu, Kitch Barnicle, Robin Greenler, and Jeff Engler lead a diverse group of colleagues, making sure voices are heard, making timely, informed decisions, and communicating those decisions in ways welcome collaboration and growth. These are all skills I will need in my new job.

I’m very much looking forward to conversations and projects with new (and old) colleagues Cynthia Mathieson, Simon Bates, Michelle Lamberson, Heather Hurren, Greg duManoir, Heather Berringer, and many, many others.

I feel this is the job I’ve been preparing for throughout my teaching and learning career. Perhaps I can finally get rid of the impostor syndrome that’s been hanging around ever since I left the math classroom nearly 20 years ago.

There and back again 🙂

[Update 2/18/2016] Fixed a typo: It’s the Centre, not Center, for Teaching and Learning. Finally, after 4 years at UC San Diego, my fingers and typing muscle memory have become Americanized. Center. Color. Counselor. Language, too: I’m going to have to re-train myself to talk about marking and marks instead of grading and grades,  about Terms instead of Quarters, and most importantly, about KD instead of mac-n-cheese.

Everybody gets a whiteboard!

One of the key findings about How People Learn is that teachers need to draw out and work with students’ existing knowledge and skills. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, emphasizes students need to encounter a safe environment to try, fail, get feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation. The challenge for instructors is to find ways to draw out knowledge from EVERY student and create opportunities for EVERY student to practice.

Small, portable whiteboards (aka dry erase boards if you’re searching your institution’s suppliers’ catalogs) can achieve both of these.

Let me save the kinds of whiteboard-related tasks you can give to students for a future post. Here, I want to describe the class sets of whiteboards we put together. Each set contains 12 whiteboards which, when used for collaborative activities in groups of 3-4 students, can handle classes of 40-50 students. The key components are

  1. light-weight whiteboards that are small enough to carry and manipulate in class but large enough to let multiple students collaborate
  2. getting dry erase markers into EVERY student’s hand
  3. a convenient way for the instructor to get the kit to class and then carry it away afterwards

1. Portable whiteboards

Size and weight are the biggest concerns. Oh, and cost. You can cut way down on weight by foregoing magnetic whiteboards. We found these 18″ x 24″ light-weight whiteboards by Universal available through CDW. They’re only $15.99 retail (and even cheaper through our institutions purchasing system). These boards are so light, it’s very easy for students to pass them around, rest them on their knees, and hold them up for others to see. The only drawback to these particular boards is an inch-wide pen “tray” along the bottom of the board — the boards are made to be mounted on the wall — but it makes a good handle for students to grab.

2. Dry erase markers.

To create opportunities for EVERY student, it’s important to have enough dry erase markers that EVERY student gets one. Otherwise, he who holds the marker, holds the final say. I also like to give each student a different colored pen so they (and I) can easily see their contributions. We went with EXPO fine tip dry erase markers that come in boxes of 12 for $23.92 at Grainger. Four boxes – black, blue, red, green – gave us four markers for each board. We also included an eraser in each kit ($3.99 each by Universal from CDW) and a container of EXPO cleaning wipes ($14.99 at Grainger) we use to give the boards a once-over every now and then.

You can’t waste a lot of time handing out pens and erasers, collecting them again at the end of class so we put each set of 4 markers and an eraser into a pencil case, one per board. This works beautifully – quick to distribute, quick to collect, quick to reset for the next class. We found these canvas + mesh (mesh was great because you see what was in the kit without having to open the zipper) at our university bookstore for $2.29 each.

Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)
Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)

3. Carrying case

University instructors very rarely have a classroom where they can leave things. Instead, you arrive at the classroom 5-10 minutes before your class starts, bringing everything you need – computer, video adapter thingy, notes, water bottle, hand-outs, WHITEBOARDS – and then carry it all away after class. So, portability of these whiteboards is a critical.

We totally lucked out searching our universities suppliers’ website for “carrying case” when we stumbled onto this carrying case made for a retractable TeleSteps ladder ($74.90 from Grainger.) The bag easily holds twelve 18″ x 24″ whiteboards, with enough room to toss in the pencil cases. I’m not saying the strap doesn’t dig into your shoulder after walking halfway across campus but the case keeps everything in one place and you can dump on the ground when you get to class and deal it once you’ve got everything else ready. Heck, ask one of those enthusiastic students in the front row to distribute the boards and pencil cases for you.

Total cost per set of 12 whiteboards

Item Ea. Total
12 18″ x 24″ whiteboards $15.99 $191.88
dry erase markers (black, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (blue, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (red, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (green, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
12 dry whiteboard erasers $3.99 $47.88
12 pencil cases $2.29 $27.48
1 container cleaning wipes $14.99 $14.99
1 TeleSteps carrying case $74.90 $74.90
Total $452.81

There’s taxes and delivery. And prices will vary if you buy these directly from the supplier or through your university’s purchasing website. You’ll have to keep buying more markers and cleaning wipes but everything else is a one-time purchase.

Overall, that’s a lot of learning for $500 🙂

You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

No matter what course you teach, one of your course-level learning outcomes should be that students will think more like experts in your field. They won’t be experts yet, not after one course or even an undergraduate degree, but they can think in more expert-like ways.

How do experts think?

According to How People Learn, experts must

  1. have a deep foundation of factual knowledge
  2. understand those facts and concepts in a conceptual framework
  3. organize the knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

Here’s how I picture that conceptual framework:



It’s not enough just to teach the factual knowledge: you also have to help students build the conceptual framework and give them practice retrieving and applying the facts and concepts:

Factual knowledge
Factual knowledge

Conceptual framework
Conceptual framework


(My thanks to Kimberly Tanner at San Francisco State University for reminding me that anyone can memorize a bunch of facts; expertise lies in the conceptual framework and retrieval.)

What does your classroom look like?

Yes, let’s support expert-like thinking and behavior. But how do you do it? I think Ken Bain, in What the best college teachers do (2004), describes it perfectly:

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating—authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.

The big idea, then, is to pick instructional strategies that give students practice thinking like experts, in a natural and authentic way.

The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction

My colleague Beth Simon and I have come up with a strategy we call, “The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction.”

2-minute pause: The 2-minute pause procedure is really easy to implement in a class because you literally don’t do anything. Every 15 or 20 minutes of lecture, when you sense your students’ brains are full, you stop lecturing and invite the students to take 2 minutes to

  • review their notes
  • consult with neighbors to fill in missing points
  • check with neighbors if anything is confusing
  • formulate a question(s) that will clear up confusion or fill in a gap (this is very expert-like behavior!)

When conversations dies down (wait longer than 2 minutes if there’s good stuff happening) lead a brief, class-wide discussion to answer questions and resolve confusion. They’ll probably have questions you haven’t thought about (because if you did think about them, you’d have covered it in the lecture.) Answer by “thinking-aloud”, that is, sharing aloud that voice in your head as you figure it out. When everyone is back up-up-to-speed and has had a chance to hang some knowledge on their conceptual framework, you can pick up where you left off.

2-minute pause Pro™: Maybe when you pause, your students

  • aren’t confus—ed
  • don’t have anything to talk about
  • don’t know how to have expert-like conversions

Then “seed” the pause with a question. You could get them to reconsider what you’ve just covered:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: what do you suppose would happen if they run that experiment with adults instead of children?

Or prime them for what’s coming:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: How do you think this result will change when we apply it in 3 dimensions instead of 2?

Peer Instruction: Don’t just stop lecturing and don’t just seed the discussion with an interesting question. Direct the discussion between students by giving them a few conversation starters. That is, ask a conceptually-challenging, multiple choice question with choices that activate expert-like thinking and/or common misconceptions. Here’s one of my favorites, from an introductory #astro101 class

How many of these are reasons for the season?

  • —the height of the Sun in the sky during the day
  • Earth’s distance from the Sun
  • how many hours the Sun is up each day
  1. one of them
  2. two
  3. all three

I like this question because it activates a strong misconception (that the seasons are due to Earth’s distance from the Sun) and it requires students to think and talk like astronomers.


Yes, requires! Even if every single student correctly chooses B, the instructor can drive the next few minutes of astro-goodness with, “Excellent. Which two?!”

You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

That’s our “slippery slope” strategy. Instructors looking to move away from traditional lecture are often reluctant to jump right to peer instruction, citing the technical overhead — software and hardware — and the cost to students for clickers. What could be easier than a 2-minute pause, though? It gives instructors a taste of the incredible feedback and interaction that students will contribute, given the chance. After that, it’s just baby steps to seeding the discussion and then driving the conversations.

Acquiring knowledge. Attaching it to a framework. Retrieving it to support discussion. In my book, that’s expert-like thinking.

(This post is adapted from a post I wrote for UCSD’s Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars program)