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.

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