Category: UBC Okanagan

Mission and Guiding Principles

Last Fall, the senior staff in my Centre for Teaching and Learning suggested we should take a look at our mission. Other units at UBC Okanagan have been updating their “Mission, Vision, Values” – perhaps to align and synchronize with the new UBC Strategic Plan.

I have to admit, I wasn’t enthusiastic about the “MVV” exercise but one of my Centre colleagues volunteered to take the lead, so we went ahead with focus groups, summaries, drafts, and follow-up discussions.

In the end, I’m really glad we did it. As expected, it bought us all together, helped us identity what we care about, how we want to enact it, and lets our campus partners know what they can expect from us.

Here’s the result, with a description and commentary below.


To promote, inspire, and support
excellence, leadership, scholarship, and technologies
in teaching and learning.

Guiding Principles:

  1. We advocate for and support evidence-informed approaches to teaching and learning.
  2. We provide ongoing and valuable professional development for all those who teach.
  3. Our approach is based on respect, inclusion, equity, and compassion.

About the Mission

One of the biggest changes to our mission is what we left out. The mission used to say we’d lead and support teaching excellence, scholarship, and other components of teaching and learning. The new mission very deliberately takes a step back: demonstrating educational leadership is required for merit, tenure, and promotion for a stream of teaching faculty at UBC (and it certainly contributes to promotion of faculty in the research stream.) There are projects and tasks the people in my Centre are entirely capable of leading, like reviewing papers, leading faculty learning communities, or organizing parts of our annual conference. These are excellent opportunities for faculty in the teaching stream to have impact beyond their classrooms, though. So rather that us doing it, we’re promoting these opportunities to our community and then supporting them.

It’s natural and expected that we’ll “promote” and “support” components of teaching and learning. From the focus groups and our own discussions, we recognized something we love to do: “inspire” those in our teaching and learning community. We have the privilege of interacting with a lot of people and projects, so when we’re consulting with course instructors, we can weave exciting and creative opportunities into our discussions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get a faculty member inspired – it’s not that they’re not creative, curious,  or enthusiastic but they just don’t have the time to survey what’s out there.

This promote-inspire-support strategy definitely applies to the scholarship of teaching and learning, too. While there’s nothing stopping Centre staff from writing and publishing SoTL, it’s not required for promotion (none of us are faculty members.) We’re thrilled to spark projects and be co-investigators and co-authors. It’s critical, though, that we support educational research done by faculty members.

One other addition to our mission: the Centre has a strong reputation for supporting learning technologies, like the learning management system, peer instruction / clickers, video capture/integration, etc. Focus group participants were surprised we didn’t mention that in our old mission so it was a no-brainer to add it to the new mission. Well, almost a no-brainer:

  • Do we promote, inspire, and support “learning technologies”? No, we don’t need to say “learning”, especially when the mission would say, “…learning technologies in teaching and learning.”
  • “technology” or “technologies”? There isn’t just one technology and technologies (plural) gives us more flexibility.
  • Wait, do we really “…inspire…technologies…in teaching and learning”? What does that even mean? We decided to let that one thread of the mission slide. Recasting the sentence to eliminate it would make things worse.

One funny thing emerged from our focus groups. The old mission statement talks about supporting teaching and learning excellence, scholarship, and innovation. Some people interpreted that to mean we support

  • teaching and learning excellence
  • scholarship
  • innovation

“Oh, what kinds of innovation do you support?” they wondered. “Um, innovations in teaching and learning.” “Oh, I get it now…”

So, we recast the mission statement to better communicate there are many aspects of teaching and learning that we promote, inspire, and support. This is why you include focus groups in developing these things!

About the Guiding Principles

People typically talk about their organization’s mission, vision, and values. After we were happy with where the our new mission statement was heading, we turned to vision and values. And quickly concluded we couldn’t say much about how we envision the Centre promoting, inspiring, and supporting teaching and learning without a set of values to build from.

Moving on, then, we quickly realized we were all a bit uncomfortable with “values.” Who’s values, the Centre’s? (Can a Centre have values?) And what if someone’s personal values conflict with the Centre’s values – we certainly don’t want to exclude a Centre staff member because their own values are different!

At some point, I said supporting evidence-informed pedagogies has got to be one of the principles we follow. I think that’s when another senior staff suggested we have guiding principles instead of values. Everyone immediately agreed, and all the anxiety and hesitation around “values” disappeared.

So, the first guiding principle was pretty easy:

  1. We advocate for and support evidence-informed approaches to teaching and learning.

We chose “evidence-informed” rather than “evidence-based” to allow for experimentation and innovation. Limiting ourselves to approaches that have conclusive evidence and peer-reviewed literature would be, well, limiting. We’re definitely not saying anything goes, though. For example, if a faculty member comes to us for help creating a syllabus or curriculum based on their students’ learning styles, we’ll be having a frank conversation with them. The “meshing hypothesis” of learning styles – that an instructor tailor their instruction to individual student’s learning style (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) – is not a valid pedagogy. Would we refuse to work with that instructor? No. We’d let them know that learning styles are not a valid model, we’d inform them of the valid research about how people learn that shows all students benefit from seeing the same concepts in more than one context, and help them develop lessons where every student sees concepts more than once and in more than one format.

The second guiding principle informs the kinds of programs and support my Centre offers to the university:

  1. We provide ongoing and valuable professional development for all those who teach.

Here’s some of our thinking:

  • this is “professional development” not “training”. It’s not that we train course instructors how to teach – it’s way too complicated for that. Instead, we provide opportunities for these professionals to develop their skills and practices, if they choose to pursue those opportunities.
  • I regularly remind my campus colleagues that the Centre is not in the business of providing summative evaluations of faculty members or teaching assistants that are used for tenure and promotion or personnel decisions. We are not the teaching police or teaching judges who declare someone fit (or unfit) for teaching. We’ll provide honest, critical feedback, sure, but for formative purposes: here’s what I see, here are some alternatives, let me help you integrate a more effective approach, and then give you feedback on how you’re doing. To avoid the jargon of “summative” and “formative”, we chose the word “ongoing.”
  • I’ve been to enough workshops and, yes, led enough workshops where participants get nothing valuable out of the time and effort they invested in coming and participating. Here’s the typical scenario, something all Centres for Teaching are struggling with: You promote and prepare a 1-hour workshop on learning outcomes. And no one comes. Why not? Because the content has so generic – to not exclude any particular discipline – that nothing is applicable. That’s not a valuable hour. By demanding our programs be valuable, we’re thoughtful about discipline-specific content, even if that means running the same learning outcomes workshop in 4 different Faculties, altering the context and examples to their disciplines. We also work hard to deliver workshops in their spaces – if someone is looking for an excuse to skip the workshop, having to trek across campus in the cold or heat is enough. Our goal is to offer workshops down the hall from their office. We also work hard to collaborate with the Faculty, rather than parachuting in. This includes enlisting the support of the Dean, Director, or Department Head to promote the opportunities. First, when the message comes from the Dean, it carries more weight than spam from the Centre. Second, potential participants know that their Dean, Director, or Department Head recognizes this is a valuable opportunity and it’s a legitimate use of the participant’s time to attend the workshop. This guiding principle helps us make decisions about what, where, when, why, and how to offer workshops. Instead of doing things “the ways it’s always been done,” we question and revise.

Our final guiding principle affirms my Centre needs to treat all those who teach the same way we treat the students in our classrooms:

  1. Our approach is based on respect, inclusion, equity, and compassion.

I could write a entire blog post about each of the words respect, inclusion, equity, and compassion. Maybe I’ll do that someday. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that drove us to select these values.

  • Nothing gets my hackles up like deliberate disrespect for students. Punching down, starting from an assumption that students are dishonest or lazy, intolerance of anything but full and unwavering attention. I think it’s easier to identify disrespectful actions, so I need my team to be vigilante about being disrespectful to our colleagues.
  • Everyone in higher education knows how complex titles and ranks can be. As soon as we try to list people invited to participate in an event, it gets real messy, real fast. Students may talk about their “professors” but I can’t invite “professors” to an event. Does that include assistant and associate professors? What about Instructors or Senior Instructors? What about Sessionals, Adjuncts, Post-docs, and Teaching Assistants? What about staff members who coordinate labs or the curriculum / program maps? To be as inclusive as possible, we talk about “course instructors” and aim our programs at “all those who teach.” We’ll use specific titles and ranks only when necessary (like a peer mentoring program for professors and a teaching credential program for teaching assistants.)
  • We need to be compassionate with our colleagues and the complicated lives they lead. If we’re running a series and a participant has to miss a session because of, well, life, that’s fine. If workshop participants need to keep their phones handy because there’s a sick kid, fine. Need to eat your lunch during our meeting because this is the only hour you have all day, sure, no problem. I deliberately and honestly express my gratitude that they’re making time to participate in our programs even if, especially if, they can’t fully participate.
  • All these values – respect, inclusion, equity, compassion – need to extend to the students in the courses we’re supporting. For example, I struggle to support course instructors who want to implement reading quizzes at the beginning of each class because that’s how they punish students who don’t attend or arrive late. I’m 100% behind reading quizzes as part of a flipped learning model because they help students prepare for class and reward them for that effort.
  • This guiding principle means we’re committing to have difficult conversations with course instructors when their teaching practices appear to be disrespectful, to exclude any student, to treat students unfairly, or to show a lack of care.

Making our mission and guiding principles visible

As we were finalizing our mission and guiding principles, I was reading “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. Great book – I highly recommend it for Centre directors and others in leadership / management positions. He tells powerful stories about the importance of making an organization’s mission visible. Not (just) to the public but to the employees. If the employees don’t know what their organization stands for, how can they possibly support it?

That’s why I put our mission and guiding principles on the wall at the front entrance to my Centre. It lets visitors know this is what we stand for and what they can expect from us. More importantly, Centre staff – including me – see this every time we walk in and out. We’re reminded, many times each day, what we stand for and what we expect can from each other and from ourselves.

Our Mission and Guiding Principles are at the main entrance of my Centre where everyone – visitors and Centre staff – can see them. (Photo – Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Was is worth all the effort?

Yes, yes, absolutely yes.

There isn’t a day that I don’t refer to the mission and guiding principles when chatting with Centre colleagues about projects, initiatives, or opportunities we could be involved in. The mission and guiding principles give us a shared language and a simple but powerful tool for evaluating and assessing what we can do to promote, inspire, and support excellence, leadership, scholarship, and technologies in teaching and learning.

If you’re a Centre for Teaching director and you’re thinking about establishing a centre mission, vision, and values, feel free to contact me – I’m happy to elaborate on anything here.

Supporting SoTL

Scholarly teaching. Education research. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. These are all activities related to applying valid research methods – typically developed in other disciplines – to study teaching and learning.

For faculty members who’s merit, tenure, and promotion is based, in part, on their research output, publishing articles about education can’t hurt but it may not be seen as important as their disciplinary research. UBC, like a growing number of universities, has a tenure-track stream of Assistant, Associate, and (full) Professor of Teaching. We call it the Educational Leadership stream because success and promotion requires demonstrating impact and leadership beyond your classroom. For faculty in this stream, engaging in SoTL is a powerful way to demonstrate that leadership.

It’s my Centre for Teaching and Learning’s mission to “promote, inspire, and support excellence, leadership, scholarship, and technologies in teaching and learning.” I find supporting scholarship is one of most difficult part of our mission because when we start talking about research, each faculty member immediately snaps to the kinds of disciplinary research they do – if any – and tries to force education into that methodology. I struggle to support them because (i) I don’t know what kind of research they do and (ii) I’m most familiar with research methods found in STEM.

I’m writing this post because something happened last week, something good, that’s changed my approach and, I hope, the success of the faculty members I work with. Here’s the story. Dr. Jasmin Hristov, a research-stream Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Sociology, Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences gave me her permission to tell it.

Professor Hristov teaches upper-level sociology. She plans to bring in a series of guest speakers via video conference and asked if she could use my Centre’s workshop room. “Yes, of course,” I replied. And then, thinking about my Centre’s mission, I added, “You’re doing something innovative – would you be interested in talking about how you could study whether or not it’s effective?” She was, and we met.

First, Professor Hristov described her motivation: introduce the students to six experts from around the World, with careful attention to diversity of gender, race, location, and rank. For each guest speaker, the students do some background reading, prepare questions to ask the speaker, and lead a discussion. After class, the students write a reflection about the experience.

“How can we tell if it was effective? How can we tell if students learned anything?”

We nearly got lost down a dead end. Professor Hristov: “I’ve taught this course before without the video conferencing but with different students and, obviously, without the reflection.” Both of us nearly concluded, “Without a control group to compare grades against, I don’t see how we can study this.”

We didn’t go there, though, because serendipitously, I started the conversation with,

How can we find evidence of impact?

This question opened up whole new ways of thinking, without sending us on that narrow “research = A/B study with statistical significance” path. It led quickly to a couple of possibilities that could produce interesting results that don’t rely on the success or failure of p < 0.05.

Text analysis of students’ reflection

4-page reflection × 6 reflections × 30 students = huge amount of text

Imagine examining all that text with powerful tools like Voyant or NVivo. Will students naturally comment on the diversity of the speakers? That was one of the elements deliberately built into this intervention, recall. Do they need a prompt? Not a heavy prompt like, “Please comment on the diversity of the speakers.” That will only get the answers the students think Professor Hristov wants to hear. Something more subtle, like, um, not sure yet.

But imagine the kind of evidence of impact she could include in the SoTL article:

“I carefully chose the speakers to expose my students to a wide range of races, locations, genders, and ranks. In their reflections, students made the following associations…”

This isn’t cherry-picking an individual student’s comments – that’s a helpful exemplar or supporting anecdote but it’s not evidence. Instead, we have legitimate connections and insight students are making.

Quantitative analysis of reflection grades

Just because we can’t do a controlled A/B study doesn’t mean we can’t do quantitative analysis. Imagine this: imagine we compare the students’ marks on the reflections with their marks on the rest of the course. The reflections are worth around 1/3 of the total mark, so the reflections are worth enough that students will put legitimate care and effort into them. In other words, the reflections are not some incidental marks students can blow off, and they’re not so important that nothing else matters in the course. I made up some data (thx, to see what kinds of conclusions we could make (click to enlarge):

Hypothetical student marks on the reflection and other course assignments, with a range of correlations and conclusions about impact. (Data via Graphic: Peter Newbury)

The left graph shows there’s a relationship between the students’ success on the reflections and the rest of the course. Do the reflections help them succeed with the other assignments? Do the other assignments help them write better reflections? Can’t tell. Better look at the text analysis…

The center graph isn’t telling a compelling story. Success on the reflections doesn’t seem to have any connection to success on the rest of the course. We can probably conclude the same about what the students are getting out of the video conferences. Time to rethink how the video conferences are integrated and supported.

The right graph is a worst-case scenario: success on the reflections comes at the expense of the their success in the rest of the course. Oh c’mon, this would never happen, right? Well, I’ve seen courses where there’s a “capstone project” that takes all the students’ time. If the capstone is that important, it should probably represent a significant fraction of the overall course mark, so success on the capstone guarantees success in the course. I’ve also seen cases where success on the capstone requires sacrificing the other courses you’re taking – time for the Department Head to get the course instructors together to coordinate their assignments!

No matter the scenario, there’s something here for Professor Hristov to share in the discussion of her SoTL paper. The conclusions will be useful to others thinking about integrating video conferencing into their courses.

Evidence of Impact

This will be my new conversation starter when promoting, inspiring, and supporting scholarship. It’s also a good prompt for the faculty members, themselves, who want to (need to?) demonstrate educational leadership. This prompt invites us to be curious and creative, instead of trying to jam teaching and learning into the same research methods that we’re familiar with from disciplinary research.

Open Classroom pop-up thank-you card

Every Fall, I follow along as Derek Bruff @derekbruff tweets out inspiring stories from the open classroom event his Center for Teaching runs at Vanderbilt. Course instructors from across campus volunteer to open their classrooms and welcome their peers to come observe. While we may have 25, 60, 300, or more students in our classrooms, it’s rare to have a colleague, and open classroom events provide an opportunity for all the educators in the room – the ones at the front and the ones at the back – to share some formative feedback.

We hosted our first Open Classroom Week at UBC Okanagan October 1-5, 2018. Twelve course instructors from across the campus, across disciplines, and from 1st-year to 4th-year invited their peers into their classrooms.

Opening your classroom to your colleagues takes courage and confidence and demonstrates educational leadership. So, I wanted to thank those twelve course instructors. Sure, I could send SW-S, RT, RP, WSM, CL, RF, GD, TE, TF, NL, CS, and AK a letter (or a letter to their Department Heads) on Centre letterhead, formally thanking them for participating in the event. But I wanted something they could put on the shelf in their office so remind them, and any visitors, that they did something valuable. Combine that with my obsessi–, er, interest in pop-up cards and you get this:

The pop-up thank-you card I made for the UBC Okanagan course instructors who opened their classrooms and welcomed their peers and colleagues to come and observe. A template and instructions available below so you can make your own.
The pop-up thank-you card I made for the UBC Okanagan course instructors who opened their classrooms and welcomed their peers and colleagues to come and observe. A template and instructions available below so you can make your own. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Do it yourself

Want to make one for your Center? Here’s the PPT file I used to create the card, plus a set of directions for editing the text, printing the card, and making it. I think the instructions are clear but by the time I wrote them, I’d already made 5 prototypes and then the dozen cards I gave to my UBC Okanagan colleagues so I could pretty well do it in my sleep. If you get stuck, feel free to tweet me at @polarisdotca. And then send me a picture of your finished card (and permission to share it)!