Category: UCSD

Learning Outcomes, Instruction, Assessment: Check, check, check

I’ve spent time in that circle of Hell called “marking” (or “grading” as they call it here in the U.S.) My past is filled with stacks of math exams full of multi-step problems and  astronomy exams with essays about the nature of science. The only respite from the drudgery of marking are the answers so absurdly incorrect it makes you laugh or the answers that are exactly what you’re looking for – check, check, check-check, check, check, perfect! 10/10.

Happily, I don’t have to mark exams anymore, but I still have an chance to get the tiny squirt of adrenaline that comes from assessing those “exactly what you’re looking for” answers.

I teach a teaching and learning course in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD called The College Classroom to graduate students and postdocs. Their last assignment is a “microteaching experience.” Traditionally,  this involves developing a lesson for a class they might teach someday, delivering that lesson to their fellow students and then getting feedback from their peers and instructors. That’s is a good way to assess the ability to lecture, maybe even the ability to orchestrate some active learning into the lecture, but that’s still only one part of “teaching.” What about all the things that happen before class and after class?

Instead, we ask the students to create lesson plan for a 50- or 80-minute class. It should contain

  • learning outcomes
  • pre-class tasks like readings, watching videos, exploring websites with clear guidance about what to focus on
  • pre-reading quiz to assess the pre-class tasks
  • a skeleton of the lesson, including 3-5 peer instruction (“clicker”) questions but excluding the PowerPoint slides with all content – I don’t want them wasting their time making pretty slides they may never use
  • several assessment questions that could appear in homework or on the exam

For their presentation, we meet in small groups — me, the TA, and 3 of them — and I ask them to pretend they’re sitting in the coffee room with a few of their colleagues, describing this awesome lesson they’ve planned. They’ve got less than 10 minutes and they should assume everyone present knows the content and can concentrate on the pedagogy. (“In other words, don’t teach us the chemistry. Assume we know it. Tell us how you’ll teach it and why that’s a good approach.”)

When I assign the microteaching task a few weeks before the end of the course, I give them a lesson plan rubric (PDF). It’s using this rubric to assess their presentations that I get those “check, check, check-check, check” moments of satisfaction.

As an alumni of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, I adhere to Carl’s 3-pillared model of course design:

The CWSEI's 3-pillared approach to course design. (Image adapted from CWSEI by Peter Newbury CC-BY-NC)
The CWSEI’s 3-pillared approach to course design. (Image adapted from CWSEI by Peter Newbury CC-BY-NC)

Step 1.  Set the learning outcomes What should students learn? What should they be able to do to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the concepts and skills? These outcomes are statements that complete the sentence, “By the end of this lesson/unit, you’ll  be able to…” and start with a nice, juicy verb selected from Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain.

Step 2. Decide how you’re going to teach What instructional approaches help students learn? What does the literature tell you about how people learn those skills and concepts? I’m a strong supporter of lecture…in 10-15 minute snippets, when the students are prepared to learn because you’ve primed them through student-centered activities like peer instruction, in-class worksheets and demonstrations, or pre-reading.

Step 3. Assessment What are students learning? Create formative and summative assessments that evaluate students’ mastery of the learning outcomes.

Two important things to notice about this approach:

  1. When it works, it works great. Here’s what I wanted students to know, here’s how I taught it, here’s what they did on the exam. Check, check, check.
  2. When it doesn’t work, it still works great. If students don’t perform like you’d hoped, the pillars help you diagnose the “failure mode,” as my engineering friends would say. Maybe it was a bad exam question that didn’t assess what you wanted to teach. Maybe you didn’t teach it in a way that helped them learn. Maybe you set an unrealistic learning outcome. In other words, you can re-trace through the course design cycle to find out what went wrong.

The College Classroom Microteaching Presentations

When the participants in The College Classroom present their lesson plans, it’s great when I can identify this nice, tight package of learning outcomes, instruction and assessment – check, check, check! I make sure I tell them, hoping that positive feedback will motivate them to do it again. As with marking exams, it’s the incomplete lessons that are difficult to assess. Fortunately, 3-pillared approach together with the rubric makes it easier for me to give targeted, goal-directed formative feedback.


“Cognition” is another word for “thinking”. Metacognition, then, is thinking about your own thinking. Cynthia Brame at Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has this terrific quote by John Flavell in her post, Thinking About Metacognition:

I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B.   John Flavell (1976)

Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking.
Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking.

One of the key findings about how people learn is that we need to metacognitive about our learning. Indeed, one of the signs of expertise is an “internal dialogue” — a little voice in your head — that continually questions what you’re doing, how well you’re doing it, why you’re doing it.

If teaching is about making your students more like experts, metacognition should be important. It’s already challenging to draw out and build on student’s pre-existing knowledge and teach the multitude of facts and concepts AND the conceptual framework which link those facts together. (These are the other two Key Findings of How People Learn.) How do you teach students to be metacognitive? It’s not like there’s a switch you flick on (“Everyone, please think about your thinking. Thank-you.”) Like any skill you’re teaching, students need practice being metacognitive before they’re good at it.

My frustration with coming up with metacognition practice made me all the more amazed and pleased by the responses I got when I asked my students to write a blog post. The course I’m teaching, The College Classroom, is about teaching and learning in higher education. My students are advanced Ph.D. students and postdocs about to embark on academic careers. Prior to our class on deliberate practice, I asked them to write a blog post about a time when they’ve engaged in deliberate practice. Write they did, and over and over, their posts progressed from a description of what they did to how well they did it and why they did it. They wrote about time management, aiming high, running, running, learning Zapotec, driving, rodent neurosurgery, entrepreneurship, guitar, math, practice, teaching, coaching volleyball, learning English, piano, math, learning Italian, studying, soccer, tae kwon do, soccer, guitar, learning Spanish, soccer, regret, writing, macroeconomics, writing, piano, Scabble, improv, soccer, crafting conversations, and Vespas.

It’s metacognitive blogging
— meta-blog-nition —
pouring out onto the page!

The moral of the story: if you’re an instructor struggling to create opportunities for your students to practice being metacognitive, get them blogging. As an added bonus, their posts are a wealth of pre-existing knowledge and experiences you can build on. That’s a win for everyone.

What about you? When are you metacognitive? What do you do to get your students to think about their own thinking? Leave a comment to share it with the rest of us!

Preparing for 2 sections of the same class

More grad students and postdocs want to take the course we teach at UCSD about teaching and learning in higher education, The College Classroom, than we can accommodate. This Quarter, we accepted 40 participants. The class meets for one 90-minute class each week. Because of scheduling and the availability of classrooms, I’m teaching it in 2 sections, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday.

It’s the 3rd time I’ve taught the class so I’m more confident in the content and in how I present it to the class. I don’t get caught in metacognitive loops figuring out how to teach about teaching. As much. The little bit of cognitive load available has allowed me to more closely assess my teaching.

I noticed something around Week 4: I’m not happy with how things go on Tuesdays. I always feel better about my Thursday classes. Why is that, I wondered? Here’s what I think is going on:

I usually prepare the slides for the next class on the previous Friday or Monday. The slides are minor revisions to the ones I used last time so preparing for class is pretty easy. When I’ve made the revisions, I click through the slides to make sure they’re in the right order, any PPT animations are working, remind myself of how the student-centered activities will run, and so on.


And then I teach Tuesday’s class. I’m pretty careful about properly preparing for the activities – we use peer instruction with clickers, portable whiteboards, look at handouts and other things – so those activities usually go well. But there are times when I advance to a new slide and think to myself, what was this for again? That’s bad. And that’s when I’m not happy about how I taught the class.

Advance to Thursday. The class goes much better:

  • I’m better prepared: I know why each slide is in the deck
  • I can better anticipate how the students will react and build that into the lesson because I’ve seen how Tuesday’s students reacted.

How can I do that the first time, too?

The week after I recognized this pattern, I made a deliberate effort to spend some time  on Monday, working my way through that week’s slides. Really reading them and thinking about the content. And guess what? The Tuesday class was great!

Guess what else happened? I was so confident after Tuesday’s class, I breezed into Thursday’s class without reviewing the slides and sucked. In my opinion.

The moral of the story. I need to deliberately and carefully prepare for each and every class. I’m sorry, especially for the Tuesday students, that it took me this long to realize that.