Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 4: Organizing the Series

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. This post is about sparking and organizing the series in a Faculty, School, Department, or other Unit. I’ll refer to “Department” and “Department Head” here to keep it simpler.

One of the features of Foundations is collaborating with a “local champion” in the Department where the series might run. That person is key to making this series work.

In every series I’ve run, the local champion is someone I already know well. They’re the people who drop into the Centre to chat, attend teaching presentations and events, and are known beyond their unit for being excellent educators. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to work with Greg duManoir, Jackie Denison, Sajni Lacey, Ayman Elnaggar, and others.

I’ll spring Foundations on them during one of our frequent conversations, “Say, do you think your Department would be interested in a series of workshops about how to teach [your discipline]?” If they’re interested, we put together a flyer about the series that’s tailored from my generic doc.

The next step isn’t sending it out to the Department, it’s a conversation with the Department Head. Their endorsement of the series is vital because they’re the one who’s going to promote it in an email and in the next Faculty meeting. When the invitation to participate comes from them, it sends a message to course instructors, graduate students, and postdocs that this is a legitimate investment of their time. Participants are able to say to their colleagues, “Love to chat but I’m on my way to a Foundations workshop…” and “No, sorry, I can’t come to that meeting, I have a Foundations session.”

Having the Department Head on-board also opens up the possibility of using the time slot set aside for Department business. For example, suppose Department meetings are always on Mondays at 1:00 – 3:00 pm. The Department tries to not schedule classes at this time so everyone can attend the meeting. Except the Department meetings are only once per month, right? The other Monday’s that month are perfect for the Foundations series!

All that may change from one Term to the next, so I aim to run the entire 6-session series in one Term, usually every 2 weeks, starting in early October or early February. That is, a month into the Term when things are settled down but finishing before everyone is focused on finishing the term and the final exam.

If you’re really lucky, the room where the Department meetings are held might also be available, especially if it’s a meeting/conference room in the Department rather than a nearby classroom. The location of the meeting matters – busy, exhausted, or stressed course instructors might see the walk across campus in the rain or snow as reason they just can’t make it this week. A familiar room just down the hall – bring your coffee, no need to put on a jacket – is a better location.

With the time, dates, and location set and Department Head’s approval and promotion, the local champion starts recruiting and assembling their peers. By this time, I’ve set up a course in the LMS with me and the local champion as “instructors”. I add the participants as “students.” This might be the first time these course instructors have experienced the LMS from a student point-of-view (the built-in “student view” doesn’t always mimic the student experience).

And so the series begins. One week is the workshop,  the next week I meet with the local champion to design and prepare the following week’s topic.

When the series is over, there’s one last important task. For each participant, I send a letter to the Department Head, with a PDF and cc’d to the participant, with details about the series:

  • when it ran
  • how many hours the participant invested
  • what we discussed

The Department Head files it away. The participant adds it to their teaching dossier. They can bring it up during their annual review without fear of skepticism or having to justify the time they spent on teaching (and not their research). Graduate students and postdocs can use the letter as a record of their professional development.

I also write a special letter to the Department Head about the invaluable contributions of the local champion. This letter can serve as “evidence of impact beyond their classroom.”

The motivation for all the organization and overhead is to provide value for the participants’ precious time and attention. If I’m privileged to get 15 hours of their time, it’s my responsibility to make it worthwhile.

In the final part of this series, I’ll describe some of the programs and opportunities that were sparked by the Foundations series.

Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 3: Format of the Sessions

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. This post has more details about the format of the sessions. Spoiler: it’s all about modelling.

One of features of the Foundations series, recall, is being at times and in places that are convenient for the participants. This means running the series within one academic term, when course instructors’ schedules are consistent. The sessions typically run every second week, giving people time to prepare between sessions. In this post I’ll run through the typical structure and format around one of the biweekly, 90-minute sessions.

I always create a course in the LMS – I’ve used Canvas and D2L/Brightspace – to support the series. This give me a chance to demonstrate and model some of the features of the LMS that support students. The course has a main landing page with information about the series, kind of like the course syllabus page, and then pages or modules for each session.

Spoiler: Even more important as the content, I feel, is how I teach it. These precious face-to-face sessions are all about modelling. It might not look like it to the participants – in fact, the less obvious and more natural the better – but I’m working hard, pushing my teaching abilities to the max.

T – 1 week

I meet with my co-facilitator in the Department, School, or Faculty. We go over my “skeleton” presentation and find discipline-specific content, concepts, resources, etc. to plug into my presentation. We talk about the active learning components of the session to identify alternatives that are more familiar or relevant to the cohort. In my series with the UBC Okanagan Library, for example, we didn’t discuss peer instruction with clickers because the librarians “parachute” into courses to give 1-off lessons and they can’t rely on the students having clickers. Instead, we adapted my resources and discussed how to create good think-pair-share questions and effective choreography for running think-pair-share.

T – 1 week (after my meeting with my co-facilitator)

Following the flipped learning model, I post a new page for the session in the LMS. It contains

  • an overview of the topic
  • learning outcomes for the session
  • detailed guidance about preparing for the session, including links to readings, videos, or podcasts , instructions for what parts of the resources to read, pay extra attention to, or skip.
  • I do my best to follow the recommended practices for accessing these resources, like linking doi’s not PDFs and sometimes, deliberately choosing resources that are copyright protected and only available using institutional credentials – this is what the students will experience when their instructors link to journals that aren’t open access.
  • a “reading quiz” with questions about facts and concepts in the resource. I try to go beyond multiple-choice to demonstrate that the LMS has select-all-that-apply, short answer, ranking/sorting, upload,… question types
  • I like to include open ended questions in the reading quiz, like “What did you find most interesting [or confusing] about the reading?”
  • sometimes I use the Discussion board to draw out their knowledge and experiences related to the session. This might be asking them to share a resource or a describe scenario they’ve encountered. If I ask, it’s my challenge and responsibility to integrate those contributions into the session.

When the page or module is published, I send an announcement through the LMS to the “class”. The announcement usually looks something like this:

Hi everyone,

In Session 3, on Wednesday, October 28 at 11:00 am – 12:30 pm in Room B104, we’ll dig deeper in the evidence behind the benefits of effective active learning. My goal is that you’ll be familiar enough with a key 2014 paper (Freeman et al.) that you’ll be able to translate the results and inclusive teaching practices into your own discipline and your own courses.

Before our session, I’d like you to read a couple of short articles, listen to a podcast, and also share a story in a Discussion post. All the details, as usual, are in the Session 3 module [a direct link to the page  or module in the LMS]

See you next week,


T – 1 day

If I asked people to share resources or post to the Discussion board, I review their input, leave myself notes at the right points in my presentation at to invite participants to share their stories and resources, and update my resources. My active learning strategies often have handouts (worksheets, cards for sorting) and technologies (portable whiteboards, clickers,…) so I ensure everything is prepared.

T-30 minutes

We try to meet in the Department’s conference room rather than a classroom, so there’s usually plenty of time to get into the space early. My goal is to have everything ready so that as participants begin arriving, I can give them my full attention. I put up a slide to catch their fleeting attention and spark their curiosity, usually with the prompts, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Here are a few:

In Leo Lionni’s “Fish is Fish” (1970), Fish imagines a cow described by his friend, Frog. This leads to our discussion about drawing out and working with students’ pre-existing knowledge.
At the beginning of the session on learning outcomes, we notice the checklists and wonder why they’re useful.
Archery targets instantly tell you your level of mastery and how to improve. Perfect for a session on formative feedback!

T – 0 Launch

The sessions last 80 minutes. They follow a familiar lesson plan:

  • welcome
  • discuss Notice/Wonder and segue to the session topic
  • session outcomes (usually distinguishing concepts and skills)
  • mini-lecture (10-15 minutes)
  • one or more episodes of active learning, including peer instruction with clickers, group work on portable whiteboards, and jigsaw discussions
  • report out from group work
  • preview and reminder about next session

T + 80 minutes

Some participants have to get to the next meeting so I try very hard to finish on time. For anyone who stay later, I usually plan for another 15 – 30 minutes to follow up on the session, consult with them about they can integrate the series outcomes into their course, and talk about any other teaching and learning challenges they’re having.

T + 1 day

I return to the module created in the LMS to add resources from the session: PDFs of my slides and any handouts/worksheets, links to articles and other resources mentioned in the session, and session recordings when running the session online. The goal is to have everything about the session in one place in the LMS so that if a participant returns looking for something, they don’t have to search through multiple modules or folders.

If this looks like a typical flipped class, rather than a workshop, that’s exactly the point. I want my “students” to witness and experience all the components so they’ll be more successful when it’s their turn to design a course, a class, or even just a 15-minute lesson.

In the next post in this series, I’ll describe the discussions and planning that go into organizing a series in a Department, School, or Faculty.

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.