Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 1: Motivation

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 describe my unhappy experiences that sparked the idea for Foundations.

It’s a familiar story to anyone who works in a Center for Teaching and Learning. There’s a topic that course instructors want to know about like, say, learning outcomes. (Note: I use “course instructor” for the person doing the teaching,  whatever their rank or appointment.) CTL staff plan a workshop, promote it through all the usual university channels, book a room, maybe even arrange for catering. The workshop facilitator designs an interactive workshop and prepares the resources. When the day comes, they excitedly arrive at the room early, get the presentation set up, arrange the furniture, set out the whiteboards, dry erase markers, clickers, handouts…

(If you can’t tell, I’m writing about my own workshops. And you know what’s coming next, right?)

With the workshop about to begin, they throw open the doors, and jump back out of the way of…no one. Well, except for those two engaged course instructors who attend every workshop, frequently drop into the CTL to chat, and honestly, could probably be facilitating the workshop, themselves.

What went wrong?

The “you can lead a horse to water…” explanation is too simple. Plus, it blames the audience for not coming. After years – yes, years – of facilitating low-attendance workshops, being one of those few participants, and connecting with course instructors, Department Heads, Directors, and Deans, here are some of the reasons why I think course instructors are choosing not to attend:

  1. Generic content: Maybe you’ve witnessed this: the facilitator gives an example of a learning outcome from a History course and the physicist in the room rolls their eyes. And vice versa. For the next workshop, the CTL facilitator anticipates there will be participants from different Departments and Faculties and prepares examples that are sufficiently generic that no one feels excluded, ignored, or unserved. In finding examples that are not meaningless to someone, the examples can be meaningless to everyone. Course instructors come to workshops looking for value, which often means something they can easily adapt and integrate into their own courses. Just as with our students, “far transfer” from generic concepts into the context of their discipline and course is difficult.
  2. Time and place: workshops are often scheduled for a time, and especially place, that’s convenient for the CTL facilitators. If a course instructor isn’t sure if they’re going to attend the workshop, the added inconvenience of having to walk all the way across campus could be what convinces them to skip the workshop.
  3. Who cares: For course instructors, recognition of effort in their annual review, tenure and promotion file, or job applications is important. One more bullet in their CV, “● attended CTL workshop on learning outcomes,” doesn’t draw much attention.

This comes down to value: busy course instructors carefully allocate their time and energy. They spend those resources where the investment pays off.

Key features of Foundations

Here’s the idea behind Foundations: I collaborate with a “local champion” to facilitate a series of six, 90-minute workshops to a cohort of educators from a specific Unit – the Department, School, or Faculty where the discipline lives.

These are features of the series to make it as valuable as possible and to reduce reasons for people not coming:

  1. The topics give people what they’re expecting, a foundation in teaching and learning:
    1. How People Learn: Key findings about how people learn and how instructors can use those findings in the design and delivery of their sessions.
    2. Creating Supportive, Inclusive Learning Environments: Students will not succeed if they don’t feel welcomed and safe. Creating and maintaining that classroom environment requires thoughtful, deliberate, and on-going attention.
    3. Learning Outcomes: The first step to designing and teaching a concept, a lesson, or an entire course is determining the learning outcomes: what must a student be able to do to demonstrate they understand?
    4. Assessment for Learning: It’s one thing to teach a lesson; it’s another thing entirely whether or not students learned it. We’ll explore formative assessments.
    5. Instructional Strategies: There are times when a short lecture is the right tool to share your expertise and model expert-like habits of thinking. The evidence is clear, though, that more of your students will achieve higher levels of success in classes with effective, active learning.
    6. The topic for the last session will be chosen by the cohort. This session could be specific to teaching in the Unit (e.g. group work, small and large classrooms, assessment, active learning, technology etc.) or being a successful educator (education research, teaching philosophies, etc.)
  2. The content is discipline-specific because I work with the local champion to include learning outcomes, assessments, activities, habits of thinking, expert-like skills, demonstrations/artifacts, common misconceptions and difficulties, relevant educational research, and more that are specific to the discipline. This makes the support and resources immediately relevant to the participants. I’ll share more about the “local champion” in the post about process and give examples of tailoring the content to the discipline in the post on the workshop content.
  3. The local champion also give me, and the series, credibility with their colleagues. This isn’t someone from the CTL parachuting in to tell them how to teach. Instead, it’s one of them working with the CTL to provide professional development and to ensure the content stays relevant.
  4. The 6 sessions run every 2 weeks so the entire series occurs during one academic term (when course instructors have a mostly predictable schedule) while giving people enough time to prepare between sessions. The sessions occur at a time that works for the participants (sometimes a Unit has a half day set aside each week for unit meetings, for example) and in a location that’s convenient for them (the local conference room or a classroom in their building, for example.)
  5. The cohort remains when series is over, creating a learning community led by the local champion that’s immediately available in the hallway, in the mailroom, or before and after a meeting to share teaching and learning challenges and successes.
  6. The series is supported by a shell in the LMS that remains open after the series ends, so that all materials are available to the participants. I typically share everything under a Creative Commons CC-BY license which forces me to find copyright free resources.
  7. The CTL provides any documentation, recognition, or acknowledgement the participants need to describe this professional development. Each participants lets me what will be most useful to them.

In Part 2, I’ll give examples of customizing the content to specific units.

Group work in online, synchronous classes

Freeman et al. (2014) remind us

Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussions in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.

Those times in our in-person classes when we stop talking and let the students work together on something – those are some of the most rewarding moments. We get to walk around the room, connect up close with our students, show them we’re human and that they’re more than a student number. If the activity is a good one, the room is loud, students are practicing expert-like ways of thinking and talking, and they’re learning. On their own. Without you.

(Well, don’t underestimate the amount of work you’ve already done assembling materials for the group work, preparing students to work effectively without you, and creating a classroom culture where they know this activity is valuable enough to give it their attention.)

How can we recreate this in synchronous, online classes?

Following the example of some all-star colleagues like Bridgette Clarkston @funnyfishes, I’ve been facilitating group work in a course I’m teaching using the meeting software (Collaborate Ultra) and Google Slides. I’ve tried this 3 or 4 times with my small group of students and honestly, I’m pretty happy with it!

If you have suggestions and feedback, I’d love to hear it!

Updated Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Greg duManoir @gdumanoir, for pointing out that teaching assistants can also circulate through the breakout rooms and Google Sheets, providing another opportunity for students to connect with the teaching team.

Update Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Steve McNeil @wsmcneil, for a variation using Google Docs. Steve creates student groups in the LMS. When it’s time for the activity, students in Group 7 go into Breakout Room 7, and respond to Question 7 in the shared Google Doc.

A peer evaluation scheme using “salaries”

When students work in groups on bigger assessments like projects, papers, posters, and presentations, instructors often include peer evaluation in the assessment of the project. That is, they ask students to assess each other’s contributions to the project, and those assessments are part of the final grade the students receive.

I learned about a peer assessment scheme from my friend Rique Campa at Michigan State University where students pay each other “salaries” for their work, and their grade for the project depends on the total salary they “earn”.

Here’s a graphic I made to explain how it works:

After I posted a draft version on Twitter, I had some great conversations with @ProfTucker @JeanMaines @drlestj @chemnet_au @jgustar @charlesmenzies @sgraingerPhD @mspencer09 @TeachingBehind1 @usankar2 @epm_morris @DrPatMaher @meganbarkerase @EWhitteck @bhundey @DocRobinYoung Thank-you, all, for the conversations, feedback, and ideas. It led to some revisions:

    • Do students include themselves in the assessment? That is, do they pay themself any of the $100? I think it’s a good idea since it prompts them to reflect on their own contributions and metacognition is always a win. Plus, it gives the course instructor another way to check for suspicious evaluations, like if Jamal, Jennifer, and Jing all pay only $10 to Juan but Juan pays himself $90. Something doesn’t sync there.
    • Instructors (and students) may be nervous about letting students determine the grades on a big project that could determine the success of the students in the course. That’s why I recommend the peer evaluation scheme should be just one component of the project grade. As suggested in the footnote in the graphic, the course instructor could assess the group’s
      • draft (20%)
      • group presentation or poster (20%)
      • over all assessment (50%)

      Each member of the group would receive the same mark on this first 90%. The peer assessment scheme could be used to determine the last 10% of the final grade.

    • A few of the conversations were about the, er, icky feeling of using money to assess each other. I think this salaries scheme needs to fit into the context of the course. In Rique Campa’s courses, the students in Fisheries and Wildlife were looking ahead to careers as consultants in engineering and environment management firms and in the government. They were familiar with projects, bids, budgets, invoices, and so on. For them, salaries were familiar. I’d hesitate to use this scheme in a course that has no connection with money.

By the way, I’m pretty happy with the graphic. It’s a PowerPoint slide with a table surrounded top and bottom by text boxes. I really like the set of free avatars by Hopnguyen Mr on iconfinder (I made a few slight modifications to make them a bit more diverse.)