Tag: active learning

My first conference

No, no, not the first conference I attended. The first conference I’ve organized. I’m really enjoying the opportunity (try to) do all the things I’ve said about conferences that started with, “If this was my conference, I’d…”

Engaging Every Learner

That’s the theme for the 2017 UBC Okanagan Learning Conference, May 3-4, 2017. To quote the conference website (which I can cuz I wrote it):

The 13th annual learning conference explores how we can design, assess, and facilitate learning that engages every learner, allowing each student to build their own knowledge and contribute their own strengths to their learning and the learning of their classmates and instructors.

Here are some of the features and events I’ve decided on, very often with input from my more experienced colleagues:

Theme: Engaging Every Learner
The conference theme has been cycling through pedagogy, student experience, and education research. It was time for a pedagogy theme again so I picked something I think will have lots of entry points: the whole backward design process, diversity of students, critical pedagogy, #edtech. I’m still wondering if this theme is too wide? too narrow? Will people have things to propose for sessions? Is it interesting enough that people will attend? All the questions. We’ll see in 3 months, I guess.
Names and name tags
I’m ensuring name fields on the proposal form and registration form that ask people how they want their name to appear in the program and on their name tag. Which can be different than the name on the paper or poster. And I’m giving people space to write special instructions about their names in case there are accents or special characters that a typical web browser form doesn’t recognize. (Thanks, Aimée Morrison @digiwonk for telling me how much she hates having to draw in the accent on her name tag. Every. Single. Time.)

Yes, this means there may be name tags that have to be created “by hand” rather than pouring the registration database into the labeling program. That will take time for my organizing committee colleagues. But how can I advocate for engaging every learner if I can’t afford the effort to get each conference attendee’s name correct?

Twitter handles on name tags
I’m tired of writing my twitter handle @polarisdotca and crappily drawing a Twitter bird on my name tag. Every. Single. Time. So the registration form asks people to give their Twitter handle if they want it to appear on their name tag. Yes, it means creating some name tags with the Twitter stuff and some without. Again, how can I not ensure each learner is welcome and supported?
Keynote speaker: Sarah Eddy
Dr. Sarah L. Eddy, Florida International University

The landmark 2014 active learning meta-analysis by Freeman et al. provides, once and for all, the evidence that effective active learning helps students learn. (Aatish Bhatia wrote an excellent summary.) I know the analysis comes from the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines because that’s where the data exist, not because that’s the only place active learning exists successfully. Sarah is one of the “et al.” on the Freeman paper and her “Getting under the hood” paper with Kelly Hogan is one of my favorites. Their paper shows that the structure instructors provide, in the design and delivery of the course, is critical. It’s not about content knowledge (“chemistry”). It’s not even about pedagogical content knowledge (“how people learn chemistry”). It’s about teaching and learning. And that’s why I’m so thrilled Sarah agreed to give the conference keynote, “End of Lecture?  Active learning increases student achievement.” Yeah, and I got to ask her!

Minimize TTWWADIs
This is the 13th annual conference and my colleagues here at UBCO have running this conference down to a fine art. Need this done? Here. Need that done? Yep, no problem. It’s so smooth, sometimes people don’t notice what just happened. I’ve got fresh eyes, though, and I’m forcing myself (and my patient and generous colleagues) to critique “That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It.” I’m looking forward to sharing some new practices and events with the campus and conference attendees. Like

  • a Programming Committee to review and select proposals
  • a poster session
  • wine and cheese reception at the end of the first day, in the same time and place as the poster session
  • charging a conference fee
  • conference hashtag #everylearner17
Students and the Conference Registration Fee
I was having trouble thinking something through so, like I often do, I turned to my personal learning network on Twitter:

So many helpful responses:

Stay tuned: I’ll fill in what I chose to do…

I hope this list will grow over the next 3 months as I encounter more things that matter to me and make the choices and decisions entrusted to me.

Got any tips and things to watch out for? Comment away!

Working with a diverse group? Try a card sort.

Education technology? Yep.
Education technology? Yep.

I went to a day-long retreat where the participants, about 20 of us, were deliberately selected to represent a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise – all the stakeholders in big project. The retreat organizer suggested each person prepare a 5-10 minute presentation about what they’ll bring to the project and what they’re hoping to get out of it. I was there to represent the teaching and learning support my center provides to instructors.

I had nightmar—, uh, visions of participant after participant clicking through PPT after PPT. The educator in me didn’t want that to happen so I decided to do something active to give my colleagues a better understanding of what I do. They would experience it rather than listen to me describe it. You know, active learning.

(For the record, PPT after PPT was NOT what happened. People talked and distributed some hand-outs. Better that I was prepared, though.)

That’s when I remembered a really interesting and engaging activity I did during a workshop from Kimberly Tanner: card sorting. The idea is, you give each group of 2-4 participants a short stack of cards. Not playing cards but, for example, 9 index cards, one item on each card. In Kimberly’s workshop, the cards were 9 different superheroes. You ask the groups to sort the cards into categories — any categories they want — with just a couple of rules: there has to be at least 2 categories; there can’t be 9 categories (ie, you can’t put each card in its own category.) Well, there are more rules but that’s all I needed for my version.

Then something interesting happens. You’ve carefully chosen the cards so that the items have both surface features (these are superheroes with primarily green costumes, these are mostly blue, these mostly red) and deep features (these are Marvel superheroes, these are DC.) How people sort the cards reveals their level of familiarity and expertise with the content, and gives each participant ample opportunity to share that knowledge with their group-mates.

Back to my card sorting task: I made 9 cards, each one giving the name of a course, the course description, and the format of the course meetings (lectures, labs, discussions, seminars, online, etc.) Thanks, btw, to my colleague Dominique Turnbow for the great advice about what to put on the cards.

So, 9 courses. Please sort them into more than 2 but less than 9 categories:

Participants sorted these 9 cards into categories. Each card describes a different course. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Participants sorted these 9 cards into categories. Each card describes a different course. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

There were lots of surface features that could be used:

  • STEM vs Social/Behavioral/Economic Sciences vs Arts & Humanities
  • those with discussion sections vs those with labs
  • which UC San Diego Division they fit in: Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities, Medicine, etc.
  • (I forgot to put class size on the cards – d’oh! – but that would be another way to sort them: small, medium, large, ridiculous enrolment)

I was expecting some of those “surface” sorts but my colleagues blew through those surface features and quickly re-sorted based on deeper features. Honestly, the categories they invented and the categories I made up ahead of time (in case they needed an example) are mixed up in my memory but here are some deeper features (analogous to “color of superhero costume” and “superhero publisher”)

  • technology enhanced
  • amount of active learning in typical classes
  • computationally-focused
  • amount of  close reading required
  • use statistics
  • amount of writing required


We took 5-10 minutes to sort and then another 10 minutes to report out. Sure, I went over my 10-minute slot but the schedule was very flexible (by design).

I think the activity went great. It gave participants, many of whom were strangers to each other, an opportunity to share their backgrounds and expertise with each other. It revealed the breadth of knowledge in the room. And it gave everyone involved a reminder to look past the surface features of our meeting and project – who will be responsible for this or that, how many offices will be required, what budget will this come from – and look at the big picture: supporting learning.

Details about implementation

(These details are mostly for me so I’ll remember what to do next time. If you’re thinking about running a card-sorting activity, you might find them helpful, too.)

  • I started with a spreadsheet to help me select sufficient courses that covered the surface and deeper features I wanted. I printed it out and had it with me during the activity so I could remember why I’d included the courses and what I anticipated as surface / deeper features.
  • I wrote the course descriptions in Word as 2″ x 4″ labels, printed the labels, and stuck them to index cards. This made it easy to create as many stacks as I needed:
I made 8 sets of cards. What do you notice about the stacks? (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)
I made 8 sets of cards. What do you notice about the stacks? (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)
  •  What do you notice about the stacks? Right, the missing corners. Each stack has a different missing corner so I can easily reset the cards into stacks. Can you imagine the tedious task of sorting 8 x 9 = 72 virtually identical cards into stacks? No, thank-you!
  • There were 2 main camps of people at the retreat, plus a number of important “third parties.” As I began the activity, I formed groups of 2-3 with at least one person from each camp.
  • I used some old fridge magnets to make 9 magnets, one for each course. When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see:
When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)
When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)