Tag: learning styles

Centers for Teaching professional development

My Centre for Teaching and Learning at UBC Okanagan “supports and promotes teaching and learning excellence, innovation and scholarship.” Many of our programs are offered as a form of professional development for course instructors.

Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in Science of Learning by Deans for Impact (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

After some conversations with senior people here in my Centre – thanks JP and JH – I’ve realized my Centre staff should have professional development opportunities, too. We fill a special niche: providing teaching and learning support to course instructors (which is one step removed from providing teaching and learning support to students) and we should continue to learn how to do it well. So, I added a second hour to our monthly team meetings: a “lunch-n-learn” for my Centre staff.

This month’s session went really well and I want to share it with the Center for Teaching community in case you’re looking for ideas.

I asked everyone to read The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. It’s a great report that presents 6 key questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

The report answers those questions based on current research and provides practical implications, that is, how it can be used in the classroom. The document is well researched and referenced, providing a rich source of the evidence in “evidence-based teaching.”

Two of the activities I facilitated with my team worked really well and led to very rich discussions:

Dig into the misconceptions

The last key question in the report lists common misconceptions about how student think and learn:

  • Students do not have different “learning styles.”
  • Humans do not use only 10% of their brains.
  • People are not preferentially “right-brained” or “left-brained” in the use of their brains.
  • Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.
  • Cognitive development does not progress via a fixed progression of age-related stages.

Here’s the thing: it’s not clear from the report if these are the misconceptions or these are statements that debunk the misconceptions. (It’s the latter, it turns out – correct, students do not have different learning styles.) So I asked my colleagues to

  1. identify and explain the misconception that the statement debunks, and
  2. talk about the risks of an instructor basing decisions on the misconception

This was good because we clarified the misconceptions about the misconceptions. We had a long conversation about the statement, “Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.” The discussion about risk was important, too, because it gave my colleagues ammunition for the conversation with course instructors about why they need to update their conceptions.

Course instructors are our students

After we’d looked over the six key questions and what course instructors can do in their classrooms to help their students learn, I asked everyone to take one step “up” and reconsider the questions, solutions, and implication in OUR niche where course instructors are our students.

For example, when we want to teach them about a new concept, like peer instruction with clickers, we need to remember course instructors, “learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know.” In other words, our clients are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled with our teaching and learning knowledge. And if we teach them by simply dumping knowledge at them, they will not learn it.

It is really interesting and challenging to reconsider each key question and solution and to imagine the implications for how we need to support our course instructors.

If you try one of these activities in your Center, I hope you’ll come back and leave a comment about how it went, so the next Center director can benefit from all our experiences.

Preparing for your Teaching Demo

Academic jobs are scarce. Candidates who make the short-list and get an in-person interview have a lot to prepare. You travel to the place, go to a lot of meetings with Department Heads, Deans, the Search Committee, have any number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, give a research talk if you’re looking for a position with a research component, and do a “teaching demo.”

Someone I’ve been helping just landed an awesome, tenure-track teaching position. Before their interview, I shared this long list of advice on the teaching demo. I’m not suggesting causation or anything – this person is super talented – but apparently this advice didn’t hurt.

So, if you’re interviewing for a post-secondary, academic position with a teaching demo, here are some things to think about.

Do the background reading…

Higher ed is shifting (thankfully) towards evidence-based instructional strategies. You need to be familiar with the Freeman et al. Active Learning study (item #6 here. Also read the summary by Aatish Bhatia and the commentary by Carl Wieman.) Sure, it’s STEM but it easily applies to Social Sciences and the Humanities. While you’re there, you might look at #5 (Wieman) and check if there’s anything applicable in #4 (DBER)

I also recommend

  • Deans for Impact document “The Science of Learning
  • this amazing article, “Getting under the hood” by Sarah Eddy and Kelly Hogan about the importance of the instructor providing structure in the classroom
  • Review the institution’s statements about equity, diversity and inclusion. If you use their language and phrases, it’ll show you did your homework and you genuinely care about these things.
  • Just in case you’re tempted to talk about learning styles, read this letter debunking the myth of learning styles (and be prepared to debunk learning styles if someone asks). To me, and many of my colleagues in Centres for Teaching and Learning, the presence of “learning styles” in a candidate’s presentation or application is a litmus test – if they describe how they tailor their instruction to students’ learning styles, that’s not a good thing. Seriously, don’t do that – it could cost you the job. What you can say, by the way, when someone asks about learning styles is something like,

    it’s true that students feel they learn best by reading or drawing or listening or hands-on, etc. They have preferences. The theory of “Learning styles” – that if an instructor knows a student’s style, they can personalize the instruction for that student – has been debunked. Incorporating learning styles can be harmful because if an instructor uses them, they give a student an easy excuse: “Oh, I’m a visual learner and the instructor only did auditory. Not my fault I failed that test…” What we DO know is people learn from seeing the same concept in more than one context: if you have an important concept, teach it visually and talk about it and give students hands-on practice and…

Teaching demo

2016 Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute
It’s not but this sure looks like a teaching demo. (Image: Berkeley Center for New Media. Shared on flickr CC-BY-SA)

Very likely you’ll have to teach a demo lesson. Might be 20 min, might be longer. They might give you a topic, or ask you to pick.

Some things I’ve seen in successful ones (and things that would’ve helped in unsuccessful ones):

  • Ask the interview organizer about the audience of the course – what students would take this course. Even better, find out what course your topic would be part of, research the prerequisites, and find any learning outcomes from other instructors at that institution. Imagine if you could introduce your demo with, “I’ll be talking about A, B, C, something I believe students typically cover in ANTH 102 [that’s the interviewing institution’s course code] so I’m going to assume they’ve all passed ANTH 101.” Everyone talks in course codes, not course names, so use the familiar language.
  • Ask about the audience at the interview – like how many people to expect, if they’re real students or faculty asked to observe. Whatever they are, though, you have to teach to them like they’re the students who’d take the course you’re teaching.
  • You need to role play, and you should ask them to play along. You’re the prof, they’re your students – ask them to think like typical students who’d take that course.
  • Take a minute or two at the beginning of the demo to set the stage. Talk to the interview audience as colleagues:

    Let me set the context for this lesson. This is the 4th class of the term. We’ve already covered A, B, C. Next week we’ll be moving onto G, H, J so today’s class is about D, E, F. If you were in this course, last night you would have read about d, e, f and answered some questions. I know you here today didn’t but I’m going to assume you all know the definitions of this, that, and the other thing and also that know the widget procedure described in the reading. Okay, now, on with today’s class.


    Great to see you all again, everyone. I hope you had a chance to do the readings – we’re going to rely on that today. Recall…

  • Even though you won’t get to it all, carefully design the entire lesson. Write learning outcomes, select background readings, write the reading quiz, make up in-class, homework, and exam questions, choose active learning strategies that support the learning outcomes. Create PPT slides with the content (notice how that’s the last thing!) You might make some copies of the pre-readings (select pages from the text or primary literature) and the reading quiz (if you use a flipped model, which I highly recommend!). Give them to the people on the committee (not the entire audience, unless you want to make a lot of copies). Have the homework and exam questions “in your back pocket” (ie, in the extra slides at the end of your presentation) for when someone asks, “how would you assess this on the exam?” They might not ask that, but if they do, and you’ve got it, awesome!
  • Make sure the activities are active, and then get your audience to DO the activity like an authentic class. If you want to use clickers, arrange that with the interview organizer. If you’d like whiteboards, arrange it. Bring the worksheets or index cards or anything you need.
  • Okay, it has to be active but not Every Active Learning Strategy Ever. Pick one or two active things you’re comfortable with and do that. Not clickers and whiteboards and worksheets and keep-quit-start cards and a jigsaw and and and. That’s not realistic or authentic. (By the way, if you want to use peer instruction, you might want to review my peer instruction recommendations (humble brag))
  • It’s totally okay (maybe even necessary) that for some of your time, the audience is working on something. That’s active learning. That’s teaching. That’s what they want to see. But be careful not to overdo the active learning – the committee needs to see you perform and share your expertise about the content and how people learn the content.
  • Stick to the time allotted. If they give you 20 minutes, use  20 minutes. Not 15. Not 25. Don’t try to stuff a 50-minute lesson into 20 minutes, though. When you’re near the end of the allotted time, stop at a natural break, and break out of the teacher-student role playing.

    That’s what we’d do in the first 20 minutes or so. In a real class, we’d continue on with a second example of E, I’d give a mini-lecture on concept F and we’d finish with G.

    The people in the audience who know the content will totally understand why you stopped where you did and why F and G are the next logical parts of the lesson. The people who don’t know the content will appreciate you sticking to the schedule and your awareness of the situation.

  • Find out where you’ll be presenting and check out the room ahead of time. They’ll very likely build time into your interview schedule to prep for your demo. Do everything – connect your laptop, figure out how to get your stuff on the screen, get the audio working if you’re showing a video (and queue the YouTube video so you don’t have to watch the ad at the beginning), figure out the lights, window blinds, try the clicker, find the wall clock or get your phone clock running.
  • Don’t use technology you’re not familiar with, like if you’ve never used polleverywhere before, this is not the moment to figure it out. Don’t let a trivial technical problem wreck your presentation.
  • If the furniture is flexible, arrange the tables and chair into reasonable, feasible configurations. If the course you’re demo’ing is the one with 400 students, don’t plan your lesson for people in groups of 4 around separate tables – that’s not how the course is taught at this university. If your demo demands a very special classroom configuration and they don’t have that at the institution, you might be hurting your chances. Here’s an idea, poke around on the institution’s website and see what kinds of classrooms they have (for your course) and mimic that.
  • Don’t be afraid or embarrassed about getting fully into the role-playing. For the next 20 minutes, you’re the prof and they’re your students. Own it. No one is going to complain that you taught too hard. But if you only half-teach, awkwardly flipping between researcher settling on a teaching job, instructor, colleague, peer, recent graduate,… that’ll show, and not in a good way.

Post-demo questions

Be prepared for two rounds of questions, one immediately after you finish your demo and another later with the “teaching committee” (likely a group of teaching-focused instructors and someone from the institution’s Teaching and Learning Centre). And maybe a third round of questions if you have dinner later with the host and a select group.

Immediately after the demo, you’re not likely to get questions about the content from faculty members in the audience (“Can you explain the difference between meiosis and mitosis, again?”) That would take an audience member role playing as a student and if they’re not, they won’t (unless Dr. Smith is being an a**hole, as usual, and then you let the audience sigh, and you answer him as if he’s a student.) You should expect some questions about the design and delivery of the lesson.

  • “How do ensure students will come to class prepared?”
  • “Can you tell me why you chose to use [technology] in this situation?”
  • “What were your learning outcomes for this lesson?”
  • “How would you assess this?”
  • “How have you addressed [the common misconception]?” (This might be from someone familiar with the discipline-based education research, testing to see if you’ve done your homework.)
  • “I think I caught it but just in case, how did you address the diversity of the students you could expect here at Institution?”
  • “What’s your approach to students on their phones and laptops, Twitterbooking and chatsnapping all the whole time?”

For these questions, and others you hope (that is, anticipate) they’ll ask you, prepare some slides for the end of your presentation. When they ask about assessment, flip to the slide with the homework and exam questions. When they ask why you chose active learning, flip to the slide with the graphs from Freeman et al., Eddy & Hogan, Wieman. SHOW THEM YOU DID YOUR HOMEWORK.

This is a lot of work

Yes. It is. Just like the hard work you put into your CV, cover letter, and research talk.

My point is this: don’t give the Search Committee any reason to reject you. Instead, give them every reason to hire you.