Tag: teaching

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.

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.

    Ahem…

    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.

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