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Taking audiences’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds into consideration when communicating at mcgill

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 03/23/2017 - 15:04

A recent publication entitled Twelve tips for promoting learning during presentations in cross cultural settings provides “tips for educators to consider when planning and delivering formal presentations (e.g. lectures and workshops) in cross cultural settings” (Saiki, Snell, & Bhanji, 2017, p. 1). I’d like to highlight the relevance of these tips to communication at McGill—through classroom instruction, meeting presentations, Town Hall talks, etc.—in light of the cultural and linguistic diversity at this institution.

By Hans Gerhard Meier (The Noun Project) [CC BY 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

International Student Services (ISS) report that McGill’s 2016-2017 student population comes from 147 different countries. Enrolment Services (ES) reports that as at Fall 2016, 53.9% of students reported a mother tongue other than English. These data suggest that there is cultural and linguistic diversity among students on campus.

This diversity extends to faculty members. For my doctoral research, which addresses, university instructors’ perceptions of their ability to teach in their second or other language (Samuel, 2017), I contacted McGill’s Academic Personnel Office (APO) in 2013 to find out what McGill faculty members’ first languages are. I learned that McGill does not collect such data; however, other relevant data are collected by the APO and the following information was provided to me:

  • Faculty members’ country of birth: 76 distinct countries including Canada
  • Citizenship at hire: 43 unique citizenships including Canada, excluding dual citizenships
  • Recruitment country: 30 distinct countries including Canada
  • Countries where the recruited did their PhDs: 26 distinct countries including Canada

While McGill does not collect data on faculty members’ first languages, the federal government does. (Well, it used to. The Canadian government has actually ceased to systematically collect this information.) Per 2006 national data, 44% of university teachers reported mother tongues other than English, and nearly 25% of university teachers reported a mother tongue other than English or French (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2012-2013, p. 35). These national data (which likely still apply and perhaps in even greater numbers), along with the McGill-specific data from the ISS, ES and the APO, strongly support the existence of a diversity of cultural and linguistic backgrounds at McGill. The Twelve tips for promoting learning during presentations in cross cultural settings are, therefore, a worthwhile read for McGill community members.


Canadian Association of University Teachers. (2013-2014). CAUT Almanac of post-secondary education in Canada. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://www.caut.ca/docs/default-source/almanac/almanac_2013-2014_print_finalE20A5E5CA0EA6529968D1CAF.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Saiki, T., Snell, L., & Bhanji, F. (2017). Twelve tips for promoting learning during presentations in cross cultural settings. Medical Teacher, 1-5. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0142159X.2017.1288860

Samuel, C. (2017). University instructors’ perceptions of their ability to teach in their second or other language: An exploratory study. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation.) McGill University, Montreal, QC.

Publishing’s Wild West Watchdog

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 12:33

When we hear academic integrity, we often think about the student code of conduct which contains policies on plagiarism and cheating. These polices provide explicit boundaries to help guide students towards learning ethical behaviour practises. The polices also empower instructors with clear definitions to help them teach students the nuances of academic writing, research, and ethical work. However, when students cross the boundaries, these policies become the foundation of disciplinary action. But what about professors and researchers? Their research and publishing is not always confined to an institution and is more commonly found in the global ether of academic publishing where journals and publishers set the boundaries. Who monitors their publishing and research and what happens when they cross the line? Enter Dr. Ivan Oranksy, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today and co-founder of Retraction Watch, an online blog. Oransky visited McGill as part of the Academic Integrity Day on Feb. 3. His talk, [Retractions, Post-Publication Peer Review, and Fraud: Scientific Publishing’s Wild West] attracted over 150 profs, graduate students, and staff from four Montreal universities.

When Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus founded Retraction Watch in 2010, retractions had grown ten-fold in the previous decade. During his talk, Oransky discussed reasons for that increase, and the growth of post-publication peer review, and other trends he and Marcus have seen as they’ve built a site that is now viewed by roughly 150,000 people per month.

Retraction Watch publishes retractions from peer reviewed journals and online publications. The blog follows the stories of egregious researcher behaviours including scientific misconduct, lying, cheating, falsification, and fraud. The blog even has a leaderboard, showcasing the top 30 academic integrity perpetrators.

Oransky claims “… scientific publishing is becoming more unpredictable, and yes, more dangerous. From predatory publishers to sophisticated ruses — including authors submitting fake email addresses for reviewers so they can review their own papers — designed to either subvert existing peer-review processes, or expose their flaws, it’s a wild time” (Ivan Oransky on publication practices and academic fraud, McGill Reporter, Jan. 2017).

Other publications from the event:

How can we become better teachers?

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 09:00

Professor Madhukar Pai, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health, wrote an insightful post ‘How can we become better teachers‘ in the February issue of Nature Microbiology. Its always great to see posts about teaching and learning appearing in mainstream research journals within a discipline. Professor Pai talks about starting small, thinking about your students, focusing on reflection and much more. He also makes many of his teaching resources available for free on his own teaching epidemiology website.

Learning to learn

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 01/13/2017 - 10:10

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709

Alexander Pope may have been addressing an audience of literary critics, but his message is  just as applicable to both faculty and students. To judge fairly and wisely – he wrote – be humble, follow nature, and study deeply. So what does it mean to study deeply?

Professor Richard Hovey, Oral Health and Society, makes a fair point stating that teaching and learning can occur through presentation, but that it’s not always the case: you can explain the science, the theory, the concept to your students –but will they be able to apply this information? Not necessarily. Of course, this also depends on the type of information. In fields like Medicine and Dentistry, sometimes to practice is to learn best. To show students that that there is more to learning than sitting passively and absorbing information, Prof. Hovey decided to teach his students how to juggle. He asked a colleague to do a PowerPoint presentation on juggling. The presentation contained information about the physics of juggling, with lines and arrows depicting the necessary movements and text describing the action. Following the presentation, Prof. Hovey asked his students to try juggling. They had the knowledge, right? They should have been able to juggle perfectly. But learning isn’t always about transferring information to the brain with a click à la The Matrix. Knowing about a skill doesn’t automatically translate into learning the skill as Prof. Hovey’s students realized when they tried to juggle and failed. Once he showed them how to juggle and they tried, tried and tried again, the students eventually learned to juggle – a lesson that can be transferred from juggling to any skill. Hands-on experience and trial and error can be effective routes to learning.

However, taking the time to truly learn something may be daunting, especially when there is a demand for quickly processing large volumes of information. When mainstream media conveys the message that speed is the ultimate ace up your sleeve when it comes to processing information, then you may be reluctant to slow down and learn something in depth. What Prof. Hovey’s example teaches us is that taking the time to learn something may well lead to deeper long-term understanding.

Dr. Carolyn Samuel also helps her students engage in deep learning by focusing on improving students’ reading and writing skills. She does so by helping students identify key disciplinary-specific features of academic writing: how a particular field states the problem, describes a study, defines key concepts, and supports claims with evidence. Students are asked to read scholarly articles and identify these features, repeating the exercise with their own writing. By developing an acute awareness of how problems, arguments and stories in their respective fields unfold through writing, students not only learn how to structure their own work so that it corresponds to the field, but also- and perhaps most importantly- how to really dissect and analyze the knowledge that their fields produce.

In sum, to study deeply is to immerse oneself in the subject at hand. This takes different forms in different disciplines but almost always leads to the opening of new vistas.

Check out the other posts in the Apirations to Action blog series:


For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

I pledge to be a better teacher

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 12/08/2016 - 13:41

A great summary of the closing plenary from Andrew Hendry of our Learn to Teach Day. Thanks Ethan for the great summary!

Educational Sociolinguistics

Ethan’s 3rd post:

In the closing plenary of yesterday’s Learning to Teach workshop, Doctor Andrew Hendry, professor of Evolutionary Ecology at McGill, demonstrated a terrific example of what he called an ‘inspirational class’.

According to him, since information is easy to access nowadays, what distinguishes a good teacher from a mediocre one is whether he or she is able to inspire the students and make them feel sad when the class is over. He surely can do that. In his lecture, he demonstrated how to pass on hands-on learning, how to use social media to inspire students and how to ‘perform’ in front of the class. At the end of his lecture, I could literally sense the energy in every audience and feel that the spirit of the entire hall was lifted up. A picture says a thousand words, and here is a youtube link of how he teaches evolution:

View original post 397 more words

Creativity (and why it’s important)

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 12/02/2016 - 06:00

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

As an aspiring urban planning scholar, I’m frequently exposed to discussions about the importance of creativity to cities. I should preface this by stressing just how multifaceted the field of urban planning is… There are so many ways to approach things in urban planning. It’s both a blessing and a curse really… but that is a story for another day and time.

Right. So. Creativity. Well, you can think of it as a precursor to development: the more creative you are, the greater number and range of strategies you have to deal with problems and improve existing systems and structures.  Creativity can also be seen as a catalyst for change and as fuel for action. In urban planning, those who study the economy of cities see creativity as an asset, a prized quality that attracts firms and capital, and helps cities progress. Other urban planners who look at creativity from a more sociological perspective seek out community initiatives as alternate and innovative approaches to improving the built environment. Those devoted to urban design explore the farthest depths of creativity to think of ways in which spaces can be used and experienced differently. I’m not going to go further – trust me, there’s a lot more to creativity and urban planning, but having decades of scholarship on this topic tells us something: creativity is important.

When it comes to teaching and learning, there are equally divergent views on the value and purpose of creativity: How do we best process information? How do we produce new information? How do we use information to affect our realities? Teaching students to think creatively helps them to develop new approaches to problem solving, but it also helps them to think about the world differently. In my experience, creativity is inspired when you introduce an entirely unexpected angle. Say I approach an urban planning problem using neuroscientific logic. Sounds weird, right? Well, actually imagining the city as a brain is not so farfetched. What is a brain but a complex system of networks of constituent elements? Why is a city any different? Understanding how the brain works actually helps me understand how networks in an urban system work (what shapes, hinders and sustains them).

McGill has a number of interesting examples of professors who promote creative thinking in their students by using pedagogical strategies that may be unconventional in their fields.  For example, Prof. Armistead Cheryl, Ingram School of Nursing, gives her students a choice between writing an op-ed or creating a piece of artwork to identify and explain a health issue from a female perspective. This opportunity inspires students to go beyond conventional wisdom and stereotypes to take a new perspective on factors that affect women’s access to conditions for health. Whether they choose the op-ed or the artwork assignment, students are encouraged to examine a health issue and answer 3 main questions: What? (issue & root causes); So what? (impact/meaning); What if? (solutions for a better future).   When Prof. Armistead assesses these assignments, she looks for evidence of clarity, analysis and credibility.

When I think about this assignment, I cannot help but think of Frida Kahlo and how effective her artwork was in communicating psychological hardship following the experience of a miscarriage. Her art was so incredibly personal, and so instrumental in bringing fertility issues to the fore. Art is indeed a very effective communication tool. Imagine what you can do when you are inspired to think about your field through art…

In sum, creativity is important to us in so many different ways. We need it to inspire and be inspired, to develop and to grow, to engage in and affect change. We need it in our personal lives, our professional lives, and we need it to challenge and improve our lives on the whole.  Where better to start than in the classroom?

Check out the other posts in the Apirations to Action blog series:


For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

Instructors branch out by offering students social media as an alternative to traditional assignments and assessment

Teaching for learning blog - Tue, 11/29/2016 - 09:00

This post, featuring Casey McCormick, a PhD candidate and course lecturer in Cultural Studies, and Dr. Nathalie Cooke, a professor in the English Department and Associate Dean, McGill Library, Archives & Rare Collections, is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On October 17, 2016, Casey and Prof. Cooke were the guest speakers at a session entitled Critical Analysis and Student Engagement: Social Media Strategies. This post provides a summary of the session and access their presentation slides, which include hyperlinks to their assignment details and assessment rubrics.

From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/8631695619/

How can social media be brought into the classroom—not as an obstacle to learning, but as a tool to serve a learning purpose? Casey began the session (download the slides) with a rundown of her Social Media Artifact assignment. She assigned her undergraduate students the task of creating cultural artifacts that offer “interesting analysis of course content.” Students have a choice of different social media tools to perform the analysis. An example was using a multimedia blog to create a timeline of a historical phenomenon. Doing multimodal analysis means students have to creatively use images and sound to frame their arguments, thus encouraging inventive ways of arguing that extend beyond the typical essay. Students’ artifacts are assessed based on creativity; mechanics for following the assignment directions; and relevance to course material.

Nicole Spadotto, a former undergraduate student of Casey’s, described her project as a live-tweeting of her readings. She had the challenge of condensing an analysis that would typically be a paragraph long into something not only 140 characters short, but also something interesting enough to capture the Twitter community’s interest. This taught her the value of brevity and the skill of stringing concise arguments together in the most efficient way possible. Tweeting meant she was engaged both in and outside of the classroom, enabling deep learning that she had not experienced with traditional assignments. A highlight was exchanging tweets with the author who had written the “artifact” itself.

“Character Tweeting” is a Twitter-based assignment that was described by Prof. Cooke. For this assignment, which was directly influenced by Casey’s teaching and learning use of social media, Prof. Cooke assigned her graduate seminar students the task of picking a character and tweeting as its persona. To lower students’ “fear” factor regarding this novel assignment, 40% of the grade was allocated to mastering technical criteria, such as the number of tweets, the number of characters, and the creation of an appropriate Twitter handle.

photo credit: Justin Fletcher

Lisa, a graduate student who took Prof. Cooke’s class, learned to use Twitter specifically for the assignment. Lisa chose to tweet from the persona of Henry Gursky, a character from Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. Lisa transplanted Henry Gursky, a Jewish man living in the Arctic, into the 20th century context and tweeted from this new perspective. Although she was initially skeptical about Twitter, the assignment and interaction with her classmates turned out to be really fun. She applied her training in close reading to effectively roleplay her character, exploring nuanced dimensions of Henry Gursky.

A major theme which ran through the presentation was the value of writing concisely. With only the handful of essays students write per semester, students receive few opportunities to practice this skill. On the other hand, the social media assignments allow students to flex these “concision” muscles through every single tweet. These two assignments, requiring students to engage in a dialogue with the larger public and to speak out from the stance of an adopted persona, reduce the amount of jargon and necessitate accessible language.

Pushing outside of traditional academic writing, although uncomfortable, turned out to be rewarding for both Nicole and Lisa. Simply by changing the medium of communication made a difference to how they processed class material both in and out of the classroom. Nicole mentioned how different the creative process was from running through class notes a day before the midterm. Students were also able to provide peer-feedback in interesting ways. For example, Lisa recalled a moment where a student provided constructive feedback to an out-of-character tweet by tweeting, “That doesn’t sound like you. Are you okay today?”

The Q and A session brought up several concerns with using social media. One concern was with some professors’ unfamiliarity with the “digital” terrain and the credibility gap in such situations. While digital literacy workshops for faculty would be wonderful, Casey stated the important point that some students are also strangers to these social media platforms. These assignments give students and professors a chance to acquire digital literacy skills together.

Another concern was with the privacy of students: How can we maintain the privacy of the students’ identities on an open, public social media platform? Casey explained that most of her students set up separate “assignment” accounts from their personal ones. She also makes it clear at the beginning of each semester that students are able to opt out of public engagement by creating private accounts—even if this means losing out on the feedback from and dialogues with an audience other than the instructor.

Finally, the question of evaluation was raised: How can we evaluate digital assignments such as these? Casey and Prof. Cooke mentioned that creativity can sometimes lead to a reduced focus on course content. However, using comprehensive grading rubrics which include criteria related to adopting the technical aspects of social media tools can ease students into this new medium. Nicole mentioned that becoming comfortable with the tools is also a matter of practice: because Casey’s artifact assignments are designed to be small and recurrent, students are able to improve the balance between addressing course content and creativity over time.

It is natural to encounter growing pains with new styles of assessments, especially with the vast and versatile social media tools available. However, this session has shown that social media can stimulate a release of new ways to learn and convey information, benefitting both professors and students.

myCourses Webinar Series Now Available on Video@McGill

Teaching for learning blog - Wed, 11/23/2016 - 09:00

Did you know Teaching and Learning Services has its own Video@McGill Channel? If you missed the monthly myCourses Webinar Series presented by myself and Justin Fletcher last year, you can now view the webinars on the Teaching and Learning Services’ video channel. During the webinars, we review various tools within myCourses, such as online quizzes, rubrics, and online discussions. We explore more in-depth the functionality of these, and other features, as well as go beyond myCourses to discuss the larger learning technology ecosystem at McGill.

Educational Technologies to Support Teaching and Learning @ McGill (source)

If you want to explore more about learning technologies and how they can help you expand your teaching, you can meet with a Learning Technology Consultant at Teaching and Learning Services by filling out this form. You can also browse other blog posts, such as these on how to customize your course or how to maximize your gradebook.

Check out the other blog posts in this series:

Linking Theory to Practice – A little more action, please

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 11/21/2016 - 09:41

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

Linking theory to practice is an important learning aspiration. Let’s be honest: how many times have you heard the one about the undergrad who steps out of his/her cap and gown into the real world to realize a split second later that they know so much but know so little. You’ve heard it, right? (Perhaps even experienced that feeling yourself). It is the shared responsibility of lecturers and instructors to try to mitigate that moment — to work together so students are prepared for life after graduation, equipped with enough theory to understand the world, and enough practical experience to challenge that same understanding. So how do we create opportunities that inspire students to seek out links between theory and practice? Here are some ideas already put into practice by McGill professors….

Option one: Take students out into the field often.

Prof. Caroline Begg, at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, takes her students in the AGRI215 Agro-Ecosystems Field Course on local farm visits every Friday. The students tour the operation and interview the farmers. For many of the students this is their first time visiting a farm; some of these farms are doing well and others are not. Prof. Begg asks students to take notes on-site, and think critically about what they have observed and learned from each visit. On the Monday after each visit, a group of four students discuss their observations in front of the class, and the rest of the students write up their thoughts. The purpose of the three-part assignment is to nurture the students’ ability to summarize and communicate their observations of farm life, and to come to terms with lived experience that may differ from the theory in their textbooks.

Option two: Encourage students to think about policy holistically.

Prof. Nigel Roulet, in the Geography Department uses a bit of role-play to help students think about how theory links to and affects practice. His students assume the role of Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, and are asked to produce a memo/briefing note for the Prime Minister’s Office regarding greenhouse gas reductions. Prior to writing the memo, students receive information on Canada’s history with global climate change accords, and a description of six greenhouse gas emission scenarios. The students construct the memo with the following questions in mind: Where does anthropogenic carbon ultimately end up for each scenario. Assuming a ‘business as usual’ scenario is a reasonable projection if we do nothing, what is the net benefit of Kyoto if all countries met their targets? Can the Canadian Government’s plan prevent dangerous climate change? What level of reductions would we need to avoid dangerous climate change? Taking on the perspective of a policy advisor reinforces how complex and multidisciplinary these issues are. Having to write a memo rather than a research paper is also great preparation for the life after graduation where this type of writing is common practice.  For more information of this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.

Option three: Inspire students to interact with the community.

Think big, and inspire not just your students but also the faculty. The Dentistry Outreach Program at McGill is effective for multiple reasons. It is open to students of all years, who, based on their level, are assigned tasks that provide them with invaluable experience, from learning how to handle dental equipment to assisting on procedures. The program is also centered around providing dental healthcare to people who may not have access otherwise; it inspires students and dental professionals to work together in the community and teaches the value of volunteerism. Many students often go back to the communities and help in ways that do not necessarily focus on dental care.

This is a step beyond linking theory to practice — it allows faculty and students to engage with community members and build stronger relationships based on important issues. Something we could all use a little more of.

For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

*McGill Dentistry Outreach photo taken from Run for Outreach website.









Communication Skills – Talk the Walk

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 11/03/2016 - 09:00

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

Whatever the end goal may be – whether it is to inform or raise awareness, establish trust or get support – communication is as important a skill as any. Learning how to address an audience, to inspire, to engage, and to hit a nerve will also help students organize their ideas and think about how these ideas could affect the world. And sometimes it is just good to know how to best explain debt financing to a botanist… It’s not enough to know the material; knowing how to adapt your message to a particular audience is also important. So what are some of the ways to make sure that our students develop such communication skills? Here are a few McGill examples….

At the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Prof. Terry Hébert asks his students to read a scientific article and produce a one-page summary in the form of an op-ed for the New York Times.  These summaries must be written in a manner that communicates science to a general audience.  The first two op-eds receive feedback from the instructors; the remaining piece is presented to a panel of lay reviewers. Combining both written and oral presentation skills, this strategy also inspires creativity, as it requires students to process and mold scientific material into a more user-friendly form. For more information on this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.

Prof. Tina Piper at McGill Law teaches communication skills also as a means of self-reflection and critique. Students are asked to develop educational programs on Canadian copyright laws. They are asked to create an artifact (e.g. a podcast, a lesson plan), present the program to a mixed audience (public, faculty and course attendees), and submit a final report detailing the program development process, reactions from the audience, the perceived effectiveness of the program, and overall reflections on group work.

Another example, combining both the op-ed and self-reflection strategies, is Prof. Rosalie Jukier also at McGill Law: her students write an op-ed on a timely and relevant topic, and then respond to one another via short letters to the editor. Prof. Jukier provides her students with guidelines for writing op-eds, offering examples of op-eds written by other professors at the faculty. Students are assessed on the choice of topic, and effectiveness and clarity of communication. The short letters to the editor encourage students to think about their own work, as well as the work of their peers, and how effectively it communicates the subject matter to a wider audience.   For more info on this assignment, check out the Online Writing Toolkit.

Filipa Pajević, Graduate Student Assistant, Teaching and Learning Services. PhD Student in Urban Planning, Policy and Design

For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

Teamwork – The Beauty of the Sport

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 10/20/2016 - 10:47

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

Learning how to work together is indeed the beauty of any sport. However, teaching students how to manage group expectations, capabilities and skills so as to produce fruitful results can be challenging. A valuable management skill that cuts across all fields, teamwork is an art that is taught in different ways, and in combination with other skills (research skills, thinking about how theory and knowledge applies to practice, communication skills).

One McGill instructor who places an emphasis on teamwork is Prof. Elena Bennett, McGill School of Environment, who asks her students to think about what it would it would be like to represent a country at a climate change conference. Students are assigned groups and countries, and are expected to thoroughly research their country’s position on climate change (this includes existing policies). Students are then asked to write a position paper, post it on MyCourses for feedback from peers, and then pitch the key points of their group papers in class. What this strategy does is teach students how to collaborate effectively, but also how to negotiate positions by simulating a Climate Change Accord. Professor Bennett seeks to inform her students about the stresses inherent in negotiations so as to highlight the limited availability of resources (time, research) that is often the reality of this type of work. Through this type of teamwork, students learn to manage their time, understand the strengths of the teammates and how to best employ these strengths in developing a joint assignment.

Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the team is also a key learning objective for Prof. Ruthanne Huising, Desautels School of Management. Prof. Huising asks groups to provide a team analysis memo after submitting a group assignment. The memo serves to help students reflect on their teamwork experience, identifying and evaluating one of their weaknesses. The memo must also contain ideas on how to correct the issues that a group has experienced. In class, the groups are asked to analyze their weaknesses and strengths, and to produce a plan for changing how they work together. They are expected to follow their new work plan the next time they work together- it is a semester-long process, designed to teach students how to be reflexive and build on weaknesses towards a better group working strategy.

What these two examples show is that teamwork involves an openness to constructive critique that needs to be taught to students: the need to acknowledge struggles and work together to overcome them. Yes, the beauty of the sport indeed.

Filipa Pajević, Graduate Student Assistant, Teaching and Learning Services, PhD Student in Urban Planning, Policy and Design

For Prof. Ruthanne Huising’s Writing Toolkit please click here. For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

Aspirations to action – a blog series

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 10/14/2016 - 09:00

As a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important (TWI) Symposium, held in December 2015, here is a blog series that brings to the fore some of the key discussion points of the event.

The fundamental question guiding the symposium was: What is most important for students to learn at university? During that time, we listened carefully to your contributions and recorded your input. Today we present a new blog series that builds on the aspirations you shared during the event.

These learning aspirations will be the key focus of this bi-weekly series, as we bring you our thoughts, some fresh ideas, and — most importantly — examples of teaching strategies used by McGill professors that aim to promote student engagement and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

We want to keep the conversation about achieving aspirations going, but we also want to make visible the range of exciting teaching methods used across the McGill campus.  We invite you to keep your ears to the ground, to connect and to share ideas about effective teaching strategies.

Stay tuned!

Filipa Pajević & Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

Aspirations to Actions returns every other Thursday with new content pertaining to one or more learning aspirations!

Informal Talking Teaching Communities: Spread the Word!

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 09/29/2016 - 08:00

In the 2015-2016 academic year, McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) launched The Lunch Spot—an informal lunch-time forum where all of the university’s instructors were invited to bring their brown bag lunches and gather for some informal talking about teaching. Working with the principle “if you feed them, they will come,” TLS encouraged partaking in The Lunch Spot with the offer of home-made sweet treats.*

The Lunch Spot continues this year at McGill’s TLS on the following dates: Friday, September 30, 2016 (please register) and Friday, January 27, 2017.

Given that I practically live for talking about teaching and that I have a sweet tooth, I participated in The Lunch Spot at every opportunity during the 2015-2016 academic year. It was time incredibly well spent: I met instructors from a variety of disciplines with whom I shared some of my favourite instructional strategies and from whom I got some motivating ideas. (I actually got one really cool idea from an Engineering professor about how to encourage students to pay attention to test and exam instructions.)

Small group discussion by Culture Republic on Flickr

To my delight, several colleagues from my unit, the McGill Writing Centre (MWC), also showed up at The Lunch Spot. Even when instructors work in the same unit, it’s not a given that they make the time to talk with each other about teaching. That was our case. What a boon it was that an opportunity had been created for us by TLS!

In fact, The Lunch Spot afforded us the opportunity to see that many of us at the MWC were keen to “talk teaching.” As a result, I proposed to my colleagues that we create the McGill Writing Centre Instructor Community—the MWCIC. (I know, it’s not as clever or creative a name as TLS’ The Lunch Spot, but it seems to roll off the tongue enough for people to retain the name.) We launched the MWCIC this past summer and pitched it as an opportunity to share teaching ideas in preparation for the coming academic year. The invitation below was emailed to more than 20 MWC faculty and course lecturers. (Readers of this blog are encouraged to use this invitation as template for launching their own “talking teaching” instructor communities.)

Would you like to share a teaching idea with colleagues? Hear what other instructors are doing in MWC courses? Are you thinking of experimenting with a new instructional strategy and you’d like some input before trying it out? Come discuss these and other questions at the first MWC Instructor Community (MWCIC) gathering. The MWCIC is an informal and open forum where MWC course instructors can support each other’s professional growth through discussions of teaching and learning.

Since summer is a good time to mull over teaching/learning ideas for Fall courses, our first gathering will take place next Friday, June 17th, from 11am-12pm at the MWC. After that, we’ll meet monthly, starting in September. We hope you’ll join us (but participation is, of course, optional).

No need to RSVP; we will send a reminder one week before the gathering.

Five enthusiastic participants showed up at the first meeting. You might think that was a poor turnout, but my colleagues and I were thrilled given that it was summer. In addition, we received a number of regrets from colleagues who were out of town but who explicitly expressed a desire to participate at future MWCIC gatherings. I was also thrilled because I got another really cool idea, this time from a colleague writing instructor, about how to encourage students to follow assignment instructions. (Hmmm … ideas for encouraging students to pay attention to test, exam, and assignment instructions. Seems I may have an idea for a future blog post.)

I have since left the MWC for another unit at McGill (one that affords me the opportunity to talk about teaching almost 8 hours a day—yeah, as I said, I practically live for talking about teaching). It is gratifying to know, though, that the MWCIC community lives on. Nine instructors showed up at the most recent MWCIC gathering, where rubrics and audio recorded feedback were discussed. More MWCIC dates have already been announced.

What informal “talking teaching” communities are you a member of? What are the most useful teaching ideas you’ve received by way of informal chats with instructor colleagues?

*Do you need recipes for baked goods that will foster participation in your “talking teaching” community? Post a request and I’ll see if I can convince a colleague to share a recipe.

Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom: Pros and Cons

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 05/02/2016 - 11:22

Professor Chris Buddle provides some very thoughtful reflections in his blog post on the benefits and challenges of teaching in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms. Do you have any thoughts to add? Post them in the comments below.

Arthropod Ecology

Earlier this term I wrote about my excitement with teaching in an active learning classroom: as a quick refresher, my course had just over 80 students, and is an introductory ecology class. The course has a strong focus on quantitative approaches to population and community ecology, from equations to modelling. I gave up doing traditional PowerPoint slides for this class a long time ago, but until this term, I was still teaching in a theatre-style lecture hall. With continuing to push the “active learning” agenda, it was great to have an opportunity to teach in a classroom specifically designed for active learning!

The Active Learning classroom So, here are some perspectives and thoughts about teaching in an active learning classroom now that term is over.


1. I found the tables (with rolling chairs!) were especially great when I did in-class quizzes, especially with group-based problems…

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Strategies to engage in productive difficult dialogues

Teaching for learning blog - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 10:42

It is often challenging to engage in productive “difficult dialogues” in the classroom. Faculty Focus just released a very interesting article that discusses seven different strategies to help.

There are three basic ways that I hear faculty talk about difficult dialogues—in-class dialogues that were planned but did not go particularly well; in-class hot moments that were not anticipated and that the faculty member did not feel equipped to handle; and difficult dialogues that happen during office hours or outside of class.

In all three instances, faculty are challenged to use skills they may not have learned at any point in their disciplinary training. That lack of skill can actually cause them great angst, and in the most extreme situations, cause them to avoid addressing important issues directly.

This is not to anyone’s advantage, and many learning opportunities can be lost. In this article, I will focus on the first of these three instances. If challenging dialogues are to be an important part of a course, it is essential to develop, beginning the first day of class, the environment and skills that will allow you to capitalize on difficult dialogues as effective learning opportunities.

See the rest of the article on Faculty Focus

Do you engage in difficult dialogues in your teaching? What has been your experience?

Assessment narratives in en-“lightning” style: Experiences from both sides of the table

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 04/08/2016 - 09:30
Photo credit: Mirabel Xing

During an informative, brown bag, lunch session on Friday, March 18th, four professors and three students presented 3-minute lightning talks about their experiences with assessments of specific course assignments.  The professors described the rationales for their assignments and spoke about their feedback methods, while the students described their perspectives from the receiving end.  The lightning talks were followed by a lively question and answer period that allowed the speakers and audience members to share candid opinions about the topics raised.

Professor Cheryl Armistead, from the Ingram School of Nursing, started the session by discussing a creative piece assignment for a 300-level class of 85 students on issues in women’s health.  Students can choose to write an op-ed article or create a piece of artwork for the assignment.  Professor Armistead grades it using a rubric and gives feedback by looking at students’ answers to specific questions in the pieces they submit.  Some of the questions the students need to answer are:

  1. What is your issue?;
  2. What are three factors that contribute to your issue?;
  3. So what, or how would the world look differently if the issue were resolved?

The class consists of students from different disciplines, some of whom find it difficult to complete assignments when the research topics are not assigned and/or the assignment requires more than a summary of a topic.  These questions guide students in completing the work.

From the departments of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences and Earth & Planetary Sciences, Professors John Gyakum and John Stix talked about assessing scientific posters in their 100-level, natural disasters course, which has about 630 students.  The professors flipped two of the classes in the course so that students could present their posters.  The professors previously taught this course as a MOOC (Natural Disasters on edX) and, thus, were able to ask students to watch 2 lectures online in order to free up class time for this assignment.  Students are asked to form 6-person groups for their posters, and three groups are then paired with the same graduate teaching assistant (TA) to enable peer-feedback, as well.  The TA grades the poster and gives feedback; the other two student groups listen to the presentation of the poster and also provide comments.  There were 15 teaching assistants for the natural disasters course in Fall 2015.  It was possible to assign this number of teaching assistants to the course since each TA only completed half the maximum number of hours that can be devoted to a course.

Assessment can also be personal.  Professor Shauna Van Praagh from the Faculty of Law spoke about an activity she does with first-year, undergraduate, law students at the beginning of the academic year.  All students, around 180, are asked to write a letter during class about what they would say to future law students at the beginning of the program.  The students submit the letter in an envelope to the professor and the letter is returned to the students, unopened, at the end of the academic year.  Students then open their own letters and have the opportunity to reflect on how their attitudes and beliefs have changed over the previous 8 months.

Photo credit: Mirabel Xing

Three students then had the opportunity to present from “the other side of the table,” that is, they spoke about their side of the assessment story.  Faculty of Arts student, Magdalene Klassen, discussed the evaluation of a 5-page writing assignment for a 200-level modern European history course with approximately 200 students.  The assignment was graded by three TAs, but the professor offered students the opportunity for detailed one-on-one feedback during his office hours.  Magdalene appreciated the professor’s offer, took advantage of it, and benefited from the experience.

Henry Yu, from the Faculty of Science, described a group project for a 400-level investment management course (enrollment circa 100) that required students to find their own clients, gather information about their clients’ financial assets, and create financial investment portfolios for their clients.  Each 4-person group presented its portfolio to the class and to three industry experts whom the professor had invited.  These experts selected the top three groups, who were then given the opportunity to give their presentations to an external investment company.  Henry valued this real-world experience and saw the immediate impact, that is, one student from a top group obtained a summer internship in the company where the group presentation had been given.  An outcome of the assessment was employment.

Didem Dogar, from the Faculty of Law, ended the lightning talks by reporting on an individual, artifact project for a legal, research methodology, graduate course (about 75 students).  Students were asked to pick an artifact—which could literally have been any thing—and link it to the course content.  The professor shared the assessment rubric with the class so that students would have a clear sense of how to produce a quality assignment. Didem both enjoyed and appreciated the learning value of the assignment because it required students to think outside the box.

Photo credit: Mirabel Xing

The lightning talks took up the first half-hour of the brown bag session.  The remaining 45-minutes were jam-packed with questions posed by the audience, such as What does effective and non-effective feedback mean to you?  The consensus, among the panel and the audience, was that effective feedback lets students understand where the grade comes from, explains where students went awry, offers suggestions for improving the work, explicitly recognizes well-produced work, and provides details about what was well done.  To be effective, feedback needs to include the positive, the negative, and suggestions for how to address the negative.

The vibe in the room at the end of the brown bag session was extremely positive, with several audience members talking enthusiastically about the idea(s) they plan to explore/implement in their classes.  Overall, an en-“lightening” session!

If you teach, what types of assignments have been most satisfying for you in terms of helping students achieve learning outcomes and being able to provide meaningful feedback to students?

If you’re a student, what meaningful or noteworthy assignments have you experienced? How did this assignment benefit your learning? What types of feedback have been helpful for you?

Why Flipped Classrooms Fail

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 02/15/2016 - 12:43

Julie Shell (@julieschell) from peerinstruction.net provides some interesting insight into flipped classrooms and the #1 reason why they don’t work (and how to ensure that they do). Have a read a let us know what you think in the comments!

Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog

“I tried Peer Instruction and it didn’t work.”

As a champion of the popular flipped learning method developed by Eric Mazur, this phrase always hits me hard when I hear it from fellow educators. And I do hear it.

Over the years, I’ve run into many different accounts of experiments in innovative teaching and flipped classrooms, not just Peer Instruction, gone awry.  I have heard many refrains about clickers, “I tried clickers and it was a disaster.” About flipped learning with videos, “I tried it but my students didn’t watch the videos.” And even about the student engagement all-star, project-based learning: “I gave it a shot but my students perform better when I lecture.”

Of course, there are sundry reasons why one venture toward innovative teaching succeeds and another stumbles. I don’t claim to have the one answer or a lock on the perfect explanation. In this 3-part series, I…

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Developing engaged citizens through critical thinking

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 02/12/2016 - 16:24

What happens when students are asked to write for an audience who knows little about the discipline?” Guest speaker Professor Terry Hébert addressed this question at a November 20, 2015 session entitled Developing Engaged Citizens through Critical Thinking, the most recent event organized by the Assessment in Large Classes Advisory Group.

An Assignment in Lay Translation

In Pharmacology 508, an undergraduate course with enrolment ranging from 35-100 students, Terry assigns students the task of writing about science using ordinary, everyday language so that a lay audience can understand. Students read three scientific articles and have to “translate” each article into a one-page essay in the form of a New York Times-type piece that explains the scientific content in an easily comprehensible manner. For the first two essays, students submit individual writing. In some cases, the third one requires that groups of four students submit one collaborative piece of writing. The three essays are worth 30% of the final grade, with a breakdown of 5%, 10%, and 15% per essay, respectively. A novel feature of the assignment is that Terry recruits actual lay readers to provide students with feedback on the effectiveness of their communication.

Students are not necessarily accustomed to producing writing about science for a lay audience in the context of a university course. It can be challenging. For this reason, in class, Terry shares samples of writing that meet and that don’t meet the assignment criteria. He also offers a few tips before students tackle the assignment:

  • target an audience with a grade 10 level of reading comprehension
  • jot down ideas in point form
  • do not write like you talk
  • do not use jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations
  • do not make pointless small talk
Rationale for the Assignment

Terry is trying to prepare students for a variety of communication situations they will encounter, which, even in an academic context such as writing grant applications, may call for lay writing. Indeed, many of the people to whom students will communicate their ideas are often without science backgrounds or have little knowledge of the subject. In addition, Terry believes that translating scientific writing into lay writing about science compels students to develop a deeper understanding of the course content for themselves.

Terry highlighted three points that speak to the value of the assignment: firstly, it tests students’ understandings of materials with which they may not be terribly familiar; secondly, by paraphrasing the articles using ordinary language, students are able to frame key messages; and thirdly, it teaches students to make arguments and engage with a broader audience, an audience beyond those who are familiar with the discipline.

Assignment Feedback

Student feedback on the assignment has generally been positive. Terry shared some course evaluation comments:

“Super fun assignment, makes students realize that what we think is common knowledge might not be so common.”

“Good exercise…applicable to everyday life! The average Joe doesn’t care about which subunit of which GPCR is targeted, they want to know the implication of a discovery. Definitely useful skill moving forward.”

“Communicating basic biological concepts to an audience with no scientific background is tricky. The nature of the assignment forces you to remain aware of your use of certain types of phrasing and vocabulary. It helps you practice honing your writing skills geared towards a specific audience.”

Post-presentation Discussion

A lively discussion with Terry and the audience followed the presentation. One audience member raised the concern of “dumbing down” academic ideas when writing for a lay audience. She pointed out that some people believe the way a person writes represents his or her level of intellect. In response, Terry emphasized that being able to communicate across disciplines is a crucial skill when it comes to grant writing. He highlighted that only when researchers can simplify the language to allow lay people (or even colleagues in different disciplines) to understand the knowledge can the ideas truly appeal to the public.

Picking up on Terry’s suggestion that students write for a Grade 10 level audience, one person mentioned the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index, which generates an estimate of the level of reading difficulty of a written text in English. Microsoft Word will calculate the score. (For instructions, search for Flesch-Kincaid in Word Help.) Students could actually be asked to include the score when they submit their assignments.

The discussion shifted somewhat to the more general topic of creating “a culture of writing” at McGill. Given that the primary way to convey ideas is through writing, McGill should help students realize the importance of having good writing skills. However, learning to write takes time, and there needs to be a commitment on the part of the university to allow students the time they need to develop the skill.

It was generally agreed that developing better written communication skills first requires the development of critical thinking skills. It is inarguable that without solid critical thinking, it is difficult to achieve compelling and effective writing, an idea which is captured in Terry’s “lay translation” assignment.

A Student’s Perspective

As an undergraduate student in McGill’s Faculty of Arts, I agree that universities need to establish a culture of writing, not only in Arts, but all across different disciplines. We need to realize that without the ability to write, we will lose not only ideas, but also great minds. In the Faculty of Arts, it is common for students to enter first year not really knowing how to write, and they have to soon produce academic papers. Many students strive to write these papers in a highly academic and sophisticated manner so as to reflect their intellectual level. Few students, however, are familiar with the specific skill of writing for a lay audience—which can also display the writer’s intellect. It’s not surprising, though, that students are unfamiliar with this genre since few opportunities exist in our curriculum to practice this skill.

I am interested in seeing the university help students build a more solid, overall foundation for writing, accompanied by instruction on how to think critically, and to reflect on and express our ideas through effective writing. Ultimately, a better understanding of the usage and implications of different styles of writing serves student writers well, which in turn serves their reading audiences well.

Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 11:02

A very thoughtful post from Prof Chirs Buddle on the importance of setting expectations for graduate students and supervisors.

Interested in discussing the topic further? Register for the TLS workshop on “Clarifying Expectations in Graduate Supervision” on Feb 25th, 2pm-4pm.

Arthropod Ecology

I have been running a research laboratory for close to 15 years, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not written down, formally, my expectations* of graduate students and their expectations of me. I regret this, especially since there are amazing resources out there to help with this discussion. I would argue that differing levels of expectation is probably a key source of conflict in research laboratories, and having a solid agreement between graduate students and supervisors is key for success.

Here is some context for my laboratory: I run a mid-sized laboratory (currently with three MSc and three PhD students and two undergraduate Honour’s students), focused on studying arthropod ecology. As a Professor, my job involves teaching, research and administration. When running my research laboratory, the three tasks overlap – for example, I’m a lab ‘administrator’ in some ways, including ordering supplies, dealing with budgets, working on…

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How to flip your class with quizzes in 5 steps

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 01/28/2016 - 12:17

A great read from Julie Schell from peerinstruction.net (a great resource for ideas on peer instruction) on how you can flip your class using quizzes.

Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog

Measuring a student’s knowledge state is the typical purpose of quizzes in education. Can these short tests do more?

Quizzes have long been used as a “stick” in education. Did you ever scramble at the warning from your own teachers during class,  “y’all better do your work…or else.. I am going to give you a quiz!”

Of course, most educators use quizzes for a more evolved reason. Rather than quiz as punishment, we use the mini-tests to check in on our students before a more substantial, high stakes exam or assessment. Indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a quiz is by definition a test of knowledge.

Recent research in cognitive science tells us that the power of quizzing students extends far beyond simply measuring a learner’s knowledge state at a given moment in time. Quizzing, it turns out, provides a robust learning effect in and of itself.

Memory researchers Roediger and Butler (2011) note:…

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