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What is my teaching approach (or philosophy)? Prompts to help you identify underlying beliefs and values.

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 09:00

Many instructors putting together a teaching portfolio for tenure or promotion find themselves stumped by this question. Maybe you are still relatively new to teaching. Maybe your approach is part personal experience as a former student, part trial and error. Maybe you have found your groove, but you never actually spent any time pondering about your underlying philosophy. So what are you supposed to write in your teaching portfolio? How do you begin?

My advice is to start by reflecting about a few different contexts or situations to uncover your underlying beliefs and values. Here are a few prompts to choose from:

  • Think back to the time when you were a student. Who was your favourite teacher? Why was this person your favourite? What did they do that made you want to come to class? What did they do to support your learning? In what way has this person become your role model?
  • Think of an event or situation when you really enjoyed being an instructor. What was happening? What were the students doing? What were you doing? What exactly was it that made you feel good at that moment?
  • Think of a situation when you thought, “Yes, they got it! This is exactly what I wanted them to learn.” What did the student(s) say or write? Alternatively, what behaviour did the student(s) display, what task did they perform?
  • Think about your own learning. What do you have to do to succeed? How do you learn best? How do you sustain your motivation? What can an instructor do to facilitate or support the process?

Thinking about one or more of these prompts can help you better understand your approach to teaching and your identity as a teacher. Do you see yourself as a guide, a coach, an entertainer, or something else? What are your goals for your students? This will depend on the course, but when you start thinking about it, you should be able to discern a few themes. Do you mainly want students to develop a deep understanding of the theory or instill in them a love for your field? Do you want them to develop a few discipline-specific skills or promote a certain mind-set? All of these or something entirely different?

Once you have identified your main goals, you can start thinking about your strategies. What are you currently doing to help your students reach these goals? Provide a few concrete examples that demonstrate how your actions as an instructor line up with your goals and values. If you have positive student comments from course evaluations that are relevant for the points you are making, insert the most thoughtful ones to show that your approach is working.

Like all good pieces of writing, portfolios should not be written at the last moment. Give yourself enough time to revise your teaching philosophy section a few times. What are the main points you are trying to make? What is the organizing principle? Are you going from underlying values to concrete examples? Do you have different sections for undergraduate versus graduate teaching? Teaching versus supervision? There are many different ways of writing a teaching philosophy and while I recommend you look at examples, I encourage you to remain authentic. Let your personality shine through because this is the most personal part of your teaching portfolio.

There are many good resources out there that go into more detail than this post. Check out this teaching philosophy writing guide by the Center of Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota.

For more guiding questions (for the teaching approach as well as for other parts of the teaching portfolio), see this document, guiding questions for portfolio development.

If you are a McGill University instructor, you can access the University guidelines as well as sample teaching portfolios from tenured faculty on the TLS website.

Varied approaches to implementing peer assessment

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 02/22/2018 - 09:30

A number of colleagues at McGill have been thinking about how peer assessment (PA) can be integrated in courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the topic.

Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde is an Academic Associate at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) who works on the Faculty of Engineering’s eLATE (enhancing Learning And Teaching in Engineering) initiative. In a conversation about her experience supporting instructors with their implementation of PA, she shares how varied PA assignments can be, describes her collaborations with instructors, reflects on peer assessment of teamwork, and provides advice for instructors thinking about trying PA in their courses.

How did interest in Peer Assessment (PA) in the Faculty of Engineering come about? 

It started with FACC 100, an Engineering course where PA had been happening for a while. The instructors thought the experience was important for students and thought it should be incorporated into other courses. As well, instructors mentioned that in the limited time available, they really wanted to do certain types of activities—including those that involve giving students feedback on their work—but from a logistics point of view, this was difficult given the number of students in the course. So while concerns about time for giving feedback inspired some instructors to consider PA, PA ended up growing into a meaningful teaching and learning strategy. Now, several instructors in Engineering have their students do PA assignments.

Can you share some examples of the PA assignments instructors have developed?

Sure! In a first-year course, students peer assess one another’s short essays. In another course, PA is used for student group presentations, and in yet another course, an instructor has tried using PA for lab reports.

Also, two instructors have had their students do PA with formula-based and coding assignments. An instructor who is using PA in a computer engineering and computer science course wants students to see that there can be different ways of getting to the same answer. Reading peers’ work helps students come to understand how their peers may have approached the same assignment in different ways.

How do you work with the instructors who are exploring PA?

There are a few ways:

  • I try to have instructors who have already implemented PA talk with those who are starting to explore PA because I think that kind of information sharing is meaningful: instructors are the ones who go through the experience of developing the assignment and of getting students’ feedback.
  • We have one-on-one discussions where we think about how PA could be used in class.
  • We offer brown bag lunch discussions where colleagues can share their teaching experience with one another, either within the Faculty of Engineering or as interdisciplinary events.
  • We present at conferences. For example, we had a presentation at the SALTISE Conference on PA, where I co-presented with instructors from Engineering, Medicine and Science, and ÉTS. It was interesting because the instructors all had different approaches to PA; the tasks were completely different. But we were able to show a table (see below) where they compared the assignment goals and then discussed how they used different software tools that facilitate PA.

Thanks to that presentation, some CEGEP instructors have started using the PA strategies and software, and they’ve been in contact with me and with the instructors about implementing PA.

TLS is interested in learning about cases where students assess their peers’ contributions to teamwork. Do you know if this strategy is used by instructors in Engineering?

Yes, quite a few instructors in Engineering have their students assess how they work together as a team. It’s a popular strategy because it makes students accountable for their work. In classes of 200 students, instructors were receiving emails along the lines of, “This student’s doing nothing!” So we started introducing PA of teamwork. Complaints began to decrease because students realized, “You know what…I can give him a low mark if he’s not responding to emails, if he’s not submitting his work on time.” So, that’s a strategy that both instructors and students appreciate. There’s a rubric (see below) that several instructors have been using for this purpose. It includes criteria such as respect and problem solving skills. It’s set up as a table, and the first column has the various criteria, such as “the person listened to others’ ideas;” “the person used good problem solving strategies” and so on. There’s a self-assessment column where each student assesses him- or herself according to these criteria. And then the students assess their teammates in the next columns, according to the same criteria.

Usually students are honest in their assessments, and on those occasions when students’ marks for themselves are very different from the marks their peers have given them, the instructor can see that and adjust the grade if deemed appropriate.

What would you suggest to instructors who are thinking about trying PA with their students?

I have four suggestions:

First, ask yourself, “What’s the actual goal of the activity? Why do I want students to do PA?” Explaining your rationale clearly to students can help them to understand why you are asking them to do PA, for instance, to develop their ability to give and receive constructive feedback. When students graduate and move on to careers in academia or industry, if they have a peer-reviewed paper or project, they have to be able to receive feedback. If the instructor doesn’t explain the goal of the PA assignment, some students may wonder, “Why would a peer be giving me feedback when we have exactly the same knowledge?”

Second, recognize that some assignments are appropriate for PA and some may not be. Some assignments might need to be adapted first. For instance, if an assignment is too long, students might be overwhelmed. So, you can shorten it.

Third, think about how you will do PA, and what software you might use (if appropriate). What support might you need to implement the assignment? I remind instructors that TLS offers consultations on many aspects of teaching, including developing assignments and using software to support PA.

Fourth, talk to your colleagues. Connect with other people to talk about how they have been using PA in their classes. I can give the whole theory and rationale for why PA can be useful, but the instructors are the ones who are actually doing it. Also, when instructors are in the same discipline, among themselves they can say, “How about trying XYZ?” Their background knowledge of the discipline impacts the questions they ask, and how they phrase suggestions, which can make a difference in how meaningful questions and implementation suggestions are to their colleagues. That way they learn about what their colleagues are trying in their teaching. The networking is really important.

Join the conversation! What PA assignment(s) have you asked your students to do? What suggestions about implementing PA would you like to share with other instructors?

Hacking myCourses: Printing quizzes

Teaching for learning blog - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 10:00

In this post in our new series “Hacking myCourses,” we look at a simple way to print out Quizzes created in myCourses. Just a quick reminder: we’re not actually hacking myCourses; we mean “hacking” the tools in myCourses to make them do something that isn’t obvious to do.


You may be in a situation where you need a PDF or paper copy of a Quiz created in myCourses, either to share with a colleague or to have a paper copy handy. Unfortunately, when you try to “print” a Quiz from myCourses, it doesn’t do it so nicely…

Step One

After you’ve created your Quiz, Preview it.  (Instructions)

Step Two

Once you’ve reached the page with your Quiz questions, print the frame in which the Quiz questions appear. You’ll need to use Firefox or Safari to do this.

  • (Firefox) Right click within the frame with questions > This Frame > Print Frame > Print to PDF.
  • (Safari) Right/command click within the frame with questions > Print Frame > Print to PDF.

This will generate a PDF version of your Quiz. You can save the PDF and/or print it.

Yes… there’s an added bonus!

This functionality allows you to use the “Shuffle questions” feature to generate random versions of paper-based exams. Random versions of multiple choice exams are required by the Student Assessment Policy (section 8.1.1).

Check off this box on the Quiz properties page:

Then, preview the Quiz as many times as you need; each preview will generate a random version. Print the Quiz following the instructions above.

Concerned about accidentally making the Quiz available to students? Make sure it’s set to Inactive. An inactive quiz is like having it in draft mode. You can still preview/print an inactive Quiz.

Pro-tip: make sure there are no page breaks in your Quiz.

Pro-tip #2: have a paper version of a Quiz that you want to put into myCourses? Try using Respondus, which is available for free to McGill instructors.

Looking for help on myCourses? Visit the TLS myCourses Tips page; check the index in the Knowledgebase for myCourses, or request a consultation.

The Lunch Spot: Let’s talk teaching

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 15:26

What do 2 prize winning instructors, 10 instructors from a variety of disciplines and TLS staff have in common? They recently came together for an informal lunch to share experiences, ideas, questions, and tips about teaching. As a newcomer to the TLS team, I was glad to be able to join them. It was an opportunity to hear about TLS services in depth, as well as what was on instructors’ minds. Together, they engaged in a spirited exchange on a variety of topics.

Discussing controversial subjects in class: While instructors agreed that it is important to let students express themselves and hear everyone’s opinion, it’s also important that all students feel comfortable. Professor Laila Parsons from the Department of History and Classical Studies shared her approach, which is to get student buy in around the content, avoiding the divisiveness of debating opposing opinions.

Getting students to read the material: Students do not always read the assigned material, often opting to use information found on the web. Opinions seem to diverge on this subject, with some instructors arguing this is the students’ problem while others argue that this made the instructors’ jobs more challenging as students may not be coming to class with the same knowledge base. One solution that was proposed was to embrace the students’ use of the web by allowing them to use it while answering difficult homework questions, forcing them to research the subject.

Allowing the use of laptops in class: Depending on your perspective, laptops can be a helpful tool or a big distraction. While instructors all agreed that seeing their students type furiously, or worse, browsing social media during their lectures is distracting to them as well as to other students, strategies to manage the distraction vary: some instructors limit access to the devices and use them to engage students in specific contexts, while others forbid laptops entirely.

The role of social media in the classroom: Informal Facebook groups are often created by students so they can keep each other updated on classes and work progression. The instructors that were present agreed that social media can seem intimidating and that they aren’t familiar enough with the existing platforms to use them as tools in their classes. Justin Fletcher from TLS pointed out that many similar tools are available on myCourses, including discussion boards.

Using polls in the classroom: While instructors don’t want their classes to turn into game shows, using pollling in class can help gauge student comprehension. Thanks to Polling@McGill, students can answer multiple choice or open ended questions directly from their laptops or cellphones with results becoming available immediately.

It was both interesting and rewarding to see both new and experienced instructors mingle and share opinions and strategies. The Lunch Spot was also a great opportunity to let new instructors know about some of our initiatives, and we hope you will be able to join us at the next one!

Hacking myCourses: Auto-grading open-ended quiz questions

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 01/18/2018 - 13:54

Welcome to our first post in our new series “Hacking myCourses”. We don’t actually mean “hacking” myCourses (as not to raise eyebrows at IT Security)… but rather, how can you “hack” the tools in myCourses to make them do something that isn’t intuitively obvious to do?


You may be in a situation where you want to grade open-ended questions automatically for completion rather than for correctness. Here is a trick you can use to auto-grade open-ended questions such that anything a student enters in the answer box receives full points.

Step One

When creating your Quiz questions, use the Short Answer (SA) question type, NOT Written Response (WR). SA questions are auto-gradable; WR are not.

Step Two

At the top of the page, click on the drop-down menu (downward pointing triangle at the top right corner of the frame) and turn off the new Question Creation Experience.

Step Three

Set your answers as “^” and “$”, and set the evaluation type to Regular Expression. What this does is mark anything entered in the box as full points.

Make sure to increase the number of rows and columns accordingly to make the answer textbox larger. By default, the textbox for a SA question is tiny because it is expecting single words or short phrases that can be automatically graded.

This is what your answer blank section should look like:

You can then preview the quiz and take the quiz in the Student View to ensure that any answer receives full points.

Note that you can change the point value for the question on the Quiz Properties page.

Looking for help on myCourses? Visit the TLS myCourses Tips page; check the index in the Knowledgebase for myCourses, or request a consultation.



eLATE Teaching Week: Professors open classrooms for peer observation

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 01/04/2018 - 09:00

Teaching can be an isolating endeavour. Instructors often prep material on their own, go to class, teach, and then go back to their offices. What they do in class is almost like a hidden act shared only between themselves and their students. Especially at a research-intensive university, instructors don’t always have opportunities or make the time to chat with colleagues about what goes on in their classrooms. But such conversations have the potential for being valuable in that they can inform instructors’ choice of teaching strategies; they can inspire and motivate instructors to innovate in the classroom.

For one week last semester (November 20-24, 2017), eLATE (Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Engineering) held its first Teaching Week, an initiative that addressed the isolation by providing an opportunity for instructors in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science to “open” their classes for observation by their colleagues. Faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and senior PhD students could learn from peers and see first-hand the implementation of a variety of teaching strategies. Some 15 professors from Architecture, Chemical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Physics, and Urban Planning participated. Those wanting to observe had to register for logistics reasons, but other than that, the event was fairly informal—there were no articulated learning outcomes and instructors were not being evaluated by their peers! By fostering peer observation and discussion of teaching practices, eLATE’s Teaching Week sought to build a community of practice to enhance pedagogical excellence in the Faculty of Engineering. The initiative included “coffee and chat” and “happy hour” gatherings where colleagues could reflect on and discuss the classes they had observed during the week.

Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde, an Academic Associate at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services who works closely with the Faculty of Engineering and plays a key role in advancing eLATE talked with me about Teaching Week.

Carolyn: What motivated the eLATE team to hold an open-class teaching week?

Maria: In 2016, several instructors asked me how to implement certain teaching strategies, but despite my best descriptive efforts, they had trouble visualizing how these strategies would actually play out in the classroom. Seeing demonstrations of specific strategies seemed like a logical way for instructors to develop their understanding of new teaching strategies. I did some research and found that other universities, such as Harvard and Yale, have open classroom events. The eLATE team adapted existing open classroom models to McGill’s context.

Carolyn: You’ve told me it was a successful event. How do you know it was a success?

Maria: Well, there are several indicators of success:

  • A larger-than-expected number of instructors was eager to open their classes for observation.
  • A larger-than-expected number of colleagues registered to observe classes. In at least one class, seven observers attended.
  • One professor told me that in the 21 years he’s been teaching at McGill, this was the first time he’d been invited to a colleague’s classroom, and he was delighted to have had the experience.
  • Soon-to-graduate PhD students who are seeking faculty positions found the observation opportunity valuable as a means for stimulating reflection on their own teaching ability.
  • Instructors said they wished the event could have extended over more than one week because scheduling conflicts with other commitments limited the number of classes they could observe.

We’re so pleased with participants’ reactions because Teaching Week is an example of how a culture of teaching has grown and continues to grow in the Faculty of Engineering. It’s the result of many years of working with the Faculty, and getting to know the people and their specific teaching interests. Opening classrooms for observation has been possible because of relationships built over time. Many years of eLATE activities have served to not only positively influence teaching practices but also to create a culture of teaching, where there is trust and openness. Teaching has actually become a topic instructors want to talk about.

Carolyn: Are there any plans to hold this event again?

 Maria: Yes! Instructors have requested a repeat event. In fact, they’ve requested to have it every term so that they can observe those courses that are offered only once a year. We’re also thinking about holding a teaching week for graduate students, where they can open their tutorial sessions for observation, for example. Another idea we’re developing is an “online teaching week,” which would involve a platform where colleagues could view one another’s online activities, such as videos used in flipped classrooms. Instructors are eager to see how colleagues implement teaching strategies online.

Have you ever observed a colleague teach? What did you learn from the experience?

Student Emails: A Creative Video Guide to Email Etiquette

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 12:31

While many students have mastered the art of email, others tend to take “poetic license” – unclear subject lines, omitted course name or student ID, or even an occasional use of an emoticon!

If you’re an instructor, suggest students hone their email communication skills by watching a short instructional video produced by Teaching and Learning Services. Share the link with students through myCourses and add the link to your course outlines!

If you’re a student, get together with some friends, take out some snacks, and sit back to enjoy this brief instructional video.

Interested in knowing more about writing emails to instructors? Check out Re: Your Recent Email to Your Professor and Email Etiquette: Guidelines for Writing to Your Professors.



Webinar: Simple Strategies to Improve Student Learning

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 12/08/2017 - 11:00

How can you help students connect related concepts in your course?

Join us for this second webinar in our series that will address questions and offer ideas on selecting teaching strategies based on how students learn.

  • December 13, 12:15-12:45pm: Connecting: Teaching students to organize knowledge

Register now online!

Helping Students Communicate Science – Beyond the Classroom!

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 12/07/2017 - 10:28

There’s a new course at McGill. It’s called Communicating Science (CCOM 314). Diane Dechief, a Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, designed the course and is teaching its first run this semester.

I interviewed Diane to learn what the course addresses and how she designed it. The first thing I learned is that communicating science is a growing interest for many scientists.  

Diane explained: There’s a movement, both online and off, toward increasing science communication. It’s a push for academics to become better at talking about their research to non-specialists, and for scientists, in particular, to assert their knowledge, control their message, and communicate with the public more broadly.

As examples, Three-Minute Thesis competitions for Ph.D. students are now popular internationally, including at McGill. And online, there’s the Twitter hashtag #scicomm: this tag is used when people post research findings intended for non-specialist audiences.

Carolyn: Who are your students and what do you want them to get out of the course?

 Diane: The students in this first run of the course are undergrads, largely in their final year. They’re from a variety of academic backgrounds, but mostly science — neuroscience, physiology, chemistry.

By the end of the course, I’d like students to be aware of real life opportunities for communicating science to a broader public. They should be able to explain theories or concepts from their field with an awareness of specific audiences, and to be intentional about using metaphors responsibly and avoiding jargon.

Imagine, for example, students majoring in physiology who want to become medical doctors. In addition to communicating within the medical community, they’ll need to communicate with patients. The course offers students the mindset and practice to do this.

Carolyn: What are the assignments?

 Diane: Students complete five assignments that capture a variety of genres and target different audiences. Each assignment requires drafts and revisions, and has interim steps that culminate in the final product.

The first two writing assignments are informative: a New York Times Trilobite-style piece, and a profile of a McGill researcher.

Read how undergrads in a Pharmacology course at McGill make findings from journal articles accessible to lay audiences.

An Op-Ed and a policy brief are the persuasive writing assignments. The final group project is a podcast that communicates science to Montreal high school students. Podcasts were included in our course “readings,” so we discussed models and anti-models throughout the term.

Carolyn: How do you make communicating science real for students?

Diane: One way is by inviting guest speakers who do the kinds of things we talk about in the course. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, was our first guest.

Photo credit: Torsten Bernhardt

Ingrid Birker, who does science outreach for the Redpath Museum, took us on a tour of the museum and shared techniques for engaging different types of audiences. Senior Communications Officer Katherine Gombay from McGill’s Media Relations Office also visited the class.

Katherine Gombay has a background in radio, and she did this beautiful thing where we listened to a podcast excerpt and we paused several times within the first 45 seconds to talk about what we were hearing and what effect what we hearing had on us. This activity impressed upon students the power of even the subtlest features of podcasts.

Additionally, the final drafts of three course assignments are posted on our private WordPress website. For me, as well as the students, seeing their written work in this “real world” environment is powerful. Students read their peers’ work with interest and even comment on each other’s Op-Eds.

Carolyn: How did you actually go about designing the course?

Diane: I began by reflecting on one main question: “What are the real life writing opportunities that students have and will continue to have throughout their lives?” The answer to this question led to the creation of the learning outcomes.

From there, I started brainstorming the assignments that would allow students to achieve the outcomes. I was able to get some valuable feedback from other instructors at the Teaching and Learning Services Course Design Workshop.

Photo credit: Owen Egan

During a group feedback activity, I presented my assignment ideas and asked about the utility of the assignments in light of my course goal.

One prof, who had done a post-doc in California, thought that the researcher profile assignment was really useful. He’d been interviewed and thought it was enriching for junior researchers as well as students to get that kind of interview practice.

Carolyn: I know you’re only part way through the course, but I’m wondering: do you know how students feel about the course so far?

Diane: Yes! I made a point of doing a mid-course evaluation. I provided several prompts and said: “Address as many as you want to; just write a paragraph or two and don’t write your name on the paper.”

One thing that I learned from the students’ responses was that although they hadn’t seemed keen to give oral presentations when we discussed the possibility in class, privately, a number of students really wanted to do this. I’m now teaching my students how to give oral presentations, and they are quite confident at the front of the class.

Carolyn: Creating a new course is a lot of work. You didn’t have to create a new course. What motivated you to do it?

Diane: There’s support at McGill for grad students and faculty members to become stronger communicators of their research. I work mostly with undergrads and I thought it would be beneficial for them to learn these things as part of an undergraduate education.

CCOM 314 is the kind of course I would have wanted in my undergrad degree. I now have a chance to give students a piece of education that has a strong potential for enriching them personally and professionally.

Carolyn: Teaching a new course can be a professional development opportunity for an instructor. Can you tell me about something you learned?

Diane: Communicating science to a variety of audiences is not easy, but it is increasingly important. Designing this course has made me realize that like anything, these communication skills can be developed: students need to learn and practice each piece and then have the opportunity to see the effect of putting all of the pieces together.

Do you have your students communicate science in different ways to different audiences? Let us know what assignments you give your students.

Upcoming Webinars for McGill Instructors: Simple Strategies to Improve Student Learning

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 11/20/2017 - 15:33

How can you help students remember more of what you teach them? How can you help students connect related concepts in your course?

Join Teaching and Learning Services for a webinar series that will address these questions and offer ideas on selecting teaching strategies based on how students learn.

  • November 21, 12:15-12:45pm: Remembering: Teaching students to remember important information
  • December 13, 12:15-12:45pm: Connecting: Teaching students to organize knowledge

We hope you can join us for a virtual lunch chat!

Register here.

How do I get students to engage with course readings?

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 10/19/2017 - 09:00

Co-authors: Helle-Mai Lenk, Emiri Oda, Diane Maratta

This post, co-authored by McGill instructor Helle-Mai Lenk, her former student Emiri Oda, and Diane Maratta, a Learning Technology Consultant with McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, describes the implementation of Perusall, a tool for engaging students with course readings by having them do online, asynchronous annotations in context to which peers can respond.

Helle-Mai: When asked what they find particularly challenging about their first year at McGill, the students in my McGill Writing Centre (MWC) courses inevitably mention the amount of reading. They feel overwhelmed by not only the volume but also the complexity of academic discourse. They look up unfamiliar vocabulary, pick apart complex sentence structures, and highlight what they consider key points, but it’s a long and arduous process. Often they’re bored; sometimes they get lost. In the courses I teach at the MWC, I aim to help students develop more effective strategies for reading academic texts, such as providing an active reading environment. I feel that an active reading environment improves engagement and comprehension. But how to tackle this challenge of not only getting students to read, but also to engage with the course readings? I sought help from Teaching and Learning Services (TLS).

Diane: During class time, many instructors use teaching strategies, such as inquiry and discussion, to engage students with course materials. However instructors are often uncertain about what strategies to use outside of class time. Common questions resurface, such as “How can I get students to generate and share knowledge outside of class?” or “How can I get students to engage with the content?” So, I often meet with instructors to guide them through the process of selecting and implementing online strategies that engage students outside of class time. Helle-Mai came to TLS searching for such a strategy: to have students actively engage with course readings. I suggested Perusall. Perusall is a collaborative annotation tool which allows students to read and mark up texts interactively online in small groups. Pedagogically, the tool has the potential to add value to students’ learning. It can enhance critical inquiry and foster social learning, and it offers the potential for debating perspectives and interpretations.

Since my role as a learning technology consultant involves guiding instructors with the choice of effective educational technologies, as well as implementing them effectively, I have to ensure that the technology does what it claims to do as a piece of software, and pedagogically, as a teaching or learning tool. At TLS, we tested Perusall to determine the learning curve required to use it both for instructors and students, the assessment value of the tool, and the potential for social learning. Such testing allows us to have an informed conversation with the instructor about the best way to implement the tool. Prior to implementation, Helle-Mai and I had some additional conversations about the way she would use the tool with her students, such as the size of the student groupings in Perusall.

Helle-Mai: In Fall 2016, I piloted a collaborative assignment with Perusall in one of my academic writing courses for students whose first language is not English. Academic English 2 (CESL 300) usually attracts students who are in their first semester. One of the assignments in this course is a 750-word problem-solution essay where the problem to be addressed is plagiarism. As sources for this essay, students are restricted to a list of ten readings on this topic, both scholarly and lay, from which they must cite a minimum of five. At least two of the sources cited must be scholarly articles on the list. For many students, this is their first exposure to peer-reviewed academic articles. Although we prepare for reading by examining the structure of scholarly texts and going over some pre-reading strategies, the actual reading of a specific scholarly article is done online using Perusall. Since the article chosen is one of the readings on the list, the students are motivated to read it because it will help them complete the essay assignment. Also, as plagiarism is a problem that engages the students personally, they’re interested in the subject matter. Finally, since they’ve already had an in-class discussion about the problem of plagiarism, they’re interested in comparing the solutions they came up with to the ones proposed in the reading by two university professors.

Labeled for reuse: http://www.usafe.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/257165/team-keeps-bases-communications-needs-on-track/

Intentionally, I kept the instructions for the collaborative annotation assignment broad and inviting.

For this assignment, you will annotate a text (Teh & Paull, 2013) collaboratively with two of your peers. The purpose of collaborative annotation is to promote critical reading and to stimulate discussion about the topic of Essay 2.

Today I will send you an access code. Log on to Perusall.com using Facebook, Google or Twitter. Enter the access code. Open the document and begin to mark up the text with marginal notes.

You can argue with the text, raise questions, make connections to other readings, evaluate it, extrapolate from it, ask for help if it is difficult to understand, assess its relevance to the essay topic, connect it to personal experience, express excitement at discovering new or surprising ideas, or any other reaction.

In order to get 3 marks, your annotations should be more or less evenly distributed throughout the text and the time period. They should include new comments and questions as well as replies and comments to existing threads.

The annotation period will close on Thur. Oct. 20 at 9 pm.

My goal was for students to read the entire 16-page article, engage with the content and develop knowledge by sharing ideas. I think I succeeded. Over the three-day period students had to do the assignment, all 24 students in my class participated and the academic article was marked up with almost 600 comments! Many of these comments illustrated insightful thinking and the comment threads suggested that students’ ideas were evolving as a result of peers’ comments.

Example annotations on Perusall site (https://perusall.com/downloads/scoring-examples.pdf)

Emiri: Perusall definitely supported my learning as I could share the readings collaboratively and annotate documents with ease. My peers and I could share opinions, discuss, and ask questions with one another. As the users can express their opinions and thoughts about whatever topics that intrigued them, I discovered new viewpoints and problems from others. Furthermore, the discussions I had with my classmates taught me some different approaches to controversial issues which brought new perspectives and solutions to our mind. Also, asking and answering questions about the reading helped our learning and deepened our understandings of the materials in the document.

Even though it was my first time using Perusall, I found it rather user-friendly. Firstly, logging into the software by Google, Facebook, or Twitter is highly convenient. Secondly, adding comments on the document is fairly easy. The users only have to select the sentences to which they want to comment and then a comment box automatically appears. It was never difficult to keep up with new comments since Perusall gives notifications. Lastly, the design of the software is very simple. On the reading screen, there are only a few function buttons beside the document which are easy to use and never bother the users reading it.

With Perusall, I can add underlines and take personal notes on the document on screen. It reduces the time and cost to use printers, so it’s environment-friendly. If more courses used Perusall, I would be able to keep all my assigned readings online; this would make it easier for me to revisit the readings and my notes whenever I want. In addition, the auto-save function of the software prevents me from losing all the study notes and highlights I took due to sudden system errors. Overall, Perusall has enabled me to learn more efficiently with my peers and I would like to keep on using such an easy-to-use learning platform.

Diane: If you’re a McGill instructor interested in engaging your students in their learning outside of class time, take a look at this Educational Technology Ecosystem for inspiration. Thinking of adopting a new educational technology? Use the Technology Implementation Plan (TIP), a thinking guide for implementing new educational technology in your class. For additional guidance on implementing educational technologies, request a consultation with a learning technology consultant at TLS. Finally, check out other strategies for getting students to engage with course readings on TLS’ How do I …? page.


Teh, E. C., & Paull, M. (2013). Reducing the prevalence of plagiarism: A model for staff, students and universities. Issues in Educational Research 23(2). Retrieved from http://www.iier.org.au/iier23/teh.pdf

How do you engage your students with course readings?

Getting Students to Take Responsibility for Learning

Teaching for learning blog - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 09:00

Maryellen Weimer from Faculty Focus published a short article on “Getting Students to Take Responsibility for Learning” on their blog.

I’ve been writing for years that we need to teach in ways that encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning. Recently, it became clear that my thinking on this needed more detail and depth. I’ve been saying that it means students should be doing the learning tasks that make them stronger learners. They should be figuring out what’s important in the reading, rather than having the teacher to tell them. They should be taking notes rather than expecting to get the teacher’s slides and notes.

It was a question in a workshop that made me realize my answer wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. “In a formal learning situation, like a course, what responsibilities do students have?” After further reflection, my answer to that question is that the responsibilities exist across three areas.

Students do have a responsiblity in the teaching and learning process and she provides some insightful ideas on how to think this through.

Do you have ideas on getting students ot take responsibility for learning in your class? Post them below!

Source: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/getting-students-take-responsibility-learning/

Getting students to focus on questions, not the answers

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 09/07/2017 - 09:00

On May 5, 2017, McGill’s Assessment and Feedback Group held an event entitled Getting students to focus on the questions, not the answers as part of its Brown Bag Series. To an audience of peers, two instructors described assignments they use in their courses that call upon students to create questions as a means for engaging them with course content and getting them to think about how they learn.

Below, Penelope Kostopoulos, a Faculty Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, describes her assignment. Carolyn Samuel, formerly a Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, describes her assignment in a post called What’s the prof gonna ask?

Turning the tables: Getting students to ask the questions

Let me introduce myself. My name is Penelope and I’m a member of the Assessment and Feedback Group @ McGill. I’m part of this group because I teach large introductory classes—200 to just over 650 students—and I love it!

What? You love teaching in ginormous auditoriums where students don’t know each other?

Yes! As daunting as it might sound, I love the challenge this represents. I want to harvest the great potential that lies in my students. I want students to actively engage with the course material and support each other’s learning.

But how?

Sure, I can ask students to pair with their neighbor to work on assignments during class time to encourage peer learning, but anyone who has attempted such learning activities in large classrooms will tell you that half the class will pretend not to understand where to turn to find their neighbor and will stare into space. In small classes, professors can go to students and facilitate interactions but, let’s face it, the vision of me jumping over seats to get the students that are sitting next to each other mute to start conversing is not one I would like to foster.

The idea for this assignment came to me while I was reading articles on teaching undergraduate psychology classes: I discovered PeerWise (Denny et al., 2008), a free web-based platform that allows students to create, share and evaluate multiple choice questions related to course material. I decided then to design an assignment where I turned the tables: instead of me giving students questions to answer, I assigned students the task of creating questions for each other to answer. 

Assignment description – The devil is in the details

Counting towards 10% of their final grade, the assignment asks students to create multiple choice questions on the course material on two separate dates and then answer each other’s questions prior to the midterm and final exam dates. Students receive grades both for creating and for answering and evaluating each other’s questions. Simple to setup and implement, and a piece of cake to grade.

Students create six multiple choice questions related to the course material. Each question has to include one correct answer and a minimum of three distractors. Students provide an explanation for the choice of correct answer and reasons why the distractors are incorrect.

Students then answer 20 questions created by their peers, rate them in terms of difficulty (easy, medium, hard) and quality (with a numeric rating), and provide constructive comments to the author. All of this is done anonymously, which promotes broader student participation in conversations. Note that, as the instructor, I can identify the students and intervene in conversations where students are clearly struggling with concepts or where questions are inappropriate. The platform allows students to filter questions: they can choose which ones to answer based on popularity among peers, level of difficulty, and number of comments received. Most importantly, students can filter questions by topic in order to hone in on areas where they feel they need more practice.

Students by and large create the required number of questions plus or minus a couple, but many students answer more and a handful of students have come close to—or even surpassed—answering 1000 questions! Overly eager? Maybe!

I think the gaming interface that awards badges to students for different actions helps. The gamification of something as dreaded as studying can be extremely motivating for students. As an instructor, I’m just happy to see students actively involved with the course material.

As an additional motivator, I let students know that I include at least one student-created question in each exam. How do they respond to that? I will let one of my students answer: “One of my questions got used on the final exam! It was amazing!!!”

 Student reaction to the assignment

Change in the classroom can be a challenge and is not always well received by students. I wanted to know how students felt having the tables turned with this assignment. So I surveyed them. To my delight, students’ responses have been overwhelmingly positive. They find the assignment:

  • easy to complete on the online platform (92%)
  • worth the marks allocated (86%)
  • helpful in increasing their understanding of the course material (86%)
  • helpful in encouraging them to think critically about the material (83%)

Fewer students, however, find the assignment helpful in preparing them for the course exams (66%) … But more on this later.

In addition to the positive survey responses, students indicated that they got a better appreciation for how difficult it is to create good multiple choice questions. They told me that they learned to value instructors’ efforts in designing their exams. Okay, okay … they might not have used those exact words. Turning the tables did, however, give them the opportunity to see things from the instructor’s perspective and they appreciated that.

Is the assignment effective?

Let’s recap: I designed the assignment to get students to actively engage with the study material and to encourage peer learning. I also wanted students to develop their skills in forming questions. Most importantly, I wanted to cultivate students’ metacognitive skills by having them  reflect on their learning.

So, while you’ll probably agree that, in theory, this assignment is great for achieving these outcomes, you might still wonder: Does it work? Does it really engage students in learning? To my delight, students do get involved in conversations about the choice of distractors or the applicability of a question to course material, and they do so in a constructive and respectful manner. It is not uncommon for a question to receive over thirty comments in a class of 200 students. These conversations definitely encourage peer learning. Students also indicate having a better grasp on their learning and how they are doing in their progress with this assignment. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a comment from one of my students: “I think that it’s definitely a great study tool that is made by the students through a collaborative effort. It’s a great idea.”

And do students use the assignment to prepare for course exams? The graph below shows PeerWise activity for one of my classes. Students clearly used the assignment to prepare for exams. However, in their feedback, many students indicated that it did not actually help them obtain better grades on the exams. With proper ethics approval, it would be worthwhile to find out whether or not that was really the case.

Lessons learned and words of wisdom

 The assignment has gone through some revisions over the course of three years and five classes where I have used it. Live and learn. Here are some of the updates that I thought are worthwhile sharing:

  • It’ s important to not only explain the assignment and show students how to write multiple choice questions, but to also provide students with detailed assignment instructions and written guidelines on what constitutes a good and a bad multiple choice question and how to go about creating good questions. Teaching assistants have always been helpful with this part.
  • Simply stating assignment requirements is not enough to get students to complete the task according to the instructions, especially given the multiple deadlines. I now use many different ways to highlight information in the instructions document: use BOLD, underline, change fonts, increase fonts, and repeat, repeat, repeat anything related to grading.
  • Following a discussion I had with the always helpful staff at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), I have added a twist to the assignment: I ask students to create questions at different levels of learning. Levels of learning are explained to students using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students have to create four questions that tap into lower level learning (i.e., questions that involve remembering and understanding) and two questions that tap into higher level learning (i.e., questions that involve applying, analyzing and evaluating).

And my final words of wisdom: If you decide to use an assignment like this in your course, encourage your students to be creative and I promise you will be rewarded. Usernames like one student’s choice of “afreudtolove” for my introductory psychology course make me smile. And I have a collection of Donald Trump questions from Fall 2016 that are extremely entertaining!

  1. Harry asked his friend Sally who she is voting for in the Presidential election. Sally said all her friends say Donald Trump is the smartest man alive, which must mean he is the best, so she will vote for him. What would we call the thinking trap Sally is caught in based on her reasoning?
    a) Not me fallacy
    b) Bandwagon fallacy
    c) Bias blind spot
    d) Emotional reasoning fallacy
  1. Trump is now the President of the United States! All his life, he possessed a strong desire to lead and dominate over others; from being a class monitor as a child, to a business mogul, and finally as President. The personality theory which best fits with Trump’s personality is:
    a) Carl Jung’s collective unconsciousness
    b) Henry Thoreau’s civil disobedience
    c) Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex
    d) Alfred Adler’s inferiority complex

Hover over this text for the answers!


Denny, P., Luxton-Reilly, A., Hamer, J. (2008). The PeerWise system of student contributed assessment questions. Proceedings of the Tenth Conference on Australasian Computing Education, Wollongong, NSW, Australia(78), 69-74.

How to get students to have productive discussions using clickers

Teaching for learning blog - Wed, 08/30/2017 - 11:00

PhysPort posted a great article on “How can I get students to have productive discussions of clicker questions?” on their blog on supporting physics teaching with research-based resources.

Clicker questions are increasingly being used to stimulate student discussion and provide faculty and students with timely feedback. Research suggests that discussing clicker questions can lead to increased student learning, and that students exchanging constructive criticism can generate conceptual change.

What can you do as an instructor to encourage all students to have productive discussion? We conducted studies of what students say to each other during clicker discussions when instructors use different instructional techniques. Here’s what we and others have learned and how you can apply it in your classroom:

Clickers has been a very useful strategy to engage students in class in many universities (including McGill), even in large class environments. In-class feedback can help students focus on what is important, practice problems or ideas in class and enage with their fellow classmates in discussion.

Polling@McGill can be used for free by any instructor, TA or student on campus. Students can use their own smartphones, tablets or laptops to respond in real-time to questions in class. If you are interested in using the system, just sign up on the Polling@McGill website.

Are you using Polling@McGill in your courses? Do you have any stories you would like to share? Let us know!

Getting Students to Attend to Important Course Information: First Day myCourses “Scavenger Hunt”

Teaching for learning blog - Mon, 08/28/2017 - 09:13

On the first day of classes, I, like other instructors, share either a hard copy or electronic copy of the course outline with students. (Actually, at McGill, the course outline must be provided to students during the first week of classes according to the McGill Charter of Students’ Rights (Chapter One, Article 10.2 – amended by McGill Senate 21 January 2009 – of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities, available as a PDF). I hope all students will be motivated to read it attentively on their own because it has information that is important for them to succeed at the course. But my hope has been repeatedly dashed. So, I tried a more directive approach: orally “walking” students through salient points of the course outline (can you say tedious?) and asking students to pose questions about anything that’s unclear. No questions. Great. It’s confirmation that I write clear course outlines. Probably not. More likely, students don’t have enough time to take in the content of this truly important document.

So, I switched approaches again. On the first day of class, students now have to engage in an awareness-raising activity whereby they have to find important information in the course outline. I’ve coupled this activity with another that allows students to learn to navigate the course website. I call the activity Find It in myCourses. It’s like an online scavenger hunt. From a list I’ve compiled over the years, I select 6-8 search questions that will draw students’ attention to important information in the course outline and to main features of the course website. Using a mobile device (e.g., laptop or tablet), students work in pairs or small groups to search for the answers. The activity takes 10-15 minutes of class time.

Find It in myCourses

Work in pairs or small groups to find the answers to the questions below. When you’ve finished, each pair or group should post the answers to the discussion forum in myCourses entitled Find It in myCourses. Include all group members’ names in the posting.

[Remember: I select only 6-8 questions.]

Find the course outline. Search it for the answers to these questions:

  1. Where are the assignments and assessments described? [I post the details and example assignments in myCourses, not in the course outline.]
  2. How should you submit your assignments?
  3. On which days will there be in-class quizzes?
  4. Will hard copy assignments be accepted?
  5. What’s the policy in this course for submitting late assignments?
  6. Where are the textbook and course pack sold?
  7. What does the policy on Academic Integrity say? Summarize it in 140 characters.
  8. How quickly will I (the instructor) reply to your e-mail or phone messages?
  9. What’s the policy in this course for the use of electronic devices in the classroom?

Return to the myCourses course home page and find the answers to these questions.

  1. What are the instructions for the first assignment?
  2. You will have online quizzes in this course. Find the Surprise Quiz. What’s the first question in the quiz? You don’t have to do the quiz.
  3. Find the supplementary course readings. What’s the title of the first reading?
  4. Which of the Quick Links are you most likely to use on a regular basis? [I’ve created a Quick Links widget for the home page.]
  5. What information is in the calendar under today’s date? [Assuming you’ve posted some information.]
  6. What information appears under Announcements? [Assuming you’ve posted some information.]
  7. Find the Email icon. Send me an email that says, “We’re really enjoying this activity.” [Humour can help establish rapport.]

I skim students’ answers before the next class to check that they’ve done the activity the way I’d hoped. To date, my hopes have not been dashed. If I do notice gaps in students’ ability to find the requisite information, I can address them in the next class or online by posting an “answer key.” I still state explicitly to students that it remains their responsibility to read the entire course outline, and I still provide students the opportunity to ask questions about the course outline and myCourses content.

While this approach to getting students to attend to important course information can benefit all students, it might be especially beneficial for students who are new to the university and/or unfamiliar with myCourses. This approach also encourages students to manage their course responsibilities. It makes it harder for students to say “I didn’t know which text to read” or “I couldn’t find the assignment instructions” or “I didn’t know we had a quiz today.” My hope is that students will be motivated and able to find the course information they need, thereby improving their chances of succeeding at the course.

How do you get students to pay attention to your course outline?

What features of your course website do you want students to pay attention to?

When preparing your course outline, check out McGill’s Course Outline Guide, which offers a template that you can use as you develop or revise your own course outline.

Interested in learning about the different myCourses features that are available? Check out McGill’s IT Knowledge Base: Index of Documentation for Instructors

Peer Assessment: goals, technology and student perspectives in a large, first-year course

Teaching for learning blog - Wed, 07/19/2017 - 09:00

A number of instructors at McGill have been integrating peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.

Lawrence Chen teaches Introduction to the Engineering Profession (FACC 100), a required course for all first-year students in the Faculty of Engineering. During a conversation about his experience with PA, he shared how he implemented PA in this course of approximately 400 students (across two course sections), and shared feedback from his students about their experience. 

What was the PA assignment?

Students had to propose how they would resolve an ethical issue described in a particular scenario. They had to justify their answer in view of theories we had covered in class. For the PA exercise, I gave students specific criteria to look for and instructions on how to assess the paper. Criteria included things like clarity and proper application of the ethical theories. 

What did you hope students would get out of the PA experience?

I wanted them to be exposed to PA, to learn how to critically analyze work, and to learn how to give and receive useful feedback.

I wanted to sensitize students to the notion and process of PA. In academic or corporate settings, you’re assessed by peers when applying for a grant or submitting a paper for publication. When it’s time for merit in companies, you’re assessed through a process involving several people. I shared a personal example of a journal paper that didn’t get the most glowing assessment, and explained that less-positive assessments can happen even when you think you’ve done everything properly.

I also wanted the students to develop their ability to analyze and critically assess written work subject to specific criteria. This involved providing not only a numerical assessment but also written feedback. I wanted them to learn how to provide useful feedback to each other. Feedback like “great job” with a numerical assessment of 10/10 is nice to receive but not so helpful if you don’t know what the peer is referring to. Similarly, feedback that just says “poorly written” without further explanation won’t help you understand what you could’ve done better. I wanted students to learn to accept criticism on their work and to figure out what to do with the feedback they received. You can be frustrated by the feedback, but maybe there’s an element of truth to it. Students have to look at their papers more objectively and think, “What should I do with the feedback I got?”

How did you help students prepare to assess their peers’ work?

I explained to the students that they have two roles: they’re authors and they’re reviewers. As authors and reviewers, I wanted them to develop their critical thinking, analysis and assessment skills. As authors specifically, I wanted them to learn how to accept feedback and deal with criticism.

I did a 30-40 minute in-class “calibration exercise” to help students prepare for PA. I gave them a couple of sample papers to read. I also gave them a rubric with scoring criteria. Students assessed the papers. They then discussed their assessments in pairs or small groups. After the discussion, I asked them, “How many of you assessed this paper within one mark of each other? How many of you assessed this paper more than two marks apart?” It became clear that the majority of the students had assessed within one mark of each other. This calibration exercise allowed students to see that they were assessing the sample papers in a relatively similar manner. Then I explained, “This is how I would have assessed this paper…” Generally, the assessments students made were not that far off from how I would have assessed the papers.

Could you talk about how technology supported the PA assignment?

The first time I did a PA assignment in this course (a couple of years ago), I had to do it manually. The logistics were challenging with such a large class. Now I use Peerceptiv, a software tool designed to support PA in large classes. It’s a phenomenal tool to help manage the process. I’ll explain.

The PA was a double blind process, so students didn’t know who they were evaluating or who was evaluating them (although I could see this information). There were five steps:

  • Students wrote their papers and submitted them through Peerceptiv.
  • Each student was assigned five papers to review. They entered their written feedback and a numerical assessment into Peerceptiv.
  • Students received the assessments from their peers and subsequently provided written feedback—and a numerical assessment—to the reviewers on how useful the written feedback was. Providing feedback on feedback in this way is called “back evaluation.”
  • The students then revised their papers and resubmitted them.
  • The revised papers were assigned to five other students for review.

The assignment rolled out over a nine-week period: two weeks to submit the first paper, two weeks to do the reviews, a week to do the back evaluation, a week to revise the paper, two more weeks to do the second round of reviews, and a week to do the second round of back evaluation.

Peer review exercise timeline

 How was the assignment grade calculated?

The assignment was worth 20% of the final course grade, broken down as follows:

  • 25% was based on timeliness – students had to submit drafts, peer assessments, revisions, and back evaluations on time.
  • 45% was based on the quality of the written feedback they provided on peers’ work.
  • 30% was based on the average numerical assessment from 10 reviews of their paper. Each student’s grade was the average of the 10 numerical assessments. There are a whole bunch of algorithms that are built into Peerceptiv, so it wasn’t just the raw average of all 10 student evaluations. If one evaluation was really far from the other four, the algorithms gave it less weight in the averaging.

Some students expressed concern about a portion of their assignment grade being decided by peers, but 6% of the overall course grade, (that is, 30% of the 20% assignment grade), is not a “make or break” kind of scenario.

What did the students think about the PA experience?

I explicitly asked about the assignment and Peerceptiv in the course evaluation: “The peer assessment assignment and using a peer assessment tool had a positive impact on my learning.” Here are the results (out of approximately 200 students per section):

Section 1 n=93 Strongly agree/agree 63 Neutral 23 Disagree/strongly disagree 7 Section 2 n=84 Strongly agree/agree 44 Neutral 21 Disagree/strongly disagree 19

Students also wrote comments in the course evaluation. Here are some examples:

  • “Peer assessment is really interesting and made me learn a lot.”
  • “It was interesting to see how other students view writing assignments and how they think and how they approach them.”
  • “People responded poorly to criticism.”
  • “I liked the honest feedback that people gave me. Some were easy graders but some were pickier over certain details.”
  • “Forced me to have a strong understanding of the theory from the class.”

While there was a wide range of comments, most of the students said it was a useful exercise and they would do it again. However, the ones who commented more negatively on it were clearly concerned about their grades. So in my mind, students’ feedback validates the experience. I’ll continue to have students do PA using Peerceptiv.

What would you say to an instructor interested in trying PA for the first time?

Go for it! Be clear in your explanations to students of what you want them to get out of the exercise. Explain to them that they can benefit from carefully considering the assessments from their peers, even if they don’t agree with them at first, as there may be aspects of their written work that they overlooked initially.

Also, ask for your students’ comments on their experience. It was some of their comments that made me realize that I would like to educate the students a little more about the PA process the next time we do this exercise.

If you do a peer assessment activity in your course, how do you (or how might you) gather feedback from students about their experience?

Sychronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students

Teaching for learning blog - Tue, 06/27/2017 - 09:00

Marie Norman from Faculty Focus just posted a very interesting article online on “Sychronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students“.

There’s a widely circulated YouTube video you may have seen called “A Conference Call in Real Life.” To spoof the strange, stilted dynamics of conference calls, it replicates them in a face-to-face setting. Participants stiffly announce their names at the door of a meeting room, are suddenly interrupted by bizarre background noises, and find themselves inexplicably locked out of a room they were just in.

If you haven’t watched it, do. You’ll recognize the familiar awkwardness of virtual meetings, where the rhythm of conversational interaction is thrown wildly askew by technological hiccups and the absence of visual cues.

Virtual space is not always easy.

Yet, virtual meetings are increasingly common, not only for geographically distributed work teams, but also for online courses.

So how do you teach in this odd virtual space? How do you keep participants from descending into that peculiar passivity characteristic of conference calls? And how do you help students fight the constant temptation of momentarily clicking away from class? While virtual classes are not without challenges, there are, in fact, concrete steps you can take to run class sessions that are energetic, interactive, and productive. Here are a few suggestions…..

…view the rest of the article on their site: Sychronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students

Are you interested in developing a synchronous online class? Come speak with and educational developer in TLS who can help you think about redesigning your class for a new environment.

Preparing students to provide constructive feedback on peers’ work

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 06/08/2017 - 11:15

A number of instructors at McGill have integrated peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.

Carolyn Samuel taught the course Academic English II (CESL 300) for several years through the McGill Writing Centre. In a conversation about her experience implementing PA, she described an assignment, explained how students learn to assess their peers, and offered advice for instructors considering implementing PA in their classes. 

Q: How do you use PA in your course?

I like students to get into the habit of doing outlines for their writing. So, for one essay assignment, I have students give one another feedback on an essay outline. I place students in private groups of three in a designated myCourses discussion forum. Students post their essay outlines to the discussion forum, and outside of class time, each student gives feedback to the other two students by posting comments to the discussion forum. I can access all the posts.

Students use the feedback to tweak their outlines. When students submit their essay drafts to me, they’re also required to submit the revised outline. I provide feedback on the revised outline and on the draft essay. Students use this feedback to revise their essays for a final submission.

Q: How do you prepare your students to give one another feedback?

Students learn outlining in class—we look at examples of outlines and critique them. I make a point of sharing examples of well-written outlines as well as some that could be improved. It’s important for students to see and reflect on ranges of assignment quality.

When we do the critiquing, I encourage students to reflect on the kinds of comments that would be helpful. So, when a student says something like, “I don’t understand that,” I ask, “Well, what can a writer do with that piece of feedback? How can a writer make it better just knowing that you don’t understand it?” Students are encouraged to develop an ability to provide feedback that is “actionable” and that will help writers improve their work.

An excerpt from the instructions students receive for the PA assignment

We also talk about basic feedback practices, like, if you have something negative to say, make it constructive, and also say something positive about the peer’s writing. Balancing favourable and less favourable comments is important.

Q: What can students comment on when they give feedback?

Typically, students are skeptical about their ability to comment on peers’ work. So, through discussions in class, we address what students can reasonably comment on and what kinds of feedback are helpful for their peers. I’m less interested in students addressing spelling mistakes, or grammar and syntax, areas that bear less on one’s ability to express and support an argument and that students might not be able to address. In this particular assignment, we focus on features like the quality of the thesis statement and the strength of the support for it. Students can also comment on the organization of ideas and the cohesion of ideas from one paragraph to another, even though the outlines are in bullet form. My goal is for students to read their peers’ work in a way they should be reading their own.

It’s worth mentioning that the PA assignment is graded. It’s not worth very much – just 5% of the grade, so it’s 2.5 marks for each of two pieces of feedback. Marks are awarded for constructive feedback, examples of which students have seen in class. I’m not overly strict, though. Essentially, if students have done it, and it’s constructive, they get the marks. If students provide feedback that’s unhelpful, like, “Your spelling isn’t very good” or “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I don’t award marks.

Q: What would you suggest to instructors interested in trying PA in their class for the first time?

The first time you do it, make it very low-stakes. It can be extremely challenging to implement PA. It’s challenging for the instructor in terms of logistics and pedagogy—you want to get them just right. And it’s often challenging for students, too, because many haven’t done it before. So start out with low-stakes, and try the same assignment more than one time. As you develop your expertise with PA, and if you feel it’s appropriate, then think about raising the stakes, or maybe increasing the complexity of the assignment. Just be kind to yourself and to your students as you experiment because PA takes some planning.

Join the conversation! What experiences have you had with PA in your courses?

New Peer Assessment Website launched by Teaching and Learning Services

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 06/01/2017 - 09:00

by Diane Maratta and Carolyn Samuel

Have you been thinking of using Peer Assessment (PA) in any of your courses? We, at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), have added a new “PA” section to our website with resources to support instructors who wish to implement PA in their courses.

As we’ve indicated on the website, “Peer Assessment refers to students providing feedback on other students’ assignments to help them improve their work.”

The new web content includes a best practices resource document to facilitate the instructor’s role in implementing PA. The site also has links to examples of guiding questions, rubrics, checklists, and rating scales for doing PA with a variety of written and oral assignments. If you’re wondering how PA actually plays out with students, check out some blog posts that highlight actual cases of PA implementation in McGill courses.

TLS recently launched these PA materials at a pilot workshop entitled Designing Effective Peer Assessment Assignments. The number of participants who attended suggested that instructors have a keen interest in PA.

The workshop was designed for participants to become familiar with best practices for implementing PA; leave with a plan for implementing PA in one of their courses; and be aware of resources to support PA at McGill.

Participants had the opportunity to begin drafting a PA assignment for one of their courses, and they got to engage in some peer feedback themselves!

Feedback from participants* suggests that the pilot workshop and companion resource materials were helpful:

I’m so happy, I’m leaving with a draft plan. In response to a comment made during the session, I actually like how you acknowledge that there isn’t a cookie cutter approach but we need to be able to justify our decisions.

I learned a lot about student buy-in. I think it’s a great idea to include the students in the development of the assessment criteria. I also appreciated the exercise of creating my own PA assignment. It helped me see the details I was missing.

Peer reviewing is worth doing even though it is challenging – it takes careful and intentional planning.

If you didn’t attend the workshop, you’ll find guidelines at the website on how to implement strategies that will foster student buy-in and support students with providing one another with constructive feedback. Instructors are also welcome to request a one-on-one consultation to discuss implementing PA in their courses.

Be sure to check the TLS calendar for future workshop offerings.

How have you used PA with your students?

*Feedback comments used with permission.

Peer assessment for sustained engagement in the writing process

Teaching for learning blog - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 09:00

A number of instructors at McGill have been integrating peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the experience.

Barry Eidlin teaches Sociological Inquiry (SOCI 211) in the Faculty of Arts. In a conversation about his experience implementing PA, he shared his rationale for using PA, some thoughts about the PA technology he used, and he offered suggestions for instructors who are considering implementing PA in their classes.  

Can you describe your PA assignment? 

In Sociological Inquiry, students develop a research proposal over the course of the semester, which happens in three steps: a preliminary research proposal, a complete first draft of the research proposal, and then the final version of the research proposal. The first two steps are peer assessed using a software program called Peerceptiv; the TAs and I grade the last step by hand.

Peerceptiv, software specifically designed to support implementing PA when many students are involved, also has important pedagogical benefits: students learn to see writing as a process, and get much more feedback on their work than they would if only the TAs and I were providing feedback. While the interface took some getting used to, Peerceptiv made it possible for my 120 students to receive individual, detailed feedback on their writing throughout the semester, something that wouldn’t have been possible for me to do alone – there’s simply not enough time.

Students provide feedback on three peers’ work and receive feedback from three peers, during each of the first two steps. In their peer feedback, students provide quantitative feedback (numerical ratings from 1-7) and qualitative feedback (written comments) on three different dimensions, or categories, of the assignment: the research question, competing explanations, and hypotheses. I give them a detailed grading rubric that describes these.

Why do you use PA?

I started using PA because I wanted students to grapple in-depth with the core ideas in my classes. These ideas are not well-suited to a multiple-choice exam form of evaluation. Using PA allows students to develop a research proposal in stages over the course of the semester in a large lecture class, via thoughtful assignments that get students more deeply engaged.

I didn’t want a final paper at the end without any sort of evaluation along the way, where students might just throw something together at the last minute. I wanted sustained engagement over the course of the semester, and the PA activity and software gave me a way to do that.

Working on an assignment over time is probably a better way of engaging with the material, and the three stages force students to spread out the workload, so I hope it reduces their end of semester stress levels.

I also thought that at a pedagogical level, it was important to expose students to other people’s writing process, in the sense that most undergrads typically encounter only two forms of writing: their own jumbled mess of ideas that they struggle through as they’re coming up with their own assignments, and the highly polished, revised, peer reviewed work that they read in their classes. They don’t immediately see anything connecting the two. And so it’s hard for them to understand that the polished writing they encounter in their classes started off as a jumbled mess of ideas.

Having students do PA exposes them to the idea of writing as a process—they see concrete examples, and it can help them see that they’re not alone in working through the writing process.

What would you suggest to an instructor interested in trying PA in their course for the first time?

They should do it! Especially with a large class, it allows the students to engage with the material in much greater depth.

Think very carefully about how you will guide students’ peer assessment, for example, by developing a grading rubric for students to use. Make sure to provide sufficient detail and guidance about the different dimensions (categories) of the rubric. Spend time in class explaining these to the students and walking students through what the process is going to look like – explain how the grade is distributed, make the evaluation process clear to them.

You’re always going to get some students who are fearful about what their classmates are going to think of their writing. You have to accept that and do some hand-holding to reassure them. One way to support students is by giving them hints for the review process. Here’s an e-mail I send students to help reduce their anxiety (which other instructors are welcome to adopt for their own students). As long as the students understand the process, it seems to work.


Want to explore PA further? Join us on May 25, 2017 for a workshop on Designing Successful Peer Assessments.

Join the conversation! Why might you consider using PA?


McGill University is located on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. McGill honours, recognizes and respects these nations as the traditional stewards of the lands and waters on which we meet today.