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Peer assessment for sustained engagement in the writing process

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?

Global Climate Models for The Classroom: Improving Science Education on Today’s Complex Socioscientific Issues

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 09:00

By Drew Bush and Renee Sieber

 Each week, we discussed how technology-based learning with a global climate model (GCM) impacted students. Most mornings, Drew also rode the bus to John Abbott College. Over the course of the winter term in 2014, he collaborated with a Geology instructor there to teach 39 students how to conduct research with an actual GCM from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Many of the students were shocked by their findings. They had been taught how to design appropriate modeling experiments, run simulations, post-process data, conduct visual analyses and interpret results. One student reported dismay at changes to ice cover at the poles. Others calculated an alarming estimate of global sea-level rise. More than a few realized that a favorite animal, tree or vintage could suffer with climatic changes. These findings were made despite the fact that few of our students had ever worked with computer models beyond “toy” models used to teach basic physics or those generated through statistical programs/Microsoft Excel.

The Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM) enables students to learn about climate change through inquiry instruction with a real United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) global climate model (GCM). It was the subject of interdisciplinary research in McGill University’s Department of Geography, School of Environment and Faculty of Education. (Image courtesy of The Educational Global Climate Modeling Project, Columbia University, NASA/GISS, New York, NY.)

A challenge of climate change is that it tends to be spatially and temporally distant. It is difficult for the majority of students to tangibly experience climate change[1] and most incorrectly associate weather events with it.[2] To compound the problem, climate change often is represented in politics and public discourse in conflicting manners. Even graduate students have trouble understanding the topic.[3] Research has shown that most educational models are based on the idea of a deficit, where students are considered empty buckets to be filled with more and more information.[4] Yet this instructional approach simply hardens positions on scientific issues that are politically controversial.

Our research reviewed educational theory and the literature on teaching science/climate change with science education technology to determine how best to overcome these obstacles. We found that instructional approaches that combine strongly guided student inquiry with scientific technology can impart deeper understandings and develop student higher order thinking abilities. Inquiry instruction emphasizes students posing their own research questions, evaluating evidence-based answers or explanations and communicating findings. What we still didn’t know after this review was what instructional approaches or technologies would prove most effective for climate change.

Drew’s doctoral work in the Department of Geography and McGill School of Environment examined the advantages and shortcomings of specific instructional approaches and scientific technologies for teaching science. Conducted in Dr. Sieber’s lab, the aim of this research was to determine an effective means for improving student comprehension of physical climate science and related policy. Our work also involved an interdisciplinary group of researchers located at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, NY and McGill University’s Faculty of Education.

This research embraced the techniques of educational research to compare learning gains between a treatment group that worked with Columbia University-NASA GISS’s Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM) and a control that listened to a lecture on GCMs and worked with climate education technologies suggested by the American Association of Geographers. These included the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s Very, Very Simple Climate Model, NASA GISS’s Surface Temperature Analysis Page and data/visualizations from sites like the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Our hypothesis was that by working with the technology and processes of climate scientists, our treatment students would better understand climate science and related policy. To measure learning gains and analyze the impact of our otherwise identical curricula, we used pre/post diagnostic exams, exit interviews and the minute-by-minute analysis of 535 minutes of class and lab video footage—among other research instruments. This approach allowed deeper interrogation of the technologies used.

EdGCM is based on a real GISS research GCM. Dr. James Hansen first wrote about it in 1983 when he used it, GISS Model II, to make predictions of global change[5]. EdGCM itself consists of a suite of user interfaces that allows students to design experiments by manipulating inputs, running the model and post-processing and visualizing more than 80 different variables. Other graduate students in Dr. Sieber’s lab have designed newer generations of this technology that work online and possess more intuitive user interfaces.

The control students showed us the power of a well-organized and clear lecture. On the post exam, they out-scored treatment students on five multiple-choice questions that tested recall of facts about GCMs. Yet only those students who had worked with EdGCM appeared highly motivated in their work and demonstrated critical thinking about the work of climate scientists and the issue of climate change.

All but one of our 12 treatment student groups posed climate research questions that interrogated the spatial components of climate impacts or relationships between human actions today and regional/global conditions in possible future climates. As a whole, these students also demonstrated significantly greater learning gains on pre to post exams than those in a control.

The implications of this work are clear. More students understood the complex science of climate change when exposed to actual research processes. More importantly, these students better understood scientific research on the topic, a key tool of researchers (the GCM) and how their own behaviors and social interactions can contribute to solutions.

Renee Sieber is an Associate Professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment and Head of Geothink, an interdisciplinary research Partnership Grant funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Contact her @re_sieber

 Drew Bush is a doctoral student in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. His doctoral work was supported through a Richard H. Tomlinson Fellowship in University Science Teaching and his efforts instructing graduate teaching workshops as a Tomlinson Project in University-Level Science Teaching Fellow. Contact him @drewfbush


[1]See Kearney, A. (1994). Understanding global change: A cognitive perspective on communicating through stories. Climatic Change, 27(4), 419–441.

[2]See Krosnick, J. A., Holbrook, A. L., Lowe, L., & Visser, P. S. (2006). The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: A study of popular concern about global warming. Climatic Change, 77(1), 7–43 and Akerlof, K., Maibach, E. W., Fitzgerald, D., Cedeno, A. Y., & Neuman, A. (2013). Do people “personally experience” global warming, and if so how, and does it matter? Global Environmental Change, 23(1), 81-91.

[3]See Sterman, J. D. (2008). Risk communication on climate: Mental models and mass balance. Science, 322(5901), 532-533.

[4]See Cooper, C.B. (2011). Media literacy as a key strategy toward improving public acceptance of climate change science. BioScience, 61(3), 231–237 and Pidgeon, N. F., & Fischhoff, B. (2011). The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change, 1(1), 35–41.

[5] See Hansen, J., Russell, G., Rind, D., Stone, P., Lacis, A., Lebedeff, S., Ruedy R. & Travis, L. (1983). Efficient three-dimensional global models for climate studies: Models I and II. Monthly Weather Review, 111(4), 609-662.

Implementing peer assessment for the first time

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 09:30

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.

Rhonda Amsel teaches Statistics for Experimental Design (PSYCH 305) in the Faculty of Science. During a conversation about her experience with PA, she shared how she implemented it for the first time in a 100-student summer course. Rhonda also offered suggestions for instructors who are considering implementing PA in their classes.

Q: How did you introduce PA to your students?

I explained to them very transparently that I had never done PA in a course before. I thought that PA might help students more easily see what I was looking for when I assessed them and see how other people answered the same questions, for clarity.

When you look at your own work, it’s very hard to see where you are being unclear; it’s much more obvious when you look at someone else’s work.

I also asked students to monitor if they were actually learning anything, so they were engaged as they tried to figure out whether the PA was helping them.

I started in the summer because it’s easier to try something out with a hundred students than with three hundred.

Because I wanted buy-in from the students, I explained what the purpose of PA is in terms of benefits to them. I think that students buy in easily when we try new learning strategies because they know that such strategies are aimed at getting them to succeed in the course.

Q: How do you use PA in your course?

The course has three assignments and two exams. The purpose of the assignments is for students to keep up with the work and force them to prepare for the exams. I started by trying PA with the first assignment. This assignment calls for very brief answers, some small calculations, and a tiny report. For the PA, the assignment was submitted twice, first as a draft for feedback from peers, and then as a final version that the TA and I graded. Students had to bring a draft of their assignment to class on the due date. I collected the assignments from the front half of the class and my TA collected the assignments from the back half of the class. Then, we switched assignments and redistributed them to the students so that they received an assignment that belonged to a peer not sitting near them. It took five minutes to switch the assignments. We had the students put an identifying number and their initials on the assignment so that it wasn’t clear whose assignment they had gotten. I prepared a cover sheet that had detailed criteria to look for, along with questions for peer assessors to address, such as: “Is this present and correct?” “Is this idea in the report?” “Is it clearly expressed?” In class, students used the cover sheet to respond “yes” or “no” to each question as we reviewed the assignment. And any “no” would require a resubmission to me and the TA. There was a place at the bottom of the form for peer assessors to put their own identifying number and initials because I wanted the peer assessors to be graded a little bit, too. The peer assessors each received half a point for completing the peer assessment.

After the students had provided feedback, my TA collected the assignments. She took them into the hallway, marked that the assignments had been received, checked for indications of lack of clarity (because the peer assessors noted when an assessment criterion was unclear to them) and then clarified, as necessary. Finally, she indicated whether resubmission was necessary. The TA also used the students’ initials to mark a last name on the assignment so that we could quickly hand back the assignments at the end of the class with no overnight turnaround. It was fast, which is nice in the summer when courses are short.

Q: What did you and the students think about the PA experience?

During the peer assessment activity, we heard from the students themselves as they tried to clarify points and as they brought up typical problems. To me, it’s that discussion that has value: it’s being in the class and hearing other students ask questions and getting something out of that, and hearing the responses, and then carrying on the discussion from there. It was exactly what I had hoped. I think this made it very clear to them that certain things are not of concern and certain things are of concern – the difference between a calculation mistake and a conceptual mistake, for instance. And the exams were very good at the end of the course.

We also had a discussion about the PA experience itself. It’s always interesting to see how the students react and it’s more helpful to learn about their reactions during the course rather than after. I had the class vote on whether or not to do another PA assignment. I asked, “How many of you really would rather not go on with it?” Only two students raised concerns about their ability to assess peers, and these concerns were easily assuaged. So, it was agreed we would try it again because the students felt that it had value. In anticipation of the next assignment, we talked about what problems they had had doing PA and how the activity could be amended for the next time, such as what we could fix on the cover sheet.

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

Be familiar with your course: I wouldn’t try PA the first time teaching a course. I would teach it several times with more traditional assessment methods so that I could think about where PA would have the most use.

After doing the PA, ask the students what you can do better the next time, or even if you should do it a next time. It’s really a matter of assessing whether PA is having the desired impact. And who better to tell you than the people who are experiencing it?


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

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

The benefits of reflective journal writing

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 09:00

As a practicum student at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, I have been examining the role of reflective journals in post-secondary classrooms.  Throughout the course of my research, it has come to my attention that, while they are used frequently in the instruction of disciplines like English and Theatre, reflective journals can actually be a helpful learning tool for a much wider range of subjects (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Stevens & Cooper, 2009).  In fact, they are becoming more popular in law schools, and even in science classrooms (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Ogilvy, 1996).  Skeptics insist that journal writing is nothing more than busy work for students and a lot of unnecessary extra effort for instructors.  However, those who view journals as constructive have demonstrated that, when properly implemented, engaging students in the exercise of journal writing can be beneficial to both students and their instructors.         

Journal writing can allow students to reflect on new knowledge learned in class, solidify their learning experience by recording their evolving thought process as they progress further in the course, learn new material, and form new conclusions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 3).  It can also teach them to formulate new opinions and perspectives, and gives them a risk free venue to explore, think, and practice skills learned in class (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 9; Fenwick & Parsons, 2000, p. 155).  Students who write regularly in a journal consistently see improvements in their writing skills, as well as their creative and reflective thinking (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 15-16, 33).

When students write journals for class, it not only helps them, but their instructors as well.  Instructors who assign journal writing to their students often see an increase in participation from their students: having to respond to class material in writing encourages students to do the readings, as well as participate more in class discussions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009, p. 11).  In addition, from reading journal entries, instructors can see which concepts were understood by their students, and which ones may need revisiting (Mills, 2008).  Finally, through the use of assigned journal writing topics, instructors can guide and focus their students’ learning, emphasize important concepts from the lectures, and challenge students to employ their critical thinking skills (Mills, 2008).

While such potential benefits can be appealing, it is not always clear how to go about developing and implementing a reflective journal assignment. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when introducing journal writing to a class:

  • Be clear about the journal’s purpose

Whether it be to voice personal feelings and responses, develop and apply critical thinking skills, or some combination of these, communication of the journal’s purpose to students is essential.  This purpose should also be reflected in the journal’s evaluation, as well as the type of writing involved (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Offer personal examples to help students understand what is expected of them

One of the best ways to communicate to students what is expected of them is to provide an example.  Having a concrete idea of what their instructor is looking for gives students more confidence that they are capable of creating an acceptable product, and takes some of the ambiguity away from journal writing (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000).

  • Evaluate only journal content, not form, spelling, or grammar

Insisting that students revise, rewrite, or edit their journal entries may effectively defeat the purpose of writing them in the first place.  It could cause students to be afraid of making mistakes, thus restricting their creativity, curiosity, and honesty.  This could in turn have a negative effect on the development of reflective writing skills.  Errors made in a journal setting occur because the journal is doing its job of encouraging students to try new things (Fenwick & Parsons, 2000; Marsh, 1998).

Journal writing may be new to many instructors, while other instructors have been using it for years.

  • To those instructors who are interested in integrating reflective journals in their courses: what questions do you have? What interests you about this exercise?
  • To those instructors who have experience with the use of journal writing: Which aspects of this activity worked well, and which could use some fine-tuning? Why did you decide to incorporate reflective journals? What suggestions do you have for instructors who are considering this activity for the first time?

If this is a topic that interests you, stay tuned for our next blog post that will discuss common concerns regarding journal writing, and how to minimize them. For more information on best practices for journal writing:

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: how to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/646821096


Fenwick, T., & Parsons, J. (2000). Toolbox 2: Assessing learner journals. From The Art of Evaluation: A handbook for educators and trainers. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc. pp. 155-161. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/243514524

Marsh, S. (1998). Widening the lens of diversity: Motivating reflective journal writing. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Diego, CA. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED418425.pdf

Mills, R. (2008). “It’s just a nuisance”: Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal, 42(2), 684-690. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61951506?accountid=12339

Ogilvy, J. (1996). The use of journals in legal education: A tool for reflection. Clinical Law Review, 3, 55-107. Columbus School of Law. The Catholic University of America. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.edu/scholar/264

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: How to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications. WorldCat: http://mcgill.worldcat.org/oclc/646821096


Thank a Prof now available

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 09:00

Thank a Prof. Thank a Prof? Yeah, Thank a Prof! McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) recently launched an initiative that encourages students to thank profs (i.e., any instructor at McGill) who have made a difference in their lives.

How does it work? It’s simple. Students log in to the Thank a Prof website. They type a message in the textbox that explains why they’d like to thank a prof and then click “Submit”. TLS receives the thank you messages and sends a congratulatory letter to the prof by email that includes the student’s message but not the student’s name. Students can choose whether or not they want their comments to be published on the “Thanked profs” web page (coming soon).

Judging by the student messages submitted to date, McGill has some pretty passionate and dedicated profs! Check out these example student messages:

These brief, yet sincere messages have impact. Profs have been delighted to receive thanks from students and they’ve let TLS know with messages of their own, such as:

Having been the recipient of one of the student messages myself, I’d like to add my own thanks to TLS for launching the Thank a Prof initiative. Teaching is exhilarating and fun; it’s also hard work and challenging. Occasionally, it gives me knots in my stomach, and it can make me feel incredibly frustrated. Trite as it might sound, a thank you from a student makes it all worthwhile.

Have you made a point of thanking a prof who made a difference in your life? What inspired you to thank him or her?

Check the Thank a Prof website later this month for a list of McGill profs who have been thanked by students.

I came upon a student in distress

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 14:55


One afternoon last fall, I went to the washroom in the McLennan Library. Unexpectedly, I heard sobbing coming from one of the stalls. I bent over to look for the shoes that would indicate which stall the sobbing was coming from. I saw the shoes; I also saw a bum in jeans. Someone was sitting on the floor of the stall sobbing uncontrollably. I knocked on the door and asked, “Do you need help?” No response other than more sobbing. I knocked again. This time I said, “My name is Carolyn Samuel. I work down the hall at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). Can you open the door?” There was no vocal reply, but I heard the latch click. Gently, I pushed the door open. She was a student. She sat sobbing and didn’t even look up when I opened the door. I asked if I could put my hand on her shoulder. She nodded. I was hoping the human touch would provide her with some comfort in what was clearly a time of despair. “Can you tell me your name? Your first name only.” She did. With some coaxing, we went together to my office. She continued to sob. I asked only a few questions. She was an undergraduate student from Toronto. It was her first semester. She felt she was falling behind. She agreed to walk with me to the Office of the Dean of Students. On the way, she stopped suddenly. Still sobbing, she blurted, “I can’t go! I have to be in class now or I’ll fall behind even more!” She was in no condition to go to class. With a little more coaxing, we made it to the Brown Building, where I left her in the hands of the staff at the Office of the Dean of Students.

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you found a student in distress on campus? If you’ve never thought about it, you probably should. A 2014 study of McGill students’ psychological wellbeing reveals data on the percentages of respondents who reported taking a prescribed medication for a mental health concern and who indicated that they seriously considered attempting suicide while at university. The numbers suggest that there are students in distress around us.


“Helping Students in Difficulty” documentTLS and Counselling and Mental Health and Services recently co-facilitated a Mental Health 101 workshop for instructors, advisors and staff in the Faculty of Management. One of the messages we hope was a “take away” for participants was that helping a student in distress doesn’t mean you have to be the problem-solver who makes everything better. You can be the person who leads the student—by giving the phone number to Counselling and Mental Health and Services, showing the website of counselling services offered, or walking the student to the Office of the Dean of Students—to the people who are in a position to help.

Check the Helping Students in Difficulty document (formerly known as the “Red Folder”) to find out what to do and who to contact in emergencies, crises and worrisome or difficult situations. If you’re an instructor and you believe a student is in distress, use the Early Alert System in myCourses. And with final exams coming up, let students know to look for therapy dogs on campus.

How have you helped a student in distress?


DiGenova, L., & Romano, V. (2014). Student psychological wellbeing at McGill University: A report of findings from the 2012 and 2014 Counselling and Mental Health Benchmark Study. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/counselling/files/counselling/student_psychological_well-being_at_mcgill_december_2014_final_3.pdf







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

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

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?

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

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

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:

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Creativity (and why it’s important)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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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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.