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Succeeding on Multiple-Choice Exams: A new SKILLS21 workshop for students

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 09:00

Many are probably familiar with the idiom about the certain inevitability of death and taxes.  For undergraduates, particularly in the earlier stages of their academic journey, there is another absolute: multiple-choice exams. To mitigate this inevitability, and to build students’ capacity for succeeding on these types of exams, McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) is now offering a new, 90-minute workshop: Strategies for Succeeding at Multiple Choice Exams.

The multiple-choice question (MCQ) is an effective and versatile assessment strategy. For example, an exam composed of MCQs can align with any level of cognitive complexity covered under Bloom’s Taxonomy (excluding creating); but this is, in part, what makes such exams difficult for test-takers. Other challenges can include discerning the ‘best answer’ while simultaneously rising to the task of higher-order learning or choosing between more than five alternatives. But, perhaps the most general and pressing challenge from the student’s perspective is that not all MCQs are created equal – for students, there will be good questions and there will be bad poorly constructed and ineffective questions. Given this reality, how can we provide support for students so that they’re capable of demonstrating their learning through MCQs without being confused?

 Strategies for Succeeding at Multiple Choice Exams aims to support students’ ability to approach MCQs by strategically preparing for exams, applying practical and effective techniques in answering questions by breaking them down, and understanding how to use exam results to enhance overall learning. There are two essential components to this workshop that make it a novel approach to McGill’s culture around teaching and learning. First, the workshop draws from a staple TLS-offering for instructors on this same topic: Designing Effective Multiple-Choice Exams (MCQs). As a result, the message around MCQs is aligned for both students and instructors, which contributes to coherent messaging on this topic within the McGill teaching and learning context. Second, the main takeaway for students is a technique captured by the acronym READY, which stands for read, examine, alternative, delete, and yield. In brief, READY is a critical thinking process that allows test-takers to go step-by-step through a challenging question, one which helps the students who have studied engage in a way that can demystify the question’s potentially confusing aspects. Instructors have to use multiple-choice exams and students have to take them, so the workshop provides the strategies for students to navigate the MCQ and demonstrate what they know through their exams.

To conclude: although legal considerations inhibit any ability to avoid taxes, and practicing existentialists are still working on the inevitable reality of human finitude, the least we can do, as student learning and development professionals, is provide solid support to undergraduate students and their success in dealing with their inevitable reality: the multiple-choice exam.

 McGill instructors interested in recommending this workshop to their students can encourage them to get started by registering for SKILLS21.

 

Should McGill’s Faculty of Law make a pass at a pass-fail system

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 09:00

“Given that the time and stress associated with grading has the potential to distract instructors from other, more meaningful aspects of teaching and learning, it is perhaps time to begin scrutinizing our tacit assumptions surrounding grading.”

– Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner (2014)

Pass-fail grading was proposed as a non-competitive alternative to the traditional letter grading in the mid-1960s. Since then, medical programs across Canada and the United States have shifted to the pass-fail model and have reported improvements in academic performance and the overall well-being of students. Following suit, several law schools in the United States now use the pass-fail system, including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Yale. Just recently, the University of Toronto also switched to the pass-fail model. This begs the question: is it time for McGill Law to drop letter grades in favour of a two-tier grading system?

McGill Law is currently experimenting with the pass-fail grading system for a four-credit course titled Integration Workshop. As a Tutorial Leader (TL) in this first-year law course, I have been exposed to its many benefits. However, before diving into why McGill may consider moving away from the traditional five-interval grading system (A/B/C/D/F), it is worthwhile mentioning the criticisms of the pass-fail system.

Proponents of the traditional grading system often insist that grades are necessary in legal education to allow employers to distinguish among candidates. Although applicants submit a cover letter, CV and transcript, it is no secret that a high GPA guarantees you an interview. This goes hand-in-hand with the common myth that law school grades are a good predictor of who will become a good lawyer. However, a study from Harvard debunked this false assumption when it found that grades are not actually predictive of partnership in law firms – a possible measure of a lawyer’s success.

It is not surprising to find that grades are an inaccurate reflection of who will be a good lawyer, especially when you consider the lack of objectivity of grades in law school. I am not convinced that if you were to give two professors the exact same copy of an exam they would award that exam the exact same number of points. Although rubrics may help, my experience as a TL has shown me how hard it is to be consistent in grading. It is easy to give a lower-than-deserved grade to a paper after having read an excellent assignment. After grading my first set of assignments, I found myself having to go back and adjust grades to ensure consistency.

Another criticism of the pass-fail model is that grades are needed as a source of motivation. But is it really that naïve to expect students to pursue knowledge for its own sake rather than for a grade? Although many may answer this question in the affirmative, I believe that the situation in law school is different. The majority of students already have degrees and are in school because they want to be. At McGill Law, where students have come from being the highest ranked in their undergraduate courses, I doubt that a pass-fail model would decrease student motivation and effort. In my classroom, I am always amazed by the level of student engagement and enthusiasm in activities that are not graded. A study conducted at the Mayo Medical School further rebuts this argument by revealing that letter grades simply change intrinsically motivated learners (influenced by internal and personal motivating factors) into extrinsic learners (influenced by someone else trying to motivate you to do something).

This same study conducted at the Mayo Medical School reveals the psychological benefits of a pass-fail grading system. In 2006, the medical school changed the grading system for first-year courses from the traditional five-interval grading system to a pass-fail grading scheme. The cohort of students evaluated using a pass-fail grading system reported statistically significant less anxiety, depression and stress. The students also exhibited better well-being and group cohesion (less within-group competition) compared to their five-interval graded peers. These benefits were shown to continue to the end of their second year, even though the grading reversed to the traditional five-point system in second year. These benefits are not something to overlook in legal education, especially as depression rates amongst students continue to increase.

Furthermore, my experience is that without a strong emphasis on grades, students are more inclined to participate in classroom discussion. Students seem less concerned about competition, their status in relation to others and the opinion of the professor. This is clearly illustrated in the level of participation during the Integration Workshop. Students seem less afraid to ask a “dumb question.” The traditional grading system may therefore be inhibiting students from participating, a very important learning strategy.

The psychological benefits definitely seem to give the pass-fail system an advantage. Will McGill be the next law school to embrace these benefits?

 

Strategy Bites: 4 corners

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 09:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

 Strategy: 4 Corners

Students can learn by building on each other’s ideas. The 4 Corners strategy allows students to do this in an active way.

Why use this strategy?

Traditional lecturing is generally a teacher-centered approach to learning and tends to take place in a stagnant environment: the professor lectures, and the students sit and listen. If you’d like to increase engagement, encourage discussion, and have students think critically, the 4 Corners, or “write around the room,” teaching strategy may be a worthwhile activity to try. It’s a unique and engaging way to get students out of their seats, working in groups, and inspiring each other with ideas for a discussion or debate.

What I appreciate most about this strategy is that it gives students the opportunity to build on each other’s ideas. After completing the 4 corners, all students have been exposed to their peers’ thoughts and responses, giving them insight into their different values and opinions. Like other teaching strategies, such as think-pair-share and brainstorming, students build on each other’s work, making the experience a more student-centered learning approach.

You may choose to use this strategy as a warm-up activity before a lecture to raise students’ awareness of what they already know about the topic or as a follow-up activity where students can reflect on what they’ve learned. Also, students will appreciate the opportunity to physically move around the classroom. The movement can create a more dynamic learning environment and offer an exciting change from the usual inactive lecture format. After all, movement and interaction are a fantastic way to energize your lectures and stimulate learning!

Would you like to know more?

Interested in how physical activity can support students’ learning? Check out this research told by a winning SSHRC Storyteller.

Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series:

What strategies do you use to get students out of their seats and engaged in learning? Share your ideas!

Looking for simple teaching strategies to improve student learning? Access a TLS webinar series on video

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 09:00

Are you looking for simple teaching strategies to improve student learning? If you are, check out the webinar series Simple Strategies to Improve Student Learning. This series of four webinars draws on Prof. James Lang’s popular book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning to offer instructors teaching ideas that:

  • Require minimal preparation
  • Are 5-10 minute classroom or online activities
  • Can be one-time interventions

The series was offered last year. Webinar recordings are available to the McGill community. Sign in to OneDrive. Select Video > Channels > Teaching and Learning Services to watch these video recordings:

 

Remembering: Teaching students to remember important information

 

 

 

Connecting: Teaching students to organize knowledge*

 

 

 

Deliberate practice and feedback makes progress: Teaching students to develop expertise

 

 

 

Sustaining motivation: Engaging students in their learning

 

Post a comment to let us know which of these strategies you decided to implement!

 

References

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

E-book available in the McGill library.

*Due to a technical difficulty, the beginning of this webinar was not recorded.

Peer assessment and the challenge of receiving feedback

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 09:00

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

 Dr. Claire Trottier teaches Introductory Immunology (MIMM 214), a required U1 course for 300+ students majoring in microbiology, immunology, anatomy and cell biology. During our conversation, Claire shared how she implemented PA in this course, reflected on the challenges of receiving feedback from peers, and offered advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses.

What motivated you to try PA in this course?

First, I wanted to fulfill one of the Microbiology and Immunology program outcomes, which is that students develop their ability to communicate to a non-scientific audience. Since it’s difficult to put together an instructor-graded communication assignment for 300 students with limited TA support hours, PA seemed like a good alternative. Second, peer review is such an important part of science, and it has a difficult learning curve. PA allows students to practice peer review as they learn how to give and receive feedback. Third, PA sensitizes students to how much work professors do when they’re grading: Students say, “I spent four hours on just a few reviews” and I’m like, “Yes.

Can you describe the assignment?

The students write a newspaper article—two pages, double spaced—on a topic of their choice related to immunology. They also fill in a questionnaire (pp. 1-2) where they describe their topic, including how it connects to the course content and why they chose it, a specific audience for their article, and where they would publish their article. Their newspaper articles end up being about a huge variety of topics, aimed at different non-scientific audiences. Each article is peer assessed in two rounds. Based on feedback from the first round, students revise their assignments and then submit the revised versions, which are also peer assessed.

I have a detailed rubric with specific prompts that I ask students to answer when giving written feedback. They see the prompts in advance so they know what to expect. I provide examples of good feedback, medium-quality feedback and bad feedback in an online document, and this year I plan to record a short video to post online that will discuss both how to give feedback, and the process of receiving feedback.

How much is the assignment worth?

The assignment is worth 25% of the course grade and is based on the feedback from their peers. This grade is calculated by the software and incorporates a number of factors, including accuracy of the student’s grading and timely submission of reviews. Students spend a lot of time on the assignment, including the PA component, so I feel like that should be reflected in how much the assignment is worth.

 How is the assignment graded?

In 2019, this 25% is divided up as follows:

Assignment task % of assignment % of course grade Round 1: draft

  • 65% for writing the newspaper article
  • 35% for reviewing peers’ writing (PA)

40%

  • 26%
  • 14%

10%:

  • 6.5%
  • 3.5%
Round 2: revision

  • 65% for writing the newspaper article
  • 35% for reviewing peers’ writing (PA)

60%

  • 39%
  • 21%

15%:

  • 9.75%
  • 5.25%

In 2018, after I explained the assignment and grading, I used a polling question to have the students choose between several grade weighting options for writing the newspaper article vs. reviewing other students’ newspaper articles. The option that got the highest number of votes was then implemented. I had done modelling with my grades from the previous year to get an idea of what impact each option would have on their assignment grade, so I gave options that I would be okay with. In 2018, the greatest number of students voted to have writing the paper be worth 65% and to have the reviewing (PA) portion be worth 35% of the assignment. That was interesting because in 2017, I got complaints from students about the distribution of the grade. They felt that at 25%, the PA portion was worth too much. Yet the 2018 students chose to have more weight on the PA portion. I did the same polling exercise at the end of the semester, and the majority of students chose the 65/35 option, so I’ve decided to stick with that in 2019.

How did students do in terms of giving or receiving feedback?

While we may think more about students learning to give constructive feedback, learning to receive feedback can be very challenging, too. Receiving feedback involves dealing with the emotions about the feedback. Sometimes the feedback is good and you’re going to make a change based on the feedback; other times you’re going to disagree with the feedback and that’s okay, too. Either way, going through that process is important.

This year I used Peergrade software to manage the logistics of having 300+ students do PA. [Editor’s note: To learn more about Peergrade, fill out this form.] Peergrade includes a flagging system: If a student doesn’t like the feedback they received for whatever reason, they can flag it. Also, if a reviewer gets a bad back-evaluation—that’s feedback on the feedback they received—they can flag it. I had about 150 flags for the first round of PA! I reviewed the flags one by one to determine which ones required action, which was time consuming. Action might involve adjusting a student’s grade or revisiting with the class what constructive feedback looks like, for example. It’s true that there were a few students who graded really harshly. But in some cases, the flags showed that students were working their way through the emotions of getting the peer review: they felt upset by something someone had written. I understand that! Sometimes when I get feedback, my initial reaction is pretty strong, too. Then you sleep on it, and work through it.

I model how to cope with feedback in class by doing a mid-semester survey to invite students’ feedback on the course. I tell them that there are a couple of reasons I do the survey. First, I want their feedback so I can see if I can improve, and I want to be responsive to their needs. Second, it’s a way for me to show them that it can be difficult to get feedback, and that’s okay. I explain in class that here’s a piece of feedback and, you know what, this is a really good idea and I’m going to do it. And then here’s another piece of feedback that’s an interesting idea, but I’m not going to do it, and this is why. So I try to model it that way.

Did you see a difference in students’ feedback between the first and second rounds?

The quality of the written feedback improved substantially from the draft to the final version. There were more detailed examples, much more specific and constructive feedback. In 2018 I gave them prompts like “how did the author communicate enthusiasm for the subject to their chosen audience?” and then, “how could the author make this paper more engaging for the audience?” So some people said, “this sentence was confusing”, and then they quoted a sentence and said, “Maybe this is how you should phrase it…” with really specific examples, rather than “Just try to make it more peppy.” As authors in the first round they got feedback from three reviewers, so they also saw what others were doing and they could learn from it. This year I have modified the prompts so that they are more closely associated with the numerical criteria on the rubric; this was a suggestion from several students last year to improve the feedback process.

What advice do you have for instructors interested in trying PA?

  • Include some students in designing the assignment. I asked a couple of students, “Are the instructions clear?” “Is the rubric clear?”
  • Be explicit in class about your expectations and create a rubric to accompany the assignment. You might base it on a rubric that worked well for you or a colleague in the past.
  • The prompts for students to provide written feedback on one another’s work should be specific and designed to elicit what you want the students to get out of the assignment. Students may find it more difficult to respond to general prompts.
  • Don’t underestimate the amount of time PA can take in terms of how to guide the students through it and deal with technical logistics.
  • Make sure the students know that it can be difficult to accept feedback, and that’s okay. That was really important for my students to hear.

Readers: How do you help your students learn to be receptive to feedback from peers?

Check out Teaching and Learning Services’ other peer assessment resources.

 

Teaching for anxiety

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 09:00

In a 2017 mental health survey of the Faculty of Law, 89% of students reported having experienced psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety in the preceding three months. The 2017 survey identifies a lack of clearly communicated expectations and lack of detailed, constructive feedback as contributing to the mental health situation in the Faculty of Law.  

Other authors have suggested that the epidemic of stress and anxiety amongst law students is due a shift to “survival mode” that happens in law school, as well as a lack of productive role models in the context of law school stress. Tutorial Leaders (TLs) for the first-year Integration Workshop are well placed to help first-year students adapt to the demands of law school.

As a TL, I have been struck by the extent to which students express anxiety in the questions they ask. They worry about learning quickly enough and in the right way; they worry about getting the right answer and getting good grades. They are eager to be told the magic formula for how to succeed in law school, and it sometimes seems that the process of learning itself is a source of anxiety. In response to these anxieties, I have understood that a large part of my role is to help students learn how to identify questions that will help them direct their own learning.

A few times in my teaching, I have not known the answer to a student’s question. In these moments, I have helped the student to formulate a precise research question and then opened the relevant legal database on the screen to walk them through how they would find the answer to their own question. Even if I don’t know what we will find in our search, I think it is helpful for the students to feel equipped to answer their own questions, rather than feeling dependent on being given the answer.

Indeed, first-year students are asked in their courses to practice skills they don’t yet possess. Frank Wu, a professor of law at UC Hastings, observes that this disquiet comes from the transition students make from previous academic experiences, where nearly any well-supported opinion is accepted, to the context of law where there are objective reasoning mechanisms employed to reach a legal outcome.

It is important that TLs help equip first-year students with the skills to keep their schoolwork in perspective, ask for help when needed, and keep grades in perspective. Jennifer Jolly-Ryan, a professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, suggests that these strategies, and a number of others, allow law professors to use teaching methods to equip students to manage anxiety.

Much has been written on the epidemic of mental health challenges amongst law students and legal professionals, and many resources exist to aid them, but very little has been written on the role that an instructor of law can play in combatting this epidemic. A pilot project at Yale and Stanford Law Schools experimented with teaching first-year law students cognitive behavioural therapy skills to manage anxiety. The project had positive results, but the pedagogy was offered separately from the students’ normal law classes, not integrated into them.

Given the need to integrate a sensitivity to anxiety further into our teaching methods, how can we best equip students to resist and manage the structural causes of anxiety they face in law school? In my effort to be a supportive and productive resource for my students, I have found that, whatever the answer, it begins with honesty, frankness, and a willingness to be vulnerable ourselves.

What inspires undergraduate Science students to get involved in research?

Tue, 01/22/2019 - 09:00

On October 4, 2018, I attended the 14th Annual Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference which took place in McGill’s Arts Building lobby. This event allowed undergraduate students across the Faculty of Science to present and explain their research with the help of a poster. Enthusiasm was running high and the lobby was filled with poster boards and buzzing with the sound of undergrads sharing their discoveries.

I naïvely believed that most students had picked their topic of research based on personal interests. As I spoke to students about their research, I came to realize that while some students were motivated to do research because of interest in a topic, others were motived by the appeal of a particular lab environment or the desire to work with a specific professor. Coming from a liberal arts background, I considered research as a means to an end, when in fact some students were attracted to the process and environment.

Elena Dikaios

For example, Elena Dikaios found a post on one of the McGill Facebook groups seeking students to assist with a research project on the topic of Mindful Eating. She signed up because the topic was one of interest to her, but admitted she enjoyed the lab environment more than she expected she would. She met weekly with participants of the Mindful Eating Program to teach them mindfulness techniques with the goal of helping them develop healthier eating habits and also to lose weight. She felt she was able to connect with participants and enjoyed seeing the positive impact the techniques had on some.

Andrea Carboni-Jiménez, a psychology student, deliberately sought out the environment of a lab because she found the structured environment appealing. She was part of a research team, under the supervision of Dr. Brett Thombs, that studied the perceived burden of informal caregivers of people with various chronic diseases. Andrea explained to me that interestingly, the study found that perceived burden is greater among informal caregivers of people with systemic sclerosis than caregivers of people with more common chronic diseases. She enjoyed the experience of working in a lab within a large team and plans to continue her work as a research assistant.

Dmitrii Tiron’s poster on Microparallax

Dmitrii Tiron, a student of Cognitive Science, decided to get more involved in his department through research. Dmitrii got in touch with Professor Michael Langer despite never having interacted with him before. After researching some of his previous work, Dmitrii hoped to assist with any of his current research. Dmitrii ended up working with Professor Langer for a full year researching Microparallax, and plans to continue working with him during the next academic year.

It was uplifting to see Science students excited about following their interests, working within a team and working with an esteemed professor in their field. All the students I spoke with reported enjoying the “real life” implications of their work: research was not just an assignment but also a way to help their field of study progress.

Strategy Bites: Exit cards and closing summary

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 09:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!   

Strategies: Exit Cards and Closing Summary 

These reflection strategies get students to think about what they learned before they forget what happened in class that day! They can also help students know what they don’t know. 

When planning a class, it can be helpful for students if instructors build in an opportunity for students to tie up loose ends so that they can walk away with a deeper appreciation for what they learned. Activities like Exit Cards and Closing Summary serve exactly this purpose. They engage students in reflection on not only what they’ve learned but also, potentially, on how they will use this knowledge in the future.  

Reflection is important because it can support students with assimilating and consolidating new knowledge, and thus help us realize why what we learn matters. Reflection is also important because it engages students in developing their metacognitive strategies (i.e., thinking about one’s thinking) and fosters the development of self-regulated learning. When I reflect on my learning, I can also learn to recognize what I don’t know. I can apply this strategy any time I learn new material, not just at the end of class when the instructor suggests I do it. 

Closure in the form of an Exit Card or Closing Summary can highlight for students their accomplishments, and these strategies are the perfect opportunity for your students to walk away with more than just a final grade.  

 Would you like know more?  Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series: 

 

 How do you encourage students to reflect on their learning? 

How can we support student learning in law school? Upper-year students share their thoughts

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 09:00

As part of a recent major curriculum renewal at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, the Faculty created a first-year course with small group sessions led by upper year students. These groups of 16-20 first-year students and their upper year leader—a Tutorial Leader (TL)—meet during two Integration Weeks (one in September and one in January) and during the Integration Workshop, which meets regularly throughout the fall and winter semesters. During the Integration Workshop portion of the course, TLs are paired with professors who mentor and guide them as they develop their own pedagogical skills.

The TLs are enrolled in a Legal Methodology Teaching course. This course is an opportunity for TLs to develop their teaching skills in the context of the first-year course. TLs are largely responsible for facilitating discussions during the tutorials and providing the students with feedback comments on their assignments. TLs meet regularly with their supervising professors to discuss challenges, reflect on successes, and address their questions.

In tandem with their teaching responsibilities, TLs complete a number of assignments designed to help them improve their teaching skills through reading and reflection on different aspects of teaching their discipline. At the same time, responding to first-year students’ questions and providing feedback comments on their assignments has the potential for deepening TLs’ understanding of foundational knowledge in law.

Photo credit: Lysanne Larose

This year, we introduced a new assignment—a blog post where each TL addresses a facet of teaching of their choice. TLs observed their supervising professors in class teaching the first-year students and they observed librarians providing instruction at workshops. For the blog assignment, TLs were asked to collect several readings from credible sources on a topic related to teaching, such as teaching small groups; using peer review as a teaching tool; enabling active learning; using pass/fail grading schemes; grading with a rubric; and designing group work. They then had to write a reflection on the topic in relation to the teaching they had observed.

Requirements for the assignment:

  • Articulation of a main idea
  • Discussion of any special considerations applicable to legal education
  • Illustration of main points with concrete examples drawn from their observations
  • A title that captures the main idea
  • References to readings (hyperlinks or in-text citations with a references list)

Option:

  • A thought-provoking question at the end to engage readers

The assignment was due in the fall semester so that TLs could put what they had learned through observation, research, and reflection into practice during the winter semester. TLs wrote insightful pieces that will be published over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Professor Tina Piper coordinates the first-year Integration Workshop.

 

Featured image photo credit: Lysanne Larose.

Strategy Bites: Concept mapping

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 11:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!   

 Strategy: Concept Mapping 

Concept maps, sometimes referred to as mind maps, are visual representations that can express relationships among concepts. Concept mapping can allow students to demonstrate their understanding of course content in creative ways. 

Why use this strategy? 

One of the most valuable learning tools I’ve encountered in the classroom was an assignment that required the development of a concept map. It was at the end of a course, lectures were wrapping up and one of the final assessments asked us to produce a concept map that represented the various learning theories we had covered in the course. In all honesty, I was starting to feel the tinge of apathy many students experience when a break is looming. I really didn’t see the value in the assignment, but I found motivation, nonetheless, to power through.  

Unexpectedly, the concept map became one of my most appreciated assignments in my university experience. Creating a concept map is simple and straightforward, though it takes time to create it. In the particular course for which I created a concept map, I walked away with a much deeper understanding of learning theories and a more articulated sense of how people learn. The assignment not only forced me to review and consolidate content, but also to make connections among different components of the theories. As a visual learner, it helped me consolidate that information more effectively than many of my other studying habits had.  

If I were to give advice to fellow students, I would absolutely recommend creating a concept map as a study tool. If I could make a suggestion to instructors, I would recommend assigning a concept map as it not only gives students an opportunity to review the course material, but you may also enjoy assessing students’ creative demonstrations of their learning. 

Would you like to know more?  

McGill Librarian April Colosimo’s Concept Mapping web site offers instructions, tools and examples. 

Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series: 

 

What strategies do you use to get students to make connections among theories and concepts they learn?Share your ideas! 

Video recording class presentations

Thu, 11/29/2018 - 09:00

Video recording students’ presentations in the classroom can be a good instructional strategy for a number of reasons. For example, recordings can:

  • help students recognize their presentation strengths and weaknesses so they can intentionally demonstrate the former and improve the latter;
  • form part of a student’s professional portfolio; and
  • be a helpful support for the instructor when assessing the presentation after class time.

But when we talk about recording students’ class presentations, how does this actually happen?  

Professor Grant Clark recently shared his experience implementing peer assessment of oral presentations in his bioresource engineering graduate seminar. During that discussion, Grant described a video recording strategy that he has found works well in this course and doubles as a creative way of further inspiring students’ interest in particular topics in bioresource engineering:

Tools and approach 

The best way that I’ve found to record presentations in class is to use Skype for Business, software which is free for all McGill instructors, students and staff, plus a webcam. You’ll need a computer with internet access, a webcam (or a video camera), maybe a large bulldog paperclip, a USB extension cable, and a tripod.

  1. Start a meeting using Skype for Business on the presenter’s computer. “Present” (share) the desktop screen.
  2. Get a little tripod and use a giant bulldog or butterfly clip to attach your webcam to the tripod. Or, if you have a webcam that mounts on a tripod, that’s great.
  3. Set up the tripod about four meters away from the presenter and turn it on. You’ll probably need a USB extension cable to position the tripod well.
  4. In Skype for Business, when you record the meeting session, you can “Start my webcam” to get a little picture-in-picture window that shows the webcam image in the recording, so the people who are watching can see what the presenter is doing. This way, what’s happening on the desktop is recorded, so you don’t have to rely on a recording of the projector screen: Skype actually captures the image right off the computer.
  5. Record that meeting session into an .mp4 file and upload it to YouTube.
  6. That link can be posted on the class’ myCourses website, along with the video title, so the students can then watch it. The YouTube privacy settings can be managed so that only the instructor and students in the course with the direct link can access the video.

An advantage to uploading these videos to YouTube is saving time when grading. Once you upload the videos to YouTube, you can go into the YouTube settings and run the video at double speed so it only takes you two and a half minutes to watch a five minute presentation! If there’s anything you miss while you’re watching, you can slow the video down. It’s a real time saver.

A way to inspire students’ interest in the field 

Since this course includes not only 90 graduate students, but also about 45 undergraduates, we’ve been able to have these recorded presentations serve another purpose, which is to foster undergraduate students’ interest in specific topics in bioresource engineering by exposing them to a large variety of topics via these presentations. While the undergraduates don’t present, they do listen to some of the presentation topics that are of interest to them. Then, they write a short essay reflecting on and analyzing some of the topics, in which they explain how those topics might impact their future career decisions.

A question for blog readers: What ways of recording student presentations have worked well in your courses? Comment below!

Peer assessment of oral presentations

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 09:00

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

Professor Grant Clark is one of the coordinators of the Bioresource Engineering graduate seminar in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In a recent conversation, he shared how he implemented PA in this course of 135 students (approx. 90 graduate students and 45 undergraduate students), reflected on trying new software, and offered advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses.

For what assignment did you implement PA?

Each week of the semester, eight or nine graduate students do individual five-minute oral presentations with PowerPoint or the equivalent. Students have to choose an academic topic to present that is of potential interest to somebody at a university. Since that’s pretty broad, sometimes the topic or the format is more specific, such as saying the presentation cannot be about the student’s thesis topic, or that students should present in a sales pitch format, for example.

At the start of term, I share with students some ideas about how to give a good presentation. In the syllabus or on myCourses, I include links to what I consider to be excellent presentations, as well as links to a document or two about how to give a good scientific presentation.

PA of students’ presentations happens in three stages over the course of the semester:

Stage 1: Outside class time, each graduate student pre-sets the rehearsal timings so the slides advance at a certain pace, practices their presentation in front of a panel of three or four other graduate students, and then the panelists fill out a PA form using Office Forms. The form itself gives suggestions in point form of what to look for when providing feedback. The students video record the presentations and then submit a link to the recordings using this form so that I can look at the presentations and give feedback, too. This way, if one of the panelists isn’t able to be present, they can look at the video and send their feedback, as well. As it is a private link, only the review panelists, the instructor and the presenter can see the practice video. Each student gets feedback from about five people at this stage. The presenting student then has at least a week to make adjustments further to the feedback they’ve received, before presenting to the entire class during Stage 2.

Stage 2: Each graduate student presents in front of the whole class. The undergraduate students are divided into moderating committees of three or four students. Each week, a different moderating committee chairs the presentations during class. Each graduate student presents, and then has three to five minutes to respond to questions. The undergraduate students on that day’s moderating committee evaluate the presentation using a PA form. As well, the same panelists as in Stage 1 fill out a second PA form and describe how well the student presenter improved (or not). Each student gets feedback from nearly 10 people at this stage. The in-class presentations are recorded and links to the recordings are posted on the myCourses website.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that explains how these presentations are recorded.

Stage 3: The student presenters fill out a PA form after they receive the feedback from their panelists and moderators. On this form, the presenter provides feedback on how useful they found the feedback from their peers. Providing feedback on the feedback that they received (editor’s note: also known as “back-evaluation”) is motivation for peers to provide constructive feedback because there are a few points of their grade attached to that assessment.

Why did you start using Office Forms? What do students think about this software?

Our decision to use Office Forms was in response to past student feedback. Before, we had students in the audience fill out and submit a paper form with their name on it. For the students, it was a bother filling out the paper forms. As an instructor, the paper forms approach was time-consuming as it required collation, scanning and anonymizing.

Students are happy with the switch from paper forms to Office Forms, and creating and using Office Forms is really easy for me! Students access the form via a link I post on myCourses. They sign in with their McGill email and password. Students can fill out the form on their phone or their computer. The nifty thing is that all of that data is then available to download in Excel format. It’s just a matter of copying a column of feedback from Excel – but not copying the column with the submitting students’ names – and pasting it into an email and sending it to the student presenter. So while I know which students submitted which feedback, the student receiving the feedback does not know. The form is also time-stamped so we can make sure that the feedback is submitted on time.

Providing and sharing feedback is so painless and easy now, for the students and for me. In fact, I’ve seen that students tend to write more thorough comments on the electronic forms than they did on the paper forms in previous semesters. The online form works well and saves us loads of time compared to the hard-copy alternative.

To what extent does the students’ assessment of one another impact their grade?

That has changed over the years. The students are asked to give a numerical score and then justify it with text. I used to have a really complicated formula which included the average score assigned by the audience, and then it was weighted by my score, and so forth. Recently, it’s become simpler: now approximately 15% of their final assignment grade is based on the score assigned by the panelists and the audience. So it has a small impact on their grade.

What has a larger impact on their grade is whether they submit the forms on time. To motivate students to submit on time, a grade is attached to each form submission. So if it’s 5% for every form, and the student fills out all four forms, that adds up quickly.

What advice do you have for an instructor interested in trying PA for the first time?

Overall, be very organized. For instance:

  • Think the PA assignment through carefully and figure out how you’re going to manage the administrative overhead.
  • Make the instructions clear from the outset so you don’t have to change things mid-semester.
  • Get feedback from the class when you’re done to see what they liked and didn’t like about the assignment.
Reflection questions for readers: 
  1. How has technology facilitated the implementation of PA in your courses?
  2. Could you imagine using Office Forms to facilitate PA among your students?

One student’s role in improving university assessment and feedback practices

Thu, 11/22/2018 - 10:00

Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) is McGill University’s teaching support unit. TLS hires students from within the university to contribute to the success of various projects. In the Fall of 2017, I responded to a job posting for a Graduate Student Assistant position. Experience running and/or organizing large scale events was required, as were strong computer-literacy and communication skills. My experience and skills seemed suitable for the position: I’m a former business student and high school teacher, and I have a passion for learning. I applied for the position because it seemed like a good opportunity to utilize my skills and strengths, follow my passion, and find a place for myself in my new university. My interviewers clearly saw the same strong fit for me with this position, and I was hired.

I’ll be honest … until my first day of work at TLS, and maybe even until my second or third week, I really didn’t know what my job was going to be. One of the first responsibilities I was given was taking notes at monthly Assessment and Feedback Group (AFG) meetings. I had never heard of the AFG, so I decided to research the group before attending my first meeting. I read on the web that the AFG “engages the McGill community in considering effective methods for assessing student work and strategies for providing feedback to students, particularly in large classes.” AFG members come from many departments and faculties, and have a variety of roles within the McGill community. There are students, librarians, professors, staff and academic associates. I was excited to engage with this group that could make me think more critically about the relationship between assessment/feedback—as part of teaching—and learning.

Image courtesy of McGill University

As with many life experiences, I was eager to learn through being a member of the AFG and was pleasantly surprised at the opportunities I was given to not just learn, but also to share my opinions and add value to the conversations. In fact, I soon realized that my role was to represent the student voice, to contribute the student perspective to the conversation and even be an advocate for students. I was able to do this because I’m an active student in the McGill community. That provided me with a unique opportunity to share a different perspective on the topics discussed. I immediately noticed the credibility and weight my voice had at the meetings. I was treated as a participant with an equal voice. I particularly remember a conversation that exemplified my unique perspective. We were discussing students’ engagement with course material. Some profs felt that students weren’t doing everything they could to engage with course material. I felt compelled to provide my opinion: students are often overworked in a system that is not necessarily built to truly support our learning. Instead, it’s built more for us to achieve a grade so that we fulfill institutional requirements to obtain a degree. Very often, we can get the grades with surface learning, like memorizing for an exam, but what we want is deep learning.

My comments were taken seriously and we had a meaningful discussion about how to support students’ learning by offering students opportunities to engage in deep learning with course material while taking into account that they are often overworked.

While I feel I was able to advocate for students at these meetings, I also feel I’ve learned an incredible amount about the McGill community, the role of the professor, and the different needs and strategies for teaching and learning within the different faculties. It had never occurred to me that students in the extremely large first year science classes probably have to be assessed with different methods from students in smaller classes or that practical application assignments in engineering classes, where students might build things, are different from practical application assignments in music, where students might give a performance.

This is the first time in my post-secondary studies that I am aware of a group of professors and other university members getting together to try to improve assessment and feedback methods in order to benefit both students and professors. It has been enlightening for me to sit among this group who work hard to give students meaningful learning opportunities and enriching for me to work with them towards something I truly believe in: learning and knowledge creation, not just grades and performance evaluation. It truly makes me hopeful for the future of the student learning experience.

Simone Tissenbaum is a second-year grad student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University and a current Graduate Student Assistant with Teaching and Learning Services. Outside of the world of academia, Simone is a dancer. She has blended these two worlds together in her research, which uses dance to explore the topic of safe and healthy relationships with youth.

Strategy Bites: One minute paper

Tue, 11/20/2018 - 09:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Strategy: One Minute Paper

Sometimes, students need time to digest new information. The One Minute Paper offers them the opportunity to reflect on what they’re learning.

Why use this strategy?

In my experience, attending a lecture usually involved showing up, listening and going home to independently study. I can’t remember a time where I was asked to reflect on the course content other than while writing a paper or an exam. I remember using clickers to demonstrate our comprehension of the material, however, through this, our voice was never heard. Are there more effective ways to incorporate more depth reflections of the content? Yes. An effective teaching strategy you may consider is the One Minute Paper. It’s a short, in-class—or online—writing activity that students do in response to an instructor prompt. While often used to assess learning at the end of a class, the strategy can also be an opportunity for instructional feedback, as well as student reflection on learning.

Give students a prompt. Allow them a minute or two to think about what they would like to write. Then give students a minute to write down their response. Their writing may be submitted anonymously or not, depending on what type of feedback you would like to provide after reading it. The writing can also be submitted electronically. It’s worth noting that it might not be necessary to provide feedback on everything students write. Part of the value is simply getting students to reflect. You can sample the submissions and decide what to comment on.

The versatility of the strategy actually allows for it to be used at the beginning, middle or end of a class. At the beginning, just before you start your lecture, you can ignite the thought process with a prompt such as: What comes to mind when I say the word _____. In the middle of the class, you might ask: What connections can you make between this new concept and the ideas we talked about last class? At the end of the class, you might ask: What was the most important concept of this lecture? or What concepts remain unclear at the end of this lecture? You might also pose questions that stimulate deeper thinking – Do you agree/disagree with this statement? Why? or What connections can you make with what was discussed in today’s class and other courses you are taking?

An outcome of this strategy that I appreciate the most is that it places importance on involvement and moving beyond that task of just having to show up for class. By asking each student to share with you their thoughts, you are giving them a louder voice in their learning experience and a greater drive to be fully present – in mind and body.

Would you like to know more? Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series:

How do you get students to reflect on their learning? To think about what they don’t know? Share your ideas!

Jasmine Parent is an M. Sc. graduate from the program of Global and Community Nutrition in the Department of Dietetics at McGill University. She is currently enrolled in the M. Ed. Technology Program at the University of British Columbia and works as an Assistant Online Course Developer at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services. Her greatest passions include cooking and exploring healthy recipes, practicing yoga, and spending time in nature.  

Featured Image photo credit: Victor Tangerman

Assessment for learning: Putting the pieces together with real-world assignments

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 09:00

This is the seventh post in our Assessment for Learning (AfL) series as we anticipate Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning, a McGill University symposium taking place on December 7, 2018. 

Reflecting on my time as a philosophy student at McGill, I initially found it quite difficult to recall an assignment that was “real-world” or “hands-on” in the way that those terms are typically understood: I never journeyed to Greece to work at a school for moral education or sculpted a bust of Plato. However, when I took those terms less literally, it became quite clear to me that I was constantly asked to make connections between theory and the “real world” in my assignments. These real-world connections made my studies much more meaningful and increased my understanding of often dense texts. I have the suspicion that many students in other disciplines would feel the same way.

Fellow grad student Simone Tissenbaum accompanied me on an expedition through McGill University’s downtown and Macdonald campuses to ask students about the types of assignments that have really helped them learn. Two students, one from the Faculty of Engineering and another from the Faculty of Education, shared with us their experiences with assignments that allowed them to apply their learning to real-world scenarios.

This student recalls a project in which they were tasked with designing an amplifier for a microphone. They found that they needed to implement a variety of concepts that they had used to solve practice problems in class, exclaiming, “It was cool to see how they all fit together.”

The other student describes an assignment for which they attended a cultural event. They note how they particularly appreciated being able to “actually use” what they were learning and “put it into practice.”

 

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy:

Read about why instructors might want to involve students in “hands-on” projects and how they can implement such activities.

Need ideas for creating authentic writing assignments? Check out some examples.

Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning – December 7, 2018

Do you teach at McGill University? You’re invited to a symposium where we will engage our community of instructors in learning about creative and effective assessment strategies to help improve students’ learning and motivation to learn, and inform teaching practices. View the symposium program and register to attend.

Check out the other posts in the Assessment for Learning series:

Kira Smith is an MA student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from McGill in 2017 and has been working as a project assistant at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) since. An avid unicyclist and voracious reader of pretty much anything, Kira enjoys good chats about student affairs and TLS coffee.

Strategy bites: think-pair-share

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 11:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

 Strategy: Think-Pair-Share 

Allow students some thinking and discussion time before calling on them to respond to questions.

 Why use this strategy?

I’m a student with an introverted personality type, so being called on by instructors to answer questions in front of the whole class was quite daunting. Usually, I would sit there with an answer on the tip of my tongue, too shy to share it. I let the more confident students speak up. This often led to the same students answering and asking questions lecture after lecture. How might this scenario be changed so that more students engage with you and each other in the classroom?

The think-pair-share teaching strategy is an effective way to involve more students in class discussion and give the quieter students a voice. The strategy involves posing a critical question to your class and having them take a moment to think about it—and maybe even write down their thoughts. They are then asked to pair up with a neighbour (or two) to share their ideas. Finally, students are asked to share their responses with the whole class.

This strategy—which works in large and small classes—gives students the opportunity to prepare their thoughts before speaking in front of the whole class. If you have students prepare a short written response, they may feel even more confident when speaking to the whole class. Furthermore, and what I feel to be most valuable, this strategy enables the quieter, more introverted students, like me, to share their thoughts with the rest of the class and contribute to collective learning in a far less intimidating way. After all, there is much to be gained when all students contribute in the classroom.

 Would you like to know more?

Ideas for having students participate in class discussion

  • Students might not participate in class discussions for a number of reasons. Awareness of these different reasons may influence your teaching strategies. Read more.
Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series:

How do you get students to participate in class discussions? Share your ideas!

Jasmine Parent is an M. Sc. graduate from the program of Global and Community Nutrition in the Department of Dietetics at McGillUniversity. She is currently enrolled in the M. Ed. Technology Program at the University of British Columbia and works as an Assistant Online Course Developer at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services. Her greatest passions include cooking and exploring healthy recipes, practicing yoga, and spending time in nature. 

Featured Image photo credit: Victor Tangerman

 

Assessment for learning: The art of asking good questions

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:00

This is the sixth post in our Assessment for Learning (AfL) series as we anticipate Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning, a McGill University symposium taking place on December 7, 2018.

One of the most novel assignments I’ve encountered was within the context of an English conference. Each of the students was responsible for leading one conference, presenting our analysis of a text and then facilitating discussion. Besides the usual apprehension towards presenting, I found it particularly challenging to develop good questions for discussion. I wanted questions to prompt my peers to synthesize what we’d learned and generate new ideas. Questions also had to be crafted so that they allowed adequate time to be explored within the allotted time. To pose an interesting question, I really had to take the time to thoughtfully engage with the content. Through developing my question for the conference, I explored my own responses to questions and critically reflected on my own knowledge. This assignment was particularly well- suited for conferences, but student-generated questions can be used in a variety of settings.

Fellow grad student Simone Tissenbaum accompanied me on an expedition through McGill University’s downtown and Macdonald campuses to ask students about the types of assignments that have really helped them learn. One student shared with us their experience with student-generated questions. For each assignment, the instructor required that students answer one instructor-generated question and one student-generated question. The student commented that the assignment meant they had to thoroughly review their notes, which made them “think of things [they] wouldn’t have thought of.” Listen to what the student says.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy: Having students create questions can afford insight into how well students understand course content, but creating stimulating and meaningful questions can be a challenge for students, as well as instructors. Read about creating questions designed to promote “thinking, understanding, and learning” in The Art of Asking Questions and get ideas for integrating questions into teaching in How to Use Questions to Promote Student Learning.

Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning – December 7, 2018

Do you teach at McGill University? You’re invited to a symposium where we will engage our community of instructors in learning about creative and effective assessment strategies to help improve students’ learning and motivation to learn, and inform teaching practices. View the symposium program and register to attend.

Check out the other posts in the Assessment for Learning series:

Kira Smith is an MA student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from McGill in 2017 and has been working as a project assistant at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) since. An avid unicyclist and voracious reader of pretty much anything, Kira enjoys good chats about student affairs and TLS coffee.

Strategy Bites: Jigsaw

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 11:00

At Teaching and Learning Services, we regularly receive questions from instructors asking for ideas to enhance their teaching and improve students’ engagement in class. So, we’ve recorded 2-3 minute video bites that describe how to implement some strategies we’ve chosen based on relative ease of implementation, suitability for different class sizes, and their representation of a variety of interaction types. We’ll be sharing these strategies in the Teaching for Learning @McGill University blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Strategy: Jigsaw

The jigsaw is a cooperative learning strategy. It works best when knowledge needs to be pooled to address a problem.

Why use this strategy?

A professor once told our class that the best way to learn the course material was to become expert enough that you are able to teach it to a beginner. This advice resonated with me throughout my years as a university student and became an integral part of my personal study strategies. When I read about the Jigsaw Teaching Strategy, I immediately associated it with this advice as it heavily relies on students teaching the course content to each other.

 The jigsaw strategy begins with dividing students into groups of 4-5 students and giving each group a topic to discuss and become “experts” on.

Once groups have developed their expertise with that topic, the students are regrouped so that each new group contains one person from the “expert” groups. Students then teach the material they learned to their peers in their new group. This way, everyone is exposed to all the topics that were assigned.

At a group level, this strategy, which is a cooperative learning strategy, calls upon students to rely on each other for their learning, and for promoting interactions and collaboration to succeed. Students are given a greater sense of responsibility and they have the opportunity to draw on a more diverse range of perspectives than if the content had been presented solely by an instructor lecture. Having students work this way also taps into the value of different teaching approaches: sometimes, peers know how to convey information to peers in ways that instructors don’t think of. Ultimately, what I appreciate most about this teaching strategy is that by involving each student in the teaching and learning process, every individual becomes a truly valuable asset in the classroom.

Would you like to know more?

4 Things You Don’t Know About the Jigsaw Method

Check out the other posts in the Strategy Bites series:

What opportunities do you give students to engage in group learning? Share your ideas!

Jasmine Parent is an M. Sc. graduate from the program of Global and Community Nutrition in the Department of Dietetics at McGill University. She is currently enrolled in the M. Ed. Technology Program at the University of British Columbia and works as an Assistant Online Course Developer at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services. Her greatest passions include cooking and exploring healthy recipes, practicing yoga, and spending time in nature. 

Featured Image photo credit: Victor Tangerman

Building community among science instructors

Mon, 11/05/2018 - 09:00

At a research-intensive university like McGill University, profs talking to profs about teaching is not a given. Profs are busy and many are accustomed to working in isolation. Even teaching is experienced by many profs as an isolating endeavour.

Dr. Anita Parmar, Associate Director at B21 and Senior Advisor, Innovative Collaboration, is seeking to change this. Anita has a role within the Faculty of Science to look for gaps in programming and then address these gaps with programming that inspires positive changes to teaching and learning in the Faculty. One of Anita’s most recent projects is to transform the teaching-in-isolation environment into a community environment where profs can discover they are among like-minded colleagues—like-minded in terms of having a common interest in expanding their repertoire of teaching strategies and in sharing ideas about teaching. Sounds like a great idea, but building community among faculty members can be a challenging undertaking. Anita had a vision, though. She wanted profs talking to profs about hard questions related to teaching science, like, how can you support student learning in really large classes? How do you teach classes where students have radically different levels of background knowledge? How can you illustrate—not just give theoretical explanations about—challenging concepts?

Anita, in collaboration with Ingrid Berker, who works at the Redpath Museum and is associated with the science outreach and public program, and 4th year Cultural Studies student Ellie Martin, came up with the idea for a speaker series entitled Breakfast Reboot: Sharing Stories of Academic Innovation in Science Education. The goal of the series is to provide a forum for sharing stories and discussing issues with the hope of inspiring new ideas. These informal breakfast talks feature members of the McGill academic community, as well as colleagues from other universities.

 

Dr. Laura Pavelka (Department of Chemistry) kicked off the series with a talk entitled: Tools for “shrinking” the large classroom. Prof. Ken Ragan (Department of Physics) was the second guest speaker, and he offered Strategies to improve engagement and feedback in large classes.

 

I attended both events. Judging by attendance and the animated Q&A sessions that continued past the scheduled time, a thirst clearly exists for the exchange of practical teaching ideas among colleagues. Comments that Anita received by email from attendees afterward attest to the success of the series to date, and suggest that community building may well be happening in the Faculty: “Great initiative!” and “I like best about the talk that it had a lot of audience feedback and discussion.” And community extended to other important members of the Faculty: “As a faculty advisor, I appreciate that I can contribute my comments, opinions at these talks. The talk was very informative.”

I asked Anita what her most important take-away was from the two events. She said she feels full of hope. She explained: “Trying to affect behavioural change on a broad scale in higher education can feel like you’re pushing against a mountain. Teaching large classes of hundreds of students is a complex challenge. After listening to the two presenters and the exchanges among colleagues, I believe it’s possible for teaching throughout the faculty to improve as a result of profs sharing teaching ideas with each other. There’s really something to be said for peers hearing from peers despite diversity among disciplines within the sciences. I was inspired by hearing honest and straightforward views from the profs and the techniques they’re using to overcome challenges.”

Laura Pavelka’s comments capture everything Anita had hoped the Breakfast Reboot series would achieve: “It is all too rare that we are able to get together and discuss teaching initiatives and ideas. We all know that the best ideas come from discussion and collaboration. So, I’m excited to participate as an audience member in the future.”

 

Breakfast Reboot is back on November 7, 2018 with Cognitive Science Honours student Pierre Theo Klein talking about Tutoring in the Age of Technology. Read more. Email Anita if you would like to be notified of upcoming events and if you have suggestions for guest speakers.

Assessment for learning: Designing meaningful group (team) work experiences

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 09:00

This is the fifth post in our Assessment for Learning (AfL) series as we anticipate Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning, a McGill University symposium taking place on December 7, 2018.

Throughout my undergraduate degree, I rarely had opportunities to engage in group work or even interact with my peers, besides the occasional in-class discussion. However, friends of mine in other fields of study did have such opportunities … and I frequently heard complaints from them about the assessment of group work. They sometimes described the experience as purposeless – there was nothing about the assignment that made group work seem necessary. Often, one or two of the group members ended up doing all the work. One way to avoid this situation might be to design group work so that members are accountable to peers for their performance in the group. In addition, it would be motivating for students if group work assignments had a clear and meaningful connection to applications in the discipline and emphasized skills development.

Fellow grad student Simone Tissenbaum accompanied me on an expedition through McGill University’s downtown and Macdonald campuses to ask students about the types of assignments that have really helped them learn. Two students from two different faculties shared with us their experiences with group work.

This student describes their experience learning discipline-specific techniques with their peers in the context of a lab, expressing the value they saw in developing teamwork skills.

In this student’s experience, the groups were tasked with making a decision about how to navigate an ethical dilemma. The student highlighted the value of the experience to them: “Working in groups gave me a real-world perspective on how working in a real environment would be.”

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy: Consider designing teamwork so that students assess peers’ contributions to completing the assignment. Not sure how to do that? Check out Using Peer Assessment to Make Teamwork Work.

Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning – December 7, 2018

Do you teach at McGill University? You’re invited to a symposium where we will engage our community of instructors in learning about creative and effective assessment strategies to help improve students’ learning and motivation to learn, and inform teaching practices. View the symposium program and register to attend.

Check out the other posts in the Assessment for Learning series:

Kira Smith is an MA student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from McGill in 2017 and has been working as a project assistant at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) since. An avid unicyclist and voracious reader of pretty much anything, Kira enjoys good chats about student affairs and TLS coffee.

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McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous people whose footsteps have marked this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.

L'Université McGill est sur un emplacement qui a longtemps servi de lieu de rencontre et d'échange entre les peuples autochtones, y compris les nations Haudenosaunee et Anishinabeg. Nous reconnaissons et remercions les divers peuples autochtones dont les pas ont marqué ce territoire sur lequel les peuples du monde entier se réunissent maintenant.