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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.

Skills for Effective Study: A new SKILLS21 workshop for students

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 09:00

McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) recently launched a new workshop as a part of SKILLS21, the University-wide skills development program for undergraduates. The goal of the workshop is to build student capacity for identifying specific study strategies to achieve learning goals, both in a course and in a specific study session. Called Skills for Effective Study, this workshop draws from TLS’ years of experience providing support to instructors through the Course Design Workshop and was developed from a workshop previously offered by McGill’s Counselling Services.

Through a one-and-a-half-hour interactive session, Skills for Effective Study covers topics like learning outcomes, the basics of time management, and other tips and techniques, but the primary emphasis is on the notion of self-regulated learning. In brief, this approach encourages students to reinforce their existing study habits by setting goals for study sessions.

By setting goals, a student can reflect on whether or not they’ve achieved them and adapt by making changes for the future, if needed. To support this capacity, the largest part of the workshop is devoted to an activity where students are challenged to work together to match specific study tactics, like concept mapping or keyword mnemonics, with learning outcomes, such as those they would find on a course outline. So far, the feedback from students is positive. They’re finding that incorporating planning into their studying behaviors and using creative study activities are novel and valuable.

All in all, this workshop contributes to helping students find and situate themselves in the learning process. Learning is a process, but not an aimless one. In courses, instructors and students know their goals because they’re clearly articulated in the course outline – as the saying goes, “it’s on the syllabus”. Since these goals are guides in courses, purposeful studying will be better, more effective studying, especially when the goals and tactics to achieve them are aligned. Goal-setting is a generally important life skill, but it’s also a key part of effective studying, i.e., studying to learn.

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

Assessment for learning: Building an academic community through peer review

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 09:00

This is the fourth 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.

How can opportunities for peer feedback create an academic community in your classroom? Early in my English and philosophy majors, I often felt that the work I was doing existed in a vacuum – it was never critically thought about by anyone besides the instructor and only seemed relevant to the course I was taking. In my final year, one of my instructors asked the class for feedback on a paper she was developing, framing the discussion as one that she typically had with colleagues in her discipline. After that, she asked each of us to share prospectuses we had written and do a feedback exchange with a peer. Having seen how my instructor engaged us in providing her with feedback, as she engaged in peer review with her colleagues, the experience of peer feedback became more meaningful to me. Instead of doing an exercise for the purpose of a course, we were working with one another as colleagues in an academic community and we held ourselves to a certain standard, putting significant effort into the feedback we gave.

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 in an English seminar. Each student drafted a short research paper, presented it to the class and then received feedback from peers and the instructor. Through numerous stages of revision, students expanded first drafts into potentially publishable final papers. Listen to what the student says.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy: Asking students to write for “real” audiences can be motivating for them. Read about a “realistic” writing assignment.

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: Critical debate

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 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: Critical Debate 

The Critical Debate strategy involves assigning students a reading (or a problem or a question) on a given topic and having them write two reflections—one arguing “for” and one arguing “against.” In a following class, students are randomly assigned to argue either “for” or “against” in a formal debate with their peers.

Why use it?

The ubiquity of social media has made it easy for people to get caught up in echo chambers—to be less analytical and to quickly argue for or against a topic. We may therefore be in a time when it’s especially important for students to develop their ability to think critically. But teaching students how to do this must involve more than students listening to a lecture on the topic. Students learn through the experience of thinking through different perspectives and then arguing a position. The skill develops from practical application. This is something I really like about the Critical Debate teaching strategy: it must be done through active learning.

The ability to think critically is a skill that students can put into practice both in and out of the classroom. Students can apply knowledge learned in class to real life circumstances. Actually, students can gain a rich appreciation for the complexity of existing real-world debates. This strategy also pushes students to prepare for class, engage with the material, and interact with peers. What I like most about this strategy is that rather than teaching students what to think, it teaches them how to think. Knowing how to think may very well be how we extricate ourselves from the echo chambers.

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

How do you get students to apply knowledge to real-world situations? 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: Learning from peers with two-stage quizzes

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 09:00

This is the third 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.

Whenever I completed a quiz for a course during my undergraduate degree, the learning seemed prematurely curtailed: I did the quiz, received a grade on myCourses, and then wondered about the questions I had answered incorrectly. When we got our quiz results, my peers and I sometimes ended up helping one another understand where we had gone wrong – just because we were curious about the answers. We were actually engaging in an informal peer feedback activity. In retrospect, I can’t help but think that we could have learned from our incorrect responses through structured peer feedback activities that were organized, and maybe even assessed, by the instructor.

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 described how their instructor used a two-stage quiz – where students first completed the quiz individually and then completed the same quiz with a group. As the student described, the first stage gave students the opportunity to demonstrate their own understanding of the content and the second stage allowed each student to pick up on the things they’d missed thanks to peers’ input. Listen to what the student says.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy: Learn more about two-stage exams (or quizzes): implementation, benefits and challenges.

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.

Assessing teaching effectiveness: More than student evaluations

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 09:00

Do students’ opinions of teaching effectiveness have merit? Students don’t necessarily know about teaching methodology, or the affordances and constraints that play into course design and in-class teaching. So, should their course evaluation feedback be taken into consideration when evaluating teaching effectiveness, and if so, what weight should it have?

Yes, they should. An analogy I once read highlights the relevance of student input: “Saying that students can’t evaluate teaching is kind of like saying that diners can’t evaluate their meals.” Think about it: We can assess certain qualities of the meals we’re served in restaurants because we’ve had a lot of experience eating restaurant meals, not because we’re necessarily schooled chefs. University students can assess facets of classroom teaching because they’ve had years of experience being taught in classrooms, not because they’re schooled in teaching methodology. Indeed, if I reflect on comments students have written in my course evaluations, only students could have provided me with certain types of feedback. Who else could have weighed in with first-hand experience to let me know that I sometimes let discussions run too long or that allowing students a couple of minutes to think about their answers to my questions gave them more confidence to respond?

Given that teaching is a multi-faceted endeavour, course evaluation data should be viewed as one data source among several for assessing teaching effectiveness. Data from multiple sources can illustrate a more complete picture of teaching effectiveness. (Again, I’m not the first to make this point.)

You might be wondering how McGill University addresses the matter. Actually, McGill is explicit in its acknowledgement that teaching effectiveness can and should be demonstrated through multiple sources:

  • McGill’s course evaluation site states: “The feedback you obtain from your students through MERCURY course evaluations is one input to an ongoing reflective process that you should engage in to improve your teaching and future offerings of courses.”
  • The University’s guidelines for preparing teaching portfolios for tenure or reappointment list a number of types of evidence that can speak to teaching effectiveness, among them comments from peer observers and invitations to teach due to reputation; (pp. 20-21).
  • The University’s Guidelines for search committees: Assessing prospective colleagues’ potential teaching ability describes various ways that McGill values teaching.

If you’re looking for more ideas about how to document the effectiveness of your teaching practice, take a look at the University of Calgary’s Guide for Providing Evidence of Teaching (pdf or Word doc available toward the bottom of the page) – a hot-off-the-press publication which offers ways to illustrate the impact of a wide range of teaching activities.

What ideas do you have for illustrating teaching effectiveness?

Assessment for learning: questions – a feedback practice we learned from Socrates

Thu, 10/11/2018 - 09:00

This is the second 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. Read about AfL in the initial series post.

Can providing feedback in the form of questions be an effective method of assessment? As an undergraduate student, I received feedback on my papers in the form of direct suggestions or compliments. For example, one instructor encouraged me to further situate my argument in theory and another praised the clarity of my introduction. However, I often wondered if instructors’ comments could somehow have been written so as to help me develop my own understanding of my papers’ strengths and areas for improvement, rather than giving me solutions or praise. Maybe giving students feedback in the form of questions rather than comments would inspire us to think more deeply about our work. What if my instructor had written: “How might Hume’s paper, a work you didn’t examine, either strengthen or undermine your argument?” A question like that would have made me go back to my writing to look at a theory I hadn’t considered and I would have made significant improvements to my paper! Maybe Socrates was onto something with his elenctic method …

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 described how their instructor had given them a novel type of feedback on a research paper assignment – the feedback was in the form of questions that called upon them to explore the paper’s potential areas for development. This method of providing feedback initiated a dialogue between the student and instructor; it also prompted the student to critically reflect on their work and encouraged them to engage in revision through self-assessment. Listen to what they say.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy: Feedback in the form of dialogue can also entail students asking the questions. Read about an interactive cover sheet strategy where instructor comments are guided by student questions.

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: Advice letter

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 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: The Advice Letter 

This reflection strategy can serve current students, future students, and instructors.

Why use this strategy?

I sometimes think: “If I’d only known then what I know now.” Unfortunately, it’s not possible to go back in time and give myself advice in order to change a future outcome. However, it is possible to give others who are about to embark on a similar journey as me that kind of advice. What if current students were able to improve future student success by offering advice based on their personal experience in a given course?

The Advice Letter is an opportunity for students to reflect on and consolidate their learning experience. It is also an opportunity to share insights with students who will take the course in the future. Reflections can be personal responses to questions such as: What do you wish you had known at the beginning of the semester? What were the most challenging parts of the course? What assignments really helped you learn? When the next semester begins, these reflections might prepare the new students for what’s to come. It’s a collegial way for students to “pay it forward.”

In a way, the Advice Letter can be viewed as a type of course evaluation as it also gives the instructor the chance to see what students perceived to be most successful and what may need improvement in the course. Ultimately, establishing this bridge of communication between present and future courses encourages continuous improvement of the learning experience for both the student and the instructor.

 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? 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

Students are strategic (Part 3/3): A prof reconsiders course assignments

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 09:07

Have you ever wondered what students look for when they read a course outline? What do they think about the assignments they’ll be asked to do? This 3-part blog series describes one student’s reaction when reading a course outline for the first time and their subsequent conversation with the prof about concerns regarding the outline. In this third and final post in the series, we learn how Prof. Lambert addresses Dominique’s concerns about the group work assignment and the overwhelming reading list.

If you missed the earlier posts in this series, you can read them now:

Students are strategic: A student has concerns about assignments

Students are strategic: A student talks to a prof about assignments

A couple of days after our conversation, my prof sent an email to the whole class:

So, the conversation made a difference! It feels great that student feedback was taken into consideration and validated by the prof. A three-hour block of in-class time to work on the project will make it much easier to work together because we won’t have to spend time coordinating schedules. I’m not sure how much of a time-saver the shortened reading list will be given that we now have to submit a take-away and a question about the readings, but at least we have a clear purpose for reading and understand exactly how we can earn participation marks. These changes will help me focus my studying and manage my time so that I can do well in the course. Looks like the semester is off to a better start than I’d originally thought!

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. 

Beyond grading: Ever heard of “assessment for learning”? Let me explain …

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 09:00

What words or images come to mind when you hear the word “assessment”? As a teacher? As a student?

Twice a year, McGill University’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) offers a two-day Course Design Workshop that includes an exploration of assessment practices. As a lead-in to discussion, TLS puts that question to the instructors who attend the workshop. The responses show a wide variety of associations that reflect the complexity of assessment considered from both instructor and student perspectives. Words such as fairness, clarity, judgment, stress, workload, and anxiety are frequently associated with assessment.

Many of the negative associations come from equating assessment with judging or grading student performance at the end of a course. End-of-course grading is one important purpose of assessment, and there’s another one. What if we think about assessment as a way to let students know how they’re progressing with their learning? As an opportunity to guide students’ learning and motivate students to learn? What if we think about assessment for learning?

Assessment for learning (AfL) provides students with opportunities to:

  • learn through frequent informal and low-stakes feedback, such as peer review of draft assignments
  • learn through formal feedback, such as instructor comments on assignments
  • practice and build confidence
  • engage in challenging, authentic tasks
  • develop their ability to assess their own learning
  • receive a balance of formative and summative assessment

(Sambell, McDowell, & Montgomery, 2013, p. 5)

AfL suggest that assessment goes beyond assigning a grade to students’ work. AfL describes assessment as an activity rich in practice opportunities and informal feedback, and one that can involve the individual student and peers, as well as the instructor. Thinking about assessment in this way may represent a marked shift in conceptions of purpose and implementation of assessment. Indeed, assessment can be a most opportune moment to bolster students’ learning!

Do students believe they can learn from the way they are assessed? We asked them. TLS randomly stopped students on campus to ask them for examples of assignments that helped them learn, along with explanations of what, in particular, was helpful. Their responses speak to AfL, and they afford us insight into how instructors can intentionally design assessments to foster students’ learning. Listen to excerpts of what some students had to say:

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more video clips with you where McGill students describe assignments that have helped them learn. You might also be interested in reading student perspectives on AfL in Assessment for Learning: A student survival guide: for students by students.

McGill symposium on assessment

Do you teach at McGill? McGill instructors are invited to attend Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning, a university-wide symposium taking place on December 7, 2018. The event, organized by TLS and McGill’s Assessment and Feedback Group, a long-standing faculty learning community, will offer you opportunities to learn about creative and effective assessment strategies to help improve students’ learning and motivation to learn, and inform your teaching practices. Through panel and round-table discussions, and informal networking, participants will share a wide range of strategies relevant across disciplines and applicable in both large and small classes. There will also be opportunities to reflect on the application of strategies to one’s own teaching context.

If you teach at McGill, register now, mark the date in your calendar, and join us for what promises to be a stimulating and informative exchange!

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

Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Montgomery, C. (2013). Assessment for learning in higher education. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Ebook available from the McGill Library.

Featured image: “My Life Without a Red Pen” by Rebeca Zuñiga under CC BY 2.0

Customize your course evaluations: Writing meaningful questions

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 09:00

If you teach at McGill University, you might be interested to know that you can add up to three questions to your course evaluation questionnaires. McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) recommends that you take advantage of this opportunity to gather student feedback that might not emerge in response to the unit’s default questions, such as feedback on new teaching strategies and technologies you’ve tried; new classrooms or other teaching environments you’re in; and changes you made to your teaching as a result of previous course evaluation feedback. You can add multiple choice questions or questions that call for comments only.

Creating meaningful course evaluation questions can be challenging, though. In a 45-minute webinar for McGill instructors entitled Customize your Course Evaluations: Writing Meaningful Questions, (McGill sign-in required), TLS shared several guidelines through a Q & A format. For example:

Check out the webinar recording to see more examples and guidelines, as well as a guidelines checklist for question writing.

Looking for question ideas? See TLSBank of Recommended Questions. Questions about course evaluations? Check McGill’s Mercury website or contact mercury.info@mcgill.ca.

What questions have you added to your course evaluation questionnaire?

 

Students emails: a creative video guide to email etiquette MAINTENANT EN FRANÇAIS!

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:22

McGill University’s Teaching and Learning Services strives to be responsive. So, when we received requests to translate our popular instructional video Make Your Emails Count: How to Write to Your Instructors into French, we were delighted to do so!

Alors, si vous êtes prof, ajoutez le lien de la vidéo à vos cours dans myCourses, suggérez à vos étudiants qu’ils se rencontrent, prennent une collation et visionnent ensemble Donnez du poids à vos courriels : Comment écrire à son enseignant

Interested in more resources you can share with students about writing emails to their instructors? Check these out:

 

Let students know how course evaluations can improve courses

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 09:00

Each semester at McGill University, students have the opportunity to complete course evaluations for every course they’re enrolled in. Course evaluations are important because they’re an opportunity for instructors to hear from students how their courses are being experienced. Student feedback can provide instructors with ideas about how they can improve their courses for future students. Unfortunately, many students don’t necessarily see the value of taking the time to do course evaluations. In fact, the average response rate received per course is just under 50%.

But what if students were aware that their feedback was actually put to use? Could students be motivated to complete their course evaluations if they knew how instructors use their feedback to improve their courses? McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) encourages instructors to share examples on the web of how they’ve improved their courses as a result of student comments in course evaluations. On the TLS course evaluation website, we’ve published a number of testimonials. Here are excerpts from some of these testimonials submitted by instructors when asked to reflect on the impact student feedback in course evaluations have had on their courses.

 

Professor Shane Sweet from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education says: “In our department, there are people who are in physical education, some are in kinesiology, some want to be doctors, some want to be physical therapists, some want to be educators … so from the course evaluations I realized my examples have to be quite a bit broader than what they were in the past. Now when I try to explain content using real world data or different examples, I try to look at the scope from children to adults across a variety of settings.”

Professor Marjorie Aude Rabiau from the School of Social Work explains: “Course evaluations are very important to me … I sit down, get the gist of the comments, and use it to re-design the course or tweak the course if needed.”

Professor Corinne Hoesli from the Department of Chemical Engineering tells: “I was hired at McGill in 2014 and taught my first course that year. In 2015, I completely revamped the course taking into account student feedback. This led to a drastic improvement in the delivery of the material and in student satisfaction the following year.”

Professor Hoesli goes on to say: “It is crucial to me to obtain a representative sampling of the students in each course. The average response rates are only 30%. If you are a student reading this, please participate in the evaluations. Response rates above 90% are on my Christmas wishlist each year.”

Encourage your students to complete their course evaluations by letting them know that you read the feedback—and maybe even make improvements to your courses because of student comments. Submit a testimonial for web publication to show students their comments are being heard!

Read about other ways to encourage student participation.

 

What changes have you made to your courses as a result of course evaluation feedback?

 

This post was the joint work of Carolyn Samuel and Méganne Hirsch.

 

Students are strategic (Part 2/3): A student talks to a prof about assignments

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 12:16

Have you ever wondered what students look for when they read a course outline? What do they think about the assignments they’ll be asked to do? This 3-part blog series describes one student’s reaction when reading a course outline for the first time and their subsequent conversation with the prof about concerns regarding the outline. In this second post, we see what Dominique says to the prof. 

If you missed the first post in this series, you can read it now: Students are strategic: A student has concerns about assignments

I knock on my prof’s door, enter their office, thank them for agreeing to meet with me, and grab a seat. I then take out my notebook with my talking points, take a deep breath, and begin, “The thing is, I’m concerned about the time I’ll need to devote to this course because of the heavily-weighted group project and the really long reading list. Group projects are really time consuming because we have to coordinate schedules outside class time so that we can work together – in person or online. That’s tough because many of us have full course loads, part-time jobs and other responsibilities. And, there’re always some group members who don’t pull their weight, which means the rest of us have to do double-time to get the project done. And other profs have also assigned group work, so we’re spending huge amounts of time just trying to schedule meetings rather than actually getting our work done.”

My prof responds with a non-committal tone: “Yeah, I can see how that might be challenging. What are your other concerns?”

I return to my notes. “I really want to take this course, but it seems like it will be impossible to actually get all the readings done. There are so many! It’s kinda demotivating from the start. To be honest, students are strategic about how we decide to spend our time on course work. When there’s a ton of readings and no specific graded assignment associated with them, we tend to skim them and spend time on what we see directly contributes to our grades. We come into courses wanting to learn and do well, but … sometimes, it seems profs don’t realize how we have to be strategic because of time. I’m really nervous about being able to succeed in this course. The semester barely just started and I’m already feeling stressed.”

“Okay. Let’s talk first about the group project. Doing a group project is an important learning opportunity because it can give you an idea of how people work in ‘real world’ workplaces. And you develop your professional interpersonal skills by having to work in a group.”

The cynic in me thinks, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before, and it doesn’t change the fact that group projects are often designed in such a way they don’t take into account students’ “real world”! My prof goes on …

“About the course readings … reading is one of the main ways you gain knowledge in academia, so I hope you can understand why this reading list is part of this course. Profs understand that students are busy, but we have a responsibility to expose you to the work that will support your learning. These readings will expose you to different perspectives about the course content. But I’m going to think about what you’ve told me and see if I can suggest any strategies to help you—and other students—manage the workload so that you can succeed in this course. I’ll get back to you.”

“Okay, well, thanks for meeting with me. I feel a little better that you at least know where I’m coming from. I really want to learn in this course, but right now, it just seems overwhelming because of my full course load and life outside my studies. Do you think this course is really right for me at this time?”

Keep an eye out for the final post in this series to see how Prof. Lambert reacts to Dominique’s request

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.

Students are strategic (Part 1/3): A student has concerns about assignments

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 09:30

Have you ever wondered what students look for when they read a course outline? What do they think about the assignments they’ll be asked to do? This 3-part blog series describes one student’s reaction when reading a course outline for the first time and their subsequent conversation with the prof about concerns regarding the outline. In this first post, we learn about why Dominique, the student, has concerns about the assignments and how students need to be strategic with their time.

Students come to university to learn, and while we’re taking courses to help us learn, we also have other responsibilities to take care of, such as working part-time jobs, looking after our physical and mental health, doing our housekeeping, and maintaining relationships. All of this takes time, and for this reason, the first thing most students look at when the semester starts is their course outlines to see how they’re going to be assessed. Then, we can plan to manage our time strategically so that we can do our best to succeed at the assignments, while simultaneously managing our other responsibilities.

 Part of our strategy is to consider how much each assignment is worth and when the due dates are. These considerations impact the amount of time we spend on and effort we put into assignments. I consider things like what my busiest weeks of deadlines will be—inevitably, there will be a cluster at midterm time and at the end of the semester—and which assignments might suffer because I’m too stressed and overloaded with those clusters of assignments. Some course outlines make me wonder how I’m going to survive the semester! Really, we have to use a Jenga-like strategy each semester to piece together our days and fit in the responsibilities for each course and for our lives apart from our studies.

There are two things in particular that I immediately look for in a course outline: a group project assignment and an assignment directly associated with required readings. Group projects are a concern because they’re often time consuming, especially when there’s no class-time allotted for group meetings. Group projects require scheduling around several other students’ busy lives in order to meet and get the assignment done well. They can also be problematic because there’s usually at least one group member who doesn’t pull their weight, which means additional work (more time!) for the other members. Group projects are difficult to integrate into in our busy lives—imagine the time involved in working on group projects outside class time for four different courses! Just planning the meetings would take an enormous amount of time. This situation can be a serious source of stress for students, and it can have a negative impact on our ability to succeed.

The list of required readings is another concern because often it’s so long that it’s overwhelming and it’s not directly associated with marks. Students understand that profs are eager for us to develop in-depth knowledge of the course content through reading and see different perspectives on course themes that will be explored. That’s why they assign the many readings that are intended to help us learn. But sometimes, the list of assigned readings provokes more anxiety than interest. It feels almost as though profs don’t consider that we have four other profs who also want us to read and engage with their course content. No matter how badly we want to learn the course content or how much we understand that reading will improve our learning (and consequently our grades), the thought of tackling a lengthy reading list is overwhelming because of the time it will take to do all the reading. And of course, we’re strategic with our time: if there is no grade directly associated with reading, we may end up just skimming and doing surface reading.

It’s the beginning of the semester. With all of this in mind, I look at one of my new course outlines to see the breakdown of course assessments and immediately feel discouraged. There’s a group project with a heavy grade value assigned to it and a required reading list that’s so long I don’t even want to count how many readings there are! It’s so overwhelming that I feel as though I want to just skip the readings altogether … especially since there’s no “reading assignment” that will contribute to my course grade. Managing my time for this course will be difficult and stressful. I’m honestly worried about just being able to pass given that I have four other courses … and I want to balance my studying and the other parts of my life. I decide to discuss my concerns with the prof while it may still be possible for them to make some changes, so I send an email requesting an appointment.

Tune in to the next post in this series to see what happens at the meeting between Dominique and Prof. Lambert.

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.

 

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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.