Problem Solving = Great! But what kind of problems are our students really learning?

What learning are we really asking our students to demonstrate, and what are we saying actually matters through our assessments?

Within statistics, exams require students to apply statistical procedure such as t-tests to questions e.g., is there a significant difference between boys and girls on self-confidence or neural activity when the mean is… where the criteria of significance is typical, the problem to solve is clear and familiar, the variables are provided, and even the values are given. Just plug into memorized equations. In contrast, what if I was to ask on assignments (for practicing) and the exam questions such as presenting a news story and asking students to outline the information and statistical analyses they would engage in to take a stance.  They might then have to look up prior studies to find likely values, debate whether gender is dichotomous categories or a continuous variables for their purposes, and determine how to operationalize the topic, set a 1/20 or more conservative cut off for significance, and select and apply a statistical analysis. Which assessment would better measure the learning I would want my students to have when they go forward? Which learning would you want that A+ to represent when you are deciding if they will be your honours or graduate student?
Problem solving process

Several years have passed since I heard Dr. Eric Mazur speak of changing the activity in the classroom to engage students in learning and increase their conceptual understanding of physics. His approach of peer instruction is well shared. The video was included in an earlier blog post about participatory learning and transfer)

In the June 2014 opening plenary of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference in Kingston, Dr. Eric Mazur’s pursuit of improving learning has remained but his focus had shifted:

“For 20 years I have been working on approach to teaching, never realizing that assessment was directing the learning … assessment is the silent killer of learning.”

As educators, we do not teach so that students simply learn the concept, lens, or procedure for tomorrow, but for the days and weeks that follow. If delaying an exam one day disadvantages students or achieving a high grade cannot predict understanding of the fundamental concepts of force, he asked have they really learned? If the assessments only reflect and demand a low level of learning, then our students will not learn at the higher levels that we desire them to achieve. Do exams that promote cramming or could be answered with a quick Google search really measure the type of transfer or retention of information that we really should be aiming for?

Of several changes that Dr. Mazur outlined to improve assessment, the one that really caused me to pause was his comment about what kind of problems are we asking students to solve.

Think of the problems typically found in your field – the ones where the outcomes are desired but the procedure and path to get there is not known (e.g., design a new mechanism, identify the properties of what is before them, or write a persuasive statement). However, in our assessments, as Dr. Mazur contrasted, the problems students are asked to solve involves applying known procedures to a set of clearly outlined information to solve for an unknown outcome.

During the plenary, he presented a series of possible questions asking about estimating the number of piano tuners: the first version required students to make assumptions about frequency and populations, then to reduce students’ questions and uncertainty the second version provided the assumptions, the third the name of the formula and so on until the students were simply asked to remember the formula and input numbers…moving down the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy from creativity and evaluation to simple remembering.

Add in the removal of the resources that I would reach for when running a statistical analysis or citing for a journal article, and the removal of collaboration and consultation that my research enjoys but not my teaching of research, and the distinction between the reality I think I am preparing students for and the exam become more disparate.

The question is how pre-defined and easily remembered or repeated is the “information” students are being asked to identify, note as missing and connect.


Video: Asking Good questions, Humber College
Asking questions that foster problem solving based on Bloom Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy, University of Victoria
Lists example verbs and descriptions for each competence level

Bloom’s taxonomy,
Question stems and example assignments

Educatus Taking a Summer Hiatus

Throughout most of the year a new post is added to this blog at least twice per week. We understand that many of our readers, as well as much of the staff at the GMCTE take some time off in the summer. This summer, the Educatus blog will be taking off about six weeks before returning with our usual schedule of postings in mid-August, just as we and the rest of the University of Saskatchewan community are busily preparing for the new academic year. Have a great summer. See you August.

Students’ expectations are formed early

I have been enjoying a series of blog posts written by the acclaimed UK based higher education researcher Professor Graham Gibbs (you can start with the first of the series here).  The blogs have been drawn from a comprehensive publication called 53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About, with one idea presented on the blog each week.  I was particularly struck by the blog post from a few weeks ago as the ideas presented resonated with the approach of the University of Saskatchewan’s undergraduate research initiative.  A key approach has been embedding such experiences in large first year courses which addresses Professor Gibbs’ key take away message; have students start as you mean them to go on.  I hope you enjoy and perhaps sample some of Professor Gibb’s other thought provoking ideas!

Idea 7- Students’ expectations are formed early

Posted on May 28, 2014 at, reproduced with permission of the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA)

Professor Graham Gibbs

What goes on in higher education must appear somewhat strange to a student of 18 who has recently left school, or even to a mature student whose educational experience involved school some while ago and maybe some ‘on the job’ training or evening classes since. Class sizes may have increased from the dozen or so they were used to in 6th form to over 100 (or even over 500). Instead of a small group of friends you got know fairly well from years together, your fellow students will mostly be strangers who you may never get to know, and who may be different every time you start a new module. Instead of you being amongst the high achievers you may feel average or even below average. The teachers you encounter will all be new to you, and may change every semester. You may never get to know them, or in some cases even meet them outside of large classes. Whether you can ask questions, ask for help, be informal or visit their offices may not be clear. Weekly cycles of classes and small, short, tasks at school may be replaced by much longer cycles and much bigger assignments – and in some cases the first required work may not be until week 8 in the first semester. What you are supposed to do in the meantime may not be at all clear, and as the ratio of class time to study time is, at least in theory, much lower than you are used to, what you are supposed to be doing out of class may become quite an issue.

The course documentation may only list what the teacher does, not what you are supposed to do, other than phrases such as ‘background reading’ or ‘independent study’. Instead of being asked to read Chapter 6 of the textbook you might be given extended reading lists of seemingly impossible breadth and depth, some of which will be too expensive to buy, out of the library, or, even if you can get hold of them, opaque or of uncertain relevance. The volume of material ‘covered’ in lectures may appear daunting, and it may be unclear if this is meant to be merely the tip of a hidden, huge and undefined iceberg of content, or the whole iceberg. If you managed to scribble down a comprehensive set of notes, would that be enough? What an essay or a report is supposed to look like and what is good enough to pass or get a top grade may be quite different from what was expected at school, but you may be unclear in what way. Rules about plagiarism or working with other students may seem alarmingly tough yet confusing. It may all feel weird, no matter how routine it feels to teachers, but somehow you have to get used to it.

Most students of course do manage to work out a way of dealing with all this ambiguity and complexity that, if not ideal, is tolerably effective in that they do not usually fail the first assignment or the first module. But once a student has gone through this disorienting and anxiety provoking process of adjustment they are not keen to go through it again anytime soon.

In order to operate at all, new students have to make some quick guesses about what is expected and work out a modus operandi – and this is usually undertaken on their own without discussion with others. It is very easy to get this wrong. In my own first year as an undergraduate I tried to operate on a ‘week by week’ ‘small task’ way as if I was preparing for regular test questions, as I had done at the Naval College where I had crammed for A-levels alongside my naval training – and I failed several of my University first year exams that made much higher level demands than I had anticipated and that would have taken a lot more work of a very different kind than I had managed. My conception of knowledge, and what I was supposed to be doing with it, was well articulated by William Perry’s description of the first stage in his scheme of student development: “Quantitative accretion of discrete rightness”. It was not what my teachers were hoping for from me – but I didn’t understand that and I was too uncertain to do anything else. Students who are driven by fear of failure, rather than hope for success, may become loathe to change the way they study in case it works even less well than what they have tried thus far. It is the high performing students who are more likely to experiment and be flexible.

Many first year courses are dominated by large class lectures, little discussion, little independence and fairly well defined learning activities and tasks (at least compared with later years) and no opportunity to discuss feedback on assignments. By the end of the first year, students may have turned into cabbages in response to this regime, with little development of independence of mind or study habits. In the second year students may be suddenly expected to work collaboratively, undertake peer assessment, undertake much bigger, longer, less well defined learning activities, deal with multiple perspectives and ambiguity, develop their own well argued positions, and so on. They may throw up their hands in despair or resist strongly.

Teachers’ best response to this phenomenon involves getting their own expectations in early and explicitly, and not changing them radically as soon as students have got used to them. If you eventually want students to work collaboratively, require group work in the first week, not the second year. If you want them to read around and pull complex material together, require it in the first week and give them plenty of time and support to do it. If you want them to establish a pattern of putting in a full working week of 40 hours then expect that in the first week, and the second week….and make it clear what those hours might be spent on, and put class time aside to discuss what it was spent on and what proved productive and what did not. If you want students to lift their sights from Chapter 1 to what the entire degree is about, have a look at some really excitingly good final year student project reports in week one, and bring the successful and confident students who wrote them into the classroom to discuss how they managed it, talking about their pattern of studying that led to getting a first and a place to do a Doctorate. In brief, get your clear and high expectations in early, with plenty of opportunity to discuss what they mean.

Students will find this alarming and amazing – but they will get used to it just as they got used to whatever you did before. It will seem equally strange, but no more so than before. The crucial issue is that they will now be getting used to the right thing.

Defining Open Access

By Jeff Martin

The Internet has transformed the ways in which academic research can be accessed. Researchers can now grant any person connected to the Internet unfettered access to their work at any time without cost. This free access is commonly called open access (OA).

Open access is a property of a research article. An OA article does not require payment from a customer (no price barriers such as subscriptions) and has reduced permissions barriers (such as most copyright and licensing restrictions). Some commentators also argue that OA is the ideal way that academic research should be published.

The four main types of open access are “green” repositories, “gold” academic journals, hybrid journals, and predatory journals. Repositories are online storage sites in which articles can be deposited, indexed and searched. Repository administrators do not conduct peer review themselves. Uploaded articles, however, typically have been reviewed elsewhere. See for a list of repositories.

Open access journals share many similarities with subscription journals. For example, articles submitted to OA journals are subject to the peer review process (assuming the journal administrators want to publish peer reviewed research!). The key differences between the journal types are who pays what cost to access content and reduced permissions barriers for authors who publish in OA journals.

Free access is granted when payment comes from the “producer” side of the publishing process. Three examples of funding sources are subsidies from an author’s host institution, government subsidies and hard copy sales of the OA journal (online access is free). Authors are also often able to retain more copyright from OA journals compared to subscription journals. See PLoS ONE for an example of a “gold” OA journal.

Hybrid journals, on the other hand, are subscription journals that offer free access to some content. In other words, these journals use a mixed revenue model, such as subscriptions and Article Processing Charges. Examples of this model include the journal Physiological Genomics and Springer’s “Open Choice” program. For an extensive discussion of the “green”, “gold” and hybrid models, see the work of Peter Suber.

The owners of predatory journals use the “gold” journal model as a profit-making scheme. They use a variety of unethical practices. For example, academics, particularly graduate students and new researchers, are often targeted and enticed into submitting research. Manuscripts are quickly accepted for publication and a fee is then charged. Peer review is claimed to occur, despite evidence to the contrary. Some publishing academics are spammed with e-mails, whereas others are listed as journal editors without their consent.

Watch the following video for an explanation on why OA journals are good for not only researchers but also the general public.

Tamarind, Teaching and Undergraduate Research

For the first time today, I tasted tamarind. I felt like I had discovered something so surprisingly delicious and interesting that I wondered why I had gone this long without knowing about it. This fruit’s benefits are wide-ranging and well known apparently—they just hadn’t been to me. I wasn’t introduced to it through family or friends, but I found information about it as I was searching for ways to reduce fluoride accumulations in the body—I was trying to solve a problem and it was one of the possible solutions to the problem.

New teaching strategies—or new-to-you teaching strategies—can be similar to discovering the tamarind fruit. Billions of people over the past 4000 years have been familiar with it, but it wasn’t within my realm of experience due to the limits of my family and social groups. With a problem to solve and Google, set off to find this fruit.

Now the leap to teaching and research…

Research I carried out on the integration of active learning into undergraduate classes, found that faculty integrated new strategies in response to problems they were trying to solve. They “found” a new strategy at a conference, workshop, or through journal articles and then used it to see if this new strategy or approach solved the problem. If it made a difference, the method was embedded in the course and if it didn’t make a difference it was dropped. Instructors used informal cycles of action research and reflective practice to renovate their teaching practices.

So here’s the thing…whether we recognize it or not we are doing “research” all the time in response to the problems we want to solve or to satisfy our curiosity. Research is learning, and learning is changing how we interact with the world. (You may have recognized this as a subtle plug for undergraduate research if you are a member of the pilot group ;)

The teaching problem: You might want to have students more engaged in their own learning because you know they learn better if they are engaged. You heard about cooperative learning being one of the most engaging teaching strategies. You find out how to implement cooperative learning and you give it a try. If you see students more engaged, you will use it again. If not, well, it was worth a try. Think tamarind fruit and be curious. And remember that just because a teaching strategy might be new to you, there are others who are very familiar with it because they have grown up in a culture where it is common practice. They can help you integrate a new strategy into your class. A good number of people who know about a variety of effective teaching strategies happen to be in the Gwenna Moss Centre. Give us a call if you are interested in more information about a wide variety of teaching approaches—including cooperative learning and undergraduate research

Co-teaching, Co-writing, Co-learning: 5 amazing things that happened when I stopped talking

In 2014, I have co-taught a course twice, co-facilitated one workshop and one conference session, collaboratively wrote several papers (including based on my dissertation results), and learned a few things along the way.

What happened when I traded in my solo controls for a tandem system?

1. I saw old material in new ways when we integrated our distinct viewpoints. Each collaborator brought his or her own beliefs and knowledge. Our backgrounds then resonated to clarify ideas, contrasted to highlight details, or merged to create new ideas.

Two Paths Through the Tangled Japanese Forest2. I could glimpse multiple parallel realities (or at least other possible directions or wordings). When preparing to teach, I may have one activity visualized that could work, but because I was co-instructing I got to see another possibility – the creatively revised version my co-instructor created to precisely achieve our goals.

3. I was able to engage in self-discovery about my “usual” assumptions, “default” style, and “typical” assessments. I stretched philosophically, epistemologically and ontologically when discussing our beliefs, how we come to know things, and what is knowledge. As a result of these conversations the edges of our self-concept can blur or crystalize (especially in inter-disciplinary partnerships).

4. I could share the journey and “conspire” (breathe with one another) and laugh, shrug, or celebrate together. With my co-instructor, I got to share the funny, absurd, heart-filled, and nerve-stretching moments of teaching, and as collaborators in writing we could high-five or pick up the pieces together. Even when reviewing feedback with its usual trepidation, celebrations and reflections were shared.

5. I was allowed to peer into my colleagues’ teaching and writing processes up close! Co-teachers like our students see us day-after-day, and co-writers see our notes in the margins. It seemed unusual but was very rewarding to invite colleagues into the messiness and see longitudinally what I do, as well as to learn from them.

Resources on co-teaching:

Co-Teaching in an Interdisciplinary Context, Center for Teaching and Learning, University of California Berkley

Team/Collaborative Teaching, Centre for Teaching, Vanderbilt (includes an example video) includes an example video.

Conderman, G., & McCarty, B. (2003). Shared Insights from University Co-Teaching. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 7(4). Available at:

Resources on co-writing (for us, our colleagues, and our students):

Group Writing, Writing Centre, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available (including as a pdf) under creative commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Phillips, W. L., Sweet, C. A., & Blythe, H. R. (2009). Collaborating on Writing, 95(5). Academe (Publication of the American Association of University Professors).

Budge, K. (November 29, 2011). Writing collaborative publications during your PhD. The Thesis Whisperer.

Krause, S. D. (2007). Chapter four, How to collaborate and write with others. In The Process of Research Writing. Available under creative commons license (CC-BY-NC-SA) at

If you would like to share your insights on co-teaching or collaborating at the U of S, contact the GMCTE.


PhD Reform: A Speedier and Dissertation-Free Degree?

Not long ago, I began the arduous process of applying to PhD programs. I didn’t make it far. What stopped me was not a lack of desire to push learning further, to what most graduate students see as the logical end of journey that began with their first university class. I was stopped by the nagging sense a PhD would simply take more time and resource than I had available.

Because I disliked falling prey to so utilitarian an impulse, I began looking into the PhD itself, to better understand why such a worthy intellectual endeavor appeared unsustainable and to find out if other students felt the same way.  My search led me to numerous blogs and reports about the PhD in today’s world, some of which can be found in my blog post about alt-ac careers. (alternative academic careers).

Wondering what to do with a PhD is, however, not the same as wondering why one would do a PhD at all. The latter question is better answered by examining the process rather than the outcome of earning the degree. The Academica Group’s Top Ten list featured a short round-up of current positions taken on the future of PhD programs, some of which were presented at a round table discussion during the 2014 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Two of the projects featured were McGill University’s White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and the Modern Language Association’s Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Both of these documents recommend extensive changes to the PhD, as well as investigating career outcomes.

Both documents recommend shortening the time to completion and increasing engagement with the world outside academia. To speed up the process and increase engagement, both explored the possibility of replacing the PhD dissertation with, for instance, “a coherent ensemble of scholarly projects,” recommended by the White Paper.

Simply speeding up the time to completion would certainly reduce the opportunity cost of a PhD program, but is this a realistic goal, even if the traditional dissertation is abandoned? Alicia Peaker, development editor at GradHacker responded in this interview, “what Graduate students need is not more or less time – it’s more support.” The debate continues and is worth following, particularly if you are a student currently looking at PhD programs.

Be Authentic In Your Teaching

Almost two decades ago, I spent four months interning as a teacher in a Grade 2 classroom. My supervisor was an interesting (some might say eccentric) middle-aged woman who believed that a good teacher needed to “compete with the effect of video games on children” by entertaining students in the classroom. She would literally sing and dance her lessons and she insisted that I do the same. She would tell me time and time again that I planned wonderful lessons and units, but I needed to be “more of a performer” in my delivery. More singing! More dancing! More joke-telling!

So in my supervisor’s presence I awkwardly sang and danced like a third-rate Fred Astaire impersonator being forced to perform under duress. The students generally sat quietly but I sensed their good behavior was mostly out of pity… the same reason you clap extra hard for the introverted, passive student who you suspect would find it less painful to walk a mile barefoot on gravel to deliver a 20 page paper to you, than it is to be standing there in the front of your class giving a three minute presentation.

The minute my supervisor left the classroom, though, everything changed. The students’ faces brightened, they sat up straighter, they became more engaged and eager to learn. Nothing changed in my lesson plan, but a mundane lesson would suddenly become an effective one. I stopped trying to entertain the students in a way that was not natural for me, and began engaging with them in a way that was.

What my supervising teacher did not realize was that at age 20 I had been teaching children for years in other contexts. I had already developed my own teaching philosophy and style, and it was unlike the one she tried to instill in me. Though I tried as hard as I could, I just could not be truly effective as long as I was merely trying to emulate a style or use techniques that were not authentic to my teaching self.

I often reflect on what this experience taught me about student engagement. Student-centered learning activities and lessons are important. It’s helpful to observe other teachers, seek out different techniques and approaches, and build a toolkit of ideas. But equally important is to give yourself the freedom to be authentic with your students. It’s not only acceptable to integrate your own teaching philosophy and personality into those well-planned lessons, but doing so just might just end up being the most powerful tool you have in your teaching toolkit.

Changing your life one “Tiny Habit” at a time…

About a month ago I ran across a great TED Talk given by BJ Fogg, PhD, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.

Fogg claims that, “When you learn my Tiny Habits method, you can change your life forever.” Well, it hasn’t been “forever” yet for me, but the changes I’ve made using this method have been incredible so far! My productivity and motivation have increased noticeably. I am more focused and “present” to the tasks at hand.

The basic premise is to hook a tiny behavior with an existing, well-established behavior. You use the established behavior to trigger the new behavior. It is important that the new behavior—“Tiny Habit”—is simple to do, takes no more than 3 seconds, and has no “pain” associated with it.

The Behavior Grid is very helpful in determining the duration of change you want to make: a one-time, short term or certain span of time, or “forever” and the type of change you want to make. Do you want to add a new behavior, do a familiar activity, increase the frequency of an existing behavior, decrease the frequency of a behavior or eliminate a behavior?

The SlideShare The Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change is very helpful as well. It takes about 10 minutes to go through.

My informal research project is how many changes can I make to my behavior that move me closer to my overall goals of well-being and productivity using Tiny Habits? I am currently up to 20 Tiny Habits—in addition to integrating many new keyboard shortcuts (recommended by one of the coaches) and doing quick stretches throughout my day. I keep track of how often I integrate the new Tiny Habits for the week and reflect on what has made some changes easier to incorporate than others. I am finding that the more Tiny Habits I incorporate, the easier they all are to remember to do.

Fogg suggests the following “recipe” for stating Tiny Habits:

After I ______, I will _____.

I have tried some variations like Before I_____, I will _____ and While I _____, I will _____ but neither were as effective as his suggestion. One of Fogg’s Tiny Habit recipes is “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” Simple, easy, fun, and usually leads to flossing more than just one tooth! Some examples of Tiny Habits I have integrated so far are:

After I sit down at my desk, I will write down one small “to do”.

After I sign in on my computer, I will set Pester[1] for 15 minute repeats.

After I read an email, I will deal with it immediately.

After I eat something, I will quietly say “thank you”.

After I start the car, I will take three long relaxing breaths.

It is fun to remember to do these small things. Fogg encourages rewarding yourself with some sound or action that celebrates carrying out the intended action which are small successes sprinkled throughout the day. I have found this to be very reinforcing and I feel great about remembering to do the Tiny Habits. The following SlideShare offers some great celebration ideas:

“Tiny Habits” means choosing small steps that are triggered by existing behaviors and then celebrating successes. I don’t know about “forever” but I know that right now change is underway. If you’d like to know more about Tiny Habits, drop us a line at the Centre.

[1] Note: Pester ( is a simple free timer program I use to help me remember to do the neck stretches the chiropractor suggested which makes it easier for me to stay focus longer on desk-based activities.

Modeling Courtesy: Thoughts about Campus Controversy and Maya Angelou

I’m reflecting on recent controversies over change of several kinds in my own campus community and finding myself slowly recovering perspective as time passes. (Although, I must say dear Educatus readers, that I remain astounded and saddened at the sudden loss of senior leaders at the University of Saskatchewan.)

Time marches on and this week, I happened upon an excerpt from an interview Evan Solomon of CBC conducted with the late Maya Angelou in 2008.   Her call for courtesy during that interview has me lamenting last week’s occasions of name calling, trashing of character, and even graffiti to a historical building.  On the upside, Maya Angelou’s words have me feeling inspired to renew my commitment to courtesy.

So, what can I do to answer Dr. Angelou’s call for courtesy, especially during times of controversy?

I know from experience that when I speak with passion, my students (in whatever context and variously defined) look up from their screens, sit up in the chairs, and give every indication that they are paying a new level of attention to what I say.  Given this effect and the passion I feel for the effective leadership of change in my university, I must ask myself three overarching questions as a teacher before I share my views with my students:

  1. Does expressing my opinion on organizational politics and events advance the educational experience of my students?
  2. Can I express my opinion on organizational politics and events in such a way that I model critical thinking?  For me, this means, can I recognize my own position and bias within the organization, can I question my own assumptions about the intentions of others, can I provide evidence that supports my view, can I model respect for those who view the situation differently or hold opposite opinions to my own?
  3. Am I calling my students to act, if they are so inclined, on their own interpretation of events and motivations?  That is, can I genuinely encourage them to question my interpretation and pursue their own understandings and then engage on that basis?

If I can say “yes” to these three guiding questions, then I think I’ve got the makings of a wonderful teachable moment where my students will have the opportunity to see me as an engaged, respectful, and courteous (thank you Maya) citizen of my university and hopefully, also, as a role model.

See the Solomon interview, scrolling ahead to about the 30 second mark, for Dr. Angelou’s remarks first on courage, and then on courtesy.  She was a remarkable human being and Evan’s reverence for the great lady is apparent.