Feedback to Improve Teaching

This fall I taught my first for-credit university course. I have plenty of previous teaching experience in the K-12 system and non-credit workshops/courses offered through the GMCTE, but this was the first-time teaching paying university students. I was feeling some apprehension and added pressure.

Teaching controversial issuesWith this pressure in mind (and wanting to provide the best learning experience possible) I put together a formative assessment plan for the course. This plan would allow students to provide me with feedback on my teaching and use of learning activities. Here is a list of some of the items in that plan:

  1. Pre-Course Survey: I began with a pre-course survey the last week of August. I accessed my course list through Blackboard Learn and sent the students a link to a survey. I used this survey to learn more about my students and learn what relevant skills they were bringing into the course with them. I was able to use this information to inform my lesson and activity planning.
  1. Stop-Start-Continue: Three weeks into the term, I asked students to provide anonymous feedback on what things I should start doing, what I should stop doing, and what I should continue doing in my teaching. The majority of the feedback was positive, but even that was very helpful in letting me know that I was on track.
  1. Muddiest Point: After the fourth week, I created an anonymous online survey and asked my students to identify what concepts and ideas in our recent classes were still unclear to them. This helped me supplement and enrich the materials I had provided them in order to attempt to get all of us up to the same level of understanding. I also planned a brief class discussion to address these concerns.
  1. Clickers: Also in our fourth week, I lead an activity where students were applying their learning of a certain concept to answer clicker questions in class. I did this using a free online system called Kahoot!, in which the students were able to respond using computers or mobile devices. The vast majority of students answered the questions correctly indicating to me that we had achieved that learning objective and students were ready to apply this to a summative assignment.
  1. Post-term Survey: As the term wrapped up, I began thinking about what changes I would make to this course the next time I teach it (which is in January). Apart from the college-issued survey, I created my own anonymous online survey that solicited feedback on the course in general and specific feedback on the assignments that the students completed throughout the term. I emailed this survey to my students and they have offered insightful comments that I am using in planning the next iteration. I also encouraged them to meet with me to provide oral feedback if they so wish.

Although, I was initially apprehensive about teaching this course, I found that within the first few weeks I was quite comfortable. The students and I had developed a good rapport and I was soliciting so much feedback that nothing was really able to fall between the cracks. A well-planned formative assessment plan can really set a course up for success!

Nominating an Outstanding Teacher: Why and How?

There are a number of reasons to reward and recognize outstanding teaching at our university. Teaching awards can encourage the further development of expertise, and validate the energy and hard work that goes into teaching. Teaching awards can also foster a sense of community and help to build collegial relationships. The process of preparing an award nomination is itself heavily reliant on the strength of collegial bonds and community. For instance, a nominator must know something about the teaching style of a nominee and must rely on the nominee’s relationships with colleagues and students to procure authentic and quality letters of support.

In the video below, Dr. Beverley Brenna explains her position on the function of teaching awards on campus, and provides advice to future nominators about time-lines, strategies for presenting the material collected, and key considerations when preparing an award dossier.

Crafting Artful Teaching

I’ve been a teacher since I was 6 years old and I still absolutely grin when I see a class that is well-structured and flows with lots of student and instructor excitement and enthusiasm that is “on purpose.” When the class time flies by, things are “accomplished,” there’s action, and “learning” is palpable, that is what we strive for, and to me it’s as beautiful as a great movie, a heart-felt song, or a painting that claims your attention.

I saw these qualities in a 50-minute class taught by Leah Ferguson, a new faculty member in Kinesiology. I was absolutely grinning by the end of the class so I asked Leah if I could interview her to find out more about how she planned for it…Just so you know, this was an 08:30 class that started at 08:31 with all seats full and only one student coming in very shortly after things got underway.

Where Do You Get Your Examples?

I recently interviewed Leah Ferguson, faculty member in Kinesiology, about how she chooses the examples she uses to illustrate concepts in her first year KIN class…

This might surprise you at first but then it’s an “of course!!” What a way to make research real, build a sense of collegiality, highlight what’s going on in the college, and let students know about the research of their other professors. The real examples from the college make the concepts come alive!

The interview is about five minutes…let us know what you think.

Website Launched as Hub for All Things Open at USask

We’ve been posting a lot on this blog lately about all of the open initiatives happening at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as initiatives elsewhere that are available to faculty and graduate students at our university. There’s been the adoption of an open textbook for a class of 100 students, the piloting of the open source platform Mahara by the College of Education for ePortfolios, and now the launch of the first open course from an academic unit at the U of S with registration opening for Dr. Ken Coates’s Circumpolar Innovation through Canvas.

Open USaskGiven the growing list of open initiatives, and the long-running support and education around open access journals from the Library, a new Website has been created to act as a hub for all things open at the University of Saskatchewan. contains links and information to resources related to open textbooks, open courses, open access journals, open source software (including some developed at the U of S) and Creative Commons.

Please don’t hesitate to let us know what you think of the site, if you have any questions about any of the included initiatives or if we’ve missed something that you feel should be included.

If It’s Too Good to Be True: The publishing edition

At the end of June this year, I did something all graduate students look forward to doing: I uploaded the final, defended and amended version of my MA thesis to the University of Saskatchewan’s Electronic Theses and Dissertations site.

Then, only two days later, I received an email from a company offering me the chance to publish my thesis, for free. I suspected that every other grad student who submitted a thesis that month also received such a generous and tempting offer. Grad students often experience pressure to build a publication record, which I assume might be why publishing companies like this spam us.

I found an article written by journalist Joseph Stromberg, who actually went through the process of publishing with one of these companies. He wrote the most thorough story I found online about predatory publishers. I use the term ‘predatory publisher’ because, although the offer I received claimed I could publish my work at no cost, I would be required to sign over my copyright and, as Stromberg experienced, the company then pressures its authors into buying back their own work.

Early this fall, I spoke with DeDe Dawson of the U of S Library, who said that predatory or disreputable publishers have become a growing concern in academia as the academic world becomes larger and more accessible. The problem is not limited to graduate students, said Dawson, since “some disreputable journals will list you as an editorial board member without your knowledge or consent, just to get associated with your reputation.” Dawson recommends that researchers regularly Google their own names to find out if they are being listed on a site without their knowledge. She also recommends that graduate students first check with their discipline’s liaison librarian about the reputation of any journal that offers to publish work prior to responding to such offers.

What I found most troubling is that, based on the accounts I read, which include Lambert Academic Publishing (or How Not to Publish Your Thesis)and a post from 2009 called Academic Spam, predatory publishers do not appear to be breaking the law.

The moral of the story is that what looks too good to be true generally is, particularly if someone without a specialized background claims to have actually read and assessed an MA thesis (in two days).

What A Good Leader Does to Enable Good Teaching

By Jay Wilson, Department Head and Associate Professor, Curriculum Studies & Fellow at the GMCTE

As a result of a number of encounters this week my thoughts turned towards the important role of leadership in educational institutions. Here I will share the reasons why I think leadership is valuable. The thoughts are not groundbreaking or especially new but it is important to remind ourselves why strong leadership makes our organizations successful.

The characteristics that true leaders possess are instrumental in the success of our institutions. The list of traits includes many descriptors such as mentor, advocate, and champion. To put things in context, people need to know that those of us who work in public institutions are inundated with a variety of factors that may influence our work as teachers. Pressure from those who do not understand our process or our content can be immense. The outside lens that ranges from casual observations to formal ratings, can attempt to undermine our life’s work. Without a true understanding of our world the general public may see us negatively as a result of the opinions of others.

It is during these times that we are reminded about the importance of strong leaders. It is their job to understand and reinforce an institution’s mission or objectives. They are able to tune out the negative waves and remind members of an organization why what they are doing matters and why it is important to follow the plan. Leaders build confidence in teaching staff by reminding them that what they are doing matters and in the end those who do not have a clear picture will be surprised by the results. When a strong sense of confidence exists, teaching staffs are empowered. Confident faculty members take chances for the benefit of their students and innovate for the health of their institution. Leadership develops, fosters, and maintains this confidence. Organizations without good leadership move back and forth searching for a better way or trying to please others. Mentorship is also a key trait of good leadership. It involves working with those who have a new or creative idea. Not saying “no” – but saying “why not” – builds a positive spirit in an organization. Advocacy is important. If we do not look after each one of our staff and value their contributions then we are missing out. Bigger and brighter is not always the answer. The programs that exist to fill an important role need to be protected and maintained. Good leaders recognize this need. They promote and protect which is not always the easy choice. Riding along with successful self-sustaining projects is not leadership. Helping instructors to grow passions into programs that support and nurture others is a true sign of leadership.

Keep these thoughts in mind if you are in a position of leadership or aspire to be in one. Your job is to be active and involved to support people and programs.

College of Education Adopts Use of ePortfolios

By Tim Molnar, Assistant Professor, College of Education

The College of Education recently implemented an electronic portfolio system (ePort) called Mahara™. This open source ePort emerged from a collaborative venture funded by several post secondary institutions and government bodies in New Zealand. In Maori mahara means “to think, thinking, or thought.”

Mahara_logoOur intentions with implementing Mahara™ are to enhance teacher candidates’ learning by offering a place for the collection of evidence, analysis, representation and sharing relating to their experience as developing educators. Instructors and cooperating teachers have the opportunity to examine, assess and provide feedback to teacher candidates on their efforts and progress. Using Mahara™ also offers an opportunity for a teacher candidate to address the new Saskatchewan Teacher Certification Competencies (STCCs) being established by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education and demonstrates our College commitment to meeting those competencies through our program. Instructors identify which of the STCC’s align with their course outcomes and so allow teacher candidates opportunities to address the teaching competencies directly and through out their course of studies.

Using Mahara™ since 2008, with both undergraduate and graduate students, my first impressions of this software remain. Mahara™ is a flexible and adaptive environment that is highly configurable affording a wide variety of media (evidence) to be incorporated, made sense of, and shared with instructors, colleagues, potential employers and others. The drag and drop features of Mahara™ allow a user to quickly and efficiently develop a page or series of pages around a topic that include typical features such as text boxes, images, image galleries, PDF files and other embedded media. A journaling feature is available as well as the ability to call upon various Google Apps such as calendars, documents, books and maps integrated directly into a page. External media such as TeacherTube, Youtube, Prezi, Vimeo, Google Video, Slideshare and other media can be configured and integrated directly into the page one is crafting. If a user is inclined they can further craft their page or pages with HTML. A useful feature is the ability to create groups, which allow instructors or students to create places for sharing work (within course and program work but also publically). There exist also a resume tool that allows a user to develop a professional presence that can call upon the work that has been created in the portfolio. While no technology meets all demands it is intended to address, Mahara™ is a helpful and useful environment for meaning making and sharing.

I am looking forward to examining and acting on the challenges and benefits to our students, instructors and involved others as as we move forward with the use of Mahara™.

Adopting Open Textbooks Online Workshop

BCcampus is offering a free, online four-week workshop for those interested in adopting open textbooks or just interested in learning more about them. The workshop sessions will run from January 12 – February 6, 2015. Each week will have a new topic including:

  • What is open? What is an open textbook?
  • Creative Commons Licenses
  • Institutional Readiness
  • Find, Evaluate and Modify Open Textbooks

Additional information and the registration form can be found here.

In addition, the BCcampus Open Textbook project will now offer $250 to faculty or graduate students who teach at post-secondary institutions in Saskatchewan and Alberta for reviewing open textbooks in their collection. For more information about this initiative, please see the Call for Reviewers.

If you are at the U of S and have any questions about either of these opportunities, please contact the GMCTE.

There Are No “Dumb” Questions, But There Are Intelligently Guessed Answers

The weather turning colder, the snow starting to fall, the days becoming shorter and people more busily bustling around are sure signs that “the most wonderful time of the year” on our campus is fast approaching: final exam season.

Few, if any, types of questions appear more prolifically on final exams than multiple choice questions (MCQ). However, there are good MCQ’s and there are not-so-good MCQ’s. An exam containing poorly written questions will produce inaccurate measures of your student learning; if the purpose of a final exam is measuring student learning, a final exam consisting of poorly constructed questions is essentially just “going through the motions” of assessment. A student who knows nothing about your subject matter could easily get a higher mark using strategic guessing than a student who is well-prepared.

For example, see these Rules for Intelligent Guessing on Multiple Choice Exams. These “rules” make a lot of sense, because they capitalize on the most common errors that instructors make when constructing multiple choice questions.

MCQ contain a stem (the lead in to the question), the correct choice(s), and distractors (the incorrect choices). Many MCQ construction errors result when “question-writing fatigue” hits… at some point, one can end up feeling a bit desperate for another distractor (or at least that’s been my personal experience: the stem and the correct answer are usually pretty easy to come up with; it’s coming up with plausible distractors that is wearying).

One way to avoid this is to write two or three MCQ’s on each topic area while you prepare to teach it in class. That way, you have a set of new and original questions to choose from when it comes time to put your final exam together. Review all your questions with the lens of a student using “rules for intelligent guessing” and make changes where required.

It takes a lot of time to construct final exam questions, so make sure your time is not wasted. You want to make sure you are testing students on their knowledge of your subject matter and not on their ability to exploit any oversights you may have made in your question construction.

14 Rules for Writing Multiple-Choice Questions, from Bringham Young University Faculty Centre is a succinct yet thorough list of best practices for writing good MCQ’s. It may be helpful to print this document and keep close at hand for easy reference.