About Barbara Schindelka

Instructional Design Specialist, GMCTE

Feedback in Marking – Some Tips for Efficiency


Feedback is one of the most important factors when it comes to improving student performance in a course. Yet many instructors would use words like tediousgrueling, or headache-inducing to describe the process of providing feedback to student work. If you are one of those instructors, consider integrating one (or more!) of the following strategies into your grading practice.

  • Separate Grading and Feedback: If the student cannot use your feedback to improve the quality of their work, writing comments on student work is probably just a waste of your time and energy.
  • Frontload Feedback: Provide specific and more detailed feedback early and frequent in the term, so it can be integrated into student work throughout the term. Early and frequent, but brief, feedback has a more powerful effect on student performance than long and detailed feedback later in the term does.
  • Comment Code: Create a list of frequent comments / feedback about student work (errors, corrections, suggestions, etc.), and give each a code. (For example, “AV” could be the code for “Use active voice, not passive voice”.) Distribute your Comments Code list to students, and use these codes when marking student work to cut down on your time spent writing comments.
  • Less is Sometimes More: Too much feedback can overwhelm and discourage students who are struggling. On each assignmentfocus primarily on giving feedback in the one or two areas that these students can improve on, which will lead to the greatest improvement in their performance in your class.
  • Delegate: Provide students with a self-evaluation checklist or rubric that they must fill in and submit as part of their assignment. Include reflection questions such as “What do you think the most interesting part of your paper is?” or “For me, the hardest part of completing this assignment was…”

The suggestions in this post are derived from Walvoord & Johnson Anderson’s book Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, which is available for faculty and instructors to borrow from GMCTE’s Resource Lending Library. For more information on making your marking and grading practices more efficient or to borrow this book, please feel free to contact 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.

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.

Lee Schulman Tells us to ‘Break Bad’ and Engage in SoTL


“Walter White is dead. Heisenberg is no longer someone of uncertain fate.”

These were the opening words of Lee Schulman’s talk, Situated Studies of Teaching and Learning: The New Mainstream. Intriguing. What on earth could the main character of the television series Breaking Bad have anything to do with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)?

Schulman continued: “And I must say that I have this fleeting image of my colleagues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, sneaking away from their Chemistry classrooms or Biology or English or History to their SOTL labs and mixing a brew intended to undermine the clarity of thought, the certainty, the dogmatism, and the ease with which their colleagues, and their colleges and universities continue to do the same work that they’ve done for many years.”

I was inspired. Not to become an over-educated high school Chemistry teacher and family man who creates a secret alter-ego criminal mastermind and drug lord in order to provide for my family. But this analogy has changed the way I think about SoTL.

The term “break bad” means to rebel against the accepted norms of a society.  Essentially, Schulman argued that those of us who engage in Situated Research (such as SoTL) are “breaking bad” – rebelling against the “accepted tradition” of research. Traditional research aims to generalize knowledge, to create broad and sweeping overviews that contribute to theories and principles that are not limited by details or particular circumstances. This type of research is often (though unjustifiably) viewed as a “superior” or more legitimate form of research than is situated research.

Situated research, on the other hand, focuses on the details: the particulars, the individuals, contexts, and environments considered unimportant in traditional research. Situated research does not attempt to create broad generalizations, but rather “seeks to describe, explain and evaluate the relationships among intentions, actions and consequences in a carefully recounted local situation”. Schulman argues that situated research will soon become mainstream in SoTL because it provides a rich, deep and detailed contribution to knowledge that traditional forms of research simply cannot.

In a way, the premise of the series Breaking Bad is like situated research. It does not seek to create broad generalizations or theories (e.g. “over-educated high school Chemistry teachers with cancer are likely to create drug empires”), but rather it “seeks to describe, explain and evaluate the relationships among intentions, actions and consequences” in the life of Walter White. The complexity, the uncertainties, the contextual details are where the brilliance of the series Breaking Bad truly lies. And that is where the brilliance of SoTL truly lies as well.

View Lee Schulman’s talk, presented at the International Society of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) 2013 Conference:

Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) and Reflective Teaching

One of the activities we do in GMCTE’s Introductory Instructional Skills course is the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) to help participants define what “good teaching” looks like to them.

Five different perspectives related to teaching are reflected in the TPI. Most people hold one (maybe two) dominant teaching perspectives; many also have a “back-up” perspective. The five perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but represent very different and sometimes opposing beliefs about teaching.

The five perspectives in the TPI are:

  • Transmission – Content is king (or queen) in this perspective. Teachers are responsible for presenting the subject matter correctly, systematically, memorably and efficiently.
  • Apprenticeship – This perspective reflects a belief that good teachers are skilled practitioners in their disciplines; they not only “know about” what they teach but can break down ordered tasks in order to lead students toward mastery of skills.
  • Developmental – Teachers with this perspective plan and teach “from the learner’s point of view”; they first must understand how their students think and learn in order and then adapt the subject matter in order to make it accessible and meaningful.
  • Nurturing – Caring about, encouraging, challenging and supporting students in a safe environment is the hallmark of this perspective. Teachers consider the individual growth and development of students, as well as student performance and achievement, in their approaches to teaching and assessing the subject matter.
  • Social Reform – The goal of teaching in this perspective is to encourage students to develop commonly held values and ideologies within their disciplines, in order to ultimately change collective society rather than only the individual learner.

The inventory also includes sub-scores for Beliefs (what you believe about teaching), Intention (what you intend to accomplish), and Actions (kinds of activities you actually use) within each of the five perspectives. This can help to highlight incongruities between your beliefs, intentions and actions in teaching.

The TPI is an excellent way to help you clarify your own particular orientation to teaching.  You can take the TPI online for free at http://www.teachingperspectives.com/drupal/take-survey, as well as print out specific information about each of the perspectives.

BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors – An Article Review

If I had to recommend just one article for instructors new to online education, it just might be BE VOCAL: characteristics of successful online instructors by John R. Savery (Savery, John R. (2005). BE VOCAL: characteristics of successful online instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2), 141-152). In it, Savery describes many of the best practices that I suggest to instructors and faculty who are designing or teaching online courses in what he calls the VOCAL model.

VOCAL is an acronym that stands for Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and Leader-by-Example.

Visible refers to what we often call “instructor presence”. In an online course, an instructor cannot see their students and vice versa. Students need to know their instructor is actively engaged in the teaching process; they need to feel connected to their instructor and their peers, to be most successful as a learner.

Online courses require the instructor to be highly organized. It is critical that specific details be well thought out and articulated to students in the beginning of the term. For example, ensure that formats and methods for handing in assignments and naming conventions for assignment files are specified, and that clear directions for learning activities are provided.

Most, if not all, great instructors are compassionate. Online students often face additional challenges that face-to-face students may not – technological, personal, etc. Successful online courses are highly dependent on a safe, compassionate, community of trust and communication between students and instructor.

Effective online instructors must be analytical. They must be able to collect evidence of student learning (data), analyse student progress, and provide feedback for improvement. Whether the data are in the form of online tests, small assignments, and/or participation on discussion forums, the instructor must analyse to what extent the students are engaging in the course and achieving the course learning outcomes.

Finally, instructors must be leaders-by-example. The instructor, whether in face-to-face, online, or anywhere in-between, must model for the students active engagement, appropriate behviour, and a scholarly approach to the discipline.

The VOCAL model can apply to courses that are fully online, blended (face-to-face classes with some online components), or hybrid (some face-to-face classes with the majority of the class materials online). The characteristics in this VOCAL model can apply to all successful instructors regardless of course delivery, even face-to-face teaching, but become increasingly important as in-person interactions are replaced by virtual connection. Many good practical ideas are listed in this article – definitely worth a read.

The Profession of Learning

My title here at the Gwenna Moss Centre is officially “Instructional Design Specialist”; I apply my instructional design background to help faculty and instructors develop and improve their skills and abilities as teachers and course designers. However, I think of my “real” work as being more fluid and less prescriptive than the title suggests; I think my ultimate role is to be a “professional learner”.  A philosopher at heart, I am prone to reflecting on ideas such as “What is learning? What is teaching? Is it truly possible to have one without the other?” and hoping that I can inspire others who are also on their own teaching and learning journeys.

I love learning – always have, likely always will. Learning is not always “fun” but I find it intrinsically satisfying knowing I could find the answer to a question I had or solve a problem to a challenge. My goals weren’t always what to learn what the teacher wanted me to learn, and sometimes I didn’t know what the teacher wanted me to learn. I wasn’t always popular with every teacher, but I learned from those experiences none-the-less.

One of the most important things I’ve learned along the way is to not be afraid to fail. By that, I don’t mean be a slacker, but to push myself out of my comfort zone. Failure is an integral part of the learning process.  Too many times we punish our students for failing instead of giving them a safe environment to make mistakes and try again; often as teachers we don’t risk failure ourselves and stick with the “tried and true”.  When I get to that point of feeling “this is way over my head, I’ll never get this right”, that is when I am actually learning the most. Sometimes we have to push ourselves and our students to uncomfortable places to make the most progress as teachers and learners.

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