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.


Participatory Learning: Transfer so the ideas stick longer than popcorn on shoes


As Eric Mazur comments “You don’t learn to play piano by watching someone else play” in his presentation about using peer instruction in physics courses. If we want the knowledge and skills we teach to be used later rather than wasting 30+ hours, learning needs to occur.

Instructors can be effective role models and offer students the opportunity to observe a master at work. A useful approach to teaching a process when accompanied by explicit description of the choices, rationale, solution steps and other metacognitive knowledge, particularly when involving dangerous procedures requiring expert skill for safety reasons. Such metacognitive pieces are key for students to see why a particular formula was used, and the pre-empting the common question of “where did you get 4 from?” when a step is skipped. Students can even be asked what the next step should be, or what the best approach to take given the information so far; although instructors facing mortal danger should be willing to challenge and explain rather than demonstrate what happens if enacting problematic suggestions.

However, there is something curious about having the individual who needs the least amount of practice doing the work while a room full of novices watch. So why might novices benefit from participatory learning within the BOPPPS model:

Repetition for Memory Formation

Practicing skills involves shifting from abstract ideas into specific procedural knowledge, while repetition of concepts related to knowledge learning outcomes forms stronger memories. Working through several contextual examples also stretches our conceptions and strengthens links the current learning with other procedural and declarative memories.

Variation for Transfer of Learning

The practical question of why we bother to teach is often answered by a refrain that students will need to know this material for use later in the program (4th year project or course 4XX) or when they… are professionals in the field. We do not teach so that students can simply solve problems the textbook. We are aiming for a transfer of learning, where students can apply skills and knowledge learned within one situation to another situation (e.g., Perkins & Salomon, 1992). This transfer can occur to contexts that either closely resembles the current situation such as solving problems in another class (termed “near transfer”) or to a very different situation or context such as research project or professional scenario (termed “far transfer”). Zack Williamson and Julie Schell from the University of Texas Austin provide a overview of near and far as well as what it means to take these low and high roads! How widely do we want our students to be able to apply these skills and knowledge?

Intervention for Preventing the Solidification of Misinformation

Lecture may convey the information and steps, but without practice I do not get to see what misinterpretations or gaps remain in students’ knowledge when they try to implement the lesson.

Having student work on selecting a statistical test during our time together means they can ask about uneven samples, I can catch misidentification of data type as categorical, or skipping assumption testing, and I can identify common gaps across students and quickly address with just-in-time feedback and instruction.

Giving time in-class, saves me and the students time overall compared to the lecture-only approach – something I realized after marking end-of-week assignments where multiple students make simple errors that required noting, tracking and highlighting common errors back to the student, followed by helping students unlearn these problematic misunderstandings that were engrained through repetition during the assignment and were already interfering with learning the next week’s content.

Instead, I and the students catch the errors early and quickly. Assignments show fewer simple errors and can be more complex if challenge is required.

Drawing on Prior Knowledge & My Expertise in Engaging Ways:

Active participatory learning values student’s prior knowledge, makes use of that prior knowledge saving time spent bringing everyone up to the same level, increases the meaningful effort done by students, and draws on their motivations when problems are of interest to them, and tempts them into seeing themselves as members in my discipline.

I like to think I can lecture reasonably well, but I know where I excel is detecting patterns that show where students collectively or individually struggle. If I lecture, I do not get to use my hard-earned and flexible expert knowledge to explain the nuanced considerations that occur when selecting a statistics analysis or determining the data type. While facilitation is not easy, it is less repetitive (an more intriguing) than marching individuals through with explicit directions for each step.  Lastly, having them talk more and me less means a less dry mouth.

Objectives: Drum Roll Please…and setting a high bar together


Once students and I know what the class knows pre-assessment, I share the draft objectives listed on a screen and together revise them. The objectives are not just my talking points, they represent the skills, knowledge and value I will be expecting of them in future assessments, what they want to walk away with, and what we both are willing to engage in.

There is also a second sneaky motivation I have based on my background in psychology: I want to use the social pressure for good (not evil). Through pubic agreement with the objectives, I want students to feel a sense of commitment to these objectives even when they require effort. I also want them to know that everyone else in the class, including me, has agreed to work towards these goals and can be relied on for help.

Pier Pressure - Swimmers jumping off a wall into the water.I am also able to respond to students’ ever-shifting interest across offerings. Perhaps non-parametric tests are more important, there is demand for how to read statistical research articles, or a particular complex test is desired. The content can then be shaped to meet each group’s motivations (Ryan & Deci, 2001; Vallerand et al., 1992 Academic Motivation Scale) or the beauty within a particular topic.

If I wanted to formalize the activity, the first assignment could be to suggest any revision to the learning objectives that are then agreed to/revised in the next class (or via a discussion board), or the objectives (and selected assessments) could be agreed to in a form of a proposed contract.

With this buy-in of expectations and added motivation, the stage is lit, the title screen has rolled and the show is on!

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., Blais, M. R., Brie`re, N. M., Sene ́cal, C., & Vallie`res, E. F. (1992). The Academic Motivation Scale: A measure of intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation in education. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52, 1003–1017.

Picture courtesy of digablesoul via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – NonCommercial — Share Alike – Some rights reserved)

Pre-Assessment: Saving time, gaining buy-in and setting the stage


Although BOPPPS model suggests discussing objectives before pre-assessment, I often start with a quick polling activity.

What I do…

Crowd WavingI poll students through a quick show of hands of where they are along a continuum of confidence or competence in today’s topic. I stand in a corner at the front of the class and describe a continuum with one wall representing “I may have heard about a mean, but I am not sure how to calculate it or if it is the statistical definition, or I may vaguely remember so please remind me” the opposite wall represents “I know how to calculate a mean confidently and can use it to compute a t-statistic. I could even teach this class.” Raise your hand when I reach the point on the continuum that represents you. Then I walk across the front of the room. If not enough students respond the first time, I just repeat the walk and they get the idea that I expect their participation.

Why? Four Reasons:

1)   Further signaling engaged learning: By asking students (and expecting a response) through a quick polling and expecting their involvement I reinforce that this class is about more active participation, as with the Bridge-In, I try to signal that statistical analysis is not a passive pastime but involves actively working over of information

2)   Save time – I know what they know: Formative feedback, allows me to see the distribution of students’ abilities on a given topic and adjust the amount of time and practice I allot basic material saving time where possible.

3)   Set goals – They know what they know: Placing oneself on a continuum involves identifying what one knows, one’s sense of efficacy on the topic and indicates how much room there is to grow. There is no following along, but an invitation to set one’s goal and strive for it.

4)   Reduce grumbling – They know what each other knows: I can mitigate the typical frustration strong students feel when instructors cover the basic stuff – the “this is sooooo kindergarten!” When students see how diverse the class is, they can see that at least someone in the class needs the information. I also can reinforce the idea, by indicating what information is foundational pieces, what information is at the minimal level expected for this class, and what information is a “pursue if interested” advanced content and those in the class can see how some information may be meant for them, but it is not all about what I need.

I prefer to identify students’ current level of statistical knowledge first for these reasons of engaging, adjusting content, setting goals and gaining buy-in that I can then tap into when I list the draft objectives (see next post).

Picture courtesy of iwishmynamewasmarsha via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – NonCommercial – Some rights reserved)

Bridge-In / Intro: Creating an Opening Scene


The smell of popcorn wafts by, the lights dim, the audience stills, the screen darkens then comes to life…ready for a movie?

movie nightCues signal the activity we are about to engage in and prepare our minds and bodies. We look, listen and wait for cues that tell us to wash our hands and fell hunger because dinner is about to happen, to get comfortable and be swept away by music, to wait in anticipation then yell surprise to a friend, to get warmed up and ready for a sports game…

What cues are there in your class? When I teach statistics, the first slide students see includes a toolbox suggesting an analogy through which to frame the upcoming content, the lighting may be necessarily dark by the screen but overall bright, I start by walking to the middle of the front and when stepping towards them start with why I find statistics interesting and useful.

The cues of lighting, imagery, voice, body positioning etc. highlight the value I place on the topic and signal students to be prepared to meet me part way, engage in a conversation about statistics, perhaps respect the effort required but not concerned, and see value in learning the topic.

After this initial step of BOPPPS, I often proceed to define means and other foundational content, but I continue the message of usefulness and dialogue through a pre-assessment that serves multiple purposes including: don’t get too comfortable passively listening…this class requires more than just watching the show.

Learning Not to Learn?


We teach so that students engage in actions to continue to learn including completing assignments, readings and answering questions in class. But does our teaching increase such behaviours or decrease them?

One lens, psychology of learning, suggests we likely do both. Unlike classical conditioning’s focus on reflexes such as drooling, B. F. Skinners’ operant conditioning examines the rewarding of active behaviours including participating in class discussion or completing homework.

What is Operant conditioning?

As Thorndike’s Law of Effect and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning notes we are influenced by the consequences of our actions. Good consequences encourage more of this activity, while unpleasant (or unhelpful) consequences encourage less of this activity.

Positive reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviours through either the addition of a pleasant stimulus or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. If we want students to answer more question in class, we could:

  • add an indication that their answer is correct, stating which parts are correct if answer is not correct,  or secondary rewards of praise


  • remove something unpleasant such as provide relief from uncertainty by confirming they understand the topic or the ending of our mastered silent stare.

Negative reinforcement decreases the frequency of valued behaviours through either the addition of an unpleasant stimulus or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, including answering questions in class when we:

  • add a dismissing or disparaging comment from the explicit “incorrect” to the implicit asking “any other answers” only when the initial student response is incorrect


  • remove something pleasant such as a change in posture to be more removed, stop smiling, or change in the amount you pick them to answer questions.

We might beneficially use negative reinforcement to decrease disruptive behaviours such as interrupting classmates, or answering cell phones

Our effect may also be neutral, including when an instructor neither confirms or discounts the response and simply says “next” until they have 3 responses regardless of correctness.

Over time, behaviours do not need to be (and should not be) actively reinforced each time to maintain higher participation or lower skipping class (see information on schedules and fixed versus variable intervals and ratios).


Try seeing how the number of students’ answers increases (or decreases) with different responses. Predict via the lens of operant conditioning. For example:

  • What happens if I ask questions that are too easy? Students likely not rewarded by answering
  • What happens if I ask questions that are too hard? Students might not be able to answer and receive the explicit or implicit feedback that they are wrong
  • What happens if I present my answer(s) on a slide after I ask them? Students might not be rewarded by answering
  • But what if I skim by pointing out all the parts they identified and building on their answer? -> Students might be rewarded and increase participation.

Applying operant conditioning is not about “coddling” or saying “good try” without correcting flawed knowledge, but creating a learning experience that is encouraging of participation, reading and incorporating feedback into later performance. Even when a students’ answer is incorrect there are ways to reward behaviours that lead to improvement (e.g., asking questions) and provide feedback to modify that knowledge by “rewarding” the correct bits, “punishing” incorrect parts, and because we can speak better than pigeons suggesting how to improve.

While it is useful to be cognizant of how our actions may act to encourage or discourage specific student behaviours, self-determination is still valued and people may not want themselves or others to be treated as treating people like lab rats such as by Sheldon on Big Bang Theory:


P.S. The physical classroom and social roles may also trigger previously rewarded behaviours including collaboration or silence.

Catching a Falling Star or Lost in Outer Space? That’s what feedback is for!


What would it be like to wait for 31 months before finding out if you were on your way to success or have burst into flames? The European Space Agency had such a wait to hear how its Rosetta space mission to study a comet is going, hearing this week for the first time from their spacecraft that had finally travelled close enough to the sun to have solar power to wake up.

Rosetta Calls HomeIn comparison most 4-year undergraduate programs are 32 months (e.g., September 2013 to April 2017 not counting summers) – a long time to wait for student feedback on their orientation and first year experience.

Most courses last just over 3 months for a one-term course, still a long time to wait for feedback on whether all students can see the screen or hear your voice, something determinable in the first 5 minutes of lecture.

Why bother?

So why should we bother with feedback? Ever get mid-way through a term unsure of how it is going but plow ahead anyways? Ever been surprised by students’ ratings at the end of the year?

Feedback from our students about our course (or our program) at regular intervals can help us adjust mid-flight to correct for any variations in students, class timing, room layout, course materials etc. The feedback can help with requesting changes to the room, suggesting topics that require additional review, or offering ideas for new approaches to the material.


While the European Space Agency may have had no choice but to wait for their comet-chasing spacecraft to signal back, students are generally around September to May and willing to provide feedback on their learning experiences for their own sake and for the sake of the next cohort.

  • Quick: Ask students through a show of hands (or clickers if used in the class) who can clearly see the font on the screen? Are all hands up?
  • In Depth: Want more detailed and anonymous data, we at the GMCTE are happy to come by to survey students in class, facilitate a focus group or provide our own observation (all confidential). We can also help with surveys, focus groups, and other methods for program review too.  Carnegie Mellon University’s resources describes Focus Groups with students as “particularly effective for identifying agreement across a group and for eliciting suggestions for improvement…[and] much more flexible”
  • In the Middle: Have a one-minute questionnaire to be answered and dropped off as students leave, such as “What can be improved? What helps my learning?” or “Something I learned today? Something I am not sure about?”

More resources and examples are available about feedback on courses or program curriculum

This new term has launched and our courses have cleared the start-up atmosphere, and are settling into orbit.  Curious if your course is on the right trajectory? Now is the time to get feedback.

Contact us at or see our Website.

Photograph courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Curriculum of Fractal Beauty


What image of our discipline are we sharing with students or with colleagues as we start a new term? Are we sharing glimpses of the beauty that intrigue and motivate us?

Just as lecture is a piece of the course, each course is embedded within a program, and each program within the ongoing history of a discipline. The transformative concepts and essential knowledge, skills, or values of the discipline are embodied within the program, enacted within the course, seen within the lecture activities, readings and assessments.

Mandelbulb140aThese central features thus appear as more than just a single layer of foundational ideas. Instead, our programs and courses appear nearly fractal – complex organic growing entities comprised of many instances of the same fundamental pattern of ideas, approaches, assumptions and beliefs that are apparent in the whole.

The essential skills and transformative ways of asking questions and pursing answers of a discipline become reflected at each curricular and scholarly level. How is your discipline reflected in the courses and opportunities your students complete, the course(s) you are teaching, and the project/paper/lab report your students will write?

Photo courtesy of Soler97 through Wikimedia Commons.

Beauty II: Defining the Big, Bold and Beautiful


Getting lost in the beauty of our discipline and sharing it with our students raises the challenge of what to cover within the limited time of our course or program. With all that is beautiful about our discipline, what do we focus on?

32/365One approach is to focus on the fundamental perspectives and approaches that define a discipline – the building blocks of a field!

These building blocks can be identified and prioritized through several lenses:

Celebrating what’s Unique:

What makes your discipline unique? What are the key premises, approaches, conceptions, or methodologies not found in other disciplines? What is the unique contribution that individuals in your discipline can make to understanding human experience, and global and local challenges?

Defining Threshold Concepts:

One approach for defining these key ideas is by identifying the threshold concepts which are the transformative, troublesome, irreversible, integrative, and bounded concepts in a discipline that shape the language of the discipline (Meyer & Land). For example, Art as language in Art History (pages 7-9,


Distilling the Essential:

Another approach is to distill from our activities and assessments what is truly essential, such as knowing the systems in anatomy versus naming the location of placement flags. Resources related to universal instructional design and accommodation for accessibility provide a starting place with open-ended questions for identifying the essential requirements or components in your own course or program:

Capturing in learning outcomes:

These big, bold, and beautiful pieces are the knowledge, skills and values at the foundation of each discipline and when articulated can form the program learning outcomes that define your curriculum vision.

The beauty that defines your discipline then becomes what that graduates of your program, those future builders of your discipline should know, do, value by the time they graduate. So that, by the end of this program/course, successful graduates are expected to…think in, act with and value with these big, bold and beautiful cornerstones of our discipline.

Seeing the Beauty


There is something exciting, captivating and intriguing when working through an analysis and seeing the ideas crystalize or flip through the writings of colleague and see the connections to other papers, and to other ideas. The experience of excitement, in my case over a well-selected and implemented statistical analysis or assessment, draws us deeper into our fields of study and expertise.

There is something intrinsically motivating (Ryan & Deci, 2000) about such exploration and devotion to learning and discovering more. Sure there are moments that seem like struggles when shopping an article or book for publishing, wrestling for time for deep critical thinking, or running into unexpected results and paths. But there are still moments of stunning beauty in our endeavours.

genebank6What intrigues you and grabs hold of your curiosity so much that you dream of it? What lies on the horizon you are seeking to reach? In short, what are your goals and your motivations?

Articulating these goals and motivations (and posting or keeping them filed nearby) enables us to:

  • Be reminded of why this matters when the going gets tough
  • Be more efficient by identifying what is essential to our specific goals and what is tangential. For example, which grants to apply for or which teaching activities assessments align with our specified learning outcomes (Biggs, 1999)
  • Clarify for ourselves, for our students and for our readers where our research project or the current topic fits within bigger picture of your field
  • Specify what the long-term rewards are that you working towards through “active waiting” (Boice, 2000) or other strategies as new (and not so new) faculty and professionals.

Ours goals and motivations for teaching a topic to our students form the basis of our teaching philosophies that can be articulated as a statement within your teaching portfolio. This time of year, students face the mid-semester slump– that post-midterm drop in urgency combined with being overwhelmed of what remains to do.  They need a shift in focus to the bigger picture and a boost of motivation to continue moving forward (as noted by Gail Krovitz in her edudemic post). Our students need a reminder of the beauty of the discipline and to hear you share your excitement for the topic, in addition to any practical uses of the information that sparks their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, respectively (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

However, it is not only our students who need a change in pace, but ourselves as well. For it is easy to get lost in the details and in the stacks of pages, yet energizing to get lost in the beautiful ideas of our field.


Biggs, J. (1999).  What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18:1, 57-75.

The Biggs, 2012 article is an anniversary special issue reprint.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: nihil nimus. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

For a book review see: ]

Available in our GMCTE library.

Krovitz, G. (November 10, 2013). Zombie students: How to avoid the mid-semester slump. Edudemic : Connecting education & technology.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

Picture courtesy of CIAT International via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – Share Alike – Some rights reserved)

Plugin by Social Author Bio