Being Enthusiastic About So-Called Mundane Stuff

My higher education teaching journey began as an upper-year undergraduate student teaching evening sessions about APA formatting: A seemingly dry topic about commas, alphabetical order of last names, single versus double space etc. As a necessity for undergraduate psychology paper, students’ motivation for signing up seemed to be extrinsically connected (Ryan & Deci, 2001) to the 10% of marks tied to correct use of APA formatting in most 3rd year papers.

I could have started the session off with just those basic facts and the pressure-filled reminder of that 10%, but talking about why APA is useful set a better tone. Did you know that APA formatting allows readers to know where to look for key reference details to find the sources for our own citing, critiquing or curiosity purposes? Or that standardized format allows for quicker reading of articles? This statement raises the question of what information is needed to accurately find the article or book mentioned.

Blue paper

I tapped curiousity, relevance, and showed my own enthusiasm for the topic.

Curiousity, leading us to asking the “why?” and the “so what?,” can stimulates exploration, seeking of answers and the resulting satisfaction of figuring something out. Relevance connects the new topic to existing pursuits, and enthusiasm can be contagious or at least prompting of curiosity over why I could possibly be interested in the topic. In other words, we can stimulate student’s intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2001) and intrinsic valuing (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) by making the work of learning worth pursing in order to satisfy curiosity.

As Ambrose, Bridges DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010) summarized in their third chapter “What Factors Motivate Students to Learn?” of their book, existing research suggests the following strategies for establishing the value of a topic:

  • “Connect the material to students’ interests”
  • “Provide Authentic, real-world tasks” (see experiential learning)
  • “Show relevant to students’ current academic lives”
  • “Demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives”
  • “Identify and reward what you value”
  • “Show your passion and enthusiasm for the discipline”


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. An imprint of Wiley. Available at:

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

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68-81.

Picture courtesy of Andy Price via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike -Some rights reserved)

Being More Efficient

“efficient |iˈfiSHənt|


  • (esp. of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense
  • (of a person) working in a well-organized and competent way
  • [ in combination ] preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource”   –(New Oxford American Dictionary”, 3rd Edition, 2010, Oxford University Press)

Efficiency focuses on the level of relevant output achieved relative to the amount of effort. Perhaps it is like the phrase “Work better, not harder” or “lift smarter, not harder”.

So what does being efficient mean for teaching? What does being efficient mean for curriculum renewal?

Set your goals:

Sailor switches his lights to high efficient bulbs as part of an energy conservation initiative in HawaiiFocus energy on the questions/areas that are most important.  Get the “most bang for your buck”. What is most important for your course or program may be different from others’ courses or programs, so being “efficient” may look different too. For example, how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb efficiently? One, if the goal is to disrupt the routine of as few people as possible; two, if safety is a priority and a ladder is involved; a whole class, if hands-on experience is valued.

Be selective:

You could measure everything all the time, or just what is sufficient to draw conclusions.  Choose the best measures for what you are focusing on. Try to assess important knowledge and skills to capture the signal more than noise.

Utilize the wheel instead of reinventing it:

Have an idea, but not sure of the detail? Look for what has worked for other people in your department, discipline, and beyond – there is a whole field of study on teaching and curriculum development! Unsure where to look? Ask a mentor, ask a colleague teaching a similar course or using the technique, or ask one of us at the GMCTE.

Think longitudinally/Avoid perfectionism:

Yes, this is the first time, but will likely not be the only time you will teach this topic or measure in this area. It won’t be perfect, but once it is good enough to try, try and then revise.

Document progress:

Sometimes it is hard to see how far we have travelled when we are looking at the next step and vaguely remembering the last one. Document the changes, the lessons learned and your successes. Share these insights with your students, colleagues, conference attendees and others. Allow students to see that you are building on their feedback, allow colleagues near and far to learn from your experiences and findings. If you’re thinking about presenting or publishing student responses and data, make sure to chat with the ethics office to find out about ethics exemptions and approvals.

The challenge of competing demands and the pressures to avoid wasting time and other valuable resources might seem a threat to good teaching, but perhaps they are a motivation for change. Similarly, following a schedule may be a constraint or a great way to Carve out Creating time.  I would love to hear how you have become more efficient in your teaching, or discuss quick ways of marking, surveying your program, or other intriguing challenges.  Our door is open at the GMCTE across from the Murray Library entrance – stop by on your way for coffee or drop us a line.

Picture courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – Some rights reserved)

Recipe for SoTL

Many a metaphor is used to make new ideas feel more familiar.

I’m an avid baker, so I wanted to share this alternative sweet way of seeing the elements and processes involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  Let me know if you’ve got something cooking.

Book in a Loaf Pan

Photo by Brian Hoessler

1 cup questions, concerns or new possibilities

2 cups curiosity and excitement for your teaching and your students

1/2 cup reading literature inside your discipline about teaching courses and students like yours (see for example the list at

1/2 cup reading literature from educators in other disciplines with similar questions or approaches (see the list at

4 tablespoons appropriately chosen methodology that makes sense for you

2 tablespoons relevant analysis

4 teaspoons of reflection as a practioner on your teaching and SoTL experiences


Blend questions and concerns with curiosity and excitement together until coalesces. Shift together readings and fold in. Add in methodology and analysis, and sprinkling in reflection. Stir thoroughly.

Pour into single large pan or into several smaller pans. Fill about 2/3 full initially as often expand during writing.

Bake through reflection, writing and revision.

Serve to audiences near and far.

 ~ from the kitchen of  Carolyn “Dr. Cupcake” Hoessler


For a clearly written set of instructions see Donna M. Qualter’s “Six Steps for Turning Your Teaching into Scholarship

My favourite survey design resource, beyond Fluid Surveys (free for us at the UofS), is the  “Basics of Survey and Question Design” webpage

Also come by or drop us a line at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness in the Murray Building right across from the Murray Library (and Starbucks) entrance.

When in Doubt, Write it Out!

When I mentioned university teaching, a friend of mine told me the story of sitting in a class for many weeks diligently reading the textbook about “z-scores” and listening to the professor talk about “cee-scores”, only to realize a few weeks in that the two terms both referred to the same statistical test. Knowing that there was only one computation made deciding which to use no longer an issue and simplified assignments and tests.

A common challenge in teaching statistics is the uses of Greek letters that may not familiar to English-speakers: a Chi-square test and the symbol χ² seem very unrelated. A similar obstacle is faced by students in courses with non-English words (especially non-Roman alphabets), including linguistics, languages, history, religion and others. My partner, for example, remembers having difficulty in a course on Chinese religions matching what the instructor was talking about and the concepts discussed in the readings.

An easy solution is to write key words and formulae on the boards beside the projection screen, embed them in your PowerPoint slides, or list them in handouts. Unless the instructor’s goal is for students to develop the skill of using trial-and-error for matching verbal and written representations, the most effective approach for teaching the Chi-square test is to connect the spoken “Chi-square” with the symbol and then talking about the mathematical basis and practical uses of this statistical test.

Chi-SquareThere are three benefits of writing out unfamiliar words and symbols that I would like to highlight:

1) Reduce confusion

Just as the examples illustrate, there is a risk of a disconnect between spoken names and symbols. What do students mis-hear or mis-write in your discipline?

2) Demonstrate the importance

In addition to clearly pairing written and oral representations, writing on a board draws students’ attention through the movement and your expenditure of time and effort. It shows the symbol-verbal match matters to you and to your discipline’s dialogue, and it should matter to them. What symbols and words are part of your discipline’s conversations?

Einstein's blackboard

3) Enable multiple ways of learning

Writing and speaking has the added benefit of communicating often complex terms, formulae or steps through multiple modalities. Not only does using multiple modalities help students with particular preferences for oral or for written, it benefits all students as everyone learns best when information is presented and then reinforced through multiple modalities.

In short, writing out symbols when speaking them is good for students from diverse speaking backgrounds, good for students with accessibility needs, and good for all students!

Chi-Square picture courtesy of Carolyn Hoessler.
Einstein’s Board picture courtesy of Garrett Coakley.

Learning Through Osmosis

The phrase “learning by osmosis” conjures ideas of sleeping with a textbook or sitting near the smart students. What about in the classroom?

Lecturing while students passively listen is like letting the difference in osmotic pressure between the students’ brain and the instructor’s brain (or the classroom air) be the driving force to promote transport or diffusion of knowledge. 

This statement is paraphrased from a recent conversation with a faculty member about how faculty are expected to learn about the culture of their departments (another post, perhaps) and students are expected to learn when sitting listening in a classroom.

As I learned in the conversation, osmosis operates based on the differences in osmotic pressures between the two mediums with the direction of flow occurring from the high pressurized to the lower pressurized through a porous membrane. Also importantly, “osmotic pressure depends on the molar concentration of the solute but not on its identity,” so any knowledge or thoughts existing in either instructors or students’ minds could increase pressure.

See this video for a quick refresher.

Thus, the assumption that knowledge will flow from instructors’ minds to students’ minds through osmosis has some (tongue-in-cheek) implications:

  • Learning is passive: Nothing the student can do will increase speed of learning (aka. transport of knowledge). The only way students can learn faster is to have a more porous skull, or less knowledge/thoughts (molecular density) to begin with. Are our “good” learners then simply those with less in their minds?
  • Unidirectional until equilibrium: The process of learning by osmosis can only be unidirectional, flowing from greater knowledge to less knowledge. The flow would then end once the pressure in students’ brains is equal to that of instructors. Is equal level of knowledge the goal? How long does it take? More than 13 weeks?
  • Loss of knowledge: As knowledge would continue to flow to the next space that contains less pressure, then how can knowledge be retained by students and not leaked out upon leaving the highly pressurized classroom? How do students retain much knowledge between classes?
  • Faculty need perpetual fountains of knowledge: Similar to students’ risk of losing knowledge due to ongoing transfer, how can faculty regenerate or refill with sufficient volumes of knowledge for all the classes they teach each week? How do interactions with knowledgeable colleagues increase or decrease individuals’ pressures?
  • Topics may have important distinctions: A porous membrane lets through all molecules small enough to fit through. Do some topics have smaller molecules and thus more easily or frequently transported? How can faculty members control which specific knowledge molecules leave their brain and enter students’ brain?
  • Knowledge is soluble: If knowledge must be suspended in a solution for transport through osmosis, perhaps our classrooms should be immersive… as in within liquid. How can we install apparatuses for students and instructors to breathe in a water-filled environment? (Unless learning occurs through diffusion… but then it flows anywhere – video)

So before your next class, remind your students to empty their brains of relevant knowledge, fill your brain as full as possible, and just hope the classroom air is the appropriate medium…

Or perhaps it is time to toss the idea of learning through osmosis and focus on how we engage students in learning beyond osmosis.

Craving Creating Time

To what extent are our tasks and our days predictable, or our decisions clear-cut? The days of police, firefighters or emergency medical personnel are unpredictable, but so is anyone who has their door, phone or email open to their colleagues, students and the rest of campus. As we manage meetings, queries and emails the way a station handles trains, we often crave blocks of time. We seek the moments of immersion in planning, thinking or creating where ideas can flow or at least be worked through without interruption.

Union Station scheduling chart

Why might these full mornings focused on a project matter? Paul Graham suggests programmers and other “makers” dislike meetings or interruptions because they break those blocks of time into pieces. “A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.”

So how can we create blocks of time? 

Consider first what length and timing of blocks really work for you. There is no point booking an afternoon block when your brain tends to nap, or a 5-8 a.m. morning block when getting up for 7am is a challenge.

Build in blocks of time in advance into your schedule and when possible place appointments or meetings you can control around it. An empty calendar suggests there is no cost to adding a meeting Wednesday at 9am, when that may be your preferred block of time.

Relocate. Leave a note on your door (if you want) as to when you will be around for questions and then find a spot where others cannot drop by. Libraries outside your discipline, coffee shops with your back to the crowd offer places to work, especially in the summer.

Even the best of plans go off track. Despite efforts to save blocks, there will be those meetings, academic emergencies, chance conversations, or thesis defenses that cannot be otherwise scheduled. Hopefully though, other more flexible meetings can be booked around them retaining a “maker’s” block of time elsewhere or a block can be created outside 9-5.

Observations From a Returned Prairie Girl

This month marks a full year since arriving on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. After growing up in the Red River Valley area of Manitoba and spending over a decade in Ontario, I was back to the Prairies. In arriving here, I came to a land familiar in landscape but distinct in the people and places. What was different and why does it matter to a University? The land around us shapes who we are if we stay still long enough to listen to what the seasons can teach us. This is what I have noticed.


Photo by Brian Hoessler

Inspired by the winters, our buildings are connected. Even if we do not walk the full route everyday, each person walking by our office door comes from somewhere along the shared corridor. Disciplinary lines may be marked in department titles, but on route to meetings I see the research, teaching and celebrations marking each departments walls and spaces.

Recognizing this land as shared land shapes ceremonies and opens doors to learning that I have not seen at my previous three institutions. Posters announce “I declared…” and documents note potential futures and deep interconnections that can make this university a leader.

Although a new office and plans seek to create greater university-community partnerships and outreach, the U of S already has a foundational wealth of community connections through its alumni and employees who dot the city, province and wider. The moment I mention that I work here, a connection through family or friends is identified; other cities have a dotted line of us-versus-them.

We still have a ways to go in building connections across offices, peoples, and neighbourhoods, but we already started the journey, and I look forward to travelling with you.

Weeds, Cheating and Success

I remember pulling weeds in a vegetable garden and coming across a strong healthy canola plant whose seed must have drifted in from the neighbour’s field. Was it a weed? If it had grown in the field then it would be considered a strong specimen, but what about in a vegetable garden? What about milkweed, wildflowers or grass?

Stray Canola
Sharing ideas and drawing on one another’s skills to reach the best answer, process check or polish a report are valued skills in the workplace and even within group projects in classes. However, during a typical test these same behaviours would be considered cheating.

In his post, UCLA Biology professor Peter Nonacs challenges us (and his students) to consider whether these behaviours are really cheating or valuable. His students faced a test where their goals for grades aligned with his goals for their learning, and the usual rule constraints were removed. The rules were no longer to sit silently and from memory write, but rather seek information you need and collaborate if you want. What do you think about what these students did and the extent they learned the game theory underlying behavioral ecology?

So what are our goals? What is a successful garden or a successful learning experience and how does our view define what is a weed and what is cheating?

By recognizing that we get to choose what are weeds and cheating when we define success, we have the power and awareness to transform our gardens and courses to what we really want them to include, including perhaps a few “weeds”.

Gather Data, Take a Timely Look, and Make Change

Recently, I read Fetterman, Deitz & Gesundheit’s 2010 article on using empowerment evaluation to renew a medical curriculum. The Stanford University School of Medicine engaged in a process of collecting data about their courses and providing that data back in a timely fashion to faculty and directors who engaged in reflection and discussion to create changes in courses, clerkships, and across the curriculum. Such discussions, timely feedback, and the facilitation by a curriculum evaluation person acting as critical friend were identified as key components of this process. The article provides details including how they addressed challenges for faculty such as balancing demands on time and sharing course and curriculum evaluations with colleagues to discuss strengths and weakness. The challenge of providing timely feedback within weeks rather than months was also identified and addressed (feasible with today’s computer number crunching and the personnel support for summarizing comments).

Punched cards

What struck me is the similarity between Stanford University School of Medicine’s process of empowerment evaluation and our University of Saskatchewan’s Curriculum Innovation and Renovation Cycle . Both draw on the strength of faculty members’ ability to examine data and draw on their experiences to make changes with facilitation support, and in doing so meet the principles of data-informed, faculty-driven, and developer-supported curriculum renewal process (Wolf, 2007).

The Benefits?
Improved teaching, improved student learning, improved evaluations, and a culture of evidence and reflection.

Anything But …

Not exams. Not this example. Not that textbook again…Anything but that!

Our rejection of a particular method or medium for teaching may be motivation enough to try something new. However, “Not ____” just rules out a single direction, leaving open all other possibilities. Deciding between the many alternatives involves setting a goal and sensing what features we want to change and what we want to retain.

For example, “Not an exam” leaves open many possibilities depending on our goals. If we want to measure students’ learning of all material in the course, we can decide to keep the end-of-term timing of final exams. A second goal of increasing writing would suggest a written report, while a goal of increasing speaking opportunities for students would point to a presentation. A goal of using an authentic assessment would have us looking for a task where students can perform relevant skills such as solving ill-defined problems that are of local or personal concern. Seeking to have an impact beyond the classroom, could lead to us creating the opportunity for students to collaborate on community-engaged projects within or beyond campus.

Scratch Golf Ball Rocket

“Not repeating last year’s material again!” also has many possibilities as to what, when, how and by whom material is reviewed. The assumption that all information needs to be repeated by the instructor during classtime through slides can be re-imagined. For example, students can create review material to share or access existing materials online, including the numeracy video created by and for Biochemistry Professor Elizabeth Shephards’ students (see the Case Study section of the University College London “Change one thing” webpage).

Stating “Anything but…” frees us to dream, but it is through visioning that we can see where we really want to go with our new freedom: even launching a rocket requires both a direction (usually up) and a magnitude of effort to create an effective force for movement.

Once we identify our goals that set the direction for our efforts, we can then choose the activities and assessments that harness the magnitude of our effort into a meaningful educational force for creating constructive alignment  within our courses and in our programs.

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