‘Driving’ the Lesson: The Pre-Assessment (Part I)


In my last post, I wrote about objectives and the value of pausing in the “everyday” experiences of learning.  In a lesson, one place to really pause and pay attention is during the pre-assessment.  This is the part of the lesson when instructors can assess what students already know and where students contribute their own experiences or ideas to the lesson.

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us, suggests that all human beings have a need “to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.” He claims three principles are central to motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  In this post, I’ll discuss the first of the principles, autonomy, including how and why it drives a lesson.


In his book, Daniel Pink describes an experiment conducted by a CEO who took a chance by introducing a results-oriented work environment  (ROWE) within his company.  In this type of workplace, employees are granted autonomy regarding when and where they work.  There are no office hours or obligations that employees must be in the office at certain times.  Instead, the only parameter employees are given is that they must get their work done on time.

When I read this, I thought of the road map I described in my last post.  I’ve already argued it’s not the destination that matters; it’s the path we take to get there.  If as a teacher, I were to follow in the footsteps of this CEO what would a results-oriented classroom look like?  Should students be responsible for more of their learning? Will they ever be able to “get their work done on time?” Does the role of the instructor change in a results-oriented classroom, or does it stay the same?

1973 AMC Matador wagon is-Cecil'10A perfect time for students to exercise some autonomy might be in the pre-assessment, but autonomy goes deeper than teachers finding out what their students know.  One step might be for instructors to find out more about what truly motivates their students.  At it’s core, however, autonomy is really about the idea that students should sometimes sit in the driver’s seat.  Autonomy makes learning much more purposeful because all human beings need an opportunity to create what is most meaningful for them, especially when learning.

One pre-assessment activity I use to promote autonomy is asking my students to develop a learning goal.  For instance, I may use a brainstorming activity, two-minute memo  or question to introduce the lesson (e.g.): “As a teacher preparing to teach, what do you need to know about the topic at hand today, and why? What can you do during the lesson today to help or drive that learning to happen?” In asking this question, I not only learn more about what my students want to know, I also transfer some of the responsibility and autonomy for learning to them.   It’s simple to return to this question at the end of the lesson, during the post-assessment, when students can evaluate for themselves what they did during the lesson and what they’ve learned.

Pink, D.H. (2009).  Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.  New York: Riverhead Books.

Picture courtesy of Christopher Ziemnowicz via Wikimedia Commons released into the public domain.

Objectives: Pausing in the “Ordinary” Experiences of Learning


A lady walking her dog. - geograph.org.uk - 430087When planning to teach, I like to create an overall road map that helps me discern not only where I’m headed but reminds me of where I’ve been and the places I stopped or struggled along the way.  Let’s face it, almost all teachers have some degree of “content-itis.”  We love information, and lots of it.  Yet we often fail to realize when information is too much, when thinking foregoes feeling, analysis foregoes creativity, or when teaching foregoes learning.  In her book, On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz discusses how our inattentiveness to the world around us stops us from seeing the “joy of the ordinary.”  For instance, have you ever been in a course where the teacher clearly was the expert, but where you felt you never learned anything?  (Davidson & Ambrose, 1994).  Clearly, as Davidson & Ambrose (1994) argue, having expertise is not the only condition that leads to effective teaching.

Everyday, when my dog and I go for a walk, we travel the same route.  Because I already know the way, sometimes I’m impatient, mostly because I’m bored.  After reading Horowitz’s book, I have learned to enjoy our walks by slowing down, and pausing in the ordinary.  When caught up in the frame of mind of going from one destination to another (home to the park, then back home again) it was easy for me to forget that for my dog, every walk is an adventure with different smells along the way.  It made me realize that as a content expert, and a teacher with many years of experience, sometimes my lessons are just like my walks.  I forget that because I already know the way, for my students learning can still be a new adventure.  This reminds me to find the joy in the ordinary experience of learning: what did I first think and feel when I was introduced to this topic?  Why does that matter?  How can I make the experience that I once had as fulfilling and exhilarating for my students?

Now, when creating my road map, I don’t just think about the content.  I think about what my students and I do and why that matters.  This means that my objectives are not just cognitively oriented within Bloom’s taxonomy- they also fall into the affective and psychomotor domains.  They are process-oriented and content-oriented.  They focus on what matters most to the students- the ordinary experiences that sometimes I fail to see.  My objectives are constantly changing because what works for one group of students doesn’t always work for another.  I have to stop and pause in the ordinary experience of learning to discover what matters most to students.  I have to listen, and as a result sometimes my students and I meander together, stopping here, pausing there along the way.  By being attentive to my students in this manner, I have learned to embrace the “’joy of the ordinary” in the classroom.  Even if the path is (or the objectives are) the same, the rhythm is different. This doesn’t mean that the destination isn’t important.   It just means that there are many paths in embracing and experiencing the joy of learning along the way.

Davidson, C.I. and Ambrose, S.A.  (1994).  The new professor’s handbook: A guide to teaching and research in engineering and science.  Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Horowitz, A.  (2013).  On looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Picture courtesy of david mills from geography.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons license (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).

Bridge-in/Intro: Setting the scene for active learning (Part II: A template)


In my previous post, I used the analogy of an opening scene (Footloose) to illustrate the role that the bridge-in plays in setting up expectations for further learning.

To plan and facilitate active learning, I use a BOPPPS lesson plan template that I’ve modified slightly from resource provided through the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) Resource Network.  My version has four vertical columns labeled “what I do” (teaching methods, instructions for myself), “how to encourage students to actively engage” (notes on facilitation including examples of questions to ask students), “what my students do” (learning activities), and “intended learning objectives or outcome”.  This template forces me to plan in more detail exactly how I am facilitating active learning in my lessons instead of simply focusing on the teaching method.  I’ve included two examples below, focusing on bridge-in techniques, to demonstrate what I mean.  As you will see, the last example links the bridge-in with another component of BOPPPS, i.e. the summary.

What I do/teaching technique: tell story to link real life experience (my own or others) with the topic of the lesson

How to encourage students to actively engage/what my students do: I facilitate discussion (usually noting down what questions I might ask) whereby students think about/share/discuss/write down similar real life experiences that they’ve had

Intended outcome: for students to build their own meaningful or personal associations to the course content 

What I do/teaching technique: use a recent world event to relay significance or relevance of the lesson

How to encourage students to actively engage/what my students do: During the bridge-in, I involve students in the discussion of the event, using questions.  I ask students to recall information from the previous lesson and drop some hints about upcoming information in the lesson for the day.  During the summary, I ask students to recall the event we discussed in the bridge-in. Then I ask students to discuss or write down at least one example of how the event might impact individuals or society at local, regional, or global levels (I usually set this up so different students are working on generating different examples).   This activity can be undertaken in small groups if the class size is relatively small, or in a larger class, by asking the students to individually write down their responses.  As part of this activity, I find it’s important to debrief a few examples with the entire class to make sure students are on the right track.

Intended outcome: practice for students to synthesize and apply course content

Bridge-in / Intro: Setting the Scene for Active Learning (Part I: An analogy)


Most teachers use the bridge-in as a means to introduce their lessons in an engaging way, build capacity and motivation to learn, or garner students’ attention or interest. I view the bridge-in as an opportunity for students to actively learn and participate in my class.

Dancing FeetThis post builds on Carolyn’s analogy that the bridge-in of a lesson may be compared to the opening scenes of a movie, in which purpose, topics, or general story are introduced.  Music is a well-known cue in film: think of any movie and the music that accompanied the opening scenes of the story.  An example that springs to mind immediately is the movie, Footloose (1984). The opening credits of the film are iconic with wide-angle shots of feet dancing along to the upbeat music.  In the story, Kevin Bacon, the main character and protagonist, challenges a ban on dancing in an extremely religious and rural town.  The opening scene and music of lyrics of Footloose play an important role in establishing tone and what viewers might further expect from the story.

To me, the bridge-in is particularly important because it sets the tone and initial learning environment for students, similar to the opening scenes of Footloose.  I have learned if students are passively engaged during the bridge-in, they often expect to continue this behaviour throughout the remainder of the lesson.  Instead, I’d rather set the expectation, right from the opening scene, that students have an active role to play.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a method that has helped me to plan and facilitate more active learning as part of the bridge-in.

Communicating Expectations: The Course Syllabus & First Day of Class


This post was originally published on the GSR 989: Philosophy and Practice of University Teaching blog on February 28, 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the course syllabus and the impression it gives students on our first day of class.

Personally, I like to think of the syllabus as a map with the following components:

  1. Where are we headed?  (What are we studying and why?)
  2.  How do we get there? (schedule, readings, assignments, etc)
  3. How do we know when we’ve arrived? (exams, evaluation, etc)
  4.  What will it be like along the way?  (classroom climate, expectations, behaviour)

After coming up with this metaphor, I did some reading and discovered an article written by James M. Lang for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2006.  In it, Lang describes Ken Bain’s (What the Best College Teachers Do, 2004) notion of the “promising” syllabus which is basically the idea that if students have some ownership for their learning in the course syllabus  (instead of having a rule book thrown at them by instructors) they will be much more invested in the process of learning.  Lang and Bain describe this as “beginning the conversation about how the teacher and student would best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning.”

This got me thinking about different ways I could creatively present my syllabus on the first day of class, and how I could use technology to do it.  Here are a few ideas that a) I have tried, b) I have gleaned from colleagues, and c) that I hope to try someday soon.

  1. Provide portions of the syllabus as a Google doc to students after the first class.  This might be a great way to collaboratively engage students in creating “ground rules” for discussion.
  2.  Assign students into small groups and do a scavenger hunt on the syllabus.  More on this from the Thoughts About Teaching blog here.
  3. Start with a job announcement or use scenarios to help students discover what professional skills they will learn in your course.  More on this from the Thoughts About Teaching blog here.
  4. Use clickers to play a Jeopardy game related to the syllabus.
  5. Have students create “outcome maps” of what they expect they will learn in your course.

I also wanted to mention there are some great resources for U of S folks preparing their syllabi, including a template and guide athttp://www.usask.ca/gmcte/resources/teaching/syllabus.


Lang, J.M. (2006).  The promising syllabus.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved February 28, 2014 from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Promising-Syllabus/46748.

Nilson, L. B. (2007).  The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.


Finding Our Footing With Our Communities


With Susan Bens

Debbi PushorSome time ago our Centre received a suggestion to tailor one of our increasingly known and appreciated Course Design Institutes specifically for those aiming to incorporate community-engaged learning. A team of us came together to begin that process and it’s fair to say we struggled to find our footing. After a few meetings, this led us to ask the question: “Do we really know what is needed by faculty with respect to community-engaged learning?” Our honest answer to ourselves was at best, a “maybe”. Since “maybe” isn’t good enough when planning a high-impact learning experience, we decided to take a few steps back in order to ask a group of about two hundred people interested in community-engagement to complete a survey about their learning needs, interests, and preferences for formats. We had a great response from two focus groups (attended by faculty who completed the survey) in which the learning needs of those new to the approach and those who were more experienced with community engaged learning were discussed.

Ultimately, talking with our focus group participants reminded our team of the importance of “beginning with the end in mind.” Had we proceeded with our planning prior to understanding the needs of the community and our faculty, we surely would have ended up with very different outcomes for our workshop series. In the focus groups we talked about the importance of getting to know, building, and sustaining relationships with community partners as the first step towards implementing a community engaged learning approach. We discussed the various degrees of comfort that instructors may feel, and some of the challenges they may face in building and in creating lasting relationships, particularly for instructors who are interested in developing a community-based approach to learning.

On Monday, January 27, the GMCTE will be hosting our first introductory workshop in the series, facilitated by Debbie Pushor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at the College of Education. This workshop will focus on how faculty new to community engaged learning can begin to build and foster sustaining relationships with community partners.

To register for this workshop, please visit the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness Event Calendar. Future workshops will consider practical strategies for incorporating community engaged learning into your courses. Those who are on the Station 20 community-engaged scholars list will receive personal updates and invitations to register and/or participate in the series. To be added to this list, please contact Donald Bear at Station 20 West.

Variations on Think Pair Share


In preparing to teach about active learning methods this week, I came across an interesting variation of think pair share developed by Johnson, Johnson, & Smith (1991) called Formulate Share Listen Create.

If you aren’t familiar with it, the think pair share is a versatile activity that can be done in many creative ways during a class.  It combines discussion with an application of course content, while providing think time for problem-solving and/or reflection.

  • Think: ask an engaging question or pose an interesting problem; students are given a minute to think about or write down their responses
  • Pair: Students share responses with each other and re-evaluate
  • Share: Instructor facilitates a debrief where responses (or a portion of responses, depending on time) are shared with the whole class

In the Formulate Share Listen Create model, students formulate a question rather than respond to a question posed by the instructor.  As they share their question with a peer, they must also listen carefully to the question that their peer has crafted, noting similarities and differences in the questions.  As a team, the student pair creates a new question that incorporates the best of both responses.  The instructor then debriefs with the whole class, similar to the think pair share.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1991).  Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom.  Dina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Reflecting On Your SEEQ Course Evaluations

Most of us dread, or at the least, have mixed feelings about receiving feedback on our teaching, especially from standardized course evaluation tools such as the Student Evaluation of Educational Quality instrument (SEEQ).  However, many new insights may be gained by continuously reflecting on our actions as teachers and by opening ourselves up to a process of continual learning about pedagogy.  In a pdf booklet entitled Students Rating Teaching, teachers are challenged and encouraged to reflect upon the quality, usefulness, and potential difficulties of SEEQ data in relation to their teaching practice as opposed to simply reading their SEEQ results (Lawall n.d.).  This year when you receive your SEEQ evaluation, take a similar challenge by asking yourself, “How and why will my SEEQ data help me to continue to strengthen and improve my teaching practice?”  Here are three strategies, with accompanying questions and prompts from Lawall’s booklet, to help you begin the reflective process:

Strategy #1: Conduct a Self-Assessment 

Establish your own standards for self-assessment by completing the SEEQ instrument yourself (Lawall n.d.).  In so doing, go through the SEEQ instrument and assess your own strengths and areas for improvement, making a note of the categories that specifically connect to your teaching philosophy and goals.  Are there gaps in the instrument in terms of your teaching goals?  Should you consider adding supplementary or open-ended questions?  What is it that you want to know about what your students have learned at the end of your course?

Strategy #2: Identify Areas for Improvement and Areas of Strength

From the ratings you’ve received, in which categories did you do particularly well?  Which categories could use further refining, reflection, or improvement? At this stage, consider both types of data presented- the numeric data will provide a general view of the students’ perceptions whereas the open-ended questions often speak to individual student perceptions, beliefs, and learning styles (Lawall n.d.).  Are there any areas of divergence between your self-assessment in terms of strengths and areas of improvement versus those of your students (Lawall n.d.)?  Why or why not?

Step #3: Finding Themes

What are the major themes that appear throughout the student ratings (Lawall n.d.)?  Specifically, are there any variations or patterns you notice when comparing the numeric data with the open-ended comments (Lawall n.d.)?  Can you group the open-ended comments according to some underlying strategies or themes (Lawall n.d.)?  Which ratings speak to your teaching goals or approach and why (e.g.) motivating students through active learning, or using real-world examples in the lecture?

Once you’ve read through and reflected upon your SEEQ results, it’s important to commit to at least one or two changes that you will make to your teaching practice.  Rather than focus solely on areas of improvement, it’s important to reflect on your strengths and how you will continue to build upon these strengths in the classroom.  At this stage, it is also a good idea to connect with, brainstorm, and share strategies with colleagues as well as to re-read and/or re-write parts of your teaching philosophy statement, while incorporating any supporting evidence from your student feedback to your case file or teaching portfolio.


You can learn more about how to reflect upon and interpret your SEEQ data from:

Lawall, M.L. n.d.  Students rating teaching: How student feedback can inform your teaching.  Retrieved February 28, 2013 from University Teaching Services, University of Manitoba at http://intranet.umanitoba.ca/academic_support/uts/media/seeq_booklet.pdf.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

As the academic term draws to a close and after my marking is complete, I find myself looking back over the semester, determining which learning activities went well and why, the teaching goals I set forth for myself, where I succeeded and fell short, and what I should do differently the next time I teach.  For me, the process of reflecting on my teaching practice, or “recapturing my experience, thinking about it, mulling it over, and evaluating it” (Boud, Keogh, & Walker 1985) begins on the last day of class when I ask my students to come prepared to tell me one significant thing they’ve learned or taken away from my course.  I participate in the activity too, setting the stage by explaining something new that I’ve learned that year, even though I’ve been teaching for over a decade.  I always seem to be able to find something, whether it’s seeing something I’ve taught the same old way in a new light, or learning about a new perspective, which prompts me to question how I could better present all sides of an issue.  As I listen to my students, I think about the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of the year as well as the course’s learning outcomes.  Did I accomplish what I set out to do?  Why or why not?  What will I do differently?  What resonated most with students, and why?  Did students learn what I intended them to learn?  Did they learn anything unexpected?  Why or why not?

Reflection involves looking back over the journey of where we have been, but I think most would agree it’s about moving forward too.  In the academic world, when time spent on marking final exams in April quickly turns into time on research, conferences, course planning, and other activities, it may be challenging to find the time to truly reflect.  But as Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg (2011) note:

Often, when we’ve paused and picked up our heads from our grinding “to do” list, we’ve experienced something remarkable, even beautiful- the spread of the semester behind us, the long journey travelled, the deep thinking, hard work and meetings of mind that have comprised what we and our students have learned and how we’ve grown.  For teachers yearning for reflection, ending times are rich in insight and unique in opportunity; this can also be true for our students (p.172).

For teachers new to reflection, sometimes all it takes is a prompt or two, for example answering a few of the questions that I’ve posed above.  If you’re a more experienced practitioner, consider this time of year the perfect opportunity to explore the “exercises, stories, and invitations” in Koh Peters and Weisberg’s (2011), A Teacher’s Reflection Book.  As you reflect, consider ways to make reflection a learning opportunity for your students too.  How could you share what you’ve changed about your course (and why) with former students?  Think about how powerful it might be from your student’s perspectives to learn that your teacher made actual changes to their course based upon feedback received from your classmates.  By sharing the changes we have made with others, we go beyond self-assessing our own growth as teachers to modelling the powerful nature of reflection to our colleagues and students too.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D.  1985.  (eds.)  Reflection, turning experience into learning.  New York: Kogan Page.

Koh Peters, J.  and Weisberg, M. 2011.  A teacher’s reflection book: Exercises, stories, invitations.  Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.

Ideas that ‘Stick’

The Book:

Heath, C. and Heath, D. 2008.  Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.  New York: Random House

Why do we remember certain things, like the scary music from the movie Jaws, but forget others, like the name of that theory we learned in economics class years ago?  Why is it easier for some people to remember an urban legend about missing kidneys than a concept they studied in the college or university classroom?  Why do some ideas “stick” while others are just as easily forgotten?

This question is the premise of the New York Times bestseller book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die in which a sticky idea is described as “an idea that’s understood, that’s remembered, and that changes something (opinions, behaviors, values).”

Made to Stick

For many professionals, including educators, journalists, politicians, marketers – and even bloggers- the job is about communicating information in a way that it will “stick.”  Using provocative examples, humorous anecdotes, and real-life success stories, the book champions the six following principles for transforming an “unsticky” idea – think of a mathematical function – into something that is “sticky” – think of crickets (If you want to know how mathematical functions and crickets are related, go on and read the book):

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Story

Using practical examples that tap into the cognitive and affective domains, the book explains how to make ideas from any discipline “stick” in a multitude of contexts.

The free online article, “Teaching that Sticks” (at http://www.heathbrothers.com/resources/) is an excellent guide that explains how to use simple yet engaging tools such as generative analogies, schemas, stories, and curiosity gaps.  Beginning your lecture with a curiosity gap, for example, is as simple as designing your lecture with a question to pique students’ curiosity and then slowly unfolding the lecture in such a way that the answer to the question is explored like the plot of a mystery:

“Piquing curiosity is the holy grail of teaching.  Cialdini said, “You’ve heard of the famous Ah ha! experience, right?  Well, the Ah ha! experience is much more satisfying when it’s preceded by the Huh? experience… Movies cause us to ask, What will happen?  Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it?. . . Unexpected ideas, by opening a knowledge gap, tease and flirt.  They mark a big red X on something that needs to be discovered but don’t tell you necessarily how to get there” (pg 4, Teaching That Sticks).

Do something unexpected for your teaching and pick up a copy of this book.  Maybe you’ll discover a link between the theme music from Jaws and that economic theory that students always seem to forget.  At the very least, you’ll discover some fresh ideas for making your teaching “stick.”

Schooling the World

Two Boys from Ladakh

Photo provided by Schooling the World

What is the purpose of modern education?  What do colleges, universities, and schools prepare the children of the world to learn how to do?

In his blog, 2 cents worth: Teaching & learning in the new information landscape, David Warlick, a self-proclaimed “35-year vagabond educator,” both asks and responds to the following question in his post entitled, “What is the purpose of education.”  He suggests that:

“The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.”

There are some implied, but essential questions in that answer:

  • What will their future hold?  What will they need to know?
  • What are appropriate method, materials, environment, activity?
  • Who are these children?  What is their frame of reference?

Today, I have a new answer.  My old one is still good.  I’ll continue to use it.  But if you ask me, “What is the purpose of education?” today, I’ll say,

The purpose of education is to make the world a better place!“

While I agree with these assertions, I recently watched an amazing documentary that has changed how I answer this very fundamental question about the role of education.  “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” is a 2010 documentary that examines the attitude that “school is the only way to a “better” life for indigenous children.”  The documentary examines the impact of imposing western/European education on the children of traditional Buddhist culture of Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas.

If I believe the purpose of education is to “make the world a better place,” how will I know when my own values, culture, and perspectives influence what I see and ultimately what I teach others?  Truthfully, I think the answer is that my beliefs, values, culture, and perspectives will always influence, to some extent, what I teach, my view about what education means, and what it is for.  I think part of my job as a university educator is to awaken curiosity about these questions and to create opportunities for students to learn from each other about what education is, what it means, and why we value what we value about education from different cultural perspectives, values, and understandings.   To me, education is less about making the world a better place, and more about learning to respect multiple worldviews while helping students to discover the tools to critically question and understand for themselves how they and their peers might see the world differently.

I invite you to use this documentary as a tool to spark conversation and dialogue about the role of education within- and beyond- your classroom.  More information, as well as discussion questions and teaching-related materials, is available on the Schooling the World website.  The University of Saskatchewan owns public performance rights to the documentary; please contact us at The Gwenna Moss Centre if you are interested in obtaining a copy of this film for classroom viewing.

Plugin by Social Author Bio