Coffee and Icebergs: Analogies, Metaphors, and Stories in Teaching Tough Concepts


coffee steam 2Nancy Turner, GMCTE Director, recently came across an intriguing resource on an Australian listserve called the Chemistry Pedagogical Content Knowledge Project. This site had been developed through a large qualitative research project and this specific resource is for Chemistry. She shared it with me, and after exploring it, I was inspired by its contents. It also made me wonder if there were similar resources for other disciplines.

This resource is described on the site in this way:

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) encompasses carefully selected analogies, examples, explanations and demonstrations used by a teacher to make a topic comprehensible to students. (ChemPCK)

In other words, it contains specific lesson and teaching ideas that are organized by Chemistry Topic and also by Strategy Type. The goal of each lesson idea is to help students easily make connections between the specific Chemistry content and materials/experiences that they are familiar with from their everyday lives.

For example, one of the Strategy Types that you can choose is “Analogies and Metaphors”. If you select this strategy, there are 14 different suggested analogies and metaphors to use when teaching variety of topics.

Here is an example for teaching Thermodynamics:

Which has a higher internal energy – a ‘nearly boiling’ hot cup of coffee or an iceberg? This is the ‘q vs T paradox’. The mass of the iceberg is greater so it has a higher internal energy despite being colder. Ask students to explain what happens when you place the cup of coffee onto the surface of the iceberg – why doesn’t heat flow from the iceberg to the coffee to make it boil? The discussion of why heat dissipates from hot to cold is useful in reinforcing the role of entropy. (ChemPCK)

Here is another (simpler) example for Electronic Structure:

Use an analogy for filling orbitals, such as climbing up a ladder or building a house from the bottom up. (ChemPCK).

On one hand, students often struggle with understanding obscure scientific terms and concepts. On the other hand, instructors often struggle with clearly conveying these concepts to students. A resource like this can help on both of these fronts (Although, it is important that you and the students can recognize the limitations of the metaphors).

Do you have a favourite metaphor or analogy that you use in teaching? Do you know of similar resources for other disciplines? Would you like to contribute to a similar resource? Please, comment below or send us an email!

Photo courtesy of waferboard under a CC-By license.

Single-Point Rubrics: Exceeding Expectations


As an Instructional Designer, I often speak on the value of assessment rubrics. There are many reasons why creating a rubric for each assignment, providing students with the rubric, and using the rubric while grading can be advantageous. Many of these reasons are highlighted in the video below, including:

  • You write the same comments on several assignments
  • You decide how to assess after the assignments are handed in
  • You realize after grading a few papers that your students didn’t understand the assignment expectations (Stevens & Levi, 2005)

Knowing about these reasons for rubrics, I sat down last fall to create few rubrics for the assignments in an undergraduate class I was about to teach. I started with the “Good” or “Excellent” column, as this is where I recommend starting. That was pretty easy as it simply explains the criteria for the assignment.

The next thing I needed to do was to fill in the lower columns (e.g., minimal pass, satisfactory) and ran into difficulties. I found myself guessing at what it is that students may or may not do to deviate from the criteria. This was especially difficult since I like to be as descriptive and objective as possible with the criteria I put in the cells, trying to avoid vague terms, such as “acceptable” and “good”. Filling in these cells was really challenging and would have potentially put me in a bind when grading if my guesses turned out to be wrong. I have been in that situation before and it is not a good feeling to look at your rubric descriptors and to look at a student’s assignment and realize that you have trapped yourself into either giving too high or too low of a grade based on those start-of-term guesses. These guesses are even more difficult if it is a new-to-you course or a new assignment. Due to these challenges, I ended up with more of a checklist and comment box than a fully filled-in rubric.

This past summer, a blog post by Jennifer Gonzalez came across my email that explained the concept of a “Single-Point Rubric”. I think the Single-Point Rubric is the answer to my struggles. It is essentially the “Good” or “Excellent” column that explains the criteria for the assignment and a column on each side surrounds it. These columns are labelled “Concerns: Areas that Need Work” and “Advanced: Evidence of Exceeding Standards”. This serves many of the same purposes as a rubric full of filled-in cells plus it provides a great and clear means of providing positive and negative feedback on each of the criterion.

Single Point RubricI still see advantages to having a fully filled-in rubric, but for new-to-you assignments and courses, where you really are guessing at student performance, I think the “Single-Point Rubric” is a great first step in providing clear criteria. I would highly recommend reading Jennifer’s post and seeing if it will meet your needs, as well.

Feedback to Improve Teaching


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

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

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

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

Why You Should Consider Lecture Capture


“Lecture Capture describes technologies instructors can use to record voice and data projector content and make those recordings available digitally” (ICT University of Saskatchewan). At the University of Saskatchewan, many rooms are equipped to allow instructors to easily record their live lectures and distribute these recordings to their students.

Now that I’ve defined what lecture capture is, let’s explore why you should consider using it. Research has shown numerous benefits. A study found that, after using lecture capture across a variety of disciplines, class sizes, and teaching styles, students and faculty were both in favor of using lecture recordings. Benefits for students included:

  • being able to review material that was confusing,
  • study for quizzes and exams, and
  • pay closer attention in class rather than frantically scribbling notes (May, 2008).

A recent series of interviews with instructors on our campus explores these and additional benefits of using lecture capture:

These additional benefits included:

  • support for DSS and ESL students who struggle with the speed of the lecture.
  • support for sick and injured students who cannot attend class.
  • ability to view your classes as a way to critically reflect on your teaching.
  • ability to share your videos with other instructors who teach the same course or complementary courses.
  • ability to share the videos with your teaching assistant(s) to help them prepare for grading, tutorials, or labs.

When it comes to lecture capture, there is always the concern that students will stop attending class. Research around this issue has been inconclusive (Bond & Grussendorf, 2013). The interviewed U of S instructors noticed no difference in attendance between lecture captured classed and their other classes:

With all these benefits in mind and the major concern set aside, what reasons remain to not try lecture capture? The system is in place—give it a try!

For more information on Lecture Capture at the University of Saskatchewan please visit:


Bond, Steve and Grussendorf, Sonja (2013) Staff attitudes to lecture capture. The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. Retrieved from:

May, V. V. (2008). Lecture capture pilot project results. Retrieved from:

Supporting Your Flipped Classroom with Open Resources


We’ve talked about flipped classrooms in this space before. In a nutshell, flipped classrooms involve taking the regular lecture style content out of the classroom and assigning it as homework prior to coming to class. The majority of the time, this involves having the students watch videos, often created by the instructor, to prepare for class.

Recently I came across the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) and have considered how it would couple with a flipped classroom. The Open Learning Initiative “is a grant-funded group at Carnegie Mellon University, offering innovative online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. [Their] aim is to create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education”. These online courses on the OLI site cover approximately 20 topics right now, many of which are at the first-year university level. The approach that each course takes in its delivery is quite varied:

  • The Chemistry course I explored has videos, text, multiple-choice quizzes, and a virtual lab.
  • The French language course I explored was based on listening to a series of audio excerpts and answering questions related to them.

As you can imagine, these online courses have the potential to deliver a wealth of content before students set foot inside your classroom.

Instead of just setting students free on these online courses, you as the instructor can set up your own versions of these courses and choose which materials students will see and complete. If you take this step, you will also get to see your students’ results on the assessment pieces.

“This [assessment] information helps instructors to tailor their classroom lectures and activities to the topics with which students are struggling. Use our Learning Dashboard tool to see student progress on a class-level, by student, and even by individual activity in the course” (Learning How OLI Helps Educators).

That is where the flipped classroom fits in. By freeing up your in class time from delivering this factual, lecture-style content, you can walk into your classroom with this rich information about your students in your hands prepared to engage in active learning to explore the topics that they are struggling with. You can become an adaptive and responsive teacher, which is a truly a wonderful thing!

One thing you may be thinking as you are reading this post is that you already have access to these sorts of resources and tools through your textbook publisher. That may be the case, but some benefits of using OLI is that it is free and will be available to you and your students if you change to a different textbook or if you adopt an open textbook. The resources are also being developed in conjunction with some of the best learning scientists in North America—the addition of hints and real-time feedback to students is thorough and impressive.

Feel free to explore these possibilities on your own or contact us at the GMCTE—we would love to work with you on implementing this in your course. Also, if you have used OLI or similar resources in the past, please share your experiences with us in the comments below.

You’ve Got Teaching Problems? This Site Has the Answers!


When I was recently scouring the Internet for good teaching resources, I came across an exceptional site. The Solving a Teaching Problem webpage from the Eberly Center: Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation takes teachers through three steps to find practical solutions to teaching problems.

Solve a Teaching Problem site

As I walk through the process, Step 1 asks me to identify a problem that I am experiencing in my teaching. For example, “Students don’t seek help when they need it”.

In Step 2, I am provided with a list of possible reasons for this problem. In this case, some possible reasons are

  • “Students overestimate their understanding and ability
  • Students may perceive you as unapproachable
  • Students are seeking help that is not working”

These are just three of the nine suggested reasons. Even if I were to stop exploring the website here, I feel that this has been beneficial because it has forced me to think critically about why my students and I are experiencing this problem. To continue from this step, I must choose what I think the reason is.

In Step 3, I am provided with a list of potential strategies to address the problem. In this case, I select that I think the students aren’t seeking help because they overestimate their understanding. The site then provided me with four suggested strategies to address this problem:

  • “Use diagnostic assessments
  • Embed frequent practice into your course
  • Provide opportunities for reflection on performance
  • Explicitly discuss with students different levels of knowledge”

Along with this list, I am also given a few paragraphs of information describing these strategies.

I am excited to explore this site further and to share it with others. It seems to be exceedingly simple to navigate to find answers to practical problems that teachers experience every day. The problems range from achievement to behaviour and everything in between. Give this site a try and please comment on your experience below. If you know of other similar sites, please share the link with us.

Screencapture from:


What Do Automobile Engines and Educational Innovation Have in Common?

Recently, someone recommended that I read “Design Research for Sustained Innovation” by Carl Bereiter. Although, the article was published in 2002, I found it to be very relevant today. The premise of the article is that, “innovative practices seldom win out against those with a long evolutionary history” (p. 321). This is not only true in education, but in all aspects of human life. He makes a thought-provoking comparison between innovation in education and innovation in the automobile engine.

Pontiac Sunbird GT engineThe automobile engine has drawbacks related to the reciprocating piston that were recognized early. Bereiter explains that the a “better engine” called the Wankel engine was invented in the 1920s, but was not produced until 1957 despite being a promising improvement of the standard engine. After unsuccessful initial attempts to make commercial versions of the Wankel engine, the development was essentially scrapped (Hege, 2002 as cited in Bereiter, 2002). The moral of the story here is that it is hard to take down a giant. This does not only apply to automobiles because I can think of countless new and amazing tech innovations that are invented each year that never make their way into our homes and lives.

The giant in education is using a lecture followed by drill and practice. Countless attempts have been made to innovate in teaching and learning, but as with the Wankel engine, these attempts often do not go over well the first, second or even third time. This often leads to scrapping the idea. Bereiter argues that another reason that initially unsuccessful educational innovations are scrapped is because it is hard for society to see the improvements to society and life that could come out of these innovations (p.323). The outputs are not tangible (unlike the outputs of a new automobile engine or a new type of TV). This makes long-term innovation in education even more difficult to maintain.

He argues for educational research to take on a more sustained model. Research needs to follow what is common in medical science, where findings are fed back into further cycles of innovative design. This seems obvious, but often fails to occur. This is what is now referred to as Design-Based Research and is beginning to emerge. He even argues against using early adopters in this research because, “they are the quickest to seize on an innovation, but they are also the quickest to abandon it in favor of the next new thing” (p. 327).

Along with these thoughts there are many other great thought-provokers throughout this article, especially for those of us who work in educational innovation!


Bereiter, C. (2002). Design Research for Sustained Innovation. Cognitive Studies, Bulletin of the Japanese Cognitive Science Society, 9(3), 321-327.

So You’re Thinking of Flipping your Class: We Can Help

Egg in my Roosty
Perhaps you’ve been hearing rumblings about flipped teaching. Maybe you even read my post about it in December (What is Flipped Teaching?). If you haven’t heard of it, flipped teaching is, “the process of moving lecture content from face-to-face class time to before class by assigning it as homework. This allows for more interactive and student-centred types of learning to take place during the scheduled class time. Flipped teaching often involves, but is not limited to, students viewing lecture videos as homework.”

So, now that we’re all on the same page, I am pleased to announce a new support from the Gwenna Moss Centre that we’re referring to as the “Over Easy” Flipped Experience. The first “Over Easy” experience will be offered on June 10 and 11 and will be limited to 5 participants.

“Over Easy” is intended to make the flipping process easier for instructors who would like to experiment with flipping a class. This actual experience will be partially flipped to give you the experience of being a student in a flipped course. The face-to-face portion of the experience includes two days together as a group, in which we will:

  • discuss and develop plans for flipping each unique course,
  • hear stories from instructors who have successfully flipped,
  • learn the necessary technologies,
  • learn how to find pre-created content, and
  • figure out how to make effective use of the freed up face-to-face class time.

After the two days, you will have a plan to take forward and begin flipping your class. Instructional designers from the GMCTE will be available to provide on-going one-on-one support as needed.

For more information, please visit the event page: Applications are due on May 29.

Backchannels In Education

If you have attended a conference in the past year, then you probably at least heard about the conference’s “backchannel”. Essentially, a backchannel is a conversation that is taking place during an event, alongside the main activity or presentation. At conferences, this often takes place on Twitter by attendees using a hashtag for the event.

For example, we have created a hashtag for our upcoming Teaching and Learning to the Power of Technology conference (TLt 2013) and will encourage those in attendance to discuss the presentations on Twitter by including “#tlt13” in their tweets. By using the hashtag, those in attendance can follow the discussion by searching #tlt13 on Twitter. Another popular tool for backchannels is TodaysMeet.

Backchannels have also made their way into classrooms as a tool to improve teaching and learning. One tool created specifically for the classroom is Center Class. Check out the video below to see how it works and why this may be useful in your classes:

If you’re interested in setting up a backchannel in your class(es), there are many options to consider. Feel free to contact us here at the GMCTE to discuss the possibilities.

PLN (Personal Learning Network): What, Why, and How?

Do you work in a specialized field? Do you work in a small department? Do you ever wish you had colleagues that you could share ideas with or someone to b­­­­ounce teaching ideas off of? The answers to these questions are expectedly “yes” for most faculty members. One way to address these questions is by creating a Personal Learning Network (PLN). A PLN is an informal group of people that you can learn from and along with.

The difficulty with creating a PLN is the fact that you may not be able to find people with common interests, skills and subject-matter knowledge. This is where the Internet comes in.

Virtual PLNs have become increasingly popular in education in the past few years. Teachers and faculty members who have been working in isolated areas have been taking to online environments, such as Twitter, and have been able to develop networks with a large number of people who have common teaching areas, research interests, and experiences. These networks can be invaluable for professional development and easing the feeling of isolation because, although you may be the only person in a certain role at this university, you are likely to not be alone in Canada, North America, or the world.

Personal Learning Network Diagram

To begin building your PLN, you could take to Google and begin searching for others in your field that have similar titles or jobs. You could then try to connect by using “old-fashioned email.” If you are up for it, a more modern way of building a PLN is to sign up for a social network site, like Twitter, and search for other users that have similar interests. If you haven’t ever spent any time on Twitter, you might be very surprised to see how many professionals are using it—they are connecting with one another and building communities. You may also be surprised to find out that users on social network sites are often very willing to welcome new people into their communities—this is the reason that they signed up too.

Once your PLN starts to develop, you will be able to start sharing research interests, teaching strategies, lesson plans, personal stories, and more. It may even start to branch outside your discipline and you will begin to learn and share with professionals outside your field. Your PLN will provide excellent professional development and it will almost certainly lead to things that you never could have predicted.

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