Changing your life one “Tiny Habit” at a time…


About a month ago I ran across a great TED Talk given by BJ Fogg, PhD, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.

Fogg claims that, “When you learn my Tiny Habits method, you can change your life forever.” Well, it hasn’t been “forever” yet for me, but the changes I’ve made using this method have been incredible so far! My productivity and motivation have increased noticeably. I am more focused and “present” to the tasks at hand.

The basic premise is to hook a tiny behavior with an existing, well-established behavior. You use the established behavior to trigger the new behavior. It is important that the new behavior—“Tiny Habit”—is simple to do, takes no more than 3 seconds, and has no “pain” associated with it.

The Behavior Grid is very helpful in determining the duration of change you want to make: a one-time, short term or certain span of time, or “forever” and the type of change you want to make. Do you want to add a new behavior, do a familiar activity, increase the frequency of an existing behavior, decrease the frequency of a behavior or eliminate a behavior?

The SlideShare The Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change is very helpful as well. It takes about 10 minutes to go through.

My informal research project is how many changes can I make to my behavior that move me closer to my overall goals of well-being and productivity using Tiny Habits? I am currently up to 20 Tiny Habits—in addition to integrating many new keyboard shortcuts (recommended by one of the coaches) and doing quick stretches throughout my day. I keep track of how often I integrate the new Tiny Habits for the week and reflect on what has made some changes easier to incorporate than others. I am finding that the more Tiny Habits I incorporate, the easier they all are to remember to do.

Fogg suggests the following “recipe” for stating Tiny Habits:

After I ______, I will _____.

I have tried some variations like Before I_____, I will _____ and While I _____, I will _____ but neither were as effective as his suggestion. One of Fogg’s Tiny Habit recipes is “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” Simple, easy, fun, and usually leads to flossing more than just one tooth! Some examples of Tiny Habits I have integrated so far are:

After I sit down at my desk, I will write down one small “to do”.

After I sign in on my computer, I will set Pester[1] for 15 minute repeats.

After I read an email, I will deal with it immediately.

After I eat something, I will quietly say “thank you”.

After I start the car, I will take three long relaxing breaths.

It is fun to remember to do these small things. Fogg encourages rewarding yourself with some sound or action that celebrates carrying out the intended action which are small successes sprinkled throughout the day. I have found this to be very reinforcing and I feel great about remembering to do the Tiny Habits. The following SlideShare offers some great celebration ideas:

“Tiny Habits” means choosing small steps that are triggered by existing behaviors and then celebrating successes. I don’t know about “forever” but I know that right now change is underway. If you’d like to know more about Tiny Habits, drop us a line at the Centre.

[1] Note: Pester ( is a simple free timer program I use to help me remember to do the neck stretches the chiropractor suggested which makes it easier for me to stay focus longer on desk-based activities.

High Impact Teaching Practices


NOTE: There are ten high impact educational practices that reportedly increase student success. You can access that list and brief description at,, or watch this short 6-minute video:

For the back-story—the elements that make these high impact practices check out A summary is provided here:

High impact practices have these elements in common:

1. EFFORTFUL is not a bad thing. In fact, “effortful” stimulates learning and increases retention of that which is learned. “Effortful” is also engaging and focuses attention for an extended period. One of the greatest disservices we can do for students is to reduce the required effort and make things easy.

2. INTERACTIVE strategies provide students with the opportunity and incentive to talk with each other, with faculty, and with staff—and they talk about substantive matters over an extended period of time.

3. By ENGAGING ACROSS DIFFERENCES students have an opportunity to encounter a wide variety of perspectives that stretch their understandings. Developing approaches of “many-sidedness” and pluralism increases the potential for complex problem solving.

4. When students receive formal and informal RICH FEEDBACK that is timely and meaningful, they can adjust their practices in real time. Think how effective quick feedback is in the gaming world! It is motivating and increases learning rapidly.

5. Providing opportunities to try out learning in NEW SITUATIONS is a way of playing “concept attainment.” (More information about this strategy can found here and here). Students take what they learn and apply it in new ways and in new situations.

6. Students also have an opportunity to REFLECT on what they are learning and the people they are becoming. They have the foil of stimulating learning situations to hone their own thoughts and conceptualizations.

Once you are familiar with these qualities you can assess the efficacy of practices you might be integrating in your program design and others you might be weaving into individual courses through assignments and teaching methods.

My top three picks for classroom teaching strategies that have these qualities built right in are: (1) cooperative learning, (2) the inquiry-based learning family (i.e. case-based, project-based, scenario-based, and problem-based learning), and (3) undergraduate research.

For more information on these, and to brainstorm ways in which these can be used in your courses, please contact the GMCTE.

Effective – By Design


I just observed in a large first-year class that has incorporated an undergraduate research experience. Today one third of the class attended to work on operationalizing their research questions into items for a survey in their small groups. Last week I observed a whole group lecture. The differences are notable:

  1. On lecture day, students were packing up and leaving by 10:13 (the class wasn’t over. Some were just leaving.) Today students had to be reminded that the class was over and then they started to leave.
  2. On lecture day there were many more students using computers and smart phones and—from where I sat—not all were looking at the uploaded slides. Today there was engagement in all groups and no opt-outs.
  3. On lecture day a few students had an opportunity to ask their questions and interact with instructors. Today there were two instructors, one teacher assistant and one research coach circulating among the groups to answer questions and help as the groups required. The preparation for the class was clear and the students knew their task and were thoroughly engaged.

How this worked: Students, through Blackboard, had clear instructions for the week. One day they were to be on-site with their research groups and for two classes they had independent learning tasks assigned. In this way the instructors, TA, and research coach are able to meet with the small groups. The students also had the task clearly outlined for the time in class with their groups—to develop three survey questions that addressed their group’s overall research question. These instructions were given ahead of time and were also posted in the room. (Three students turned up on the first day simply to ask which day their groups were to attend. It was encouraging to see such engagement and overall commitment to the course.)

The instructional team rotated among the groups throughout the class time. As noted earlier, from my position of observer, all students were engaged and had to be reminded when class time was over! I heard of at least two groups that had made arrangements to meet outside of class time as well.

Why this worked: The task was clear, engaging and based on student interests. The groups are student-selected and are of a workable size. Each group formulated their own research question. Instructions were posted in advance of the class. There is class time for the groups to meet. The instructors are able to move between “lecturer” and “facilitator”. (Just a quick note about the difference between facilitating group process and lecturing—as facilitators, the instructional team responds to student queries with short bits of just-in-time information and move along to provide space and time for the groups to work on the task at hand. A good indicator of the difference between lecturing and facilitating is by which voices have more airtime. When instructors are in facilitating mode you hear far more student voices than instructor voices.)

I was also very interested in the comments from the TA and the research coach—both were excited about how engaged the students were and that they wished more of their classes were like this. “Now I know why my professors keep asking me to rework my research questions!” “The students wanted to stay!”

For further information on this particular class, please contact and If you would like to apply this type of construct to your class, please contact the GMCTE.

WOW!! Polar Bears, Tundra, Teams AND Learning…


Course Reflections WordleRyan Brook teaches Animal Science 475.3 Field Studies in Arctic Ecosystems and Aboriginal Peoples and about 120 students have taken the course in the ten years he has been teaching it. Ryan has spent twenty summers on the Hudson’s Bay coast. Here is the course description:

This field-based travel course will provide hands-on research experience in natural ecosystems in the sub-arctic of the Hudson Bay coast in northern Manitoba at the interface between animals, people, and the environment. This experiential course is an intensive introduction to and connection between the ecology and Aboriginal cultures of the sub-arctic. This is a paired course with the University of Manitoba so students from both universities will work collaboratively on this course. Before travelling to Churchill, students have a 5 hour lecture, followed by two, one hour tutorials working with course instructors to develop their research proposal before and 24 hours of self-directed group learning developing their research proposals (groups are expected to meet at the university individually to develop research proposals and seek instructor help where required) and reviewing course safety material. During the two-week period in Churchill, students will have 21 hours of lecture, 30 hours of field lab demonstrations, as well as 84 hours of self-directed learning. The self-directed group learning includes fieldwork to collect data for the research project and is supervised by the instructors and input is provided in troubleshooting research design, fieldwork, and data analysis where required. At the end of the course, students will have two, one hour tutorials by the instructors to facilitate completion of their final report as well as 24 hours of self-directed group learning working collaboratively with group members to complete the final report.

What excites me about this course, as an educator, is how the structure, content, and process of this course hit so many of the “learning buttons” we currently know of:

1) When we reflect on our University’s Core Learning Goals we can see that many of the goals are addressed in this course—if not all! For a refresher check out The Learning Charter.

2) Students have an experience outside of their usual contexts. Senses and memory are heightened when we are out of our normal environments. We learn more and retain the information longer and are able to integrate it more thoroughly under unusual circumstances; we are on high alert.

3) Hands-on experiences mixed with theoretical concepts and conversations hook in information far better than any one of those modes alone. This field-based course has students working in teams, taking measurements, and linking their work into a larger research project.

4) The students in this course present their findings to Parks Canada and the community. They have time with community Elders and have the opportunity to experience other realities. What they discover in their research projects is valued—beyond earning them a grade. What they find out is valuable to the wider community. They are contributive. “Authentic assessment” in this case is the value that the wider community is attributing to their findings as well as the contributive nature of their research to the broad longitudinal study—what they do makes a difference. The investment is generally increased considerably when groups present to their colleagues, the community and Parks Canada rather than to a single reader-grader.

5) The team aspect and intense rigorous schedule of the two weeks has the potential to be a pressure cooker situation. Students definitely have the opportunity to practice their communication skills and skills of self-management. In addition to the time on-site, the groups are preparing well in advance of the trip itself. The number of hours that the students engage in this course is far greater than any lecture-based class! And I’m not even considering the time spent researching appropriate clothing and packing efficiently…

6)  This is a memory of a lifetime and all the “content” that would simply be “covered” in a lecture is hooked into long-term memory through these experiences. This is a memory-maker!

For more information about this course, please contact and to discuss including more experiential aspects into your courses (including undergraduate research) contact the GMCTE.

And the Wordle was created by pasting course reflections into

Visual Note Taking As A New Way of Listening


Text notes are not the best method of note taking for many students. Some do better simply listening and taking it in, while others thrive on visual representations of what is being said.

I just watched Giulia Forsythe at Brock University describe her visual note taking. The video is about 4 minutes long and brings together the why and the how of this technique. It makes great sense from a “how the brain learns” perspective, and can be viewed below.

After watching the video I did a little digging and came upon this resource that is indeed comprehensive if you want to learn more—a LOT more about visual note-taking using something other than some colored pens and a piece of paper!

Another train to follow on this topic is A field guide to TED graphic notes, which includes a six minute TED Talk by Sunni Brown where she gives a brief history of doodling if you’re interested. You may also wish to look over Visual Notetaking 101.

Give it a try and see what you come up with at your next meeting—or see what your colleagues are coming up with!  Or introduce it to your students as a new way of listening and engaging.

When ‘Better’ does not equal ‘Easier’


Often conversations about active learning eventually come around to discussions around “push back from students” and comments about resistance to “doing more work” in class and that students don’t like to work harder.

I wonder about that. I wonder if students might feel better about doing more work if they knew that this might mean they would learn more and retain more. I wonder if we could highlight for students that engaging actively in class often results in learning more. I wonder how things would change if “better” could come to mean learning more because one has made an effort and that greater skill development might occur because there was practice and feedback rather than “easier” because less effort was required. I wonder what it would be like if the university culture became one in which the majority of students chose classes that were effortful so they could maximize their learning rather than figuring out which classes were the “easiest” because the demands were less and the assignments were considered easy.

Kuh’s high-impact educational practices (HIPs) offer a framework for structuring just these kinds of effortful, engaging learning opportunities. The 10 high-impact practices are: first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, service learning, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, study abroad and other experiences with diversity, internships, and capstones. A solid summary of the practices can be found here.

One of the best sites I’ve found so far about the practical integration and application of high-impact educational practices at the class level is here.

This site nicely summarizes many aspects and practical applications of HIPs. For example, it states that HIPs are “positively associated” with persistence and GPA, “deep approaches to learning”, higher rates of student-faculty interaction, increases in critical thinking and writing skills, greater appreciation for diversity, and higher student engagement overall—which leads to increased learning. The site also provides a useful entry-level checklist for integrating HIPs into programs and courses.

If you want to discuss more about this, or you want to explore bringing a high-impact lens to your programs or courses, please contact our centre.

Why ‘Student Learning Objectives’?

So why is a curriculum development person commenting about learning objectives—the unit of planning that occurs at the individual lesson level? Usually you’d hear me going on about program goals and outcomes, and graduate attributes—the big picture! I wanted to highlight the importance of having clear, explicit learning objectives because it is all of these learning objectives that collectively create and contribute to an aligned and unified program of study. Paying attention to what happens in each lesson makes for a more successful learning journey in the long run.

There are good official, technical, and pedagogical reasons for having student learning objectives for each lesson and lab, but the main reason in my mind is to focus attention: your attention as the instructor and the attention of your students.

Whatever transpires in the class on any particular day has to be worth your valuable time and the valuable time of your students. Setting learning objectives helps make your time together the most meaningful it can be for students in the direction of the overall learning outcomes for the class.

Focused attention helps the brain learn more easily. And bluntly put, being explicit about the learning objectives for the lesson makes life easier for you (“Does this contribute or does it not?) and focuses the students’ attention to help maximize  learning—which also makes life easier for you.

To use a travel analogy, you know you want to get to your preferred destination within a certain time frame. Side roads can be rich and interesting adventures, but if these side roads result in dead ends too often or take you too far away from your target destination, you may not get where it is you had wanted to go. Learning objectives for each day keep you focused on the overall purpose for the trip you and the students enrolled in the class have decided to take together.

For more on learning objectives and some specific examples, check out:

From the GMCTE resources:

To explore this further—especially the relationship between student learning objectives and program goals and outcomes—contact the GMCTE.

A Shared Language

Recently the topic of “consistent language” came up during a lunchtime discussion here at the Centre. What was the difference between a “course” and a “class?” Our director, Jim Greer recommended the University’s 2011 nomenclature report.

The report defines a course as:

the smallest formally recognized academic unit of the curriculum is the course – a unit of study in a subject area identified by a description of activities…While ‘course’ is used to identify subject matter, ‘class’ is used to refer to the offering of a course to one or more students within a term (p.3)

My interpretation of this is that a “course” has the number and four-letter description found in the catalogue while a “class” gets a little more personal with a specified instructor offering that course in a particular term with particular students.

Browsing through the defined terms in the report reminded me of an article by Anurag Saxena about introducing and reinforcing the basic language of Pathology through crossword puzzles.

The teaching and learning vernacular can be off-putting if it is a new language for you. Becoming familiar with the vocabulary opens up new vistas and conversations.

Often before we travel to a country where a language different than our own is spoken, it is not unusual to prepare by learning some key words of greeting (and important beverages).

Just for fun, I prepared a word search using a free puzzle-generating site ( that incorporates some of the terms you’ll hear members of the GMCTE team often use in our conversations about teaching and learning. (FYI: The puzzle took about 2 minutes to create and generate.)

New Bridges and Curriculum Renewal

On the opening day of Saskatoon’s new bridge, my son insisted that we check it out. I am so glad he did!!!  All the inconveniences of the past few years have come together so elegantly linking parts of the city that seemed so far apart before. What use to be at least a 30-minute drive is now a quick streamlined, pothole-free trip.

Circle Drive South BridgeFor a curriculum consultant, the long-term planning of the bridge—100 years apparently—the vision, and the various stages from start to finish offers several lessons for large-scale curriculum construction and renewal:

  1. Have a clear purpose and vision. What is it that will be accomplished by this change? What is the preferred state that you hope to achieve with this reVISION or reNEWal?
  2. Hold up the vision and the purpose frequently and consistently. When energy or enthusiasms flag, return the vision and purpose.
  3. Know that there will be re-routing and bumpy roads while the curriculum is under construction. Again, revisit the vision and the reasons for the change.
  4. Design each stage of the change thoughtfully. Although stages may not be ideal, the increments are important in making the transition as smooth as possible.
  5. The City didn’t meet its proposed opening date but it did open. It may be the same for your curriculum revision project. With your eye firmly on the shared vision, know there will be messy stages, delays, and unanticipated glitches. Keep moving forward with the plan for the change. Celebrate and note progress often. Each new accomplishment gives an opportunity to revisit the vision and purpose.
  6. One person did not build the new bridge—it was a team effort. I would imagine that very few people who worked on the bridge at the various stages knew exactly how their part fit into the finished project. It may be the same for a curriculum revision project. An aspect of leadership in a large project is to pull together a skilled team to contribute their expertise as required at the various stages.
  7. Before we know it, this new bridge in Saskatoon will become ordinary and integrated into our ways of getting around. Be curious about how long it will take for the “new program” to become “normal” and then the “old program.”
  8. Curriculum renewal is cyclical. Eventually the new bridge will need repairs and maintenance. This is the same with any curriculum. Regular attention and maintenance can help keep the program current and vibrant.

Consider us as part of your curriculum building team. For more information contact:

Photo courtesy of Mark Welsh under a Creative Commons License

Is the Unexamined Program Really Worth Offering?

As we are being invited to take a vigorous look at the programs we are offering, I can’t help but wonder, haven’t we always been doing that? I mean, really, in this information age with new perspectives and burgeoning bags of “what we know” bursting at the seams on every possible topic, can we actually NOT be refreshing our program content annually at the very least? What was known last month is different than what we know this month! “Truth” is being regularly being rediscovered. Do you remember when the brontosaurus went the way of the dinosaur (so to speak) to be replaced by the new “truth” of the Apatosaurus or when we lost a planet or found another one?

Perspectives are shifting as we look around in our world and come to see that there are so many ways of knowing and interpreting that which we experience—not only do we have rose colored glasses but we also have fuchsia, chartreuse, pumpkin, and aquamarine! Given that we are from everywhere as a University community and going everywhere, how can we NOT be incorporating what we learn from our international colleagues (and I include students in “colleagues”)?

We have more information now than ever before about how our main interfacing tool, the brain, works. We can’t possibly be NOT adjusting how we teach given what we now know about how the brain learns, sorts, and bins incoming information.

This call to examine our programs is a huge opportunity to refresh, renew, and reinvigorate what we offer our students and our community. We don’t want to be passing along this tired old chestnut in the name of traditional, “it was good enough for me” when we know our programs could be even stronger, more relevant, and more engaging.

We all know what it feels like to be fired up and enthused about a new concept or being introduced to another way to view the world. We have all experienced the thrill of the ah-ha moment. We know what it feels like to be excited about learning and discovery.

Taking a look at your curriculum is like peering into a closet or pantry with curiosity and neutrality rather than with nostalgia, sentiment or apathy. “I wonder why we are doing this this way?” “Is this the best way?” “Do we still need this?”  “When was the last time anyone used this?” “Are we excited about our program and teaching?”—because if you aren’t no one else is going to be! Listen to new-comers who ask those questions rather than silencing them or telling them “this is how we do things here” when they ask “why.”

Embrace the chance to take your research lens to your curriculum with curiosity, inquisitiveness, neutrality, and genuine interest in what you might find. Be rigorous and thorough. Really want to know what the experience of your students is. Want to be the best you can be with what you’ve got. And then reach…

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