How to Jump Start You Curriculum Innovation


Curriculum and teaching innovation are rarely held back, ultimately, by money alone. But, if getting a bit of money could get your initiative moving ahead, you might like some help from the Curriculum Innovation Fund.

What is the Curriculum Innovation Fund?
The CI Fund is intended to provide financial support to curriculum innovation and renewal projects at the University of Saskatchewan that specifically change or develop content or methods of a collection of courses.   The fund can support initiatives focused on a single course that pilot an innovation or show potential to contribute to program-level change.

Why was the Curriculum Innovation Fund established?
The fund was established by the Provost’s Committee on Integrated Planning (PCIP) to implement the priorities of IP3 and specifically to support innovation in academic programs and services. The fund is allocated $250K annually, beginning in 2012-2013 and ending in 2016-2017. For a list of projects and recipients to date, see:

What is the application process?
The application is in the form of a 4-page word document with word limits suggested, point form accepted, and a budget table provided. Drafting assistance is available from the staff at the GMCTE. Applications are accepted at any time and response usually occurs within 1-3 weeks.

How to start?
Contact us at the GMCTE, check out our comprehensive website, and consider coming to a workshop for hands on drafting assistance on Feburary 4 or March 4. Click here for more information and to register.

It’s Course Design Not Entertainment: A visit from John Boyer


On October 7, we had the pleasure at the University of Saskatchewan of welcoming John Boyer from the Geography Department at Virginia Tech to speak with us about his innovative and increasingly acclaimed approaches to teaching large classes and his approaches for motivating learning and designing assessment.  Recordings of his talks are available at these links, and are embedded at the end of this post.

1. Assessment Innovations that Reduce Cheating and Enhance Learning
2. Teaching (Really) Large Classes (Very) Well

There is some repetition between them since there were slightly different audiences in attendance at both sessions and John therefore needed to describe the format of his course each time.

I got to hang out with John all day long and it was truly inspiring and thought provoking.

A few things that stand out to me about John and his messages:

  • John was intensely and passionately clear about why he wanted students to learn about the world (he teaches an intro to World Regions).  He constantly referred to his vision and not because he was trying to persuade us of anything, but to explain why he chooses to teaches the way he does.  This guy knows his true teaching philosophy and lives by it and thrives as a teacher as a result, I’d say.
  • John has many of the same frustrations with present day student approaches and attitudes that many others report.   He’s decided, because he’s so clear on what he wants them to learn, to set high standards for their engagement and learning and then to let the students decide what to do with respect to both.  Students respond and learn as a result.
  • John faces criticism from a small number of vocal colleagues about his approach.   He says voices of detractors might have stopped him in his tracks, had they started their criticism earlier in his teaching career.  A key to his success, according to John, is that he was being innovative in teaching under the radar of his colleagues and the institution.   It wasn’t until a particular tipping point of the 2,760 person class taught in a blended format with political and arts leaders visiting or skyping in to talk with his students that he started to gain notoriety at his institution and in higher education.  By then, John knew what he was doing and had the deserved confidence and positive outcomes to face the critics.  I’m happy it worked out this way for John, but am concerned about other innovators getting “put back in their places” by group norms and power structures in academia.
  • John embodies a highly entertaining persona.  This  energy and quirkiness must surely enhance the course—but only to a point, and only for some.  I have popped on to his web site  and find his appearances and podcasts much more low key and not necessarily infused with high energy.  Make no mistake, Educatus readers, it is the design of his course that has students engaged.  He provides choice, relevance, community, and fun.  John’s personality is ultimately separate from the design and content of this course.  Let me say it again, it’s the design of this course that leads to the high levels of engagement and learning.  The design.

We’re keen at the Gwenna Moss Centre to have more discussions about some of the innovative and provocative notions brought forward by John.  Let us know what you think.

Defining Shared Thresholds for Dealing with Academic Dishonesty


The Academic Misconduct Policy at the University of Saskatchewan recognizes that as instructors, we often are in a great position to judge the severity of an act of dishonesty and to situate that act in the context of our course.   The informal procedures available through the U of S academic misconduct policy set clear parameters—to apply a grade penalty on the assignment or test that is of concern, it must be dealt with using the “informal procedures”.   Whereas, the formal procedures may be invoked when the grade penalty you see as deserved extends beyond the assignment or test to the overall grade for the course.

However, each of us likely has a different threshold for when a concern for academic dishonesty warrants a penalty and what the severity should be. Depending on the situation, some of us will be more apt to ask a student found to have plagiarized to, after a stern warning, submit a re-write addressing the errors or omissions for re-grading. And, some of us will be instead inclined to advance the matter to the formal procedures and participate in a hearing, seeing the plagiarism as a far more serious a matter.

So, why does this variation matter?

Students come to know that different instructors handle the same kinds of academic dishonesty differently. When students see their teachers as less diligent or less vigilant about such matters, the problematic short cut (the majority of academic dishonesty takes this form) may seem a lower risk than in another class. In this situation, students committed to academic integrity can lose faith and question whether the assessment playing field is that even, after all. That is, are the rules really the rules? And, to use this year’s Academic Integrity Awareness Week catch phrase without its intended twist, previously honest students may wonder to themselves “Why not Cheat?”

What can be done?

Today, my colleague from the ULC, Elana Geller and I, will facilitate a discussion at the College of Kinesiology at their request about developing a common approach to enacting the academic misconduct policy, especially when to use the informal procedures. We will talk about the policy as it exists, acknowledge the complexities of discovering and confirming academic dishonesty, and assist in identifying common principles the faculty and instructors in the College want to use going forward.

If other academic units are interested in our assistance facilitating something similar, feel free to contact us (or check in with your friends in Kinesiology to see how it turned out).

The Academic Dishonesty Redirect: Be Explicit, Know your Policies, Assess Authentically


At the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, when faculty and instructors ask us about academic integrity, we will inevitably steer the conversation to three main values:

  1. the value of being very explicit with students about the rules you expect them to follow
  2. the value of understanding the rules of your home department or college as well as the university policy on academic misconduct,
  3. the value of designing assessment for authentic learning.

Here’s a video that demonstrates this tendency quite nicely, if I do say so myself:

And, for further evidence of our redirect, coming up on Monday, October 6 1:30 – 2:15 in the GMCTE Classroom, as part of Academic Integrity Awareness Week, there will be a short session on assessment practices by Carolyn Hoessler and Barb Schindelka titled “Reduce Uncertainty, Increase Integrity: How to create relevant and effective assessments.” Register for this practical session at

Peer-to-Peer Writing Feedback: That’s what friends are for!


Peer-to-PeerPeer-to-peer writing feedback is a process by which students judge other students’ written work and produce and provide feedback to them and then, in turn, also receive feedback on their own work. By feedback, I mean commentary of a formative kind: that is, students have the chance to consider and incorporate the feedback received from their peers. Peers are not assigning grades (that would be “peer assessment”), but they may be evaluating the work using a set of provided standards or a rubric. The process can be anonymous, but it does not need to be.

This fall, I will be trying out peer-to-peer writing feedback in a course I teach on leadership and professionalism.  For me, use of this learning activity serves two related learning outcomes that I intend for students:  (1) to write more clearly and concisely, and (2) to effectively provide and receive feedback (not restricted to the area of writing or to the context of peers).

I was very encouraged this week when I came upon an article by Nicol, Thomson, and Breslin (2014) where they reported on a study of how producing peer feedback impacted learning for first year engineering students. Below, I’ve integrated and summarized some of the learning benefits that stood out to me.

Receivers of peer feedback tend to find it…

  • written in more accessible language and therefore more easily understood
  • more like dialogue than a one-way transmission and also less directive, allowing students to locate the feedback they need
  • timed to allow improvements to be made

Producers of peer feedback tend to…

  • develop a better understanding of the standards being applied, and an appreciation for the role of the summative assessor (i.e., grader)
  • compare the work of their peers to their own and benefit from the examples of other approaches to writing
  • build critical thinking capacity about both the writing of peers and their own writing

And, an overarching zinger appears in the article, where the authors quote another research team:   ‘Students seem to improve their writing more by giving comments than by receiving them’ (p. 104). To me this finding aligns with the oft-quoted saying “the best way to learn is to teach.”

Let me know via your own comments if you’d like to learn more about how I go about incorporating this learning activity into my course this term and how it turns out.  Wish me luck.

Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C. (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: A peer review perspective. Assessment& Evaluation in Higher Education, 39 (1), 102-122.

Photograph by Susan Bens

Modeling Courtesy: Thoughts about Campus Controversy and Maya Angelou


I’m reflecting on recent controversies over change of several kinds in my own campus community and finding myself slowly recovering perspective as time passes. (Although, I must say dear Educatus readers, that I remain astounded and saddened at the sudden loss of senior leaders at the University of Saskatchewan.)

Time marches on and this week, I happened upon an excerpt from an interview Evan Solomon of CBC conducted with the late Maya Angelou in 2008.   Her call for courtesy during that interview has me lamenting last week’s occasions of name calling, trashing of character, and even graffiti to a historical building.  On the upside, Maya Angelou’s words have me feeling inspired to renew my commitment to courtesy.

So, what can I do to answer Dr. Angelou’s call for courtesy, especially during times of controversy?

I know from experience that when I speak with passion, my students (in whatever context and variously defined) look up from their screens, sit up in the chairs, and give every indication that they are paying a new level of attention to what I say.  Given this effect and the passion I feel for the effective leadership of change in my university, I must ask myself three overarching questions as a teacher before I share my views with my students:

  1. Does expressing my opinion on organizational politics and events advance the educational experience of my students?
  2. Can I express my opinion on organizational politics and events in such a way that I model critical thinking?  For me, this means, can I recognize my own position and bias within the organization, can I question my own assumptions about the intentions of others, can I provide evidence that supports my view, can I model respect for those who view the situation differently or hold opposite opinions to my own?
  3. Am I calling my students to act, if they are so inclined, on their own interpretation of events and motivations?  That is, can I genuinely encourage them to question my interpretation and pursue their own understandings and then engage on that basis?

If I can say “yes” to these three guiding questions, then I think I’ve got the makings of a wonderful teachable moment where my students will have the opportunity to see me as an engaged, respectful, and courteous (thank you Maya) citizen of my university and hopefully, also, as a role model.

See the Solomon interview, scrolling ahead to about the 30 second mark, for Dr. Angelou’s remarks first on courage, and then on courtesy.  She was a remarkable human being and Evan’s reverence for the great lady is apparent.

What? A Menu of Assessment Options?


I have recently come upon a few interesting ideas about the conditions we create for assessment in higher education, especially with respect to deterring academic dishonesty.  Standing out to me right now is a 2013 book I’ve been reading by James Lang titled “Cheating Lessons.”  This book provides inspiration, encouragement, and practical advice to teachers in higher education. Lang’s premise is that cheating is an inappropriate response by students to environments that convey an emphasis on performance within the context of extremely high stakes and where extrinsic motivators overpower the “intrinsic joy or utility of the task itself” (p. 30).

Slide of a Weird Grading System

Lang points his readers to an innovative assessment practice I found quite intriguing.  Professor John Boyer, in his apparently infamous World Regions class of 2,670 (!) students at Virginia Tech, affords students maximum flexibility in assessment.  He structures a multi-choice assessment system that pushes students away from performance orientation and instead puts the responsibility on students to choose ways of demonstrating their learning via a point system.  I highly recommend a visit to Boyer’s web page for more information on his innovative approach at

Got the Group Project Blues?


Last week I gave my students back their group project assignments.  They actually did quite a superb job, across the board.  I asked them to provide me with comments on their own contribution, using a rubric I developed that was my adaptation and a shorter version of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) “teamwork” rubric that can be found at  And, then I also left it open if they wanted to share any comments with me about the teamwork demonstrated in their group.

I knew because of some individual requests for guidance that most of the groups had encountered some conflict or difficulty and a sense of uneven contribution to the final outcome.  This perhaps was exacerbated when I awarded fairly high grades for the project, and students who felt they had done the lion’s share expressed some resentment of others for contributing less and getting the same grade. Then, as we were debriefing the project and the course overall, students provided even more interesting ideas and alternatives about group projects for the class.

This led me to go searching that evening for resources on designing group projects.  I hit the jackpot, from my perspective, with the advice and resources posted on the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  Educatus readers may also find this a helpful resource on using group projects effectively.

Experiencing and Embracing Controversy in the Classroom


Students in the leadership classes I have taught report general personal discomfort with conflict.  They also report enjoying (and learning from) engaging classroom discussions.   Providing students with a debating experience in class responds to both quite nicely.  My post today is about a teaching strategy I have successfully used twice now, called “structured controversy.”

Structured controversy is ultimately an active learning activity where small teams of students (3 or 4) prepare for and then argue different sides of the same issue with different opponents in a rotating cycle.   Groups each take a turn arguing the affirmative and the negative, but arguing against a different group each time.   Needless to say, the classroom buzzes with multiple, simultaneous debates!  I was introduced to this learning activity by a colleague who pointed me to these resources from the U of S College of Medicine including video of  Dr. Marcel D’Eon demonstrating and explaining this teaching strategy for a large group of health science students.

I would, and do, choose this activity because it is an engaging, and focused way to explore, from multiple perspectives, a relevant issue in depth in a short amount of time.  Along with this, it is a chance for students to develop and practice effective communication in a low stakes conflict of sorts.  This activity provides students with the opportunity to see, firsthand, the contribution different ways of seeing the same issue can make to individual and group understanding.  Both times I have used this activity, I have assigned pre-reading to inform students’ arguments and to make the point that we often each can draw different points from the same readings.

My colleague who first suggested using a structured controversy activity to me said she had learned about it during a Course Design Institute offered by the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness and had decided to develop the activity for her course and to try it out.  I’m thankful for her recommendation and encouragement to try it myself.  Perhaps you’ll give-it-a-go, too?

Turkey Dinner Causes University Student Career Planning! What’s the relationship?


A career counsellor once told me that appointment requests by first year university students increase dramatically after the Thanksgiving weekend.  She knew from talking with many of these students, that it had been conversations with parents that weekend that had led to their making of appointments.

traditional turkey dinnerStudents (and parents of students) care deeply about their future and finding fulfilling and interesting career paths.  While different degree programs make differing claims about achieving job preparation goals, students in all programs are right and wise to be anticipating their futures.   Rarely, however, will the first six weeks of the first year answer many questions for new students—a fact that may be frustrating for some.

Two (post-Thanksgiving) teacher tips that occur to me?

  1. Now is a particularly good time to connect what students are learning in classes to real world concerns and types of career paths.  First year students in particular may be particularly open to seeing these kinds of connections this week.  Even general comments of this kind will be helpful and can effect motivation.
  2. Take the opportunity to promote your campus-based career and employment services.  At the University of Saskatchewan “career coaching consultations” are available daily and are free of charge to all current students.

Picture courtesy of YVRBCbro via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (Attribution – Non-Commercial – No Derivative Works -Some rights reserved)

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