Risk Taking in Teaching


I had the extreme pleasure of attending a panel conversation as part of the 4th Annual SoTL symposium last week.  Panel members were Dr. Murray Drew from Agriculture and Bioresources, Dr. Jay Wilson and Dr. Michelle Prytula from Education, Dr. Daniel Regnier from St. Thomas More, Philosophy, Dr. Tracie Risling from Nursing and Dr. Mike Bradley from Physics/Engineering Physics.

The panel discussion was incredibly thought provoking as would be expected from this line up of faculty from diverse disciplines and different points in their academic careers.   The risks they undertook varied from teaching  a course with an undergraduate to flipping a class, using social media to develop relationships in large classes, (re)creating assessment rubrics with students, taking students off site for experiential learning and changing the traditional laboratory experience to one where students apply their skills through creative problem solving mimicking a professional consulting experience.

The discussion that ensued after the brief presentations by each panelist highlighted the centrality of risk taking to the teaching approach of each of these faculty members, however it was clear that each had unique motivations for risk taking.  Murray Drew noted that risk taking in his teaching was an essential step in moving his students to development of critical thing skills and application of disciplinary knowledge to real life problems.  Mike Bradley noted its importance in helping physics students develop creative problem solving skills.  Michelle Prytula shared that she believed that risk taking was the only way to facilitate real learning and Tracie Risling passionately argued that she took risks as part her commitment to giving her students the best learning experience possible.  The examples provided lead the audience to conclude that, when well managed, taking risks in your teaching can lead to exceptional learning experiences for students.

The panel did not, however, present risk as without issue.  Murray Drew challenged us as an institution to consider how we mitigate potential issues for new (pre-tenure) faculty taking risks, particularly if the risk results in lower student evaluation scores (always a potential risk of trying something new in a course).  Jay Wilson also noted the importance of managing the impact that the additional effort to innovate may have on other areas of work.  Mike Bradly noted that sustainability of any teaching innovation needs to be considered at the outset.

There was consensus in the panel that taking risks in teaching can have big returns for student learning.  They did have some common advice to share with those thinking about doing this in their own teaching:

  • Communication with students in key.  Let them know what you are doing and why.  Be explicit and acknowledge openly that this a new undertaking for you.
  • Invite your students to be partners in the endeavour.  If your approach has some built in flexibility, ask for student input on the approach they would prefer. Solicit student feedback regularly and adjust your approach, as possible, based on what they say.
  • Give the innovation a good amount of time to succeed but don’t cling to it if it isn’t working.  Admit when it has failed and abandon the strategy.
  • Ask for advice in advance from colleagues or others who have expertise in the area.  Draw on the knowledge and experience of others.

It was clear in the discussion and questions that ensued that we all have a responsibility in creating an environment on campus that is conducive to risk taking and is tolerant of some failure along the way.  I would welcome your thoughts via email or comments on this blog as to how you believe we could collectively achieve this.  What are some of the barriers you see and how could they be overcome?

If after reading this you think taking a risk and innovating in your teaching is for you please feel free to get in touch with the GMCTE to discuss your innovation.  We can connect you with other faculty who have done something similar, help you plan, or point you to resources to inform your work.  Whether your risk is large or a small first step we are here to help you achieve your goals.

Thanks to all the panel participants for sharing their experience and insights and providing advice to others considering an innovation in their teaching.

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 ryan.brook@usask.ca 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 http://www.wordle.net/create.

Four Student Misconceptions About Learning


The main section of this blog post is a reprint of an article from Faculty Focus by Maryellen Welmer. It follows a brief introduction by Nancy Turner.

I thought readers of this blog would be interested in the article reprinted below on common student misconceptions about learning.  These points are usefully discussed openly with students at the start of a course or year of study but are also points for faculty to be aware of when planning curriculum and learning experiences.  Both explicit discussion of the misconceptions alongside curriculum, assessment and session design to implicitly counter their effects (specific examples for each are included in the text of the article) should go a long way to support deep student learning.

This article originally appeared in Faculty Focus.  © 2014 Magna Publications. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

“Efficient and effective learning starts with a proper mindset,” Stephen Chew writes in his short, readable, and very useful chapter, “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying.” Chew continues, pointing out what most of us know firsthand, students harbor some fairly serious misconceptions that undermine their efforts to learn. He identifies four of them.

  1. Learning is fast – Students think that learning can happen a lot faster than it does. Take, for example, the way many students handle assigned readings. They think they can get what they need out of a chapter with one quick read through (electronic devices at the ready, snacks in hand, and ears flooded with music). Or, they don’t think it’s a problem to wait until the night before the exam and do all the assigned readings at once. “Students must learn that there are no shortcuts to reading comprehension.” (p. 216) Teachers need to design activities that regularly require students to interact with course text materials.
  2. Knowledge is composed of isolated facts – Students who hold this misconception demonstrate it when they memorize definitions. Chew writes about the commonly used student practice of making flash cards with only one term or concept on each card. The approach may enable students to regurgitate the correct definition, but they “never develop a connected understanding or how to reason with and apply concepts.” (p.216) The best way for teachers to correct this misconception is by using test questions that ask students to relate definitions, use definitions to construct arguments, or apply them to some situation.
  3. Being good at a subject is a matter of inborn talent rather than hard work – All of us have had students who tell us with great assurance that they can’t write, can’t do math, are horrible at science, or have no artistic ability. Chew points out that if students hold these beliefs about their abilities, they don’t try as hard in those areas and give up as soon as any difficulty is encountered. Then they have even more evidence about those absent abilities. Students need to bring to learning a “growth mindset,” recognized by statements like this, “Yes, I’m pretty good at math, but that’s because I’ve spent a lot of time doing it.” Teacher feedback can play an important role in helping students develop these growth mindsets.
  4. I’m really good at multi-tasking, especially during class or studying – We’ve been all over this one in the blog. “The evidence is clear: trying to perform multiple tasks at once is virtually never as effective as performing the tasks one at a time focusing completely on each one.” (p. 217) Chew also writes here about “inattentional blindness” which refers to the fact that when our attention is focused on one thing, we aren’t seeing other things. “The problem of not knowing what we missed is that we believe we haven’t missed anything.” (p.217)

Pointing out these misconceptions helps but probably not as much as demonstrations. Students, especially those in the 18-24 age range, don’t always believe what their teachers tell them. The evidence offered by a demonstration is more difficult to ignore.

Please be encouraged to read Chew’s whole chapter (it’s only eight pages). It’s in an impressive new anthology which is reviewed in the February issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. Briefly here, the book contains 24 chapters highlighting important research on the science of learning. The chapters are highly readable! They describe the research in accessible language and explore the implications of those findings. Very rarely do researchers (and most of these chapters are written by those involved with research) offer implementable suggestions. This book is full of them.

And here’s the most impressive part about this book: you can download it for free. It’s being made available by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Yes, it’s a discipline-based piece of scholarly work, but as the editors correctly claim it’s a book written for anyone who teaches and cares about learning. Kudos to them for providing such a great resource!

Reference and link: Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php


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.

Curriculum of Fractal Beauty


What image of our discipline are we sharing with students or with colleagues as we start a new term? Are we sharing glimpses of the beauty that intrigue and motivate us?

Just as lecture is a piece of the course, each course is embedded within a program, and each program within the ongoing history of a discipline. The transformative concepts and essential knowledge, skills, or values of the discipline are embodied within the program, enacted within the course, seen within the lecture activities, readings and assessments.

Mandelbulb140aThese central features thus appear as more than just a single layer of foundational ideas. Instead, our programs and courses appear nearly fractal – complex organic growing entities comprised of many instances of the same fundamental pattern of ideas, approaches, assumptions and beliefs that are apparent in the whole.

The essential skills and transformative ways of asking questions and pursing answers of a discipline become reflected at each curricular and scholarly level. How is your discipline reflected in the courses and opportunities your students complete, the course(s) you are teaching, and the project/paper/lab report your students will write?

Photo courtesy of Soler97 through Wikimedia Commons.

Beauty II: Defining the Big, Bold and Beautiful


Getting lost in the beauty of our discipline and sharing it with our students raises the challenge of what to cover within the limited time of our course or program. With all that is beautiful about our discipline, what do we focus on?

32/365One approach is to focus on the fundamental perspectives and approaches that define a discipline – the building blocks of a field!

These building blocks can be identified and prioritized through several lenses:

Celebrating what’s Unique:

What makes your discipline unique? What are the key premises, approaches, conceptions, or methodologies not found in other disciplines? What is the unique contribution that individuals in your discipline can make to understanding human experience, and global and local challenges?

Defining Threshold Concepts:

One approach for defining these key ideas is by identifying the threshold concepts which are the transformative, troublesome, irreversible, integrative, and bounded concepts in a discipline that shape the language of the discipline (Meyer & Land). For example, Art as language in Art History (pages 7-9, http://www.usask.ca/gmcte/sites/default/files/Bridges_Aug_2012.pdf)


Distilling the Essential:

Another approach is to distill from our activities and assessments what is truly essential, such as knowing the systems in anatomy versus naming the location of placement flags. Resources related to universal instructional design and accommodation for accessibility provide a starting place with open-ended questions for identifying the essential requirements or components in your own course or program:

Capturing in learning outcomes:

These big, bold, and beautiful pieces are the knowledge, skills and values at the foundation of each discipline and when articulated can form the program learning outcomes that define your curriculum vision.

The beauty that defines your discipline then becomes what that graduates of your program, those future builders of your discipline should know, do, value by the time they graduate. So that, by the end of this program/course, successful graduates are expected to…think in, act with and value with these big, bold and beautiful cornerstones of our discipline.

Self-Belief and Student Success


I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of not performing to our potential at given points in our life due to anxiety, illness, the physical environment or just because we were having an off day.  The importance of context on our ability to perform should not be underestimated.

One factor that can greatly impact our ability to perform is our belief that we can achieve what we want to in a given context.  If we believe we can do something we are far more likely to succeed.  It could be argued that believing we can do something is simply a matter of knowing ones own strengths and weaknesses.  Research has demonstrated, however, that direct manipulations of these beliefs can have an impact on performance and behavior.

A simple example from a study done many years ago involved individuals being given randomly positive or negative feedback on their muscular endurance.  These individuals were then tested on different tasks requiring muscular endurance.  Those given positive feedback about their ability did better than those given negative feedback.  Perhaps more importantly in follow-up competitions when these individuals failed, those who had been lead to perceive their ability positively responded with greater effort and those who had negative messages performed worse.

Independent of ability, self-belief can have a significant impact on performance in a given situation (Haidt & Rodin, 1999).  In addition, those who have doubt in their own ability to perform have been shown to give up quickly when faced with difficulty while those who have positive beliefs have been shown to respond to challenge with greater effort.

Why should this matter in higher education?  I believe the key is that in most cases knowledge and skills in a particular area or subject do not translate into good performance on their own.  Skills and understanding in a discipline are most useful if one believes in one’s ability to meaningfully utilize them.  These beliefs can also impact significantly on an individual’s response to challenges and failure in a course.

Equally important is thinking of self-belief as able to be impacted by context or direct intervention (as in the muscular endurance example above) and not a stable trait that is inherent to an individual.

So what might this mean for teachers in higher education?  What can we do to influence our student’s belief in their ability and how can we create environments that grow rather than diminish it?

Drawing on the work of Bandura (1997) I would suggest the following ideas as a starting point:

  1. Make students aware of role models they may relate to who succeeded in similar circumstances.  This is important particularly for those groups where role models may not be as visible such as women in subject areas typically dominated by males or vice versa, or in programs that have not had great student ethnic diversity.
  2. Provide students with genuine positive messages about their capacity to improve their grade on a course through effort.
  3. Provide students with opportunities to take on tasks that are appropriately challenging for their current ability level so they can experience success through effort.
  4. Design courses so that students feel they have control of their own success (i.e. if they apply effort in appropriate ways they can succeed).  This may involve things like ensuring expectations are clear and discussed at the start of a course (assignments, due dates, etc.) and making the process of assessment and grading as transparent and understood as possible through things like grading rubrics, peer and self assessment and lower stakes assessment early in a course so feedback can be used to improve their final outcome.

These items are also known to improve student learning so are not additional things that need to be done but rather actions that can improve not only knowledge and skills but also a student’s belief that they can apply those to achieve their goals and succeed.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Haidt, J. & Rodin, J. (1999).  Control and Efficacy as Interdisciplinary Bridges. Review of General Psychology, 3(4), 317-4337.

Dean Stoicheff Speaks on the Value of an Arts and Science Degree


The College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan is unique in Canada, bringing under a single college governance structure, 21 disciplinary departments ranging from fine arts and humanities to social and natural sciences.  The extreme diversity in disciplinary areas, along with the rich potential for interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary programs within the College offersunique opportunities for students.

At our recent campus-wide Celebration of Teaching and Learning, Peter Stoicheff, Dean of the College of Arts and Science was invited to speak about the curriculum renewal process in the College.  The video clips below include his full 20-minute presentation as well as a shorter 6 minute excerpt.  Peter speaks to the value of an Arts and Science degree and references Chris Hedges’ Pulitzer prize-winning book, “The Empire of Illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle”. Peter also offers as own vision and the College’s vision for interdisciplinary, theme-based programming that can offer a broader perspective and deeper insights for students about the world’s big issues and challenges. His are intriguing ideas worth exploring… “watch the movie!”

The Course Design Process


If you have made it through one or more university degrees, it is likely that you have wondered why some courses appeared almost entirely unplanned, while others were highly structured and obviously planned well in advance.  If you have ever been a teaching assistant or an instructor, it is likely that you thought about how to plan a course so that students, like you did in the past, get the most from it.  This can be a daunting thought for a first time instructor, or for an instructor who wants to try something different while planning next term’s courses. Luckily, others have thought about this a great deal, and there is a process that can be followed by instructors to help make designing courses manageable and a bit easier.

The instructional design team at the GMCTE recently developed a series of resource pages on its website for instructors in the process of planning a course. The pages are based on the GMCTE’s Course Design Institute and are divided into four, easy to follow steps.

Each step includes explanatory videos and templates you can download and use to plan your course:

  • Step one looks at the process of analyzing the needs of your students and the context in which they are learning.
  • Step two introduces you to writing effective learning outcomes and setting standards of assessment.
  • Step three takes you through the final design phase, including what is constructive alignment, how best to organize content and choose effective teaching strategies, and information about composing your syllabus.
  • Step four is the implantation of the prior steps. This step includes a link to resources on our site that can help you assess how well your course works for your students.

For more insight into this process, you can view the video below, which presents some ideas about course planning by Jay Wilson from the College of Education and Heather M. Ross from the Gwenna Moss Centre:

Being More Efficient


“efficient |iˈfiSHənt|


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

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

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

Set your goals:

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

Be selective:

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

Utilize the wheel instead of reinventing it:

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

Think longitudinally/Avoid perfectionism:

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

Document progress:

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

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

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