High quality, respectful classroom dialogue

This post is the third post in a series of the “Charter Chats” related to our new charter.  The others are linked on the bottom of this page. The chats are informal introductions to a charter educator commitment or commitments.  They explain what that commitment means for educators, and suggests one or two implications for teaching in a higher ed setting.

High quality, respectful classroom dialogue is essential in helping student learning.  When students are engaged in actively thinking about their own learning and discussing it with others, they are more likely to understand deeply. If students are just listening to an expert talking without the interaction, they are less likely to remember the learning 6 months later.  However, understanding more deeply and remembering more works best if the interaction in class is focused on the most important learning and it is safe and encouraged to share your ideas, even if they are not fully correct or are different. There are 2 key areas to pay attention to if your goal is improved learning through high quality, respectful conversation.

Open and healthy dialogue

The instructor is essential but not sufficient in creating open and healthy dialogue.  Good dialogue occurs when diverse perspectives are welcome in the group and genuinely considered, and that requires all group members. However, you can make a big difference to how likely good dialogue is.  Some key actions you can take are:

  • Share diverse perspectives and debates in disciplinary theory to make it clear good scholarship requires considering different ideas deeply. When possible, make space for plurality, rather than just one or two ways of thinking or being. We live in Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Metis, therefore including Indigenous informed perspectives and content along with Western ones is an essential first step in welcoming diversity
  • Describe what you mean by open and healthy dialogue before the first conversational opportunity starts.  In subsequent opportunities, discuss anything that needs “a refresher” to be a bit better than the last time. Focus on ways of communicating that are problematic, rather than describing specific students or ideas that are a problem
  • Have students work in smaller groups much more often than asking questions of the full class.  More students will get to participate, and most will feel safer to say more about what they think if they are only speaking to a few people
  • Overtly praise students who raise a potentially contentious activity delicately and effectively. Brave spaces are important
  • Warn students in advance if the content about to be discussed will be difficult or triggering, so they can manage their own emotions and expectations more effectively

How to create a shared, positive space in your class

Students know what it is to be positive in your class by what you do.  Your language, demeanor, and willingness to allow student to help shape the thinking and decision-making all help communicate what your classes will be about.

  • Use language that includes rather than excludes potentially marginalized groups
  • When dealing with a complex issue in class, ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself. What story might the other person be telling about themselves or about me?” Thinking it through helps with defusing, rather than escalating, potentially problematic moments
  • Co-create, with students, a shared space for learning through co-constructing or brainstorming together and working often in small groups as a part of daily class interactions
  • Raise errors as opportunities to learn.  Praise students who ask for clarification or surface their thinking about how to do something, even if it is wrong. Don’t pretend their processes are correct if they are not, but do point out that it was great to ask, and it is a very common misconception.
  • Don’t just share good examples.  Share examples with common errors and ask small groups to find the problems and explain why
  • Provide choice and voice anytime you can
  • Learn more about engaging with students and peers in a respectful manner with some tips for managing interaction in class, and use those strategies regularly
  • Ask students to set personal goals for the class, then allot time and marks to those goals
  • Use strategies like cooperative learning strategies or power sharing approaches like a talking circle to give student the opportunity to share the gifts of their identities in relationship with one another.  Seem to far from your disciplinary perspective?  Consider these 4 easy cooperative learning structures that are good across STEM and humanities courses

Learn more:

  • Attend Gwenna Moss Center for Teaching and Learning sessions on leading effective discussions or take our short courses on critical conversation
  • View other Charter Chats.

Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms

Building broad minds is not about back filling.  Broad minds are the byproduct of encountering diverse ideas, thinking deeply about them, and integrating those ideas into our own worldviews and cognitive frameworks.  In higher education, the opportunity to be exposed to the thinking of a wide variety of disciplines usually happens at the first year level. However, those are also often large courses where the primary method of instruction is listening to your professor speak.  To actually get broad minds, our learning activities have to be active, even in the large classrooms where active learning strategies are limited by the room, and even when students are first encountering the subject mater.

A great simple rule for broad minds is the 10:2 ratio. It basically means that for every 10 minutes of lecture, and student needs 2 minute of social processing to make sense of it. Lots of the time, we think group work in classes is all about assignments.  Actually, it is much more about helping us make sense of what we learning. To encourage broad thinking, consider pausing at least every 10 minutes and doing a short activity that allows student to make sense of what you’ve just tried to teach them.

Use daily active collaboration in increase understanding

  • Having students problem solve in pairs
  • Having students turn and talk to each other about the implications of a new idea you introduced or why it matters
  • Provide opportunities to try something and get feedback from a peer. You don’t have time to provide all that feedback in a large class, but feedback is helpful in both improving and remembering, and there are many other people in the room who can help.  Giving feedback also refines our understanding, so your students are learning when giving and receiving feedback.
  • Have students teach each other something quick (not a big group presentation). Read more from the research about why this is one of the best ways to improve student understanding (Topping and Stewart, 1998).

Have students engage in critical thinking and think from multiple worldviews
Developing broad minds requires encountering the major debates of the discipline early and considering them from multiple perspective.  Although it is hard to have teams of two students debate other teams of two students in a large lecture theater, all students can think and speak simultaneously.  Want to see how it would work?


Learn more:

Getting More Active (and getting more learning)

The holidays are a time of year that are almost inevitably followed by a feeling that you should be more active after all those treats and large meals.  Many educators want their students to be more active and engaged, but like the post-holiday feeling that you should be more active, it is hard to turn that good will into consistent action in your instruction.  This post focuses on easy changes to make your course more active.

Step 1- Clarify the purpose of active learning in your class
Active learning is time in your classroom when students are actively thinking, talking, and making sense of ideas.  It is contrasted with passive learning, when students are being receptive (listening, note taking, etc.)  An individual class is typically considered active when 60% or more of the time is students thinking and talking, rather than the instructor explaining. To get started with active learning, identify a key or threshold concept (Meyer and Land, 2003) that students need to understand well and use often, but seem to struggle with.  That’s a great place to focus on active learning, because active learning processes make it more likely your students will be able to retain and apply what they have learned.

Step 2 – Consider options
Before you make any type of change, you often need to consider possible options.  Start will some videos  or browse some resources and think about the strategies that might fit well given your content and discipline. It is essential that the specific strategy fit the concept you need student to make sense of, so you can’t just pick one at random.  For threshold concepts, strategies like error analysis, concept formation/concept attainment etc. are often the most effective.  If you’d like someone to help you consider some options best suited to you, but you don’t want to wade through the options, make a short appointment with Gwenna Moss. We’ll suggest some great options given what you explain about the concept that you are teaching and the size of your class.

Step 3 – Try something small

  1. Start by really clarifying how the process will work in your own mind.
  2. Identify what you’ll still need to teach directly so students have enough knowledge to do the active task.
  3. Choose a class you are comfortable in, and explain how important the concept is and why you’ll be using an active strategy.  If you haven’t used the particular strategy you are trying, explain the process and what behavior you’ll expect explicitly.
  4. Use the strategy, circulating to help or prompt students often.
  5. Once you are done with the activity, summarize the key takeaways and implications with your students.  Next time this key concept comes up, refer back to the activity and the lessons learned.  You use the summarizing and references to prior learning to ensure students are connecting the learning well, and didn’t miss anything essential.

Learn more:


What is the science behind your course design madness?


By Fred Phillips, Professor, Baxter Scholar, Edwards School of Business

As we begin another year, students are encountering some of the course design decisions made by their instructors. Some will be introduced to “flipped classrooms”, where students prepare by reading/viewing/responding to a learning prompt before it is formally taken up in class. Others will encounter new learning tools, such as adaptive reading systems that embed interactive questions within reading materials with the goal of assessing each student’s comprehension so that new topics can be delivered the moment he or she is ready to comprehend them.

Just as instructors have questions about these approaches and tools, students are likely to be curious about whether there is a method to our course design madness. To help explain the underlying learning science, I have made a few videos that describe relevant (and fun) studies that lend support to these pedagogies. Each video focuses on a particular question that students (and possibly instructors) are likely to have about elements of their courses. Each video describes two or three relevant studies in just enough depth to convey the gist of how they were designed and what they discovered. And, in the spirit of a TED Talk, they are each less than 10 minutes in length.

My thought with these videos is that instructors can send each link to students at the moment they expect their students will be asking the particular question, or they can provide them en masse. My hope is that the videos will help students appreciate why our courses might be designed as they are. And, if we’re really lucky, the videos will inspire our campus community to learn more about the scholarship of teaching and learning. Enjoy!

1. Why do we have so many tests? (7 min 24 sec)

  • Students often wonder why I plan frequent quizzes and exams throughout the term.

2. Why attempt to answer questions before “being taught”? (7 min 22 sec)

  • Students often think that there isn’t benefit in attempting to answer questions before they are formally taught content.

3. Is easier and more convenient learning better? (8 min 54 sec)

  • Is it more effective for students to have a cramming study session or to study throughout the term? When practicing, should students group questions of similar type or mix different question types? Does use of analogies help or hinder student learning?

Practice Problem Sets: Issues of Timing and Mixing


While looking for resources for a faculty member in the sciences who was interested in incorporating more problem sets into her lectures to increase student engagement, I came upon a 2007 article by Rohere and Taylor, appearing in Instructional Science. This article describes two experiments where particular timing and mixing of mathematics practice problems improved learning.

The authors point out that it is usual for practice problems to be assigned:
• immediately following the relevant lesson (massed), and
• for problems of the same type to be grouped together (blocked).

15 - September - 2008 -- MathsThrough Rohere and Taylor’s experiments, they found that spacing the timing of two sets of practice problems 1 week apart (they called this spaced rather than massed) and varying the types of problems in a practice set (they called this mixed rather than blocked) greatly improved students’ test performance.

While the experiments used math concepts (one was a permutation task, the other was a volume task), it seems there could be an extrapolation/application to other kinds of practice problem sets for students.

The basic idea I take from this article for teaching is twofold:
(1) have students return to the problem type practiced in the previous week, and
(2) mix last week’s problem type with this week’s problem type.

This approach means students get to try a set of problems again—important especially if they had difficulty first time around. Plus, using mixtures of problems handled at the same time requires students to learn to pair each kind of problem with the appropriate procedure – that is students not only learn how to perform each procedure (learning-how), but also which procedure is for each kind of problem (learning-which) – the authors call this “discrimination training.”

A powerful closing remark in the article is that shuffling problems in this way presented few logistical demands for the teacher, making it an easy change in teaching practice that can have dramatic benefits for student learning.

(And, here I’ll add another easy change that builds on the above…teachers can ask students to do problems sets in small groups, then exchange them with another group and provide peer feedback on their calculations or choice of procedures. The learning that occurs by providing feedback to peers has also shown improvements in student performance.)

Rohere, D, & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 381-498.

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 https://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm, http://www.uwgb.edu/outreach/highimpact/assets/pdfs/kinzieHO2012.pdf, or watch this short 6-minute video:

For the back-story—the elements that make these high impact practices check out http://us.tamu.edu/Faculty-Administrators/High-Impact-Learning. 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.

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.

Recipe for SoTL


Many a metaphor is used to make new ideas feel more familiar.

I’m an avid baker, so I wanted to share this alternative sweet way of seeing the elements and processes involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  Let me know if you’ve got something cooking.

Book in a Loaf Pan

Photo by Brian Hoessler

1 cup questions, concerns or new possibilities

2 cups curiosity and excitement for your teaching and your students

1/2 cup reading literature inside your discipline about teaching courses and students like yours (see for example the list at http://pod.nku.edu/sotldisc.asp)

1/2 cup reading literature from educators in other disciplines with similar questions or approaches (see the list at http://www.issotl.org/SOTL.html)

4 tablespoons appropriately chosen methodology that makes sense for you

2 tablespoons relevant analysis

4 teaspoons of reflection as a practioner on your teaching and SoTL experiences


Blend questions and concerns with curiosity and excitement together until coalesces. Shift together readings and fold in. Add in methodology and analysis, and sprinkling in reflection. Stir thoroughly.

Pour into single large pan or into several smaller pans. Fill about 2/3 full initially as often expand during writing.

Bake through reflection, writing and revision.

Serve to audiences near and far.

 ~ from the kitchen of  Carolyn “Dr. Cupcake” Hoessler


For a clearly written set of instructions see Donna M. Qualter’s “Six Steps for Turning Your Teaching into Scholarship

My favourite survey design resource, beyond Fluid Surveys (free for us at the UofS), is the  “Basics of Survey and Question Design” webpage

Also come by or drop us a line at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness in the Murray Building right across from the Murray Library (and Starbucks) entrance.

Reducing Confusion and Improving Teaching by Sharing Who We Are as a Discipline

The Book:

The University and its Disciplines: Teaching and Learning Within and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries. Edited by Carolin Kreber (2009). Routledge, Taylor and Francis*

Each time I meet with individuals from across campus I am reminded how disciplines are not just collections of faculty, rather they encompass specific ways of knowing: What constitutes evidence? What questions do we ask? What ways do we conduct research and to what end? Such answers form the epistemological foundation guiding our scholarly activities. However, this foundation is often implicit, not explicit, and thus a mystery for students. The result?

The encounter of student and instructor can degenerate into an ugly clash of cultures, in which the demands of the instructor can appear arbitrary and vindictive, and the student’s inability to produce adequate results can be viewed as evidence of stupidity or laziness. We can minimize such unfortunate collisions by systematically studying what makes our subjects difficult, and we can learn to more effectively welcome students into our disciplines and to expand our ability to offer more students a place at the banquet of higher education

— (Pace, Chapter 8, p. 103).

At its core The University and its Disciplines is an edited book about the nature and purpose of higher education for students and faculty. Scholarly grounded in theoretical frameworks and prior research, the reader is invited to reflect deeply on the often implicit assumptions, practices, and ways of knowing of one’s discipline and departmental contexts.

Included are approaches to characterizing and clarifying disciplinary ways of knowing and thinking (e.g., Donald, Chapter 3; Hounsell & Anderson, Chapter 6) and to clarify this foundation by encountering other disciplines, active learning, and asking questions about one’s one disciplinary and departmental culture such as “What assumptions are we making about teaching and learning and do those stand up to critical reflection?”(McCune, Chapter 19, p 236).

Related Resources

*If you are interested in reading this book yourself, there is a copy of it in the Education Library.

Threshold Concepts – ‘One resource to rule them all’

If you have been following along some of my writing in the past few Bridges, I have been writing about threshold concepts – a new and emerging idea in the area of higher education teaching and learning that many people from on campus and around the world have found quite useful in thinking about teaching and learning as well as curriculum development.

Threshold concepts, to remind those who may have missed or only skimmed the Bridges issues (Vol 9, issue 2; and Vol 10, issue 2) where I introduced this work, are those concepts that are central to students’ mastery of their subject. They have a number of features that make them threshold concepts rather than just key or core concepts:

  • Transformative: A students’ way of understanding the discipline or subject is transformed once understood.
  • Troublesome: The concept is often troublesome – tacit, seemingly incoherent, alien, counter-intuitive, or the language of the concept is troublesome.
  • Irreversible: Once learned it is very unlikely that a student will forget (or unlearn) the concept.
  • Integrative: In that they highlight the interrelatedness of knowledge within their discipline or subject.
  • Bounded: They usually delineate a particular conceptual space, and is bounded by other thresholds that lead further into the discipline.
  • Discursive: In that an enhanced and extended use of disciplinary language usually accompanies a students’ learning of the concept.
  • Reconstitutive: In that the students reconstitute their understanding (their prior conceptual schema) over time and let go of their earlier conceptual stance.

Having just re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy recently, I am reminded of the phrase “One ring to rule them all” and in thinking about writing this blog post it jumped into my mind. Mick Flanagan, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at University College London, has put together the ultimate website resource related to threshold concepts, featuring publicly available articles, videos, and other detailed resources. One of the most exciting aspects of the web resource is that Prof Flanagan has compiled all of the work that has been done on threshold concepts in the disciplines on the site. There is information on threshold concepts in everything from Engineering, Chemistry and Computer Science to English, Economics, and Gender Studies, and on to the Health Sciences. If you are interested in learning more about what has been written/discussed on threshold concepts in your own disciplines, this resource is the place for you. It is the resource to rule them all (for threshold concepts).