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).