I am an Online Learning Consultant (OLC) at the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. As OLCs we pride ourselves on a scholarly approach to course design and, as such, 20% of my time is allotted to research. One of the research projects that I began in Winter 2016 is a case study examination of a blended learning opportunity jointly offered by Wilfrid Laurier University and UOIT. In this case, not only did I have the opportunity to conduct research, but also to teach and contribute design changes to the course being researched. Both the research and teaching dimensions of this experience have been invaluable, greatly enhancing my perspective as an instructional designer. Continue reading A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning
Have you ever felt overwhelmed? I’m sitting at my computer on a late November afternoon contemplating what I have taken away from two recent events: a provincial symposium on assessing learning outcomes and an international conference for educational developers on transformative relationships in relation to fostering cultures of deep learning.
I attended numerous sessions and overall I came away with a sense of what I call “data overwhelmosis”. We have more data and more evidence available to us than ever before in higher education. We have software to help us identify specific learning outcomes and each student’s level of achievement for each outcome. We have online templates for course syllabi that generate maps of the learning outcomes for an entire program’s curriculum. We can use learning analytics and data analytics to monitor students’ progress (or failure). We can do social network analyses to show how we connect to one another, how information flows within a unit or across an entire institution (or beyond). We know what educational development practices have empirical backing. The list goes on. My point is that it’s clear that we can capture almost anything. We can collate massive amounts of data and generate evidence for (or against) almost anything you can imagine. But to what end? What’s the purpose? And what’s the overarching plan?
We’ve talked a lot about these questions as part of devising and implementing our Centre’s assessment plan as well as our upcoming external review. Just because we can get data doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. How much is enough? What will we do with what we collect? Why will it matter? Data collection takes time and effort. We know this from any research project we have undertaken. In our line of work, any time that we ask our staff to input data about their work, this is time not spent working with a client. There has to be a good reason to ask staff members to spend time in this way. This is where the role of questions becomes critical.
For research projects, we determine research questions. We did the same when devising our assessment plan. These questions guide our every move: our methodological decisions, the types of data we need, the appropriate analysis methods, and the way we write up our results. The questions enable us to select the data that will help us determine answers, and these limited data become the evidence for our conclusions. We’ve realized that we don’t need every piece of data that we could collect – just the data that are relevant to the questions. This is a freeing revelation.
But it doesn’t end there. The evidence isn’t enough. We need to find the story. What does the evidence mean? How will it affect what we do tomorrow or in the next five years? I worry that higher education in general – and educational development specifically – is getting bogged down in the weeds and not stepping back to identify what those weeds are telling us. The examples that I noted in the second paragraph help to illuminate the issue. But what are we overlooking? Which way is the wind blowing now and in the future? Our questions create important frames to make data manageable and even meaningful, but thinking about how to tell the story of the evidence seems the most crucial of all to me.
In the next few months, we will be aiming to tell the story of CTE in our self-study, which will extend far beyond what we convey in our annual reports. We will be analyzing existing relevant data and collecting new data as needed to fill perceived gaps. We will be striving to ensure that we have sufficient information to assist our external reviewers in addressing the questions set in the Terms of Reference for the review. But from all of this, what we most need is to tell our story and listen to what it is telling us. I’m not entirely sure what we’ll hear, but I am very intrigued by what will emerge. The evidence is critical, but we need to move beyond it to better understand where we are and where we’re going.
I took Course Design Fundamentals a few weeks ago, and it broke my brain – in a good way! I have taught before, but this was a great opportunity for me to revisit the course that I’ve been teaching for the past few years from a fresh perspective.
Here are a couple of my take-aways from this workshop that lays out the best practices for course design:
- Alignment, alignment, alignment – between the intended learning outcomes for your students in the course, the course activities, and the assessment of students’ learning. It was great to have this connection made explicit. However, it was also a jarring experience as some of the concepts I wanted my students to learn were not made explicit in the activities the students engaged in. Time to remedy that!
- Concept maps for your course are tough to make! I had never created one before for my course and was at a loss at first of how to structure it and what the main concepts I wanted my students to get out of my course. A bit of brainstorming and lots of sticky notes later, I finally fleshed out the main concepts. Two of them were actually not about course content. One was about helping first year students transition to university life (e.g., coping with stress effectively, how to study and take tests). I spend my first lecture telling students about my own experiences as a first year student – that it’s difficult and stressful, but that this stress was temporary and would soon be overcome. I revisit this point by telling stories of my own failures and successes, talking about healthy living, and checking in with students throughout the term. Another way to help with students’ transition is to build community in your classroom so students have support networks they can draw on in times of stress and uncertainty.
- The other concept was to encourage metacognitive skills (i.e., how to encourage students to reflect and think about their own learning). I do different lecture wrappers (e.g., one minute summaries where students spend a minute writing about the main take-away from the class and what questions they still have that can be addressed in the next class). CTE has a great tipsheet on strategies you can use to encourage self-regulation in students’ learning that can be quick and don’t require a complete overhaul of your course. There are also many evidence-based strategies based on psychological research that can help students study more effectively and engage in more critical thinking.
- Thinking more about incorporating students’ own experiences into the course in addition to my own perspective. Students come with a wealth of prior knowledge and life experiences that can be drawn on. In the past I have solicited students’ anonymous comments about a topic in the course (especially one that can be particularly controversial or sensitive) prior to class so they are ready for discussion. I’m excited to do this more!
Image provided by Aaron Silvers under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.
Presenters at CTE’s recent Teaching and Learning conference explored the theme of Learning from Challenge and Failure. As a follow-up to the Conference, we’d like the share the following list of compiled resources:
- The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger & Michael Starbird
- The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis
- Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution by Brené Brown
- Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design by Henry Petroski
- Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant
Articles and Blog Postings
- Walking Joyously on Eggshells by Carolyn Coughlin
- Three Ingredients to Learning from Failure by Jennifer Garvey Berger
- Teaching to Fail by Edward Burger
- Declining Resilience in College Students by Peter Gray
- The Case for Teaching Ignorance by Jamie Holmes
- Failure is an option: Six ways to deal with it by John Tregoning
- Why Scientists Should Celebrate Failed Experiments by Jeffrey Kluger
- Failing by Design by Rita McGrath
- Challenging Success-via-Failure by Carlin Flora
- King, L.A., & Hicks, J.A. (2007). Lost and Found Possible Selves: Goals, Development, and Well-Being. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2007(114), 27-37. DOI: 10.1002/ace.254
- Running your own FAILfaire by Michael Trucano
- Blog post series related to Conference theme by Shannon Dea and James Skidmore (Arts Teaching Fellows) and Kyle Scholz (CTE)
- Five Lessons Only Failure Can Teach You by Liz Ryan
- Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome by Maria Popova
- To Overcome the Fear of Failure, Fear This Instead by Adam Grant
- The Physics of Vulnerability and What Resilient People Have in Common by Maria Popova
- How People Learn to Become Resilient by Maria Konnikova
- A CV of Failures by Melanie Stefan
- Princeton University Professor, Johannes Haushofer, shares his CV of failures.
Podcasts and Talks
- Connecting the Dots by Leonard Geddes
- The Pursuit of Ignorance by Stuard Firestein
- Body Language, Confidence, and Imposter Syndrome by Amy Cuddy
- The Key to Success? Grit by Angela Duckworth
Growth Mindset Resources
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
- Resources for educators on Mindsets
- Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff by Keith Heggart
- Encouraging Growth Mindset in Students by Bradley Busch
- Revisiting the Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck
Community! Not often the first word that comes to mind when thinking of online learning, but it is for a group of like-minded instructors at the University of Waterloo. The inaugural meeting of the Online Instructors Community of Practice took place during the last week of April.
Sometimes online classes can have the reputation of being solitary for both teachers and learners. Although at the Centre for Extended Learning we work with instructors to dispel that myth for learners, we hadn’t fully considered the impact that online teaching has on instructors. One of our instructors was looking for advanced workshops and a way to share her experiences, and the Online Instructor Community of Practice was born.
Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) define a Community of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an on-going basis.”
Over lunch, hosted by the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), nineteen instructors, who teach online at the University of Waterloo, discussed the successes and challenges of teaching online. Topics on student engagement, teaching presence, academic integrity, and blended learning all emerged. Community members were overheard talking about how nice it was just to talk to others who had the same challenges and successes as they experience.
CEL is actively looking at ways to enhance the community, and have opted to offer a meeting once per term. Suggestions for the meeting include, a show and tell, select topics and a discussion of dilemmas. A newly created listserv gives instructors the opportunity to share suggestions and ask questions of the community.
If you currently teach online and want to join the Community of Practice, contact the Centre of Extended Learning.
If you are interested in establishing a Community of Practice for your discipline or interest, check out the following resources:
- What is a Community of Practice?
- Wenger, E. (2014) Communities of practice: a brief introduction
- Wenger, E. C., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. C. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press: Cambridge.
Image by Niall Kennedy, Creative Commons License.
Last year I attended a professional development seminar that involved four days of intense group work and meeting new people, and I was completely exhausted by the end of it. As a graduate student, conferences were a lot of fun, but I would need frequent breaks during the day to muster enough energy to keep going the rest of the time. As a high school student I hardly spoke up during classes and my teachers would tell me what a shame it was that I didn’t share my good ideas. My name is Crystal, and I am an introvert.
What is an introvert? This is a personality trait associated with people who, compared to extroverts, do not derive their energy from social interaction. In fact, sustained social interactions have the opposite effect of draining them of their energy and mental resources. They are not necessarily shy or socially anxious (common misconceptions of what introversion is) – it just means that they are generally more reserved, and enjoy having time alone or with people they know well in intimate settings.
Where did this construct come from? The five-factor model of personality, or more commonly called the “Big Five” was validated by psychologists McCrae and Costa (1987) and includes the dimensions of agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, and most relevant, extroversion (you can take the Big 5 personality inventory to see where you might score lower or higher on along these dimensions). Their research has shown that these five factors can predict behavior, and appears in across different cultures in the world.
In the Atlantic last year an article was published on how introverts’ needs in schools are often neglected, as active learning strategies are encouraged and expected in the classroom. Introverted students benefit from having “quiet” time to reflect or complete individual work, and classrooms where activities such as group work and think-pair-share are the norm may at be odds at what they find are optimal learning environments. I’ve had many conversations with a friend and sessional lecturer, a self-identified introvert herself, about how she struggles with incorporating too many active learning strategies into her classes because she herself would struggle with having to do those exercises all the time.
That is not say to forego active learning strategies – there is good evidence for the benefits of active learning for example, in STEM fields. Active learning strategies can still be used, but they do not always have to involve group work or collaboration. They can include “one minute essay” questions or quizzes, and reflection activities. The flipped classroom can benefit introverted students, as they can complete readings and activities for the upcoming class individually, and have their thoughts and questions prepared beforehand.
Lastly, class participation is often valued, but introverted students may speak up less and to instructors, appear less interested or engaged with the material. This educator has a great perspective on this issue: You don’t want to alienate and punish introverted students by requiring that they speak up all time, but you also want to push students out of their comfort zone and allow them to develop their communication skills. He offers strategies that he has used to get students to speak up, and they’re simple, such as giving students time to think and prepare what they will say or transitioning from smaller to larger group discussions throughout the term.
It’s all a balance! As instructors and educational developers we can be more mindful of the introverts in the room, and come up with strategies (they don’t have to be extensive or immediately obvious to students) to engage, challenge, and draw out (but not tire out) the introverts in the classroom.
Image above provided by Scott Robinson under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.
Lights dim. A bright yellow beam illuminates the path to an exquisite 480kg creation: A Steinway & Sons Model D. The instrument’s golden cast-iron plate is striking against its velvet black finish. The silence is deafening. Energy and anticipation emanates from my fellow audience members. Without a semblance of warning enters Denis Matsuev – winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. As if struck by lightning, the piano begins to produce a breathtakingly intricate melody.
A brief pause arrests your attention. Two seconds of profound silence follow, the air all but crackling with emotion surging through the concert hall.
The audience’s inaudible sigh of relief is palpable as the second movement begins. We slide back in our seats, relax our shoulders, and resume breathing.
However, there is more to be examined here than a simple pause. These interludes are not just a component of the spectacular solo put on by Matsuev this past weekend – rather, the very nature of these interruptions has a deep-seated rooting in the neurological wiring of our brains.
Event segmentation: “The process by which people parse a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events” and “A core component of ongoing perception, with consequences for memory and learning.” (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). The brain naturally separates perceived information into spatial (Biederman, 1987) and temporal parts (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). For example, a lecture hall contains chairs, desks, a podium, and a board. The brain automatically segments your perception of the lecture hall into such components so as to better remember it – to better store it in memory. In much the same way, boundaries in time allow the brain to temporally segment your perception of, for example, a piano concerto.
A graph of BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent signal) responses in various regions of the brain in a 10 second window surrounding a transition period, whereby the body rapidly increases blood flow to active neuronal tissues. From Sridharan et al (2007).
Perhaps by using these concepts and even combining them in lectures, we can better cater to the brain’s natural information processing circuitry and facilitate a greater degree of learning. According to Zacks & Swallow (2007), ”Those who identify appropriate event boundaries during perception tend to remember more and learn more proficiently.” By creating appropriate temporal and spatial boundaries in lectures – perhaps a minute break between two related notions, a short discussion period, or even carefully planning how to situate problems and solutions on a board – professors may well aid their students’ learning by approaching pedagogy with event segmentation in mind.
Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the peak of brain activity is at those moments of silence between transitions, when it indeed appears that nothing is happening (Sridharan et al, 2007).
fMRI images taken of subjects’ cognitive activity in the left and right sides of their brain while listening to music show that neurological signaling increases dramatically around the point between two movements. From Sridharan et al (2007).
Perhaps most notable about this study is that while subjects’ attention to music differed, the anticipation of a transition point between movements was a universal phenomenon. Considering that the way our brains resolve our ongoing perception into discrete events is directly related to how our long-term memory updates from our working “short term” memory (Kurby & Zacks, 2008), this may very well be an effect worth exploring.
To encapsulate this compelling feature of the brain, I will provide a rather simplified analogy. Imagine a resonance effect: When you push a swing at just the right moment, you not only preserve the energy from its descent but add more energy to the system. However, if you push at the wrong moment you will not add energy. In fact, you will be taking it away! Similarly, we must use the brain’s inherent approach to information processing to our advantage, not to our detriment. Instead of longwinded lectures to drain students of motivation, it’s better to push them often and at just the right moments to promote a higher degree of learning. Event segmentation can help educators rethink the structuring and organization of their lessons, which in turn will help students expand on concepts and develop a more complete understanding of the ideas presented to them.
For further reading, this research and supplementary data is available online at these links:
Biederman, I. (1987, April). Recognition-by-components: A theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94(2), 115–117
Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008, February). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(2), 72-79.
Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., Chafe, C.H., Berger, J., & Menon, V. (2007, August). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521-532
Zacks, J. M., & Khena, M. S. (2007, April). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 80-84.