Quick and Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure — Mark Morton

grammarOne of the things I enjoy most about working at CTE is the opportunity to work with c0-op students. Each term, we have a co-op student who writes Teaching Stories that feature Waterloo instructors whose teaching practice is especially effective or innovative. After the co-op student writes the teaching story, I’ll usually edit it and — because my PhD is in English — I really give it a thorough going over! Fortunately, we’ve always had co-0p students with excellent writing skills, so not much editing is needed.

Nonetheless, the process recently reminded me of a document that I wrote more than 20 years ago, when I was teaching first-year English courses at another university. I eponymously entitled it “Mark Morton’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure.” Rereading it, I still like it: it’s brief, efficient, and clear (which is not an easy job when you’re trying to explain the vagaries of English grammar!). Rather than have it languish on my PC, where it would eventually vanish when my hard drive crashes, I’m going to share it here as a PDF: Mark Morton’s Quick_and_Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure. Use it or ignore it as you see fit!

Jurinals — Mark Morton

baconbitsAn email I received this morning momentarily pleased me: I was being invited to submit to a journal called the American Journal of Education Research a version of a presentation I recently delivered at the annual conference of the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association.

But then I noticed some odd grammatical errors in the email. My suspicions raised, I went to the journal’s website, and then to the website of its publisher, Science and Education Publishing. On the surface, everything looked legit: the 70 journals published by Science and Education Publishing all have hundreds of articles written by academics from all over the world. Each journal also claims to be peer-reviewed, and provides a list of its peer reviewers. But then I came across a tab that explained the “processing fees” that an author must pay in order to have his or her paper considered for publication.

A bit more sleuthing revealed that Science and Education Publishing (and all of its subsidiary journals) are considered by the scholarly community to be “predatory” publishers – that is, they are bogus. They even invent journal names that are easily confused with legitimate journals. For example, the American Journal of Educational Research appears to be trying to ride on the coattails of the American Educational Research Journal, published by the highly regarded Sage Journals.

On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised by all this, as I’d recently read an article about a Canadian journal called Experimental and Clinical Cardiology that used to be legitimate, but which has been lately purchased by an offshore corporation that has turned it into a predatory publisher. But what I was surprised by was how much digging I had to do to confirm that Science and Education Publishing journals are bogus. As a former English professor, I was usually able to detect plagiarism in seconds – and I guess I thought that that skill would transfer over into the realm of fake journals.

Anyway, there are apparently hundreds or even thousands of bogus “academic” journals out there. Here’s helpful a list that’s published annually by a librarian at the University of Colorado.

What I’m still unclear about is this: are the academics who publish in these predatory journals being duped? Or are they knowing participants in this ruse? Is the market for academic research so saturated that even bona fide articles by good scholars can’t find publication in legitimate journals?

Trees of Knowledge — Mark Morton

dead treesWe all have things we don’t want to know and/or don’t want other people to know. Last week, a video of an ISIS militant beheading an American journalist was released on the web. I’m not going to watch that video, because (among other reasons) I don’t want to know what a beheading looks like. I also don’t want my kids to watch it. I warn them that once you know something, it’s pretty hard to unknow it. I tell them that just as swallowing poison will damage their bodies, consuming disturbing images can harm their minds.

I didn’t always think this. I used to espouse a view that John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, articulated in his prose work Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary…. the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world [is] so necessary to the constituting of human virtue.” William Blake, the nineteenth-century author and visual artist who wrote an epic poem about Milton, believed something similar. For Blake, humans must progress from a state of childlike innocence (a guileless naivete), to adult experience (with all its horrors), and finally back to a state of renewed innocence (an innocence that encompasses and transcends human horrors). Both Milton and Blake might have been thinking of an adage attributed to the Roman playwright Terence, who said “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” — that is, “I am human, I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” I take this to mean that all things — whether they are amazing, joyful, depressing, or horrific — are worthy of human study. And I guess they are. It’s just that I don’t want to be the one studying the horrific things. So, for better or worse, I more and more find myself changing the channel when the news comes on. There are so many things I just don’t want to know.

On the other hand, there are also things that I want to know, but other people want to keep them from me. A case in point: in February, after attending a conference in Anchorage, I took a five-hour boat cruise that got us up close to 21 different glaciers. The tour guide — who was actually a National Parks Forest Ranger — was excellent: informative, articulate, and passionate about the environment. As we approached each glacier in turn, she pointed out where the glacier was a decade ago and where it was now. In each case, the glacier had receded, sometimes by thousands of meters. Never, though, did she allude to global warming as causing the retreat of the glaciers. At the end of the cruise, I approached her and asked her about this omission. She paused, gave me a knowing look, and then said, “We’re not allowed to talk about global warming or climate change.”

Maybe the US government thinks it’s protecting me from dangerous knowledge about climate change, in the same way that I try to protect myself and my kids from disturbing images. And maybe Stephen Harper’s government is also trying to keep me safe by preventing those know-it-all scientists from sharing their troubling research with me. In reality, though, I think that neither the US government nor the current Canadian government has my best interests in mind when it comes to “dangerous” knowledge. Information about fisheries, rivers, forests, tar sands, and so on are not the same as pictures and videos of people being beheaded. We can grieve for the executed American journalist, and work toward ending such conflicts, without having to see his head fall onto the sand. But if we’re going to save the planet — or at least the ecosystems in it that support us — we need access to all the knowledge that’s out there.


Reducing student anxiety in the classroom — Karly Neath

crowMany educators are unaware of what anxiety is, how it affects their students, and what they can do to reduce it.

To cope with anxiety students:

  • Do not participate
  • Skip class
  • Avoid enrolling in classes with participation

These students may be missing out on learning opportunities.

From research literature in neuroscience, it is clear that stress and anxiety inhibit learning through powerful brain mechanisms. The stress response has evolved to avoid threatening situations, however it impairs new learning. By caring about students, and doing our best to reduce anxiety in the classroom, we can help utilize brain processes that contribute to learning.

What can we do to reduce anxiety in our classrooms and help our students learn and succeed?

Below are a few ideas from research conducted by Birkett and Shelton (2011) in neuroscience and practices in higher education:

  1. Be predictable. Numerous studies have demonstrated the anxiety-provoking nature of unpredictable stressors. This does not mean that you have to give up flexibility or spontaneity in your classroom, but it means that you need to make your expectations explicit.  For example, you specify the requirements for a research project but you do not need to specify the topic. This entails providing a clear, detailed and explicit syllabus at the beginning of a course, with the assignments described, due dates listed, and policies for late submissions. This can go a long way towards reducing stressful unpredictability. This is especially important at the beginning of a course when the students’ anxieties about the course are high.
  2. Provide opportunities for student control. In neuroscience and stress research, lack of control is the second ingredient in creating anxiety.  Control or even perceived control of a situation is capable of reducing the physical and psychological reactions to stress. Giving students opportunities to control some aspects of their experiences in our classes is an effective way to reduce anxiety. This might range from flexible due dates to late assignment policies to allowing students to select their own topic for a research project, or using a class poll to determine the next topic in class, to fully student-led projects for classes.
  3. Trust students. Ken Bain claims that the most successful teachers trust their students. Bain writes “trust and openness produce an interactive environment in which students can ask questions without reproach or embarrassment” (p.142). Bain suggests that we can demonstrate trust by sharing a sense of humility with students, occasionally sharing paths in our own learning, expressing our own curiosity about learning, and setting an intention to share a classroom with students as fellow learners. 

Each of these elements can help convey student caring. Each can be considered a characteristic of a classroom environment designed to reduce student anxiety, but a thoughtful and intentional combination of these aspects is required to be successful.

 What strategies have you used to promote student caring and reduce anxiety in your classrooms?


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.

 Birkett, M.A., Shelton K. (2011). Participating in an introductory neuroscience course decreases neuroscience anxiety. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 10(1), A37-A43.

Do students know what good teaching is? — Dr. Mark Morton

Do students know what good teaching is?

That’s a question that often arises when I meet with instructors to explore ways of enhancing their teaching. It’s also a question that must occur to all instructors every time they review the results of their end-of-term course evaluations (no one, after all, gets perfect evaluations!).

The question might be restated this way: although students undoubtedly know what they like from an instructor, do they always know what they need?

The answer, I think, is that most of them do (but not all the time). I’ve reached this conclusion after reading through the submissions to this year’s Loving to Learn Day contest. That contest asked students (and others) to respond to this question: “What makes a teacher a really GREAT teacher?”

I received about 200 responses to this question from students ranging from grade three to undergraduates. All of the responses were genuinely thoughtful. Not a single one of the responses included glib or flippant statements such as “Teachers who end class early and give easy tests are great!”

More interesting, though, was the extent to which the students’ responses echoed the best practices for instructors that have been identified and articulated by experts in higher education. Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” which was developed in 1987, is one such best-practices rubric. Here are those seven principles:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Uses active learning techniques.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

I seriously doubt whether any of the students who participated in the Loving to Learn Day contest have ever heard of Chickering and Gamson. Yet in the 200 responses that I received from them, each of those seven principles was articulated many times. In fact, it’s easy to recreate Chickering and Gamson’s best practices by extracting passages from the students’ responses:

  1. “I really like a teacher who is willing to spend extra time focusing, one on one with a student to benefit their learning. I think it is admirable when a teacher will go out of their way and uses their own time to help a student or to talk to them about personal issues.”
  2. “An awesome teacher is original, kind, fun, brave, courageous oh my I just could go on forever and they need to be wise, smart of course but they sometimes do not have to be smart because they and us kids learn better by learning together.”
  3. “My favourite teacher would be one that teaches subjects hands-on, and lets you try new things. They would let you experiment, and you wouldn’t have to do exactly what they do.”
  4. “Also, handing back marked work fast makes it easy for a student to find out what they need to fix for similar future work.”
  5. “A great teacher is one who sets clear due dates/objectives for homework/projects and makes sure not to hand out more than a student can handle.”
  6. “A great teacher sets high expectations and doesn’t give up on their students.”
  7. “All teachers should respect their student’s different learning styles and know how to bend their teaching routine to help the students learn in a way that is comfortable for them.”

Based on the 200 students’ responses, it seems to clear to me that students do know what they need from an instructor. They know, in other words, what makes an instructor a really GREAT instructor. At least some of the time.

The reason I add this qualifier – “some of the time” – is that these students obviously wrote their responses when they were actively and intently reflecting on the qualities of great instructors. They didn’t write them when they were in the middle of a dry biology lecture, nor did they write them as they were trying to study for two midterms on the same night. Ask them the same question in those circumstances, and the responses might start to include comments like “great teachers liven up the class with jokes” and “great teachers give easy midterms.”

In other words, what students’ think about the characteristics of a great teacher is probably shaped by the immediate circumstances of those students. In a similar way, my thoughts about food are influenced by my immediate circumstances. I do, for example, have a pretty good understanding of nutritional best practices – that is, I know what I need to eat and not eat to stay healthy. But if I’m stressed out or overly hungry, all that goes out the window. Best practices become a bag of chips or a chocolate bar.

This recognition of the role of context is important, I think, because it means that if we want to ensure that students understand what good teaching is, we don’t really need to teach it to them. They already know what makes a great teacher. Instead, we need to teach them coping skills or meta-cognitive skills so that they can keep an awareness of that knowledge in their minds when they are in less than ideal circumstances – like when they are in the middle of a dry lecture, or when they are tired or stressed out but still need to study for an exam.

So, if you’re an instructor, I think you can trust that your students, deep down, already know what makes an instructor great. If you want to bring that knowledge to the surface, just give them the time and opportunity, once in a while, to take a deep breath and reflect on what they really need from their instructors. And, while you’re at it, you might also ask them to reflect on what they need to do to become great learners.

Incidentally, here are more extracts that I’ve taken from the 200 responses that students submitted:

  • I enjoy teachers that don’t always stick to the teaching schedule. They wander off topic to enable further learning and understanding of a topic or lesson. They encourage their students to dig deeper and learn more.
  • Creativity is essential to teaching because it keeps learning fresh, and students open-minded. It’s easy for teachers to make students sit in rows, and give identical worksheets to students, but a great teacher can inspire learning, inspire creativity.
  • I think a great teacher should take the time and effort to remember important things about a student’s life.
  • What makes a teacher a great teacher is when they always know your level of intelligence so they know what work to give to you. They should challenge you, but not too much.
  • I think a good teacher is one that never lets you give up. They’re patient and happy, they tell you “You Can!” when you think you can’t. They are there for you, they let you take the time you need, and they help you all the way through.
  • The teacher should make learning seem fun and comfortable. Not necessarily easy, but it shouldn’t seem like the hardest thing ever.
  • Teachers need to keep an open mind. Students differ in everything from gender and race to personality and sexual orientation. If a teachers push stereotypes on them, they could cause a lot of stress.
  • To be a good teacher you have to believe that you are good at teaching.
  • A great teacher respects their students. They are free to think whatever they want.
  • For teachers to be great, they have to possess some key qualities; patience, kindness, a desire to learn, a love for their job, and a sense of humour.
  • Great teachers choose teaching because they thrive on helping students and they have a passion for learning.
  • Another thing that makes a really GREAT teacher is that they need to have appreciation for everything you do. If you help another student they should take that into account.
  • Teachers need to have a sense of humour. Humour can keep students engaged in their learning. Having a less serious side makes teachers more human and approachable.
  • A great teacher does what is best for the student, whatever that might be.
  • What makes a teacher REALLY great? To me, it’s a teacher with passion. When your teacher comes through that door in the morning to the moment they leave, they are excited to teach, they are excited to enrich our brains with knowledge.
  • A good teacher is always well prepared and organized. They are a master of their subject, and would make their instructions clear to all students.
  • A great teacher doesn’t force their ways upon you.
  • We need the kind of people who will recognize the students that try so hard just to get a C. Teachers that care. We don’t need great teachers. We need great people.
  • The best teacher is one that teaches you the harmony between everything good and bad. One who helps you grow as a human being.
  • In twenty years you might not recall that your math teacher explained fractions well. But you might remember that she brought in a pie to show you.
  • A great teacher needs to be willing to try new things. To try a different lesson, to try a different approach, and to take risks. They need to be willing to experiment, to have successes, to have failures, and to learn from their experiences.
  • A great teacher is someone who understands that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and from there aims to help them reach their individual needs. They never focus on grade comparison, but rather on the progress a student is making.
  • A great teacher would have to be able to teach in different way, because not everyone learns the same as everyone else.
  • A great teacher never keeps knowledge to themselves. When they’ve learned something new from their experiences they make sure that their students are learning from them as well. For this reason I would describe every great teacher I’ve ever had as generous. They are people who are always willing to share their wisdom with others.
  • To me a teacher is someone that helps you discover and guides you toward your dream.

And if you want more, you can read all of the responses to “What makes a teacher a GREAT teacher?” at the Loving to Learn Day site.

Acknowledging Cultural Variation during Classroom Participation- Karly Neath

In 2012, 32% of graduate students and 11% of undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Waterloo were international students, representing a broad range of cultural and educational backgrounds. This cultural diversity has tremendous pedagogical potential, but it also poses challenges to our ever growing emphasis on classroom participation.  As we begin a new academic year with thousands of new students it is important to remind ourselves of these challenges and work to overcome them.

 Students’ actions in the classroom may be based on different cultural understandings of what constitutes appropriate student and instructor behaviour. When a student is quiet during a discussion, for example, they are not necessarily unprepared or bored; they may simply be behaving according to their own culture’s standards of classroom etiquette.

 Most North American (N.A) students have had experience with class discussions in high school. Thus, they are at least familiar with the discussion conventions (e.g., small group work, expectations for preparation and participation) that they will encounter in the university classroom. Here in N.A, discussion classes, labs, and projects are valued as important parts of the learning process along with lectures instructor (e.g., Brookfield, 1999).

 However, in many cultures, lectures are the sole mode of instruction. Thus, some international students may not see the benefit of discussions or group work, believing that they cannot learn anything substantive from their peers. Additionally, the students may not have learned the skills necessary for participating in group-work or discussions, and may only feel comfortable participating when they can answer questions the instructor has posed. The challenge here is that instructors may assume that these students are not interested or have not done the assigned reading.

 Another challenge is that the unwritten rules for discussion may be different. For example, in one culture, it might be acceptable to interrupt or talk more loudly to gain control during a discussion; in another, it may be considered polite to allow short silence; in another, students might expect to be called upon before offering their opinion. Consequently, international students may find the N.A conventions of discussion frustrating and may be viewed as too shy or rude.

 Perhaps instructors simply need to be more aware of cultural differences and sympathetic to the challenges that students face in adjusting to them. However, this does not require them to lower their standards or apply a different set of performance criteria for international students. Consider the following simple pedagogical practices:

 Make expectations explicitExplain why you think discussions are valuable, how they will be evaluated, and ground-rules.

  1. Model the kinds of work you want your students to doFor example, have students observe two faculty members engage in an animated debate.
  2. Represent the material you are teaching in multiple ways.
  3. Give students ample opportunities to practice applying the knowledge and skills you want them to acquireFor example, ask students to discuss a design, case study, or experiment in small groups (without being assigned a grade).
  4. Provide varied opportunities interactionFor example, encourage students to email you with ideas and questions. Also, monitor student groups to correct misconceptions and encourage everyone to be involved.

 While this may post may seem very “common sense” I believe it is important to constantly remind ourselves of the cultural diversity within our university and to help make the transition into our classrooms smooth by using these simple tips.

Let’s Talk about Assessment — Katherine Lithgow

Assessment literacy image katherineHow often have you marked assignments and provided comments only to find that the students don’t even bother to pick them up?  Or they get the feedback and then make the same “mistakes” on the next assignment?  How often do you sit down with your colleagues and discuss how they would mark particular assignments?

Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning (2012), discusses why students often fail to act upon feedback- they often don’t understand what the feedback means, or if they do, they don’t know what to do to address the feedback- and offers suggestions on how we can improve the process.

What captured my attention was the notion of improving the assessment process through the development of an assessment community of practice (CofP) whose membership consists of ALL parties involved in the assessment process- students, instructors and anyone else who provides feedback to students.

The authors remind us that providing feedback is a complex, social process and not an end product. In the community of practice approach to assessment, the process becomes an invitation to students to participate in the discipline’s community and  engage with more accomplished members in order to learn the conventions, culture and language of the discipline’s community through observation, discussion and engagement. By actively participating in the community, ALL PARTIES will come to have a shared understanding of the criteria which will be applied when making marking decisions, and this will help ensure that marking is objective and reliable.

And how does this shared understanding come about? Well, it comes about through formal and informal social interactions- talking with each other-dialogues, peer-to-peer discussions, student-to-faculty discussions.  And by taking steps to create an environment which encourages students to ask questions of their instructors, their classmates and  of themselves, and which fosters their capacity to peer evaluate and self-assess.  Students are more inclined to engage in the assessment process and use the feedback when they feel comfortable in the community and do not feel belittled.  Forming positive relationships is important; students are more apt, as we all are, to apply and act upon feedback when it comes from a trusted and caring source, and when it is viewed as part of an ongoing learning process where they can act upon the feedback rather than a ‘final product’.

The authors argue for taking a program wide approach to assessment rather than  a course-based approach which is what is more commonly in place.   In a course-based approach, students often feel that the feedback is unique to the course or the instructor, and they do not see how the feedback will help them in future courses.

They suggest  that in an environment that cultivates an assessment community of practice, students and instructors are more inclined to think of courses as part of a program, and assessment as part of a process that allows for more focus on ‘deep’ learning and the development of skills and concepts that are slowly learnt over time and not within the duration of a semester.

The authors do not claim to have all the answers on how to facilitate this type of environment, and acknowledge that it takes time and effort to cultivate a community of practice around assessment.   But wouldn’t it be worth it if we could help our students engage with, and effectively apply, the feedback that we’ve been spending so much time providing?