Working outside the box

Over 70% of our courses offered on-campus use LEARN to some extent to manage course content and communications and to support online learning activities. Data extracted from Waterloo’s LEARN system can provide us with the details of which courses are using its various built-in tools, such discussion forums, quizzes and rubrics. This data can give us a preliminary snapshot of our innovative courses that use instructional technologies.

However, this snapshot is incomplete because we are currently unable to identify blended courses that use external instructional technologies, such as Piazza, Twitter, peerScholar, Diigo, Top Hat, mobile apps, and so on. As a result, we have not been able to document the full extent of courses that are innovative by virtue of the technologies that they employ to support active, student-centred learning. Such technologies often offer learning opportunities that are not otherwise available, but tracking these non-LEARN instructional technologies is challenging and had not been attempted in the past. However, we know that many instructors are working outside the box. girl looking over a box

Innovative Instructional Technologies Project

This spring the CTE Faculty liaisons, myself, and the SID Emerging Technologies, Dr. Mark Morton, embarked on a project to gain a fuller understanding of the extent of use of instructional technologies outside of the LEARN environment on campus. CTE’s work in this area supports the Outstanding Academic Programming part of the current strategic plan, with the goal to “to expand the appropriate use of technologies to enhance students’ learning experience”. Our first step was to send a request to all instructors to indicate whether they were using Twitter, Quizlet, TopHat, IF-AT cards or Dropbox and to identify tools they were using in categories such as Google tools, polling tools, blogging tools, wikis, or screencasting tools. Many instructors replied and we have started to build a picture of the number and variety of external tools that are being used across campus.

What we found

Over 50 different tools were identified by instructors. Piazza, Google Tools, Camtasia (a screencasting technology), Dropbox (the external Dropbox, not the Learn one) and Twitter were the most frequently mentioned, and the categories with the most variety of tools were presentation tools, blogging tools and polling tools. Screencast-o-matic, Explain Everything, WordPress, MediaWiki, SurveyMonkey and Doodle are just a few of the tools that instructors are integrating into their teaching and learning activities. We will continue to collect information on the many and varied instructional technologies that are being used across campus. We will also be adding a new section to the CTE website in the fall outlining the objectives instructors have for using some of these technologies (for example, dissemination of course content, supporting group work, fostering a community of learners, etc.) as well as identifying  “friendly contacts” for specific tools (instructors who are willing to talk to their colleagues about how and why they are using these technologies in their courses).

As we look to the future and how technologies will enhance students’ learning the trend seems to be towards a more modular or LEGO-like learning ecosystem rather than an LMS, but we may already be there as more courses use a diverse, and likely dynamic, set of technologies for a variety instructional purposes.

photo credit: t whalen via flickr cc

The first year is critical – Jane Holbrook

Students leaving campus
Who will stay?

Coming into campus on Monday morning was a shock, but a nice one. We don’t get a lot of downtime on our campus but the last two weeks of August and days leading up to Labour Day are usually pretty sleepy; many folks are on vacation and it’s hard to even find a coffee shop open. The throng that I biked into at the main gates Monday morning at 8:15 was a bit disorderly, but the excitement in the air was electric. And it’s the first year students, all fresh faced and enthusiastic, frantically looking for their classrooms and with high expectations that generate the most excitement.

The first couple of weeks of term are exciting but then, of course, the realities of a five course load, weekly assignments (lab reports, readings …) and then midterms set in and those first year students are often challenged to just make it through first term. Our IAP statistics show that our first year retention rate (percentage of students who return to second year here after first year) is close to 92% (UWaterloo IAP), well above the reported retention rate of 80%  for four-year public US institutions (see National Student Clearing house report ) and higher than most other Ontario universities where retention rates hover around 87% (CUDO – Common University Data Ontario). This isn’t the old case of “look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here next year” that we were admonished with as students in years gone by, but if 1 in 10 students do not return after first year, this is a definite loss to the university community and setback for that young person.

Universities have recognized that students face a number of challenges in their first year and provide orientation programs, peer mentoring, study skills sessions and other supports to help new students handle the emotional and educational transitions that they will be experiencing. However, even with these programs in place, our instructors who teach first year courses have a critically important job ahead of them. Studies show that although a student’s personal situation (family background, economic stresses, etc.) and prior academic performance in high school affect first year retention, student engagement in this critical first year is also a major contributor to student retention (Kuh et al., 2008). Creating rich and engaging classroom experiences for first year students in large classes when students are coming in with a wide range of skills is a challenge, but by integrating active learning into large classes (CTE tip sheet – Activities for Large Classes), considering student motivation (CTE tip sheet – Motivating Our Students) and providing frequent, formative feedback to students, instructors across campus are helping to keep students engaged and successful.

Welcome first year students, and kudos to those great first year instructors who work hard to keep them here!

Kuh, G.D, Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J. & Gonyea, R.M. (2008) Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79 (5), 540-563.

Taking one for the team – Jane Holbrook

Slide1Last week CTE had our annual professional development day and Mary Power, Samar Mohamed and I facilitated a short exercise with our CTE staff on team-based learning that introduced our group to the use of IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) cards. We simulated a typical team-based learning activity (where group work is a critical part of the learning process) by having our participants take a multiple-choice test individually and then as a group. Known as RATs (Readiness Assurance Tests), the individual test encourages students to prepare for class, through a reading or other homework, and assesses their level of understanding of the concepts  addressed  in that pre-class work.  A group of 5-7 students then take the same test again together, and in the process they discuss the questions and their answers and then come to a collective decision on the best answer to each question.  If they select a wrong answer the IF-AT cards will indicate that and they can discuss and answer the question again … and again until they are correct. By using the IF-AT cards the group gets immediate feedback on their answers, see IF-AT First You Don’t Succeed…. Mary Power’s blog post about an activity using  IF-AT cards  and students’ reactions to this activity in a Pharmacy class.

Our CTE teams were carefully handpicked for diversity (longstanding CTE staff and new people mixed together) and we assigned them tricky questions on a range of topics (copyright, Canadian history, a math-based brain teaser) hoping that we could prove a key point about this type of team-based activity – that the score of the group is always better than the same test taken by an individual, rather than being dependent on the knowledge of the most competent group member.  And even with our tricky questions this was true, people were learning from each other and not just being led by one strong group member. Larry Michaelsen, who has championed team-based learning for many years has tested group decision making in post-secondary courses and has found that when teams are engaged in “contextually relevant and consequential problem-solving” that the group will outperform the most competent individual (Michaelsen, Watson & Black, 1989).

Team-based learning activities using IF-AT cards are most effective when students are applying concepts to solve problems, analyze situations or data, or make diagnoses; when there may be many different approaches to answering the question but where there is one best, defensible answer.  Teams should be thoughtfully assembled to include students with diverse backgrounds or skill levels and ideally they work together for a whole term on a series of these activities. The activities can also be used as a springboard to deeper class discussions and/or a preamble to more in depth group projects. The groups in a class should be working on the same problems so that after the RAT is completed, the groups can share their reasoning and conclusions with each other. There’s an aspect of competitiveness in the activities too, with groups vying to do better than each other on the tests. Another important aspect of the RAT process is that groups can challenge the instructor on the correctness of an answer – and that was certainly what happened during our PD day (we’re a fairly argumentative bunch).

See   for more information on team-based learning and some convincing testimonials about its effectiveness in large classes. Instructors report higher attendance and participation levels in these classes and importantly students are engaged and motivated.

If you would like to try an activity like this in your class, we have a good supply of IF-AT cards at the Centre to get you started, so please be in touch!  Designing some team-based learning opportunities in your course can be a great way to flip some classes in your course too. See Course Design: Planning a Flipped Class.

Michaelsen, L. K., Watson, W. E. & Black, R. H. (1989). A realistic test of individual versus group consensus decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology. 74(5), 834-839.



Designing assessments that curb academic dishonesty (and increase learning too!) – Jane Holbrook

bloghandI recently  listened to a segment on the Current on CBC,  about academic integrity and the effect of technology on cheating. The main guest was Dr Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph, who talked about the findings of some of the research that she has conducted on Canadian university students.  A whopping 80% of Canadian university students admit to having cheated. They admit to at least one of over 30 behaviours that are considered cheating at university ranging from outright cheating on exams, to plagiarism, to working in groups when specifically asked to work individually on an assignment. Interestingly this isn’t a new problem. American studies in the ‘60s found that 75% of students admitted to cheating in college.  And it’s not a new behavior for students when they get to the post-secondary environment. In one recent Canadian study 60% of high school students admitted to cheating on tests, and 75% to cheating on written work that is handed in.  Although technology provides more ways for students to cheat (buying “internet” papers, using online paper mills and just good old cut and paste from internet sites) it hasn’t impacted the overall rate of cheating. Technology has however  increased instructors’ ability to detect plagiarism thanks to online services such as Turnitin that use huge data bases of accumulated student work, web pages and online journals to compare submitted work to common sources.

What interested me most from the conversation with Dr Christensen Hughes was her finding that students were less likely to cheat if they respected the instructor, if they felt that the quality of the education that they were receiving was high and if the instructor was using assessments that were truly assessing the skills and knowledge that students were learning in the course.  This last point dovetails nicely with a book that I have just been reading, “Cheating Lessons – Learning from Academic Dishonesty” by James M. Lang.  Lang discusses how the ways that we teach and assess can impact student’s academic integrity and how instructors can design assessments that reduce academic dishonesty and also create better learning.

Lang proposes that students are more likely to cheat if:

  • there is low  intrinsic motivation to actually learn what they are being assessed on;
  • there is an emphasis on one-time performance rather than continuous improvement towards mastery;
  • the stakes are high on a single assessment;
  • they have a low expectation of success.

So what can an instructor do to decrease cheating and increase learning?

When students are intrinsically motivated, find the subject matter meaningful and can connect it to their own lives, they will learn more and retain their learning. Students driven by extrinsic rewards, such as grades, use strategic or shallow approaches to learning and will have more motivation to cheat. Posing authentic, open-ended questions to students or challenging them with problems or areas of investigation of their own choice can give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and reflect on what they have learned.  Learning portfolios that include journal entries, short essays, and reflections can assess the student learning experience and understanding of concepts (and are darn hard to cheat on).

Learning for mastery (a deep approach to learning) rather than one time performance can be encouraged and assessed. Giving students multiple attempts on assessments or offering students choices on how they will be assessed can promote a mastery approach. These tests can also provide students with feedback so that they can learn from the assessment and then apply their learning again to show mastery. Scaffolded assignments or essays, where drafts and reworked versions are submitted for feedback, can provide evidence of learning and are not likely to be purchased in the internet.

There is evidence that repeated low stakes assessments have the largest impact on learning and retention of learning, particularly if the testing is in the format of short answer questions. Known as the “testing effect” it can be achieved through the use of short online quizzes or one-minute papers. Creating opportunities for students to retrieve knowledge and rehearse answering questions not only measures learning, but also produces learning (Miller, 2011).  Lang discusses how taking the emphasis off a one big, high stakes assessment and introducing multiple low stakes assessments helps students rehearse for more substantial assessments and actually reduces cheating.

When students feel that they have no chance of success they are more likely to give up rather than attempting to master concepts, and they may look for alternative, dishonest ways to pass tests. Lang argues that helping students be aware of their level of understanding throughout a course will help them gauge how much work they need to do to be successful on major assessments. Activities like think-pair-share, clicker questions and other in-class activities or formative assessments help instil self-efficacy, and help students identify what they need to do to become capable rather than relying on cheating.

All sounds like more work for the instructor, yes, but with two great results – better learning and less cheating and presumably less time spent following up on academic integrity cases as well.

Lang, J.M. 2013. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, USA.

Miller, M. 2011. What College Teachers Should Know About Memory: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology. College Teaching, 59:117-122.

What do you need to know about the Flipped Classroom? – Jane Holbrook

flipped class
Flipped Class? (courtesy of uWaterloo)

The concept of flipping a classroom has been causing a stir in the world of educators over the last year or so. Seems you can’t open an educational blog or newsletter without finding an article or someone’s thoughts on what a flipped classroom is (and isn’t). The simplest explanation of the term is that active learning is achieved face-to-face in the classroom through discussion, problem solving, and group work or other activities, and what we think of as the lecturing, or “content transfer”, part of a class is done elsewhere (not during classtime) independently.

Discussions of flipped classrooms often include the comment that this isn’t a new concept and that courses in the humanities have been using this learning sequence for eons; in these disciplines instructors are the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” and are in the role of facilitators, guiding discussion of concepts or texts that students have ingested on their own through traditional textbooks or online sources.  Also much of what is written about flipped classrooms implies that online media consumption of some sort is part of the independent work. However putting lectures online or giving students access to videos through a course website doesn’t make for a flipped class, the key is that students are active in the classroom; the out of class activity could be reading the text book. As learning management systems and a plethora of online screen casting and lecture capture tools make online components to courses easier to provide and create, many instructors are using online lectures, websites, online videos, or online documents  to prepare students to come in and be active learners during class time. An excellent summary of thoughts around flipping or inverting the classrooms can be found in Derek Bruff’s blog called “Agile Learning”

[As an aside Derek Bruff’s posting was written as a response to another blog posting by Steve Wheeler about a Wired article and I picked up the whole thread through Twitter.  You just have to love social media for the layers and connections – check out @CTELiaisons ***).

My colleague, Mark Morton, and I offered a workshop during the fall 2012 CTE Focus on Teaching week and put together this list of reasons why someone might consider flipping at least some classes:

  • Allows you to spend class time having your students engage in active learning activities such as debates, discussions, Q and A, demonstrations, peer tutoring and feedback, role playing, and so on. This is the “constructivist” aspect of the learning theory known as Social Constructivism.
  • Allows you to spend class time having your students learn with and through each other. This is the “social” aspect of the learning theory known as Social Constructivism.
  • During class time, you don’t “lose” your students: in a lecture, the attention of most students starts to flag after ten or fifteen minutes.
  • Students have time to process and reflect on content before coming to class to apply and work with that content.
  • Students can control the time, place and pace of learning of the “lecture”.
  • Allows you to re-use your video content in multiple courses or across multiple years.
  • Lets you  vary the pace and structure of the classes throughout the term which can  impact student engagement.

Also we compiled this list of “things to consider”:

  • You need to devise strategies to ensure that students actually ingest the content outside of class. For example, start each class with a brief quiz that assesses their knowledge of the content. The quiz could be done via clickers or via LEARN (our LMS), both of which can automatically grade the responses and add them to the grade book in the LMS.
  • Convey to the students that the videos, or other components, are not supplemental to the course but rather are essential. Remind them that if they don’t watch the videos, they won’t be able to participate in the classroom activities.
  • Spend some time at the beginning of the course explaining to your students the pedagogy behind the flipped classroom model.
  • Don’t re-lecture. If students come to class without having ingested the content, move forward with the learning activities anyway. If you resort to lecturing in class to bring them up to speed, you’ll only reinforce their decision to not ingest the content prior to class.
  • Make sure the video includes  some questions or reflective activities that you want the students to think about in preparation for the next class. These can appear at the end of the video or can be inserted at appropriate times throughout the video.
  • Determine what format will work best for your students (and for you). For example, you might videotape yourself talking in front of a flip chart. Or you might create a screencast that focuses only (or primarily) on the the content that appears on your computer screen. Or, depending on your discipline, you might be able to create an audio podcast rather than a video.
  • Accept the fact that you might need to decrease the amount of content that you cover in your course as a whole. However, students will experience deeper engagement with the content that they do cover.

Please feel free to add to this list through the comments!

Also see some examples of flipped classes in higher ed,

***Follow the @CTELiaisons on Twitter – we’re following some interesting folks and retweeting from many sources.

Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

The summer
is a great time for catching up on projects that get lost in the flurry of the busy fall and winter terms. With the roll out of LEARN (replacing UW-ACE) and all the associated changes and transitions that we have been facing, one part of the old UW-ACE system that is in my prevue and that was getting short shrift is the Instructor Resources Repository (IRR). However, with LEARN more on course and the slower pace of the spring term, I’m glad to say that we have almost completed the migration of the IRR to the Learning Object Repository (LOR) in LEARN. Continue reading Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

Calendar Descriptions – Jane Holbrook

Students at the University of Denver

My pet peeve is a slightly different. When students go and look at descriptions of courses in the UW course calendar they will see the course number and an array of codes for the “type of instruction”, e.g.,  LEC, TUT or SEM or LEC, LAB as well as a very brief description of the course that usually does not include any information on how the learning will happen in the course, only about what will be learned in terms of content. A search in the Schedule of Classes gives a bit more information about the amount of time spent in the LEC and TUT each week. This information does not provide any insight into what students can expect to be doing in the 8-10 hours a week that they spend on a course in “class” and outside of “class”.  Courses where students are required to watch online lectures and engage in group work in their classes usually have the LEC designation, and the way the course is actually taught may be a bit of a surprise to students when they come to the first class.  Many courses on campus expect students to participate in online tutorials and discussions may or may not have a TUT or DISC designation.

A course is made up of learning  experiences that are integrated together and take place with the instructor and/or class mates and independently in a variety of environments: face-to-face, online and offline. We should be able to give students more information (other than word of mouth) about how they will be learning before they come to the first class.  It’s exciting that there are so many ways that students can learn inside and outside the class room and in the community, it would be great to have a way to communicate the richness of the experiences that will be offered in courses to students when they are deciding what to take each term. The current calendar and course schedule designations seem limited. What’s the solution? Maybe course descriptions that include how and where students will learn rather than content topics, or areas in the course schedule where instructors can outline what’s special about their course each term. Any ideas?  This is a blog, so comments and ideas are welcome.