Lightboard: Mirror Magic – Mary Power

I was recently introduced to the lightboard technology and immediately I was hooked.

lightboard image
Open source hardware:

My discovery of the lightboard was timely as CTE colleague Mark Morton and I had just been discussing the mirror paradox, which is so eloquently explained in this Washington Post piece . Mirrors challenge us intellectually – oh you really do have to love physics!  Seeing a lightboard video presentation for the first time has the same effect (or did for me anyway). The first thought that went through my mind was “WOW….he can sure write backwards well!”  Watch this one minute video to see what I mean:

The original Lightboard designed by Michael Peshkin, an Engineering Professor at Northwestern University, allows the creation of videos that are filmed in reflection using a mirror, resulting in the apparition of the skilled backwards writer.  Another option for creating lightboard videos is a post-production digital horizontal flip of the video. I, however, am partial to the mirror model, which in addition to having a “cool” factor allows for the video to be uploaded instantly with no post-production processing.

So whimsy aside, what is a lightboard exactly? How and why would it be useful in teaching?  In most simple terms a lightboard is an illuminated sheet of glass on which an instructor writes with fluorescent markers, as on a  whiteboard or chalkboard. The major difference is that instructor is facing the “audience”. This is absolutely an improvement on the traditional chalkboard where an instructor’s back is facing the audience when writing and often, unfortunately, while speaking. As Peshkin says ” that just gives you a little bit better sense of engagement with your students as you’re talking, and gives them a better sense that they’re being spoken to, rather than somebody just writing.”

Some might argue that these videos are too instructor focused. I would argue however that the presence of the instructor is much of what makes these videos work. In part, it is the human presence that draws the viewer in and helps develop instructor immediacy, something often difficult to attain in online and blended course videos.  The other aspect is the potential for increased learning over a traditional voice-over PPT presentation. By actually watching the physical steps taken to solve a problem, for example, and seeing the visual emphasis placed on specific steps or items learning can be enhanced. A recent study by Pi el al. confirmed this; finding that student attention and learning was significantly increased using pointing gestures in recorded video lectures over non-human (PPT animation) cues or no cues at all (Pi et al., 2016).

I truly think the lightboard technology is not a gimmick, but is rather another great instructional tool that can be used to help explain challenging concepts. I believe that this technology can be used to create rich learning opportunities for flipped, blended and online courses.

I am currently working with our audio visual studio team to determine the feasibility of building a lightboard here at the University of Waterloo. I know a number of faculty already interested in using it and studying its educational value if we build it.  I would love to hear from others interested in using this technology when we have it operational, so please get in touch.


ELI: 7 things you should know about Lightboard

Northwestern Lightboard

UBC Lightboard

Pi, Z., Hong, J. and Yang, J. (2016), Effects of the instructor’s pointing gestures on learning performance in video lectures. Br J Educ Technol. doi:10.1111/bjet.12471


Creating and Engaging at WCSE 2015 – Mary Power


A week ago I attended the Western Conference on Science Education – WCSE 2015, held at Western University in London, Ontario. This biennial conference brings together people passionate about STEM education from across Canada, and beyond, for three days of learning, community and fun. I have attended all three of these WCSE conferences (the first being in 2011) and I must say this has become THE conference I look forward to. What is it about WCSE that I find so rewarding? In reality it is the whole package. It is the perfect sized conference, my guess is about 150 attendees, which is large enough to have a variety of quality presentations and posters and a diversity of participants, yet small enough to generate a community. The organizers, Tom Haffie and Ken Meadows in particular, do a marvelous job of creating a welcoming and engaging atmosphere. Having reflected on my experience at WCSE this year, and in comparing notes with other UWaterloo attendees, I’d like to share a couple key take-aways.

In her keynote talk, Dr. Kimberly Tanner from San Francisco State engaged us in a superhero card sorting activity. This low tech activity very clearly demonstrated the difference between superhero novices and experts. I was a utter novice and grouped my superheroes base on external physical features eg., wearing of capes. I didn’t have a clue as to which were Avengers or Justice League, nor frankly was I aware that those were potential groupings. Dr Tanner and her colleagues have found that it is very similar novice intuitive thinking that can result in common misconceptions of basic biological principles (Coley & Tanner, 2015). As we think about trying to address our student’s misconceptions it is valuable to remember that “… the presence of misconceptions does not indicate deficits but rather a mind actively engaged with the world trying to construct explanations for complex phenomena” (Coley & Tanner, 2015). If we can help students identify where their intuition is not based on how we understand biological processes, for example, and guide them to develop their foundation knowledge we can help them on the path toward expert thinking. Engaging students in thinking about what they know going into a lesson, what they are confused about during the lesson and what they have learned after the lesson contribute greatly to deeper learning and understanding.

Another presentation that especially stood out for me was Simon Bates’ talk “Faculty and Students as collaborators, co-creators and makers”. He talked about his work engaging students in the creation of learning objects to explain physics concepts. In his introductory physics class students generate materials (such as a video, a module, a practice exam question) to explain a concept that is troublesome to them. These are vetted by TAs and subsequently shared with the entire class. Once again, we see students actively engaged in their learning and creating materials to teach their fellow students.

Active participation of students in the education process was a common thread throughout the conference. A large number of undergraduate students participated fully in the conference, both presenting and attending the sessions. Their voices and thoughts were invariably heard in each session I was at. This involvement of the students as complete partners was one of the things that made this conference special for me.

Perhaps the growth of our universities and the resultant large classes has made it feel that it is key to break down the anonymous “us and them” that so often exists in order to find a “we” so that can embark on the learning journey together. This conference with the theme Gather + Create + Improve, highlighted the work of educators trying to actively involve their students in the making of their knowledge, went a long way in the direction of that “we”, I can’t wait for 2017! In the meantime, how do you engage your students as knowledge creators in your classes?

Intuitive Thinking and Misconceptions. Coley & Tanner. CBE – Life Sciences Education (2015). 14:1-19.

The skills gap dilemma — Mary Power

I recently attended the annual Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education STLHE 2014 Conference in beautiful Kingston. It was a week of great learning and connecting with colleagues from across Canada and beyond.  The theme of the conference was Transforming our Learning Experiences and in his welcoming address Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principle Academic of Queen’s University told a story about an event that transformed his thinking. While travelling on a plane he struck up a conversation with a young man sitting next to him who, it so happened, was a recent graduate of his university. The response of the young man when asked about his experience at university, which stuck in Alan’s mind and now mine, was: “You never taught me to tell people what I know”.  I was reminded of a Higher Education Quality Council (HEQCO) meeting in November: Beyond the Buzzwords where the skills gap question was being discussed and an employment recruiting specialist commented that it was not that young prospective employees did not necessarily possess the skills they were looking for, but they did not recognize that they had them, or know how to articulate them.  Often these skills that are talked about more and more in academe, the media and the population at large are non-subject specific skills but rather transferable cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, communication, problem solving, team work, professionalism.

When we work with Departments on curriculum mapping exercises the list of so called “soft skills” and values that we desire of our graduating students is often the longest, and I admit sometimes most contentious. Part of that dissention, I believe, arises from the fact that these skills are much harder to define and I would argue, have been implicit in higher education. The question as I see it is: How do we make these expectations explicit and how do we effectively guide assess their development? And perhaps even more challenging, how do we help the students recognize that these skills or attributes were indeed the desired outcomes of the activity, course or program?

At another excellent conference down that road at Wilfred Laurier University in May (yes – I have been blessed with attending a number of these brain filling events lately!) this question was partially answered. I had the pleasure of hearing Robert Shea, Provost and Associate Vice President Academic, Marine Institute at Memorial University give a keynote address entitled “A National Call to Action: Do We Need a New Discourse on Learning?”, in part discussing the Career Integrated Learning project let by MUN. The key take away for me was the idea to clearly define these life skills as learning outcomes on our course syllabi as the first step to making them explicit. Simple but brilliant and more often than not overlooked. We cannot stop at stating these skills as outcomes, however, but need to help students identify where they are being introduced, practiced, assessed and ideally to allow time for reflection on their development. In doing this not only will our students (hopefully) be able to recognize that they are attaining these skills but will be able to then “tell people what they know” once they leave our doors.

Laboratories: enhancing performance and retention – Mary Power

lab image“Active learning”, “authentic learning”, and “experiential learning” are common buzzwords in education, but are also what we try to provide our students as we aim to enable them with the required skills and knowledge for their successful entry into the “real world”. In many scientific disciplines laboratories have been an integral part of teaching and learning that attempt to provide those experiences. The combining of laboratory activities with more theoretical forms of instructions, such as lecture and discussion, has been attributed to an improvement in both attitude toward the subject matter and scientific reasoning skills (White and Frederiksen, 1998).

However, laboratory courses are extremely expensive to operate with respect to infrastructure, material, human, space and time resources and so have often become limited in the curriculum. At universities across Canada and the US, including at the University of Waterloo, many lab courses have become “un-linked” from corresponding undergraduate courses. There are of course very good reasons for doing this as large lecture courses can service a broad population and a subset of majors can occupy the expensive lab courses. From a financial perspective this all makes perfect sense. However, in some instances, including many of the courses in the Faculty of Science here at the University of Waterloo, students requiring both can enroll in the lab and lecture in different semesters. Viscerally, I have always had difficulty with this practice as I see value in the integration of the theoretical with the practical for optimal learning and as a teacher when I teach a course of both lecture and lab I can integrate the two better and interact with the students more – only practical in smaller courses of course.
A recently published large study looking at nearly 10,000 first year General Chemistry students over 5 years at the University of Michigan (Matz et al, 2012) found that concurrent enrollment in the lecture and the corresponding laboratory course positively affected lecture grades when compared to those who took the laboratory in a later term or not at all. This effect was even more pronounced for the group of weakest students, as determined by entering math and chemistry scores on the SAT test, whose grades increased by an average of a third of a letter grade (ie., B- to B). The authors also looked at withdrawal rates from the lecture and again found that the concurrent enrollment was positively linked to retention, with the odds of a concurrent student being retained being 2.2 times higher than those who took the lab separately of not at all. This was so for both the stronger and the weaker students.
The design of laboratory course in this study may have played a role a guided inquiry course where student presumably do authentic experiment and the pre-lab is not designed to “give away” the results. Much of the lab work in this course is also done in teams, which is intended to promote a collaborative, community environment. The authors hypothesize that this community factor also played an important role in their findings.
I hope more studies such as this will be done. I wonder what the data here would show us?


Matz, R., Rothman, E., Krajcik, J., &  Banaszak Holl, M. (2012). Concurrent Enrollment in Lecture and Laboratory Enhances Student Performance and Retention. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 49(5): 659-682.

White, B., &  Fredericken, J. (1998). Inquiry, modeling and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction. 16 (1): 3-118.

Redundancy and Contingency – Mary Power

stormWe weathered the storm of the three and a half day outage of our campus learning management system and have come out the other side relatively intact. It has left me thinking about our reliance on this technology and about redundancy and contingency. Basically, what do we need to do to prevent complete immobilization in the (I hope extremely unlikely) event of another shutdown?

An IT colleague described redundancy as: “If a system crashes, or the building falls in a sinkhole, an identical backup system takes over within minutes.  Like our Connect email server. We have 5 servers in the Math building and 5 identical in another building. If the math building gets sucked into space, within minutes the other building takes over and users notice little or no change.” Obviously, Desire2Learn needs to be responsible for the server redundancy – but it behooves all of us to have backup plans, our own redundancies, in place in case another black hole event occurs.

That brings me to contingency. In hospitals contingency plans are required to be in place to cover the eventuality of any system outage. Arguably there are more serious consequences of a system failure in a hospital environment. However, since so many are reliant on our course management system, a framework both system wide and as individuals should be in place – at least for peace of mind. The conversations have begun at an institutional level and I believe many individuals created their own workarounds.

It seems to me that the key in an event such as this, as with so many other things, is communication. A great deal of anxiety can be alleviated if communication lines can be kept open.  Keeping an email list of your students is a good idea. If you have sent an email to your class the copy that the system sends to you will have all the Bcc: addresses – keep that. The classlists available for download from Quest contain the student email addresses as well.  Just having the ability to let students know that you know what is going on and what your expectations are of them is a good first step. A number of faculty members are already using twitter as a means of communicating with their students. Generally a course specific Twitter account is created and then students are invited to follow and important information can be broadcast. Bill Power in Chemistry has been using this for several semesters now and his students did not feel the pain of the recent outage. Bill presented on his successful use of Twitter last year at the OND conference. During this downtime the Biology Department began using its departmental Twitter account to communicate with students.

Course materials are the other thing of primary concern to students.  IST supports a secure file transfer service called Sendit by which faculty can send a link via email to their students. The advantage of this route is that it is secure and supported by the university. Many people already use Dropbox to share files (even just between their own computers). With Dropbox, a url to a specific file can be shared to students via email or tweeted via Twitter.  Google Drive is another option.

These are just a couple examples of the contingencies that had been devised and I would love to hear of others that were used.  Of course we hope that something like this does not happen again, but if it does at least we can be prepared. I wonder if that is the silver lining? Or the 100s of new followers of the Biology Department on Twitter!

IF-AT First You Don’t Succeed….

students working in group

For the first fifteen minutes the class was quiet, heads studiously bent over their papers as individual quizzes were taken. The only sound in the room, our footsteps as we moved about placing one card in front of each group of 4 students. When Professor Kelly Grindrod announced “Okay, 15 more minutes to do the cards in your groups”, the class erupted into: noisy chatter; intense discussion; whoops of joy and high fives; an occasional groan of dismay. Moving about the classroom this time it was invigorating listening to the students discuss their chosen answers, argue their opinions, and reasoning together as they worked to reach consensus on which answer was correct and thus which box to scratch. The energy was palpable.

So what were they doing? What caused this classroom transformation? The students were completing the same quiz that they had just done individually but this time as a group, checking their answers by scratching boxes on cards called IF-AT. The IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) produced by Epstein Educational Enterprises  is a multiple-choice assessment and learning tool in which students scratch the box corresponding to their chosen answer and know immediately if that answer was correct. At first glance it looks a little bit like a scratch-and-win lottery ticket admittedly; if used thoughtfully by students – not at all. If an incorrect choice is made immediate feedback (no star in the box) is received. The students then have the opportunity to re-think, and in the case of Kelly’s class re-discuss, re-convince, re-argue, and then attempt again. Full marks are achieved for the first correct answer and progressively lower partial marks for subsequent attempts. In the class that I observed students actively and interactively worked  to discuss and understand the question principle before attempting again.

While collecting the individual quizzes and IF-AT cards at the end of the second 15 minutes I had a chance to chat with a number of the students. Some found it stressful, others found it less so than a “regular” quiz, but all agreed that the IF-AT format of quizzing was a great deal of fun (it was a low stakes 2.5% quiz). Being from a Teaching Centre, I just had to ask how they felt these quizzes affected their learning. Every student I spoke to said that, yes, they thought it helped them learn; noting the discussion, taking the time to really think about the problems and the immediate feedback. Incidentally, that is exactly what Dr. David DiBattista (the multiple choice exam guru from Brock U) and colleagues have reported in their studies.

What most struck me though was that these students were having fun! Fun, engaged, learning – seems good to me!


DiBattista, D. (2005). The Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique: A learner-centered multiple-choice response form. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 35, 111-131.

Window of opportunity – Mary Power

The New Year for me, metaphorically speaking, is September.  I guess that is because I am by now a “lifer” in the education system. September has an air of new beginnings and excitement; even with the shortening of the days and the cooling of the air. I think of it as fresh and clean. I guess that is why I felt the need to rise to the challenge and see an opportunity upon listening to Ken Coates on CBC Radio’s The Current a few weeks back.  For those who didn’t hear it, it is well worth the listen.  I haven’t read his book “Campus Confidential” yet, but I imagine that is going to be equally thought provoking. At first listen it (and probably read) it might be discouraging and yet it offers glimmers of hope. There are, and always have been, those students who want to “beat the system and get through with the least effort” as one young fellow interviewed so succinctly put it. There are many though who want to be, or at least can be, challenged and want to learn. They may sometimes need a little guidance and prompting and re-directing and pushing. Yes – their lives are very busy, but those of us on the other side of that initial university experience are tasked to keep them (or get them) excited and seeing their education as a priority. A means to a job/career? Perhaps, but more importantly a life experience – a means to look at the world critically and  to find the passion, to delve more deeply into what ever it is that they are leaning.  If we encourage them to do those readings (with a carrot or a stick), to engage in class, to think critically through well designed assignments and assessments perhaps we can begin to see some deeper learning and have students “engaged in great ideas”. Is it a window of opportunity?


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.