Beyond marshmallows – resisting Mr. Clown Box!

Kip and the Mischel book

Kip and the Mischel book

The first time I recall hearing about the “marshmallow test” was on an episode of “This American Life”, in 2012 (“Back to School”),  featuring Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed“.  It was an interesting episode, discussing challenges in the American school system, particularly with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the marshmallow test experiments prompt a vivid image – a small child is presented with the option of having a single marshmallow right away, or waiting for up to 20 minutes, and being given two marshmallows. Longitudinal studies on a cohort of young children who were participants in this research revealed that those who were able to show restraint and self-control performed better in a wide range of ways in later life: improved SAT scores, higher education levels, better ability to maintain close relationships, etc. (Oh, and there were some brain differences indicated by an experiment involving fMRI, for what that’s worth.)

While fascinating, the research was also a bit depressing to me. I picture myself as one of the kids who would have gobbled down the marshmallow right away. And much of what I have heard regarding the marshmallow test seems to have been focusing on the predictive nature of the experiments, revealing the capacity for self-regulation that impacts many aspects of our lives. And if you’re one of the kids who lacks that self-regulation? Doomed to a life of poor, impulsive choices, apparently.

Another podcast, Invisibilia, changed my perspective on this.  “The Personality Myth” episode explored the dynamic nature of personality. One of the experts interviewed was Walter Mischel, the psychologist who conducted the marshmallow test experiments. In the episode, he discussed something about the experiments that wasn’t usually mentioned when people described them – the fact that children could be taught strategies to help them resist the immediate temptation in favour of the delayed reward.

That’s much more uplifting than thinking that your destiny is set, and can be predicted by your ability as a preschooler to resist a treat.

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Conference season!

I haven’t written a blog post in a long time. Often, the regular academic year is pretty hectic, so I’m less likely in general to post here, but the past few months have been … unusual. (Like I have to point that out!) It’s been tough for me to justify taking the time and effort to write about teaching and learning stuff lately, as  these topics seem almost frivolous, given unfolding world events. (As a Canadian living in the US, I’m still concerned about the current political and societal situation, and I may talk about that more later, but that’s another post … maybe.) However, life goes on, and as we get into conference season, it’s time to think (and talk!) about things beyond day-to-day teaching (and other concerns).

The Windsor-Oakland Teaching and Learning conference is always a great start to conference season for me, running early in May. This year, I was particularly impressed by the keynote from Peter Felten (@pfeltenNC): “Valuing Teaching: What Matters Most“.  This led me to read the most recent book that he co-authored, The Undergraduate Experience (Jossey-Bass, 2016 – Indigo Chapters link). Like his keynote, the book is rich in providing clear information, backed up by evidence, with illustrative examples of positive change at various universities. I’ve read a few books centred on change in undergraduate education, which I’ve typically found to include advice that may not be realistic for my own school, or not feasible for someone to act upon who is not in upper administration. I actually felt like the Felten et al. book provided elements where I may be able to make a difference (beyond my regular goal of teaching and advising as well as I can, in my current position).

oCUBE 2016 group photo

oCUBE 2016 group photo – could you find a more friendly group?

The annual oCUBE May UnConference is coming up very soon! This is the eighth one, and I’m happy to see that our grass-roots community of practise is still going strong. We are a group of individuals across various institutions, in a number of different roles, all interested in improving Biology education. (It started as an Ontario group, but we now have members from other provinces, and even in the USA!) The UnConference format seems to work very well for the kinds of discussions our group has, and having some new and different members contributing, along with a mixture of original and new members means that we get different perspectives and a diversity of interests and experience in our sessions. Our meeting location at Shamrock Lodge (near Port Carling, ON) is a lovely retreat away from our respective cities … and I personally think that the blueberry pancakes promote creativity and well-being! (The Shamrock Lodge folks treat us  – and FEED us – very well.)

The annual conference for the Canadian Society of Microbiologists (CSM) is in June, in Waterloo, ON. The conference program looks great, and I’m excited to see Ed Yong (@EdYong209) and Jack Gilbert (@gilbertjacka) speak again. (Unabashed fangirl here!!!) Even more exciting, for me, is that we are holding our third pre-conference CSM FOME (Forum On Microbiology Education) workshop on June 20! Our keynote facilitator, Karen Smith (@DrMyth115), is a great microbiology educator and communicator, and our planning committee was faced with a challenge we had not faced in the previous two years – we have more workshop/presentation proposals than we can actually fit in our allotted time. CSM FOME co-chair Josie Libertucci (@Jos_Tucci) and I are thrilled to see how many people have registered for the workshop so far, and are looking forward to seeing this section grow in the CSM in future. (P.S. Is it rude to bring my copy of “I Contain Multitudes” to ask Ed Yong to sign it? What about getting a selfie with Ed and Jack?)

We also have the Western Conference on Science Education (WCSE) in July this summer (July 5-7). One of my favourite conferences, it runs every other year at Western University in London, ON, attracting high-quality workshops/presentations/posters, and opportunities to interact with highly engaged educators throughout the conference both in and out of conference activities. Early Registration for 2017 is still open at reduced rates until Friday, May 26th.  If you’ve been to WCSE before, you can once again save $50 on your registration if you find a Newb (WCSE newbie!) to bring along (and if you’ve never been to WCSE, being a “Newb” with a previous WCSE-attendee will save you $50, too!).

It’s going to be a busy summer, and that’s a good antidote to some of the other stuff going on in the world right now. What are you looking forward to over the next few months?



Ancillary fee anxiety

AnxietyCat Ancillary

Anxiety cat is anxious about ancillary fees

I had originally planned to write (and actually wrote a draft of) a post to explore my questions and concerns about asking students to pay for access to a web-based classroom response system (WBCRS henceforth), like Lecture Tools (now integrated into Echo 360), Top Hat, or Learning Catalytics. My major concern? These tools are basically ways to teach huge classes better, to bring in the interactivity and communication aspects difficult to achieve in the large class setting – kind of a “large class tax” on students. (I’ve used Lecture Tools for several terms – see my previous posts here, here, and here.)


I’d hoped to gain some clarity,  maybe spark some conversation with colleagues about the issues relating to using a WBCRS at a cost to students. As part of my thinking, I considered some of the other ancillary items we routinely ask students to purchase (i.e., not usually included in their tuition, but required for a course). I was originally thinking that a teaching tool is really different from a required textbook, dissection kit, safety glasses, or a lab coat. Now I’m not only concerned about the ethics/fairness of asking students to purchase licenses for a WBCRS, but also requiring textbooks and disposable lab coats! Read the rest of this entry »

Want to encourage people to live-tweet your event?

Portion of #MiMicrobe Twitter feed

Portion of #MiMicrobe Twitter feed

If you follow me on Twitter, you are probably well aware that I typically live-tweet conferences. (You can always filter out the hashtag if you get overwhelmed by the tweets!) I find it useful to go through the exercise of distilling important/interesting points, have an instant electronic record of my notes, and if I’m lucky, a tweet will spark discussions with other conference attendees or other people on Twitter.

Some conferences prohibit live-tweeting, but others encourage it.  (If in doubt, ask the conference organizers, or the conference presenter.) For conferences promoting live-tweeting, some have good uptake, and you’ll see several live-tweeters sharing different perspectives, and/or notes from different concurrent sessions. (Check out the #MiMicrobe twitter feed for an example.) Other times, there may be one or two lone tweeters … and it gets lonely being one of them!

If you do want to encourage conference participants to here are some tips I’d suggest for conference/meeting organizers to consider:

  1. Choose your hashtag carefully. It should not be too long (eating into that 140-character limit), and hopefully easy to remember. A more tricky thing is to avoid choosing a hashtag that is being used by another event. If you have to choose a hashtag some time before your event, it may not be possible to discover who else will use the same hashtag. In general, avoid hashtags that are too generic. If you are going to use the year in your hashtag (e.g., #myconf2016), a Twitter search on #myconf2015 might be a good idea.
  2. Recruit a few live-tweeters BEFORE your event. Having even a couple of individuals live-tweeting an event can encourage other people to join the conversation. These people should be familiar with Twitter ahead of the event – it’s tough to learn how to use a new tool AND live-tweet coherently.
  3. If there are sessions that take questions from the audience, consider allowing people to submit questions via Twitter. This will likely mean that you’ll need a volunteer to monitor the Twitter feed to pass along the questions, but may encourage people to ask questions who might be reluctant to go to the microphone. This could also open the discussion to people following the conference in other locations.
  4. Keep a “leaderboard” of your “top-live-tweeters” and show/share this throughout the meeting*. Gamification FTW! (There are tools that make this easy – e.g., .)
  5. On your conference website, put a link to your hashtag on Twitter.
  6. Discuss social media with the conference presenters ahead of time, so that they can let the audience know if they prefer NOT to have their session (or portions of it) tweeted/shared beyond the event.

* People often assume that the person tapping away on their laptop or on their phone during a presentation is doing something unrelated to the event at hand. Not so for live-tweeters! They are very much engaged in the presentation. (No need for the stink-eye!) A shout out to live-tweeters can encourage them, and maybe make other people aware that there is a wider conversation going on.

What other suggestions do you have to support/encourage live-tweeting?

Tips from Tanya: Some points for students about technology in the classroom

I wrote this for my students (after Tamara Kelly and I facilitated a session on student devices in the classroom at the Western Conference on Science Education 2015) and am sharing it here, in hopes it may be of interest/use to others! Please note that my classroom policies about device use are specific to the courses I currently teach.

Almost everyone has a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or combination of these devices with them during their waking hours (and beyond, in some cases). There is huge potential for distraction using these devices – which is fine if you’re waiting in a long, boring line or on the bus, but can be problematic in the classroom*.

While a few profs ban these devices in their classes, I’m taking a different approach. In much of the world, including most work-places, these devices aren’t banned, and people are expected to be able to manage work/life and various distractions. That being said, I can understand why some instructors have different policies for their own classes.

Some of our in-class activities will make use of online resources, so I’ll encourage you to use them, if you wish to do so.  I’ll be using LectureTools, which allows me to ask you questions that you can answer on your device … and for you to ask me questions in the system (without raising your hand).

If you don’t want to use a device in our class, that’s fine! One way to avoid distraction is to keep these devices out of sight (and hearing), and I’m happy to support those who take this approach. There will be alternative activities for students who don’t use the in-class system.

If you do want to use your device(s) in class, there are some things to be aware of:

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BYOD … or bring me your questions! It’s all good.

 "The times they are a'changing" by brett jordan is licensed under CC BY.

Not an unusual view when you stand at the front of a lecture hall. Image credit: “The times they are a’changing” by brett jordan is licensed under CC BY.

About a year ago, I switched from using clickers in my classes to a web-based classroom response system (CRS) – Lecture Tools – where students bring their own internet-enabled devices (BYOD), as I’ve mentioned here before. After three terms, I am generally happy with the system as a replacement for clickers, and I’ll likely talk more about that later.

This is a rather rambly account of something small I tried that worked out. I’m hoping that it might be of use/interest to other folks (or, at least, maybe some of the references will be). Oh, and it has a bit of my philosophy on class attendance. (I’m sure you were curious!) Read the rest of this entry »

The tenacious myth of preferred learning styles

We care about addressing ALL LEARNING STYLES (real or imagined)!

We care about addressing ALL LEARNING STYLES (real or imagined)!

Learning styles (the idea we each have a preferred style, such as visual or auditory, and that those should be catered to for effective learning) are a myth. This shouldn’t need to be said again. Other people have said it well. (You can skip below for a list of references.)

But it’s a tenacious, popular myth. I understand how attractive the idea is … when I was a neophyte graduate student in a TA training workshop, I remember the satisfaction of completing a learning styles inventory (like this: & this: & this: & I really need to stop because this is just irritating me …) and figuring out that I was a “kinaesthetic” learner. Of course! Of course, I was a science grad student, and this made sense! We do experiments! I learn by doing! (I didn’t think about the fact that I could probably have found a rationale for being a “visual” learner …) It was an easy way for me to think about my learning! And to justify why I didn’t perform so well in some courses … those ones were not tailored to my learning style! (Woe to those poor nasal learners … )

That was back in 1994.

Now there is ample evidence that teaching towards preferred learning styles does not seem to actually help people learn. Even trying to reliably categorize people into preferred learning styles is fraught with issues. Meanwhile, many teachers/professors and students waste time and energy on this, efforts they could be directing elsewhere. (Check out the book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel for a good overview of what we DO know about teaching/learning based on recent cognitive science research.)

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