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 »

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.)

Read the rest of this entry »

More evidence of benefits from increased course structure

Sarah L. Eddy and Kelly A. Hogan (2014) recently published a paper “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?”, a nice example of the next wave of discipline-based educational research (DBER) that goes beyond asking “Does active learning work?” to explore details of how active learning interventions actually work, and differential impacts on sub-populations of students. Here, Eddy and Hogan describe their results of a study based on the work led by Scott Freeman at the University of Washington (see Freeman et al. 2011, Haak et al. 2011).

Read the rest of this entry »

Why change a university grading scale?

LettersI recently mentioned the 2014 paper by Schinske and Tanner that is a great review on various aspects of grading, including some of the history of grading in higher education.

Schinske and Tanner highlighted the fact that grades were developed as a method for universities to communicate (e.g., between schools). This is still an important function that grades play today (within/between schools, and beyond), and there are clear benefits from having a valid, reliable grading system. In the early 20th century, percentage (100-point) scales were frequently used (Cureton, 1971).  The letter grade system adopted at Harvard was apparently a result of faculty members’ concerns about the reliability of grades measured on a percentage scale, and it was believed that a letter grade system (with 5-categories) would provide increased reliability. 

Even today, issues with reliability (as well as validity) of grading exist. (Schinske and Tanner discuss this as well.)  Thus, I found it a bit surprising last fall when the University of Windsor (where I currently teach) switched from a letter grade/point system (a 13 point scale) to a percentage system for final grades. I could understand if this shift were bringing the school’s grade reporting in line with many others in the same region (e.g., within a province or country); with different grading systems/scales used by various universities, it can be challenging to make comparisons between students from different schools for things like scholarships, professional school applications, etc. However, from my observations (and the OMSAS Undergraduate Conversion Chart), the percentage system isn’t the most widely used grading scale in Ontario, nor across Canada.

I’m not sure why the change to a percentage grade system was made. It is possible that the rationale was  provided in some form, but that I didn’t receive it, or have overlooked it. I’ve asked colleagues here, who also didn’t know. Some (quick) searching of the university website hasn’t pulled up anything helpful, but again, it could be there and I’m not finding it (as my search terms are pretty common words on a university website). Although I’ll be a bit embarrassed if someone posts a link to something that explains it, I’d still appreciate knowing!

A few questions come to mind: Why did this university change from letter grades to percentages? Is this something that has happened at other institutions? Are there schools that have recently taken the opposite approach (moving from percentages to a point system)? (From the OMSAS chart, I’m guessing that Dalhousie and the University of Toronto made changes, but I don’t know in which direction.) Have any changes in grading systems/scales been accompanied by initiatives relating to how grades are determined?

As ever, I’m interested in seeing your comments (and, hopefully, answers to some of my questions)!

Cureton L.W. 1971. The history of grading practices. NCME Measurement in Educ. 2(4):1-8. Link to pdf.
Schinske, J., and Tanner, K. 2014. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159-166.


BYOD and classroom web response systems – my intersession experience

Lecture ToolsI recently finished teaching an intersession introductory microbiology course. It was a relatively small class (at least, for me) – just over 50 students – and it was a blended, flipped class. (I may post more about the flipping/blending later.) For the in-person classes, I used a couple of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) web-based classroom interaction systems: Lecture Tools and Learning Catalytics. (In previous offerings of the course, I used clickers.)  In this post, I’ll refer to these types of systems as WRS (Web Response Systems). We had access to both systems (at no cost to the students*), and used Lecture Tools regularly.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I had hoped I could use this experience to help me make decisions about moving away from clickers to a WRS. The fact that I met my students in class for only three hours once a week for six weeks was perhaps not the best way to gather a lot of data, but it was nice to try out new technology in a smaller class. Here are some of the things I observed/learned: Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking (and reading) about grading

I just finished my intersession course (yay!), and am trying to catch up on some reading. Schinske and Tanner’s “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)” paper, recently published in CBE-Life Sciences Education includes lots of good stuff: a brief history of grading in higher ed, purposes of grading (feedback and motivation to students; comparing students; measuring student knowledge/mastery) and ending with “strategies for change” to help instructors who want to maximize benefits of grading while reducing the pitfalls. There are many interesting points and suggestions in this paper, and hopefully it will be one of the ones we discuss in an upcoming oCUBE journal club meeting.

In the meantime … anyone else want to chat about some of the stuff discussed in the paper? <:-)

Schinske, J., and Tanner, K. 2014. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159-166.