Category Archives: Learning Environments

Meaning-Centered Education

The evolution of teaching philosophy intrigues me. I started with the traditional “sage on the stage” philosophy where the professor shares his/her great knowledge and the student is left to make sense of this knowledge outside the classroom. As a student, I found this authoritative approach frustrating because of the lack of direction. As instructor, I improved how I was taught by adding more direction, but I still predominantly use this approach to teaching.

Learning-centered teaching puts the teaching onto the students. The instructor acts more as coach or guide, rather than dictating the subject matter to students. The goal is one of engagement and active learning activities form the basis of classroom activity. This is a handy chart to compare teacher-centered vs. learner-centered teaching. Learner-centered teaching is considered more advanced that the traditional method. Maryellen Weimer describes 5 characteristics of learner-centered instruction. I have been trying to be more learner-centered in my classroom, but found that a very careful balance needs to be maintained. Students resent being thrown into the deep-end and expect some level of instruction. At the same time, students acknowledge that they learn more if they are the responsible for their learning.

Meaning-centered education and meaning-centered learning appears to be a recent progression beyond learner-centered instruction. In this educational philosophy the goal is to have students place the new knowledge in a context that means something to them. This approach appeals to me as the motivation for student-learning is built into this philosophy. Integration of new ideas into our current knowledge is how the brain deals with new knowledge, thus meaning-centered learning will be intuitive to students. Finally, the approach emphasizes learning for life. The goal is not just to master course content, but to integrate this learning into who the student is as a person now and who the student wants to be in the future. Since I teach students that want to be nurses, I can see this approach having an impact on their lives long after they leave my classroom. This is important because the course material forms a foundation for their professional practice.

The Institute for Meaning-Centered Education appears to be in its infancy. I’m looking forward to seeing how this educational philosophy develops and how I may incorporate it into my classroom.


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Feedback from Students

The evaluation process not only includes evaluation of the student learning but also evaluation of instructor teaching. My institution has a form that is given towards the end of the course called “Student Report on Teaching” (SRT). SRTs are given to students during the probationary period and then periodically after that. I haven’t seen an SRT since my probationary period over a decade ago. The infrequency of evaluation on the institutional level has left me interested in doing my own SRT.

My experience with the SRTs during my probationary period has left me with some concerns which suggests changes to the current form. My major concern involves what to ask on the SRT in order to gain useful feedback. Our institutional questions include questions like “Were tests and assignments graded and returned promptly”, which lead me to stay up all night grading exams so that I could return them during the next lecture. I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question! How could I possibly get exam results back any quicker than the very next class which was sometimes less than 24 hours after they wrote the test? Another question asks about whether course objectives were clear. I included the course objectives in the course outline and at the beginning of each lecture. I specifically asked at the end of the lecture if the course objectives were clear. Again, I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question on the SRT. If the course objectives were not clear, why didn’t students speak up during the course? I did not get the results until after the course was over and without student names so I could not follow-up on the concerns raised by the SRT. What is the point of doing evaluations if the information is untimely and of such poor quality, improvements cannot be made?

I found unsolicited student evaluations on a site called “Rate My Professor”.  While it was nice to receive positive feedback in such a public place, I found the negative feedback frustrating. Students leaving negative feedback often had the course number wrong which made it hard to take their comments about the course seriously. The students would also express dissatisfaction with my personal attributes without explanation as to why they felt I was rude or mean or evil or whatever else they didn’t like about me. One student even accused me of being a racist which I consider to be quite a serious charge and absolutely something I do not want to be. However, the student never said anything to me or filed a formal complaint. I have no idea what I did to deserve such a comment, and thus, I have no idea how to rectify the situation or even verify if a situation actually exists to rectify.

Despite this bad taste in my mouth, I still believe there is a need to gather student feedback. Thus I was interested in the Faculty Focus newsletter in my email this morning. In her article, “How to Get Better Feedback from Students“, Maryellen Weimer offers some tips:

  • Ask questions “about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn” rather than what students liked/disliked about the course and/or instructor.
  • Ask these questions immediately after the activity was experienced by the student during the course rather than a global survey at the end of the course when it is too late to do anything.
  • Teach students how to give constructive feedback. This instruction would include what is relevant and appropriate feedback by explaining what can be changed and what can’t as well as modeling the desired behaviour when giving feedback to students.
  • Show students that you take their feedback seriously by discussing the feedback with them. If feedback cannot be incorporated, explain why and invite other solutions to identified problems. I would even go farther and suggest not asking for feedback on anything you have no desire to change.

The most difficult tip to incorporate is asking the right questions and this needs to be explored further in future blog posts. I have several tabs open, so stay tuned.

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Teaching in the Cognitive Domain

old-chimpanzee-11298298953dvvI teach introductory biology courses. I live in the cognitive domain. Some professors may view teaching 1st and 2nd year courses as boring in their simplicity, but to me, the challenge and responsibility is exciting. I have the challenge of providing a smorgasbord of an entire scientific discipline. I must present the discipline in the most palatable way possibly while laying a foundation for future studies.It is my responsibility to entice students to learn so that they can build a strong foundation. If I screw it up, I may turn students away or worse, set them up for failure down the road. So what are some strategies for teaching in the cognitive domain?

I was reviewing my notes for a course I took on curriculum development and came across a handy table that provides strategies for teaching in the cognitive domain. This seems very fortuitous because as the semester winds down, I’m reviewing what worked and what didn’t in the past year. So as I review the table, these are some of the strategies I want to incorporate into my course revisions.

At the introductory level, ensuring pre-requisite knowledge is in place is the top priority. One suggestion is to “ask students questions about relevant concepts, facts and processes”. I have provided the students with learning activities which ask these questions, but I think what is missing is more self-evaluation both in class and outside class. High on my list of things to do is to look into Socrative for in class assessment. Outside of class, I would like to redo my instructional videos as a tutorial instead of a lecture. I could also use Moodle to provide more self-assessment opportunities.

My next priority is creating enthusiasm. In order to learn, students must want to learn. Motivation ultimately comes from the student. This idea is expressed by the proverb, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”. Or in the case of the cognitive domain, “you can lead the student to the material, but you can’t make them think”. So very true, but what if the instructor makes thinking about the material so appealing and so much fun and so engaging, the student can’t help themselves but think? So that is my motto. I want to add some case studies to arouse the learner’s curiosity. I’m also playing with the idea of alternative assessment techniques like learning journals that the students work on throughout the semester in addition to or instead of multiple choice midterms. One idea is to have students journal about their emotions regarding course material. A second journal approach is to have students find newspaper articles related to course material.

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Filed under Learning Environments, Motivational Strategies, Uncategorized

Garden of Your Mind

I loved Mr. Rogers as a kid. This remix is very inspirational! Might be a fun one to try to create a positive-learning environment.

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Filed under Learning Environments, Thinking Skills

Success for Every Student

I stumbled across an essay entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” written by Professor X while looking for a picture of a professor for my Gravatar. The essay was published in the June, 2008 issue of the Atlantic Magazine.

The image is a good summary of the article. Students killed by pools of red ink and begging the instructor to change an “F” grade. In the background administrators gloat in this slaughter.

My experience has been similar to Professor X’s. While I wouldn’t call our college a “college of last resort”, our college has a mission to promote the success of every student and every student with a high school diploma is welcome. Similarly, these high school diplomas may be newly minted or decades old.

I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel when he or she nails a point. When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood—generally, early in the semester—the room crackles with positive energy. Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in the class, to read and love the great books, to explore potent themes, to write well.

I also love those early days of the semester when “the room crackles with positive energy”.

The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

Ah yes, the worst part of the job is evaluation. I hate being judge and jury. I hate the realization that some students just don’t have what it takes to succeed. The question that Professor X and I then ask is “what do we do about it?”. Throughout his essay, Professor X mentions  these solutions to help the students succeed:

  • clearly stated learning objectives for each assignment
  • the use of analogy to explain the assignments
  • instruction on basic principles to bring students up to speed
  • using a textbook that breaks the assignments down into manageable steps
  • suggest the use of counseling and/or extra help to deal with deficits
  • providing feedback outside of class hours

Despite all of his efforts, students still do not succeed.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

I feel horrible for lowering the hammer. Like the image that accompanies the essay, I view the students lying in a pool of red ink, slayed by the pen.  Professor X struggles with the idea of lowering his academic standards so that students don’t get an “F”. I can relate to that struggle, but unlike Professor X, I’ve also faced pressure from administrators that depend on the financial income to keep students in the program. I stuck firm with the academic standards. I’ve always thought that if I didn’t have what it takes, I’d want to find out sooner rather than later. Some students keep trying, but I’ve also had others reexamine their goals and change paths because of their failure. I was pleased that these students found a better path that better suited their strengths.

Professor X asks whether it is morally wrong to even admit students that lack these basic skills.

We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns. Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

I’ve struggled with this dilemma too, but decided that everyone does deserve the opportunity and my job is to provide all the tools I can to make the endeavor successful. The students may fail the class, but at least they tried and within that failure may be a lesson for better opportunities.

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Reading the Riot Act

A course syllabus often includes information on expected behaviours for students including policy on academic integrity. I’ve always regretted the negative connotations of including this information in the course syllabus. To me, it implies to the student, “I wish you wouldn’t, but I know you are going to do it, so here is what happens to you when you do”. The students are treated like criminals on the first day of class as I read them the riot act. Furthermore, it doesn’t stop them from committing academic misconduct. In my experience, these indiscretions are more often due to ignorance rather than willful intent. The student just didn’t understand what academic integrity was.

There has to be a more positive way to talk about academic integrity. What about a video? This is an example from Sheridan College in Ontario.  I like how this video describes what constitutes  misconduct, explains the temptations of why students do it, and gives resources to help prevent students making the wrong choice. This video could serve as a discussion focus or be inspiration to make a similar video for your institution.

This booklet from the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) also talks about academic integrity in a more positive light by focusing on the values that go into academic integrity. This could also be the basis of a classroom discussion as the booklet includes questions for reflection.

The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) defines academic integrity as a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to five fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. From these values flow principles of behavior that enable academic communities to translate ideals to action.

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Filed under Classroom Management, Learning Environments, Learning How to Learn

Fun with Microbes – Germ Enlarger

I remember watching “The Muppets” as a child. It was one of the few shows we watched as a family. I remember loving Beeker, but I don’t remember this particular segment.  I remember Jim Henson’s death being part of my “Principles of Disease” final exam, but I don’t remember the particular question.

Today marks 22 years since Henson’s death. As I watch this segment again, I find the irony of Henson dying from a streptococci infection tragic. It wasn’t “streptococcus yuckotheorum” that killed Henson, but Streptococcus pyogenes.

This short clip touches on several themes in my microbiology course, including

  • definition of “germs”
  • use of a microscope
  • care of the microscope (“comes out of your pay, Beeker!”)
  • lab safety (“Notice how easy it is now for Beeker to study that germ…and vice versa”)
  • cellular morphology
  • contagious disease

This clip could be used as a way to grab a student’s attention at the beginning of class. By linking the clip to Henson’s death, we can then talk about Streptococcus pyogenes. Henson’s death can be used as a case study.

This video also highlights the conflict of making microbiology “fun” and the cruel reality that microbes kill people. The video is clearly fun, but Henson’s death is tragic. I often tell my nursing students that I’m sick and twisted because I’m more interested in how microbes kill people rather than how to make them better. It’s not entirely true because learning how to prevent infection ultimately prevents tragedy. This juxtaposition between the humour of “The Muppets” and the sad reality of Henson’s death might serve very well as a reminder that although I try to make class fun, the consequences can be very tragic.

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Filed under Active Learning, Fun, Learning Environments