Ephemeral art

It’s a difficult time of year for many people: Instructors are looking at how many lectures are left before final exams, and starting to panic about how much material hasn’t yet been covered! We are planning field seasons, applying for research permits, juggling meetings, and starting to think about how the summer’s work-life balance will play out. As we approach the end of term, stress levels in the classroom are also building. Students are working madly on term papers, scrambling to get things organized for summer jobs or internships, and looking ahead to final exams.

It’s busy. Everyone is too busy. The days are too full and it’s not easy.

Then this happens:

A gift on the chalkboard

A gift on the chalkboard

I teach with chalk, and in my lecture hall there’s a vertical sliding chalkboard. When I enter the room, the front, upper board is where I start the lecture and as that board fills up, I slide it up. Last week I was surprised by a beautiful woodpecker that someone had drawn. I was “art-bombed”: this drawing was ‘revealed’ about a third of the way into the lecture. It happened on #taxonomyday, which was fitting.

The woodpecker disappeared sometime after my lecture last week. Then this piece of ephemeral art appeared on Monday:

Another gift: this bird is an island.

Another gift: this bird is an island.

This is no longer a one-hit wonder! An unnamed student is taking time before lecture to leave some art for all of us. I don’t know who the student is, but this art brings joy to all of us, and provides a smile at a difficult time of year. It also allows me to modify the lecture and link the art to whatever I might be teaching. For example, lecturing about island biogeography on Monday, with a drawing of a sparrow on the chalkboard, allowed us to consider the bird as an island, and its fauna (feather mites, lice) colonize that island, and perhaps follow the predictions of MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography.

Dear unnamed student: know that you are doing something very special. You are taking time and energy out of your busy life to simply bring joy to others. Thank you for the ephemeral art.

Mushroom

Mushroom in chalk.

 

An ode to graduate students

Last week I saw two of my graduate students successfully defend their PhDs. This is wonderful and exciting, and I am delighted that they are both moving on to post-doctoral research positions in other places. I am also saddened by their departures: seeing good students leave the lab creates a vacuum. This has caused me to reflect about the effect graduate students have on their supervisors:

I write, teach, research.

I see classrooms, computers, forests and fields.

I use keyboards, iPads, PowerPoint, and pipettes.

I publish or perish.

LOIs, RFPs, IFs, and h-factors.

Grants, emails, to-do lists and budgets.

Learning?

Always.

Literature and libraries can start the process,

But books and blogs barely break the silence.

It’s the tangible human that makes the difference.

My colleagues, my friends:

You are the Academy.

Do you have the answers?

How to avoid wandering alone in ivory towers?

How to slow the withering on tenured vines?

How to grasp frail tendrils of discovery?

How to find that perfect chorus of voices, words, arguments and insights?

Search again.

Find hope and optimism in our laboratories.

Open the door to the greatest discovery of all:

It’s their keen intellect, smiles, kind words or questions.

It’s crafted by their company.

Caffeine-fuelled conversations critique, criticize, challenge.

(Coffee is never bitter with graduate students)

Embracing curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Wrangling words together: perform, propose, predict.

Execute, explain, engage.

Fieldwork, funding, fellowship.

Null hypothesis, clear objectives, conceptual frameworks.

Significance and broader impact,

Contributions to knowledge.

Contributions for humanity.

I hope I did enough; I wish for more.

Fleeting moments are now warm memories:

Catching spiders on the tundra, or caterpillars in the canopy.

Thank you, students: you teach me.

We move beyond metrics and money.

We write, we study, we learn.

We discover.

We grow.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27 Feb. Elena Bennett was Dorothy’s co-supervisor.

Take the active learning challenge

Dear Instructors,

Here’s your challenge: Include active learning activities in every lecture.

Just do it.

Active learning is a philosophy and approach in which teaching moves beyond the ‘podium-style’ lecture and directly includes students in the learning process. There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, there is evidence that it works, and active learning strategies have been around for a long time. Active learning can make learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles. Active learning places the student in a more central role in a classroom, and allows students to engage with the course and course content in a different way.

So, why doesn’t everyone embrace active learning?

Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work. This post by Meghan Duffy provides an excellent case study, and illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of embracing a ‘flipped classroom’ in a large biology class, and part of that involves heaps of active learning strategies.

Active learning also involves some risk-taking, and perhaps risks that pre-tenure instructors should avoid. The strategies can remove some of the control of the instructor, and this can be uncomfortable for some teachers. For any active learning strategies to work, the instructor, and students, need to be on board, and each strategy brings some challenges, takes time to prepare, and certainly takes time in the classroom.

This term, in my 70+ student ecology class, I decided to take the active learning challenge, and, every lecture, include active learning*. I want to share a few of the things I have done so far, and hopefully show that some ideas are easy and doable, for pretty much any teaching context (note: I do use this book to help generate ideas)

1) The teacher becomes the student: for the last five minutes of class, I pretended to be a student, and asked the students to become the teacher. I then asked them some questions about the course content, drawing upon material from the last couple of lectures. Because I have taught the course for many years, I had a good sense of where some ‘problem areas’ may be, and thus formulated questions that got to the more difficult material. Students then were able to respond to my questions, and share their own expertise with the whole class.

2) Clear and muddy: at the end of one lecture, I asked the students to write down one part of the content they really understood well (the clear), and one area that might be “the muddiest point” (i.e., what they are struggling with). Students handed in the pieces of paper, and I went through and sorted them, and then spent part of the next lecture re-explaining common muddy areas. This was a terrific way to get anonymous feedback, helped reinforce areas that I perceived to be going well, and allowed me to target problem areas in the course.

Here's a "muddy" - this student's comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

Here’s a “muddy” – this student’s comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

3) Gather in groups: many active learning strategies work best when students are in groups. To quickly set up groups during class, each student holds a ‘card’ with different symbols, letters, numbers, and drawings, and when I call out one of these, the students form groups. I made the cards so students get sorted into groups of different sizes, depending on the activity.

 

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

An easy and effective active learning strategy with groups is to have student discuss among themselves a particular problem or question. After a few minutes, a spokesperson can report back their findings to the whole class. I’ve also had some students come to the front and present the result to the class. This does depend on having ‘enthusiastic’ volunteers, but I have not found this a barrier.

4) IF-AT cards: this term, I am trying to use Instant-feedback assessment-techniques for multiple choice questions. These cards allow students to scratch off answers on a card, and they immediately know if they are right and wrong, and can scratch a second or third time to receive partial points. I have used these in the classroom, for group work, and then students can work on problems (presented by me on the blackboard or screen), debate and discuss the answers, and then scratch off to reveal the correct answer. This activity therefore includes group work, problem solving, discussion and debate, and instant feedback. It does take a little bit of time (20 minutes or so, for a few questions), but is an effective active learning strategy that combines learning with an instant-feedback style of assessment.

5) Pair and share: this is also a simple and effective way to get discussions happening in lecture. I pose a question or idea, and simply have students turn to their neighbour to discuss the answer. I then ask some of the pairs to share their answers or ideas, and I also divide the lecture hall into different sections and ask pairs from each section to report back. This allows full use of the space in the classroom and students at the backs, fronts, or sides are able to feel included.

All of the abovementioned strategies don’t actually take that long and do not require a major overhaul to the course or course content. I believe they are relatively risk-free and easy, and suitable for any instructor, pre-tenure or not. I see these kinds of active learning strategies more as ‘value added’ activities, and as small steps that can increase student engagement in the classroom.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that's a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that’s a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

 

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* Full disclosure: so far I have succeeded in all but one lecture, and I’m eleven lectures in. I’ll post an update at the end of term, to let you know if I’m successful all term!

What is the motivation for pursuing graduate school?

Last week an interesting hashtag was floating around twitter:  #whyididaphd.  It was great to see reflections on this topic, and during our most recent lab meeting, I asked my students why they were pursuing advanced research-based degrees, and here are some of their responses:

  • Graduate school allows an opportunity for freedom to do the things you find interesting, every day.
  • Doing research means you can follow your interests and curiosity.
  • Doing a MSc is a perfect transition between an undergraduate degree and whatever might come next!
  • Doing research is an opportunity to work independently, and this is important to me.
  • Research is about gaining knowledge and learning on  your own. It’s like the best kind of drug: you can get hooked and it’s good for you, and it never ends.
  • Graduate school develops my network of collaborators, and I need this as I enter the work force.
  • I want to do things that are relevant, and are my ‘own’. Research allows this.
  • Doing an advanced degree was an important career stage, because I need it in order to do what I really want to do into the future (i.e., academic position).

These reflections were insightful, and showed that the students had wonderful motivations for pursing advanced degrees in a research-based laboratory. I agree that doing a MSc or PhD is perfect for people who are curiosity-driven, and who appreciate the independent nature of the work.

I had two responses to #whyididaphd. The first one certainly reflects my thinking now:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.12.23 PM

The second response is a little more honest, and reflects my thinking at the time I decided to continue with research, about 20 years ago:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.13.21 PM

Is it wrong to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because there’s nothing better to do”, or “because I don’t have another plan and I like University”?  We had a heated debate about this, and the lab was divided. One argument is that it’s a total waste of time, energy, money and resources to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because”. Sure it’s nice to stay in a University after the undergrad degree is done, but why pursue it unless you know you need that advanced degree!  Have a plan, have a career goal, and if a MSc or PhD is part of that plan, pursue graduate school.

In contrast, if you don’t have a plan, or a specific career in mind, perhaps graduate school is the *perfect* place to develop your research skills in an exciting, and familiar environment. Graduate school is a perfect transition to many, many careers, so if there is nothing else on your horizons, keep on trucking along at a University! If you are a curious person, and independent thinker, it’s an ideal learning environment.

I suspect many people fall somewhere in the middle (I think that was the case for me).  I always felt I might eventually like a career at a University, and since I seemed to like research, and be good at it, pursuing graduate school was a natural progression. So, even if the motivations for doing graduate school aren’t always based on a clear career path, those motivations can still be more than enough to give it a try.

I’ll finish by expanding that last point: “give it a try” does not mean “stick with it even when it’s not working”.  It’s important to know when to quit if grad school is not for you. It’s an awfully difficult and frustrating process if it’s not going well. Give it a try if it floats your boat, or it’s what you need. However, also know when to quit.

 

more

Teaching with mobile technology: seeking help!

I need your help!

Tomorrow I’m attending a conference on Education Technologies, and I will be giving a talk about using mobile technology, and social media tools, in ‘out of the classroom’ environments.  I am excited about the opportunity and I welcome the chance to discuss the topic, highlighting my field biology course as a case study.  Here’s an overview of what I will discuss:

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 12.51.25 PM

As part of this talk, I would like to engage a broader community of educators, using social media tools.  More specifically, if you have comments or ideas on some of the discussion questions (below), please comment on this post, or tweet at me, or use the twitter hashtag #EdTechMobile to give your perspective. (Note: For ‘real time’ interaction, you can tweet using that hashtag between 330-415 PM (Eastern) on 5 March)

Here are the discussion questions:

1) What are the challenges and opportunities when using social media tools in the classroom?

2) How might mobile technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) facilitate learning? How might it interfere?

3) How might the approach of linking ‘out of class’ learning environments with mobile technology and social media tools be adapted for other teaching environments? (i.e., other than University-level, the context in which I have used these tools).

Thanks, everyone!

Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

UPDATE: some people have noticed that *this* post contained some errors (Gulp. Oops. Sorry). We all make mistakes, and there is always room for some errors. So, I would like to propose that we stick by the argument that we “strive for” error-free emails! (and blog posts).

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dear prof can u help me with a Q about the crs work…. Its really important and would be gr8 if u could let me know when i could come by and see u in your office”

I get emails like this all the time. Most often, emails sent with shorthand, all in small-caps, without punctuation come from undergraduate students. Sometimes they are from graduate students, and very occasionally, from colleagues.  Quite often, emails from prospective graduate students are riddled with errors and make no sense. This is not the way to make a positive first impression.

Rite gud emails pls

Email remains the last vestige of anything reassembling ‘official correspondence’ between a writer and a reader. As such, any ‘first contact’ over email, or whenever you are not sure of the relationship with the receiver*, you must proofread and strive for clear, error-free emails. It matters. Here’s why, from my perspective as an Academic:

 1) Triage: I’m overwhelmed with emails. Every one of my colleagues is overwhelmed with emails. Triage is often based on a series of quick decisions, and if an prospective student can’t string together a sentence, that email will likely be deleted**. If a student asks questions about course content, I guarantee that the well crafted email will get a response faster than the one that was sent without being proofread. Well-written emails are seldom ignored or deleted quickly.

2) Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear in your writing will not hurt your chances of a positive interaction with someone. Being too casual and sloppy can hurt your chances of a positive interaction. It’s not a chance worth taking.

3) You get what you give: A well written, clear and error-free email will raise the bar. It tells me the sender is serious, and I will respond with the same level of seriousness.  Quality gets you quality, and you will not be taken as seriously if you do not take the time to think about what you are going to write, draft it, proofread, think about it, edit, and then send it.

4) Know your audience: most Academics are somewhat “old school”. We hang on to things from the past. We like books and remember the days of hard-copy newsletters, fax machines and the sound of the dial-up modem. When writing to people of that ilk, take the time to craft an email like it’s an old-fashioned letter, sent with a stamp.  I guarantee it will get noticed.

End of rant.

* email communication can quickly slide into the informal/casual and shorthand provided you have an established relationship between the sender and the reader. If there is a certain amount of familiarity, I see nothing wrong with quick and sometimes sloppy short-hand.

** writing problems are sometimes because of language (i.e., writing in something other than your first language). From my experience, it’s usually quite easy to separate a language issue from sloppiness or carelessness. If you are writing to someone in a language you are less familiar with, I suggest being clear about this. Tell your reader that you are writing in a second (or third language), be honest and genuine, but do pay careful attention so that your email is not sloppy.

(oh, and by the way, here’s a post about common writing errors!)

Social media in higher education: a teaching and learning project

This term I will be spending some time with Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) at McGill: instead of doing my normal winter teaching, TLS is offering me a home for 2-3 days a week to work on projects with them. This is an outstanding opportunity as it provides real and significant time to work on teaching innovation. In my opinion, teaching in higher education should constantly be evaluated and re-assessed, and all Professors (regardless of career stage) should be supported and encouraged to improve, change and innovate their teaching. However, I would argue that many institutions put more attention on research productivity rather than supporting teaching innovation.  This is not to say that Universities don’t value teaching, but rather an argument that promotion is often weighted more towards research productivity than developing innovative approaches to teaching. There is also sometimes a culture by which Professors are unwilling to change anything about their teaching because of fears related to how this might affect teaching evaluation scores.  I have written previously about barriers to teaching innovation, and another barrier is that Professors aren’t typically supported to take time away from other duties to work on projects related to teaching and learning. Sabbaticals, for example, are mostly about re-inventing or re-tooling a research program and less often about pedagogy.  Over the past several years I had these kinds of discussions with various TLS colleagues, and the result is that I now have meaningful support to invest some of my time and energy towards teaching innovation. Bravo, TLS! I’m delighted to be spending time with you this term! (and a sincere thanks to my Chair and Faculty for supporting this endeavour).

It’s fitting that I’m using a blog to discuss the main project I’ll be delving into this term, because it will be all about the use of social media tools in teaching and learning. The way that we teach is changing, in part because there are countless new tools to use; tools that may help with interactions among students or between instructor and students, or tools that help us interact with dynamic, ever-changing content.  It can, however, be overwhelming. There’s an onslaught of technologies (….clickers, video-conferences, tablets, smart-boards and more) as well as countless on-line tools (… Facebook, Google hangouts, blogs, twitter, on-line discussions, etc). How do we make sense of this? How do we incorporate the correct tools into our courses in an effective and productive manner? What ethical or privacy issues must we understand when using some of these tools in the classroom?

My project will try to make sense of all of this, and over the next several months, I will be reading, talking, tweeting, blogging, seeking, sending, writing (and more).  I will be looking to the literature to assess the ways that social media tools can be used effectively in the classroom; I will survey current practices at various institutions, including McGill. At the end of the day, I hope to produce a dynamic ‘document’ to be shared and used by all those who are interested. This document will cover best practices, provide some case-studies and examples, and provide some guidelines about effective use of social media tools in teaching and learning.

Now I shall ask for help: Please let me know about the sorts of social media tools you use in the classroom. Drop me an e-mail, or comment (below), or tweet at me. I hoping to gather examples from a range of disciplines, using a range of tools, in a range of settings (small seminar classes, large courses, field courses, labs). Send me papers you might have written, or links that I’ll need to look at. The products from this project will only be strong if a community can be involved in its development, from the start.

Thanks everyone: this will be a terrific project, and thanks again to TLS and McGill for supporting this project..