How to succeed at University: twelve tips for undergraduate students

Note: this is an updated/edited post, it was originally published several years ago.

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us who work at a University. There are many new students arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As an Associate Dean, I meet many of these students, and I am often asked for advice during orientation week. Later in the term, I sometimes see students who are struggling, and looking for strategies to help with balancing their academic work with other priorities, or looking for ways to make their time at University a little easier. So, here are my twelve tips for success at University:

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education. However, don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life,  students clubs and activities, athletics, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, and your well-being often depends on these extracurricular activities but academic success largely rests with a developing and maintaining a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Listen to your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help you get through your program. Advisors typically help  with course selection, and help plan an academic program from start to finish.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program! Advisors can also help you get on the correct path should you wish to pursue research or internships later in your program, or a term away such as a field semester or an exchange program.

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and therefore it is essential to develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my mobile devices – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of on a regular basis.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Using an agenda and task list properly will also help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to future success almost anywhere.

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and never miss deadlines.  Try to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).   Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects (without extenuating circumstances), does you no favours, and  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.   At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early, then a student who can’t manage deadlines.

5.  Go to class:   Lectures, labs and seminars are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content, and a context for the course materials.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures or labs will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be available elsewhere. Labs or seminars provide important opportunity for hands-on and interactive learning, and this cannot be replaced easily.  Instructors take a lot of pride in lecturing or leading a lab demonstration, and most of them work hard to make the time worthwhile,  interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being there, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture or laboratory, and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for your day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with finances, a personal relationship, failing a course, or struggles with mental or physical health.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling (e.g., see this example for McGill).  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it, or if you know you already have some struggles with anxiety or depression, be sure to be aware of what resources are available to you ahead of time. If you are feeling sick, visit health services. If you are struggling with your program, touch base with your academic advisor. If you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, touch base with counseling services. Know that you are not alone in your struggles (although it may feel that way), and the community will support you. As part of this community, you also have a responsibility to keep an eye on your classmates and friends, and if they need help, you can be in a position to direct them to the right resources.

8.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up. In many cases, there is a on-line course management system for each class, and often there are discussion boards available: this provides another opportunity to ask questions of your instructor or TA, or you can ask questions that your peers may be able to help with.

9.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by instructors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components fall off the rails, this does not mean everything is lost.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures, your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content. Related to this is a little reminder to “slow down” every now and then (I need to remind myself of this, daily). Take some deep breaths, perhaps meditate or do yoga, or just find a bit of quiet time now and then to pause and reflect.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is truly incredibly. It is a time of personal growth and reflection, and it is an enriching experience on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.   Remember that you are immersed in an amazing experience. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and you will make close friends, meet future colleagues, business partners or partners in life.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines and grade panic. Stay well.

The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.

Challenges:

1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.

Opportunities:

1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.

—-

* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.

Earthworms at the Morgan Arboretum

This is a post written by undergraduate student Jessica Turgeon – she’s finishing up a project about earthworms.

When I was a child, you could always find me either in a tree or in the dirt. I liked to follow the ants up into the trees and back down again, where I would switch over to digging for earthworms. I loved the feeling of soil between my hands and thinking to myself that these little worms were responsible for making the soil the way it is. I now know that the process is a bit more complex than this but overall, five year old me was almost right.

JessicaI spent my whole life loving nature, especially those living in it. By high school I became a strong advocate for environmental protection, even helping a teacher create a bylaw in my municipality to stop parents from idling in front of elementary schools. This experience truly opened my eyes to the will power and determination this generation has when it comes to changing old mentalities about the environment.

When choosing a university to go to, there was no doubt in my mind whether I should apply to Environmental Biology at the Macdonald campus of McGill or not. This program combines both of my passions: nature and its diversity and environmental management. I’ve since embarked on an amazing journey that has shaped me as a person.

Being around so many naturalists rekindled my love for earthworms, so much so that I decided that I wanted to conduct a research project about them. With the help of Chris Buddle (McGill) and NSERC USRA, I decided to take on a project detailing their biodiversity at the Morgan Arboretum, a nearby forest.

Earthworms can greatly affect Southern Quebec soils because all of the species found here are invasive1. Forests have evolved without the help of earthworms, meaning that earthworm burrowing action is somewhat of a new experience for the trees1. The worms break up and mix the soil when they crawl, leaving the soil readily susceptible to erosion2. While earthworms are prized by gardeners as natural tillers, this can have drastic effects on hardwood forests2.

It was important to me to find out where certain earthworms were in the Morgan Arboretum and why they were there. Soils vary in their composition and properties, meaning that some are more suitable for earthworms than others. The goal of my project was to analyze three different soil types (sandy, clay, loam) with regard to earthworm species. I did so by sampling in the three soils and by collecting and analysing the soil using basic soil analyses.

I found no earthworms in the sandy soil over the course of the sampling period, strongly suggesting that no earthworms inhabit sandy soils. Sandy soils are too rough and painful for earthworms to crawl through, therefore they are actively avoided. The clay and loam soils had much higher numbers of individuals, with 9 species each. After statistical testing, it was concluded that there is no significant difference between the two soils and it could be said that they are similar in biodiversity. In addition, a strong correlation between particle density (how dense the soil is) and earthworm abundance was found. As particle density increases, to a certain extent, so does abundance.

Earthworm Sampling

To conclude, my data suggests that the clay and loam soils in the Morgan Arboretum are similar in biodiversity, both supporting an equally diverse number of earthworm species. However, the sandy soil does not contain any earthworms, suggesting that this type of soil is incapable of supporting earthworm activities. This is interesting information for soil management, since, in terms of earthworm abundance and biodiversity, clay and loam soils are similar.

Earthworms are essential ecosystem engineers that change the soil to better suit their lifestyle and this is why they are often studied. Hopefully my story has encouraged readers to respect earthworms a bit more; after all, they do much more than be an excellent fish bait!

 

[1]        Cameron, E. K., Zabrodski, M. W., Karst, J., & Bayne, E. M. (2012). Non-native earthworm influences on ectomycorrhizal colonization and growth of white spruce. Ecoscience, 19(1), 29-37.

[2]        Jouquet, P., Dauber, J., Lagerlöf, J., Lavelle, P., & Lepage, M. (2006). Soil invertebrates as ecosystem engineers: intended and accidental effects on soil and feedback loops. Applied Soil Ecology,  32(2), 153-164.

 

Student for a day (Part 3): operation dissection

This is the third and final post about going back to the classroom: you can find the first post here and the second one here.

We rushed from the lecture hall to the basement of the main teaching complex on campus. I walked down the hall towards the lab, that old familiar smell was in the air: it was the “face-muscle dissection day” in Comparative Anatomy. This took me immediately back to my undergraduate days at the University of Guelph.  There were just over a dozen students in the lab, and the ‘specimens’ (I shall NOT mention what they were!) were sitting on stainless steel lab tables, with the dissection gear at the ready. Scalpel? CHECK. Forceps? CHECK. Scissors? CHECK. It was operation: dissection. I was nervous…. then I was handed rubber gloves and a labcoat. I was WAY out of my element…

The instructor started with an extremely detailed 45 minute lecture, providing an excellent overview of the game-plan for the dissections: the expectations of the students was exceedingly clear, and the instructor’s own deep expertise was obvious.

Checking the notes before the dissection commences...

Checking the notes before the dissection commences…

And then the music went on (yes, music! One of the TAs always picks a lovely selection to work to) and the clang of forceps, scalpels scissors started: the students were off, peeling skin and searching for ever-elusive face muscles. It was hard and tedious work: after 30+ minutes our team had only just begun to expose the first layer of muscles. The students expressed how tough the class was, and how it took an incredible amount of time to study their notes after labs. In addition to their own notes, the textbook, and the laboratory notes, my team was taking photos with their smartphones, and taking some videos to use as future study aids. They have a test coming up soon, and were working hard to remember the content and link the ‘thing’ to the ‘name’. I asked the students why they were taking such a challenging course… surely it was required for their program? It turns out that the course wasn’t required, and the students were taking it because they wanted to. It was one of their favourite classes because it involved ‘doing’ things and involved experiential learning on a topic they were deeply interested in (animal biology). The act of dissecting was how they were learning, and the act of dissecting allowed them to really understand how animals work: from the shape and size of salivary glands, to why certain muscles were more developed than others, or how whiskers are embedded deep under the skin surface.

At one point I looked at the clock and was amazed that a full hour had already passed. I looked up from our specimen (and yes, my lab partners had given it a name…) and did a scan of the laboratory: everyone was hunched over, smiling, and now and then you heard ‘COOL’ and ‘WOW’. They were learning together, learning by doing, and loving it. They loved the challenge of the class and they weren’t watching the clock.

I had to leave and get back to my office, and the instructor came up afterwards to say thanks. I was told that never before had another instructor or Prof stepped into the classroom to see what they were doing. That’s a shame.

With my lab partners.

With my lab partners.

I come away from my “student for a day” experience with some vivid memories, new perspectives, and the following take-home messages:

  • There’s a lot of material! Wow, there was a lot of material! The students are learning a very high volume of content, and this happens day after day after day. No wonder they are sometimes stressed and fall behind. As Profs, we need to perhaps better recognize and respect work loads.
  • Different teaching styles are valuable: from lectures to discussions to hands-on laboratories, the variation was much appreciated. It would be tough sitting through six straight hours of lecture, but varying it between different formats works very well. Education is not, and should not *ever* be uniform. One shoe doesn’t fit all, and there is incredible value to ensuring our students get the variation in educational styles.
  • Spaces are important, perhaps more so than I appreciated before: the physical space itself had a great influence on my time as a student, from the angle of the screen to the placement of the door. The little things matter and the space is a key partner in learning. Variation in available spaces must match variation in different types of courses and instructors. We need big and small lecture halls, well-equipped laboratories, and collaborative learning spaces.
  • Students are bright, motivated, serious, and have high expectations: this is good to recognize. I already felt this about students on my campus, but seeing this first hand in three different classes confirmed my suspicions. We should maintain rigor and approach each course with an expectation that the audience is ready to learn and ready to be engaged.
  • Instructors always rush around from class to class and meeting to meeting, but we sometimes forget that students need to rush around too! There isn’t always time in their schedule to eat, line up for the washroom, or physically get from one classroom to another. This is a reminder for me to end class when it’s supposed to end, and be a little more forgiving when students come in a little bit late.

In sum, I will do this again, and would urge my colleagues to do the same. It’s important to see what students see, learn about different approaches to the classroom, and be sensitive to a full timetable and to the high workload that students experience.

A very special thanks to the students who allowed me to tag along: you were patient, kind, and made the experience extra-special.

Student for a day (Part 2): the lecture hall

This is the second of a three-part series on going back to the classroom: check out the first part here.

So far I was enjoying shadowing students for a day: I was excited after my exposure to the research project course, and was fuelled up on coffee as I checked the schedule, wolfed down my lunch and met my next chaperone. We walked together to a different building and to a more traditional setting: a lecture hall. The class was about animal health, and the content was about a retained placenta in cows, and how this affects bovine health and how the retained placenta might lead to other uterine diseases. The instructor, after setting up the Powerpoint, first took 5-10 minutes to ask the class questions from the last lecture. It was clear that this was a normal start to each lecture as the students had dutifully prepared questions for the instructor, and time and care was taken to address each student. This is a great approach, and although I sometimes do this with my own lectures, I don’t do this consistently at the start of each class. I think the students really appreciated devoting this time to discussion at the start of each of their lectures.

The instructor had carefully prepared slides, and had a very nice pace for the entire 90 minutes lecture. I learned a great deal, from Freemartins, to how to treat a cow with a suspected uterine infection. I was deeply impressed by the depth of knowledge of the instructor: research from peer-reviewed papers was used throughout the lecture, and many anecdotes were used to ground the content. There was a lot of content, and it was also clear that the instructor has high expectations of the students. The instructor was also passionate about the material, and this helped keep my interest.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

One of the most interesting experiences for me was being able to view the students’ computer screens from the vantage point of a student! I could see about 6-7 screens, and I had some expectation that Facebook or cruising on web-browsers would occur. To my surprise and delight, students were using their computers largely to take notes: some students had the lecture slides (provided by the instructor before class started) on half their screens and a word processer on another part of their screen and they were moving with ease between the two. This was the definition of effective multitasking. My chaperone had a different approach, and was writing in a spiral-bound notebook. She told me that later on she looks at the lecture slides and cross-references with her hand-written notes as an effective way to study. I was impressed: these students are serious, and have given a lot of thought to the best way to take lecture notes and study. I have previously offered some rather strong opinions about instructors posting Powerpoint slides on-line, but what I was seeing in the classroom was certainly causing me to reflect and reconsider my opinions.

There were three important take-home message for me during this lecture:

  • start each class with questions and answers from the previous lecture
  • bring examples from peer-reviewed literature into lectures
  • recognize that students with laptops in class are using these laptops for class.

After lecture we had to rush (10 minutes between classes is not much time!) through melting snow and mud-puddles to get to the basement of another building for the final adventure for the day…

Student for a day (Part 1): spaces for discussion

Yesterday I went back to the classroom and shadowed undergraduate students for the day. I did this because I just don’t really know what happens in classrooms. As an Associate Dean, I feel a responsibility to be aware of what students face throughout their day. I think this will help me gain perspective in my administrative role, and allow me insights into other instructional styles and approaches to teaching and learning in different contexts. After all, I really only know my way of teaching: I’ve not been an undergraduate student for a very long time.

Due to a bit of poor planning on my part, and since we are nearing the ‘end of term madness’, I wasn’t able to get a schedule for the whole day, and instead attended only three classes, with two different students. These students were my chaperones, and took me under their wing as they went to lecture or lab. By pure chance, I ended up seeing three different kinds of classes during my day, and have reflections about each of these experiences. In the first of this three-part blog series, I will share my experience taking part in an independent research project course.

The first classroom: a conference room

The first classroom: a conference room

This was a very small class in which a few students were working on an independent project: their supervising Professor had recently given the group feedback on their written work, but was not present for this meeting. Instead, it was just the students and me (as a passive observer). Their project was centered on re-thinking environmental education with a goal of developing a framework or plan for teaching 9-12 year old kids about sustainability. The students were taking a very interesting approach in which their framework was focused on facilitating discussion around the values associated with teaching about sustainability: values such as respect, self-worth, respect and compassion. During our time together, the students edited a Google-doc together, and had deep and meaningful conversations about pedagogical principles. This was a wide-ranging discussion that was insightful, thoughtful and fascinating. To be honest, these students knew more about educational principles than most of my colleagues! They were in a science-based program, yet were reading literature from education journals, and were applying high-level thinking to a practical problem about how to create a learning opportunity based not on silos of knowledge, but on ways to approach sustainability from truly interdisciplinary perspectives.

The discussion also moved into a conversation about teaching spaces: for this class, we were actually situated in a conference room, with a couple of chairs, a computer and one of the students was attending virtually, over SKYPE. This learning space was important to them, and at one point one of the students said “You get the most learning outside of the classroom”. Their ideal University is not one of lecture halls, but one of open spaces, whiteboards and WIFI: spaces for debate and discussion about big projects and problems that rely on multiple disciplines. The students expressed frustration that very few of their classes approach problems from interdisciplinary perspectives (or if they do, it barely moves beyond lip service) yet this is what they want from their education. They want a learning community that draws upon all the silos of knowledge at the same time, and they want spaces to facilitate this kind of learning.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

These students amazed me with their insights, thoughtful commentary, and clear ideas about education, learning spaces, and expectations from a University experience. ­

My “Student for a day” project was off to a great start. Next up, a traditional lecture hall…

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!