All posts by Adam Finkelstein

Techno-geeky, hyper-connected, educational technology, social media dad with a academic, educational developer, teaching and learning, social wrapper.

Aug. 28 workshop for faculty: Writing effective reference letters for student fellowships

28 Aug 2013,  10:00 to 12:00, McLennan Library Building, Room: MS-74

Professors are often asked by students to write reference letters for funding opportunities. This interactive session is designed to help you answer questions such as:

  • Are you obliged to write a reference letter if asked by a student and how might you respond if you are not supportive?
  • How much lead time should you expect in order to write a reference letter?
  • What information should be provided by the student?

What are the key elements of a “good” reference letter and what pitfalls should be avoided?

To register for the workshop, click here and  select “Register for the Graduate Workshop”

Librarians in the Classroom

Kristen Emmett, graduate student in the McGill School of Information Studies (SIS), writes about some of the intersections between librarianship and teaching in higher education.

University students and faculty may not think of librarians as teachers, but increasingly the role of librarians is shifting from reference and book providers to active educators.[1] In the past, instruction in the library, often referred to as bibliographic instruction, served to orient students and other users to the organization of materials within the library’s collection. Now, the library is refocusing from a collection-centered model to a user-centered model, where instruction is tailored to the needs of the user.

So what does that mean in university libraries? It means that librarians are going out into the classrooms on campus and teaching not only how to use the library’s resources, but how to conduct research, how to sift through information and avoid information overload, how to recognize seminal articles, how to do citation linking, and how to think critically. McGill librarians teach formally and informally every day in classrooms across campus and as well as in the library. For example, check out the MyResearch workshops for arts undergraduates, physical sciences & engineering undergraduates, and graduate students.

Bibliographic instruction still happens, but the 21st century library also emphasizes critical information literacy skills. The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000), set out by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), outlines five standards, 22 performance indicators, and outcomes for information literacy instruction.[2] What is information literacy? The ACRL uses the American Library Association (ALA) definition: “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”.[3] Librarians teaching information literacy design their instruction around the ACRL standards as well as their own learning outcomes based on the goals of the courses they are visiting. Information literacy instruction is student-centered and meant to be more just-in-time teaching than just-in-case.

Librarians are also getting involved in the digital classroom. MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have librarians across North America thinking about how librarians can play a role in assisting faculty and students. In a recent article in the professional journal Library Journal, Meredith Schwartz presents several ways that librarians can be “embedded” into MOOCs: preserving content, providing access to copyrighted content, and providing instructional support with resources and technology used throughout the course.[4] Libraries are constantly seeking to evolve along with the needs of their users, and librarians are more and more going out of the library to where their users are – in both the physical and virtual classroom – to better improve teaching and learning in higher education.

[1] Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

[2] Information literacy compentency standards for higher education. (2000). Association of College and Research Libraries.  Retrieved January 9, 2009, from

[3] American Library Association. (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report.(Chicago: American Library Association.)

[4] Schwartz, M. (May 10, 2013). Massive Open Opportunity: Supporting MOOCs in Public and Academic Libraries. Library Journal. Retrieved from:


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How can I teach in an Active Learning Classroom at McGill?

Adam Finkelstein, Teaching and Learning Services explains McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms and how an instructor can teach their class in these new spaces.

Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) are spaces that are specifically designed to “signal” a mode of learning focused on collaboration and interaction. ALCs offer many features, both furniture that encourages collaboration (e.g. round tables for group work, movable chairs for facilitating work in pairs or small groups) and numerous technological features (e.g., digital writing, screen sharing facilities, SMARTBoards) to provide a supportive and engaging learning environment. If you are an instructor that is interested in doing a great deal of active learning in your course, then these spaces were designed for you.

The Teaching and Learning Spaces Working Group (TLSWG) recommended the first ALCs to be built in 2009 (Education 627 and Burnside 511). Since then, new ALCs have been built every year on both the downtown and Mac campus.

Education 627 - One of McGill's first Active Learning Classrooms
Education 627 (72 students) – One of McGill’s first Active Learning Classrooms

The ALCs at McGill range from 72 students (in Education 627) to 24 students (in 688 Sherbrooke Rm 1265).

688 Sherbrooke Rm 1265 (24 students) - One of the newer Active Learning Classrooms at McGill
688 Sherbrooke Rm 1265 (24 students) – One of McGill’s newer Active Learning Classrooms

ALCs can be more complex than traditional teaching and learning environments. These spaces are often brand new environments for instructors and students and while they present important new opportunities for learning, they also create unique challenges. McGill offers a comprehensive support system for instructors who would like to use these new spaces, everything from in-room support to consultations on using active learning strategies in your course.

These new classrooms have been a great success at McGill in the last few years. TLS created a video to help document some of the exciting things happening in these rooms. If you haven’t seen it, take a look:

If you are looking to teach in an Active Learning Classroom, contact the Timetable Coordinator in your Faculty or Department — they can help you book one of these new spaces. Feel free to contact TLS if you would like any more information on our Active Learning Classrooms.

Short Writing Assignments in Non-Majors Biology

Prof. Tamara Western, Professor of Biology, describes using short-written assignments in a large undergraduate class:

My main goal when I took over a Non-Majors Introductory Biology course in Fall 2012 was to make it interesting and relevant for the students. I had several plans for this, e.g. highlighting recent news articles related to lectures, something I still want to do, but did not happen this first year because I was too busy writing new lectures. Another thing I wanted to do was to change how the course was evaluated. With large courses like this one (~250 students), multiple choice exams are a necessary evil, but I did not want the grade to rest solely on those. I was toying with the idea of having the students do some sort of group assignment related to a research paper, as I’d heard about in another class, but decided to wait, not in the first year. Then I went to a workshop in late August 2012 about ‘Bringing Research Into the Undergraduate Classroom’ facilitated by the McGill Inquiry Network. There, watching professors talk about how they fostered research of various sorts into their classes, and given the opportunity to brainstorm, I was inspired. By that afternoon (about a week before classes started), I’d decided, ‘what the hell, I’m going to go for it’, and drafted 3 short writing assignments based on the idea of sending the students out to look at the recent news articles:

  1. SCIENCE MEDIA & SOURCES (Individual – ½ page) – Find a biology-related news item on the web, determine the source of the science described in the news item and evaluate the reliability of the source in terms of the rigour (trustworthiness) of the science.
  2. SCIENCE MEDIA & LINKS TO BIOLOGICAL PHENOMENA DISCUSSED IN CLASS (Individual – ½ page) – Find a biology-related news item on the web [different than for #1] that relates to one of the topics covered in class and discuss how the research described in the article advances knowledge in the topic area.
  3.  POPULAR CULTURE & BIOLOGY (group of 4 students – 3 pages) – Find a movie or an episode of a TV show that includes biology-related science as a significant portion of its plot. Describe the movie/TV show, how the biology-related science is integrated, what is the biology-related science, describe the related biology covered in class and critique the biology-related science in the movie/TV show for its believability/realism.

These were presented to the students with more detailed instructions , an example, and a requirement to sign up for their topics in an online discussion group that allowed people to search to make sure they did not pick the same article. I was extremely impressed by student response to these assignments – many students signed up for topics immediately and picked a broad range of interesting topics from all aspects of Biology. In general, the summaries were high quality and I enjoyed reading them. My favourite assignment was the final one, where the students viewed a variety of movies and TV shows ranging from ‘GATTACA’ to ‘Contagion’ to ‘Twins’ to ‘WALL-E’ to ‘House’ and ‘The Magic School Bus’ (forensic shows like CSI and NCIS were banned).  A number of the critiques of the realism, especially, showed good insight into the Biology (or lack of Biology truly presented in the movies). Based on some comments I did get, I believe the students liked these assignments, and, personally, I like the idea that they took a few things of interest to them, saw how they related to Biology and thought about it at least briefly. I hope a number of them felt the same. Reflecting on this, I can see where these assignments could be improved in future years (e.g. more examples, better defined rubric, no documentaries for the pop culture assignment). I’d also like to look into how I could get a more tangible read on what they meant to the students, not to mention see what other ideas they may have to improve linking the science to their worlds.

Upcoming workshops: Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)

Supporting Active Learning and Technological Innovation in Science Education (SALTISE) is pleased to announce two free workshops (April 4th and April 5th) in the use of POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) led by Dr. Richard Moog, the Director of the POGIL project, author, and professor at Franklin & Marshall College, Pennsylvania.

POGIL in an inquiry-based approach to learning and uses a “learning cycle”, including exploration, concept invention and application as the basis for many of the carefully designed materials that students use to guide them in their construction of knowledge and understanding of the course content.

1. Thursday, April 4th workshop (6pm – 9pm), Intermediate POGIL workshop. Location: Dawson College, room 3F.37 (Active Learning Classroom):

During this workshop, Dr. Moog will describe and explain the benefits of this student-centered inquiry approach to teaching, where students work in small groups with individual roles to ensure that all students are fully engaged in the learning process. He will also engage participants is hands-on exercises to help them build their own inquiry-based lesson. This workshop is an exceptional opportunity to get moving forward with your efforts to implement active learning pedagogy.

Intended audience: Thursday’s workshops is intended for those who have already begun to use a student-centered teaching approaches and who are looking for answers to specific questions such as: How is an inquiry-based approach different from other active learning approaches? Can I do just a few activities or do I have to commit to an entire curriculum? How do I adapt specific inquiry-based activities and tools to my discipline? What are the benefits of inquiry-based activities compared to other approaches to active learning?

Registration for this workshop is essential; places are limited to a maximum of 45 participants.  A light dinner will be served.

To register:


2. Friday, April 5th, (2-4pm) Introductory POGIL workshop,  Location: John Abbott College & McGill McDonald Campus on the West Island.

This is an entry level workshop. Participants will experience a POGIL-based learning project, analyze activities to understand how guided inquiry is structured in a POGIL classroom, and consider classroom facilitation and other issues related to the implementation of this student-centered instructional strategy.

Intended audience: Friday’s workshop is intended for those who are curious about this student-centered teaching approach and are looking for answers to questions such as: How do I get started? Where do I find tools? How do I get my students to buy into this new way of teaching? What’s in it for me, and what’s in it for my students?

Registration is encouraged: To register: 

These events are sponsored by the SALTISE, a Chantier 3 grant, funded by MELS with a mission to build and support a community of practice centered around pedagogical and technological innovation in the teaching of science.
For any questions, please contact Diana Tabatabai, Research Associate (;  514-398-5781)