All posts by Chris Buddle

Twitter as a collaborative learning tool in field biology

Social media tools have a lot of value in teaching and learning, and this has become even more apparent as I continue to use twitter in an introductory field biology class.  In “St Lawrence Ecosystems“, students are doing natural history research projects and tweeting about their project. They are discovering the many ways that 140 characters can help create collaborative learning communities.

Continue reading Twitter as a collaborative learning tool in field biology

Guidelines for using social media in the classroom

Social media tools (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blogs) are valuable tools for teaching and learning in higher education. They can help increase student engagement, and provide opportunities for active learning. However, these tools need to be used carefully, and with particular attention to matters of data privacy, ethics and student consent regarding the use tools that are ‘off-site’ (i.e., not supported by the University).

In an ideal world, all classroom activities would be done within the learning management system supported by the University (e.g., Desire2Learn). However, off-site social media tools are often more user-friendly, and are the same online tools that students (and potentially instructors) already use on a regular basis. There’s often an existing familiarity and comfort level with these social media tools, which can be beneficial if their use is required to meet the learning outcomes for a course.

Universities have active social media profiles, but how does this relate to teaching with social media?
Universities have active social media profiles, but how does this relate to teaching with social media?

A quick online search will reveal that many Universities have developed policies and guidelines about social media (here are McGill’s guidelines), ranging from broad guidance about social media at an institutional level, through to practical advice about online etiquette (here’s an example of etiquette guidelines from the University of New Hampshire). These resources, however, do not necessarily apply specifically to the use of social media in the classroom as a teaching and learning tool.

It’s not easy to develop policies and guidelines about social media use, in part because it’s a moving target: the tools change rapidly, and standard policies may quickly become obsolete. By their very nature, social media tools are fluid, dynamic, and don’t fit easily into sets of rigid policies and legalese. These features (which make them so appealing, interactive and useful as teaching and learning tools) create challenges in terms of navigating the boundary between the professional and the personal. This boundary can get quite fuzzy when social media tools are used in a classroom setting (e.g., do you ‘friend’ students in your class when Facebook is used as an online tool?). Social media tools are open and public, which means individuals from outside the classroom and University may be interacting and collaborating with students inside the classroom. As such, it’s extremely important that instructors pay attention to the potential issues around student privacy and consent, and it’s essential that students also abide by the codes of conduct of their University.

Navigating social media in the classroom can be tricky.
Navigating social media in the classroom can be tricky.

Below are some guidelines for using social media in the classroom; these were developed after many discussions, and much reading and reflection. One caveat: it is important that instructors also consult their own University’s policies or guidelines and consult with the experts, as necessary.

  • Consent: If social media tools are to be used in a classroom setting (whether or not it is part of the formal assessment), this must be explicitly stated in the course outline. The expectations need to be transparent: it should come as no surprise to students if they are asked to participate on Twitter or write blogs as part of the course. This is the means by which student consent is obtained for the use of social media in the classroom.
  • Opt-out option: If the course is required for a student to complete their academic program, and the student has personal/ethical (or other) reasons for not wanting to use off-site social media sites or tools, instructors should be prepared to offer those students an alternative. Offering alternatives might not be feasible when the use of social media tools is unavoidable in the context of specific learning outcomes for a course, but again, this must be explicitly stated in the course outline. If the course isn’t required, and if the use of social media tools is explicit in the course outline, students may elect not to take the course.
  • Etiquette: Before the social media tools are used, some training should be provided. The instructor needs to have a frank and candid discussion with students about proper etiquette when using social media in the classroom. Everyone needs to be reminded that whatever you write and post is potentially ‘out there’ forever! One of the simplest, and best, pieces of advice is: “keep it positive; keep it professional”.
  • The fine print: instructors and students need to be aware of the ‘terms of use’ for different social media tools. Related, there are important issues to pay attention to regarding copyright infringement: posting content without proper attribution and permissions can get people into serious trouble. Different social media sites have varying policies around data ownership and privacy and everyone using the sites in a classroom setting must be made aware of these policies.
  • Privacy: Students should be encouraged to set up alias accounts for the course so their real names are not associated with the course, in the public domain. This helps to navigate the professional-personal boundary, and it’s is a key means by which student privacy is maintained. This is particularly important if the content is of a personal nature. The instructor will, of course, be able to associate students with the alias accounts, but this information must be kept confidential. Depending on the content, or the type of course, there may be situations where a student’s name is used publically as part of the course, but this needs to be done carefully and cautiously.


In sum, using social media tools in the classroom presents a terrific opportunity for instructors and students, but neither party should use these tools without following some simple and sensible guidelines.

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The value of using social media tools in teaching and learning

From Facebook to Twitter and blogs, social media tools are an integral and important part of society, and these tools are here to stay. Social media is about collaborating, networking, sharing and generating knowledge and content, and all of these features are of great value in the context of higher education. Today’s Universities have well-developed social media strategies, and use a suite of social media tools for various purposes including internal and external communications, recruitment, sharing research findings, and highlighting exciting student initiatives (this is reviewed in detail by Davis et al.). Continue reading The value of using social media tools in teaching and learning

Instructors: stop putting your Powerpoint slides on-line

I tire of the belly-aching about how students don’t show up to lectures anymore (the latest example of this is mentioned here). In my opinion, this is a signal that something is wrong with how the material is delivered rather than being indicative of some deeper issue. It means the traditional lecture format needs a serious overhaul. In other words, perhaps this is the fault of the instructor rather than the student.

One of the key issues is that instructors are getting into the habit of spoon-feeding students by placing lectures on-line. I was a 20 year-old undergraduate once, and if I was able to get all the lecture material by logging on and clicking ‘download’, it would certainly make it easy to skip class! If lectures are posted on-line, I’m not surprised that students aren’t going to lecture.

The solution is simple: STOP posting Powerpoint slides on-line!

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 9.30.51 AM

OK, I admit I’ll get some flak from that statement. Here are some of the arguments for posting Powerpoint slides on-line, and my rebuttals:

Students argue that having lectures on-line facilitates their learning: instead of concentrating on the lectures and the content, students have to scramble to write things done.

This merely indicates that the instructor is going too quickly over the material, or that too much material is being covered. Less is often more. If students are scrambling to write stuff down, this means “slow down”, it doesn’t mean “post your lectures on-line”. There’s a serious disease in higher education and it’s called “Information Overload Disorder”. For some reason, instructors have in their mind that covering loads of material is a requirement for a University course. No: covering important information in an active and integrative manner is a requirement for a University course.

Students are SO used to having the notes, and I’m afraid my teaching evaluations will suffer if I don’t put the notes on-line.

Sorry, this doesn’t fly either: my teaching scores have actually increased once I stopped putting notes on-line, and I’ve received countless positive comments from students about not posting slides on-line. This is because the class was always full, and it forced me to change the manner in which lectures are delivered (see above: I had to cover less material!). Having students in the classroom instead of their dorm rooms produced a positive feedback loop: it created a full classroom, and an active classroom. Since there were more students in class, there were more questions and since there were more questions, the classroom became more interactive and as the classroom become more interactive, student engagement increased.

Powerpoint is so awesome! Textbook companies provide the slides and all the material is ready to go! Clickity-click-click let’s LECTURE!

Powerpoint is not awesome. Powerpoint slides are an ineffective and rather annoying tool for the University classroom. Text-heavy Powerpoint slides do not promote an active learning environment. Active learning is an important and valuable concept in higher education. Active learning means the classroom becomes a space for debate, discussion, interaction, and the instructor is the facilitator of all of this rather than a ‘voice from a podium’. Powerpoint slides can be used to illustrate concepts, for showing relevant graphs or images, but they should not be used for a long list of bulleted points. Frankly, Powerpoint often becomes a memory tool for the instructor rather than a tool for effective instruction. Try a chalkboard instead…

Students shouldn’t be forced to come to lecture – heck, they are paying for University and we are at their service. It’s their right to have access to course notes on-line.

Yes, students are paying to come to University, and instructors are paid to teach. In most cases, this means teaching in a seminar room or lecture hall. In most cases, this means teaching in a context where direct interaction with students is possible, important and a key part of the University experience! To me, it’s the student’s right to be able to go to lecture and experience an active and engaging environment: an environment that creates opportunity for learning from an expert on a topic, but also learning from peers. These are difficult things to replicate outside of a classroom. So, instead of thinking of it as forcing students to come to lecture, it’s time to create a lecture environment that is welcoming, exciting and engaging. Let’s create environments which make it so students want to come to lecture.

The University Classroom: let's make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)
The University Classroom: let’s make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)

Not all students can come to lecture!

Correct: and it’s certainly convenient to be able to have access to Powerpoint slides especially if a student is sick or has a family emergency. However, this is based on an assumption that someone will be able to actually understand a lecture based on a series of Powerpoint slides. Hopefully this isn’t the case! Instead, a Powerpoint presentation should facilitate and guide rather than be a definitive record of a lecture. A good lecture should never depend on Powerpoint: a good lecture should change direction depending on a question from a student, or a current event that occurs on the morning of the lecture. It should be dynamic, and never ‘locked-in’ to a series of slides. If students miss lectures, there are alternatives: Many students record lectures, students often have friends in a class, and there are office hours available for students. I often find office hours to be rather quiet times, yet this is the perfect opportunity for a student to approach an instructor if they miss a lecture.

What are the alternatives?

I’m not saying don’t put anything on-line, rather I’m arguing against dumping an entire Powerpoint presentation on-line. There are many alternatives… but you’ll have wait for a future post that will discuss some ideas – so stay tuned! (or you are welcome to comment, below).

In sum, I hope this post can cause a stir, and cause instructors to question the value of posting lectures on-line. As in all things, there is no silver bullet solution to low student attendance in a lecture hall, but I firmly believe we are doing a serious disservice to students by posting material on-line. Let’s instead work on innovative approaches to teaching that will make the lecture hall an inviting and exciting space for teaching and learning.

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A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

This post is part of the ongoing series about assessments strategies for large class sizes

After teaching for a while, you just start wanting to do things differently.

That quote, from McGill Professor Jens Pruessner, resonates strongly: teaching is a dynamic and ever-changing activity, and strategies evolve over time. That being said, doing things differently is particularly challenging in large classes: moving ‘beyond the multiple choice’ when assessing students in a class with hundreds of students requires creativity, time, courage, and a lot of energy!

This didn’t faze Jens as he started re-thinking ways of assessing his students in his 300+ student Psychology class titled “Hormones & Behaviour”. The goal of this course is “to familiarize students with the basic concepts and theories in major areas of hormones and behavior, and to stimulate interest and further study in Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.” He wanted to find creative ways to link deeper aspects of research and scholarship directly into the course. Continue reading A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

Learning to Teach: 10 tips for Professors

Professors are often hired for their research credentials, and are trained more for their research skills and abilities than for teaching skills. The University that hires profs hopes they can also teach, and often things work out very well, in part because Academics are able to take workshops on pedagogy, learn from mentors, and develop their teaching skills ‘on the job’.  What might be useful, however, is for new Profs to hear some advice from people currently in the system, and learn from their mistakes. In this post, I will explore some ideas and thoughts about teaching, with a focus on things that would have been useful early on in my teaching career (note: these words of advice come from my own perspective in teaching science classes, sometimes in a ‘podium-style’ manner).

1. Be confident, even though you’ll always be nervous:  Standing up in front of an audience is always nerve-wracking, and even though it gets better with time, the butterflies and anxiety will likely remain. Despite over 11 years of teaching, and despite often teaching the same courses year after year, I always get nervous. This means you have to develop a strategy for handling your nerves, and recognize that they make you a better teacher. Not being nervous might suggest overconfidence, or lack of interest, or might suggest you are becoming a little too familiar with the material (time to change it up?). Being nervous is normal and will raise the level of your game and keep you on your toes.  Strategies for nerves are rather specific to the individual, but I try to make sure I’ve had a good breakfast (or lunch), that I know the material (being prepared is key for helping with nerves), and I try to keep myself occupied in the hours leading up to lecture. I also try not to show up too early for lecture, so that I stand and fiddle around in front of the class worrying away until the clock slowly ticks towards the start of lecture. Regardless of your nerves, however, instructors must exhibit self-confidence! Students need to know that you are confident and in charge of the course and its material. The challenge is to have this sense of confidence despite having jitters… but you must find a solution; without confidence, you’ll lose the room and nerves can rattle this confidence.

A giant lecture hall awaits.
A giant lecture hall awaits. (image under creative commons license, from here)

2. Don’t over-prepare: teaching will take all the time you give it. If you start preparing lectures in early August for a course that starts in early September, you can potentially spend all your time on preparing material, yet still find yourself scrambling to re-think and re-work material once the course actually starts. It’s key that you prepare your course outline and learning outcomes early, develop an assessment strategy, and develop a plan in broad brushstrokes, but be cautious about getting all your lecture material ready too much in advance of the course starting. From experience, when I prepare early I just end up re-doing the work anyway. This advice, however, does vary depending on your knowledge base related to what you are teaching. If you are thrown into a new course that is beyond your area of expertise, it is important to do a lot of background reading well in advance.

3. Be honest: If you don’t have a good answer to a student’s question, don’t try to stumble through an answer. Just say “I don’t know – let me get back to you”. Then, after lecture, figure out the answer and return with that answer for the next lecture. University students are smart, capable, and can spot it when an instructor is faking it. When that happens, your credibility sinks, and you end up making a big mess of things. However, being honest about not knowing the answer shows you are human, and coming back with a solid answer shows that you care. Similarly, be honest when you screwed up something during lecture. Almost every year that I have taught, I have ‘repeated’ a lecture because the first time I tried, it was a mess. When that happens, start again next lecture. Sometimes you can also ‘restart’ a lecture part-way through if things are not going well.

4. Innovate: Boredom when lecturing is significant problem. Always change how you teach, what you teach, and how you assess students. Don’t be afraid to mix things up now and then, as this will keep thing fresh and exciting for both you and the students. When your University’s teaching services unit offers new and innovative ideas or workshops about teaching and teaching innovation, take advantage of these opportunities to learn about new ways to approach teaching and pedagogy. Try new technologies as they become available, from clickers to smart boards; you might end up adopting some of these, or you might go back to basics. Never settle for doing the ‘same old thing’ with your course.

5. Learn from mentors: As you establish yourself in a Department or Faculty, get to know who the best teachers are, and go sit in their classrooms. Go to a few lectures to see different styles of lecturing, and different approaches to content deliver. See the tricks and strategies for how instructors develop a rapport with students; how they use humour (or not), and assess their use (or misuse) of technology in the classroom. Assess what works, and adapt your own teaching to mimic those things. It’s also important to invite your mentors to come sit in on your own lectures. They can provide useful feedback for you, and (eventually) be in a strong position to provide you a letter of support in reference to your own teaching portfolios. In a University, many terrific teachers surround you, and you can and should use their expertise to improve your own teaching.

6. Slow down: A fatal flaw in teaching is that we often try to cover too much material.  Almost all ‘seasoned’ Professors that I know have, over time, reduced the amount of material that they cover over a term. Take your time, cover concepts carefully, use examples, analogies, and keep the pace slow, especially if you want to have some level of student engagement. If you hurry all the time, students will be scrambling to keep up, become annoyed, and may stop coming to lecture. Pause every now and then, ask questions, respond to questions, repeat complex concepts, revisit past lecture material every now and then. I often tell relevant stories to force myself to ease into or out of material – for example, when I teach general ecology, I’ll often pick up a relevant blog post or news story and spend some time talking about that, and linking a ‘real world’ example to the course content. This is ‘value added’ material, and in addition to forcing me to cover less content and slow down, it also provides an opportunity to expand the course content.

7. Learn names: developing a rapport with students is important, and knowing names is key to developing this rapport. This is only possible with a bit of hard work at the start of each term, and then, over time it gets easier. Study your class list, put faces to names, and when giving back assignments, do it individually, looking at each student, saying their name out loud to them, and making that connection. I find it is possible to train yourself to learn somewhere between 60-70 names over about a 2-3 week period. This process allows you to make a connection with students, and you can call them by name for in-class activities, or address them in person when they are asking a question.

Not an exact science.. Creative commons photo, from here.
Not an exact science.. Creative commons photo, from here.

8. Get help when you need it: not everything will go smoothly, and you’ll probably need to find some help at one time or another. As mentioned above, take advantage of pedagogical workshops or other events or conferences. If you struggle with presentation skills, either projection or pace, think about getting additional help: enroll in a night-course in theatre school, or subject yourself to the ridiculous but useful process of practicing in front of a mirror – this will help you learn your mannerisms and quirks, and help you develop presentation skills. Talk to the Chair of your Department when things aren’t going well, and s/he should be able to provide you with resources or other forms of help. It’s critically important to identify weaknesses in your teaching early on, and finding solutions to these problems. Although the temptation may be to focus on your research program, you can’t let your teaching suffer.

9. Pay attention to student evaluations, but don’t obsess over them: regardless of opinions on student assessments, they are a part of the process, and you will be evaluated as an instructor. The hard numbers often inform tenure and promotion decisions, and you must pay attention to these numbers. However, teaching is not a numbers game, and low evaluations scores do not necessarily mean you are a bad teacher. Maybe people sometime see a drop in teaching scores when new technologies or approaches are adopted. In other words, in may take a few years to see positive effects of new approaches to teaching and short-term evaluations may suffer. Try to look at these evaluations with a long-view, recognizing that there are many reasons for year-to-year variations in numeric evaluations, from ‘cohort’ effects, having a new baby in your home, illness, changing assessment types, etc. That being said, it’s important to read and act on written comments provided by students, or interpret them based on trends, especially over time. I have found that anyone who takes time to write down feedback often has insightful and useful things to say.

10. Have fun: Teaching is truly one of the most rewarding parts of the job: it’s exciting, ever-changing, and we mustn’t forget it’s an honour and a privilege to teach at a University. Take it seriously, work hard, but also have a little fun now and then. Remember, sharing and exchanging knowledge is an amazing process, and we ought to enjoy this process, interact positively with our students, and be able to laugh at our own mistakes, and at funny situations within the lecture hall. Strive to be firm, but approachable; confident but not arrogant; fun, but not goofy.

In sum, I hope these tips prove helpful!  Please comment, below, if you have other advice to offer. Let’s keep this conversation going.

For additional reading, you can refer to McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers

Using social media and mobile technology in the classroom

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at an Education Technologies conference, on the topic of using social media tools and mobile technology in teaching and learning. The conference attendees were diverse and included educators (from elementary school through to Universities), information technology officers, school board representatives, and others. The presentation was focused on using the case study of McGill’s St Lawrence Ecosystems course to illustrate advantages of using social media tools and mobile technology in an outdoor classroom, and during the presentation, the audience (situated in groups, around tables) was asked for comments on three questions. Each group provided verbal feedback, and also provided written comments.  These responses are shared, below. Continue reading Using social media and mobile technology in the classroom