Twenty top tips for interpreting scientific claims from University of Cambridge

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics

We talk about giving students the tools to evaluate research in their disciplines critically. These tools can also be applied to their roles as citizens as well. We are sold a lot of things now- it is more important than ever to judge  the claims of our colleagues, our leaders and even ourselves honestly and critically. Here are some really good tips for developing that critical spirit from the University of Cambridge:

Aiming to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science, academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Melbourne have created a list of concepts that they believe should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists…

See more at:

Turning class participation into short written assignments

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

In the entry from the Teaching Professor Blog pasted below, , suggests that instructors give students a participation grade for writing ABOUT participation, not for talking up in class. What a novel idea!  Weimer writes that the common approach to grading participation rewards students who like to talk and know that verbal participation will win them points.  Instead, she suggests that writing short papers  is a more fruitful strategy for helping students appreciate how important interaction is to the  learning process. As she explains, “With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. ” She provides a list of guiding questions that faculty can use to get students started. I like this idea because it opens up the participation grade to more students and gets everyone writing (and thinking!) which is always a good thing. Faculty may worry that more writing means more grading and Weimer addresses this by suggesting that faculty grade these short assignments for completion rather than using a complex set of criteria. I am curious about this strategy so please let me know if you use it already or want to try it out!


Originally posted on October 23, 2013

Grading Participation: An Alternative to Talking for Points

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.

Is grading participation an effective way for students to discover how and why classroom interaction promotes learning? I’ve been considering alternatives, including this one: “Participation, as in what you contribute verbally, is not graded in this course, but your writing about participation is.”

With this approach, students would write a series of short papers (I’m thinking 1-2 pages) which aim to make them more aware of classroom interaction generally and their contribution to it specifically. They would write the papers in response to the following prompts.

My Participation Skills – Do you participate? Why? Why not? What do you do when you participate? Ask questions? Answer questions? Only answer when you know the right answer? Make comments? What participation skills would you like to develop? How might you go about working on these skills? At the end of the course, how will you know if your skills in this area have improved?

Observing Participation – For the next two weeks observe participation as it occurs in this class. What do students do when they participate? How does the teacher respond? How well are students listening to each other? What’s the most interesting student comment or question you heard during this observation period? How could participation be improved in this class? What could you do to improve the interaction in this classroom?

Or, for two weeks observe participation in your other courses. How does participation there compare with what’s happening in this course? Be specific—write about behaviors. What are students doing? What is the teacher doing? If there are differences between courses, what are they and to what would you attribute these differences?

The Role of Participation in Learning – Write about any or all of these participation policy questions and, using your answer(s), conclude with a paragraph that discusses the role of participation in learning.

  • Should students have the right to remain silent in a course if they can learn the content without talking about it?
  • Should teachers call on students if they haven’t volunteered? Explain why.
  • If participation is graded, does that motivate students to answer questions and make comments? Does it motivate verbal contributions for the right reasons?
  • If participation is graded, how much should it count?
  • Do students learn things from the comments and questions of other students? Could they learn more than they do? How?
  • What kind of feedback from the teacher and classmates would help improve your contributions in class?
  • The ability to answer questions when called on and to speak up in a group are important skills, how do these skills factor into your future career plans?

My Participation Skills Revisited – Reread your three participation papers and then answer these prompts. Compare your participation skills now with your description of them written at the beginning of the course. Has your thinking about the role of participation in learning changed? What needs to happen now for you to take your participation skills to the next level?

Faculty, I know you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of papers to grade.” But I think the learning benefit here comes from writing these papers, not from teacher feedback. The objective is to hone observational skills, encourage reflection, and get students engaged in some serious self-reflection. I’d assess these papers with a rubric that mostly looks at whether the student took the task seriously. I’d limit written feedback to one pithy question raised by what the student has written. Some of the feedback will likely apply to many students and that can be delivered in class or online. In either venue, you could use it to encourage discussion about interaction in the class (or online discussion board). And certainly you can modify the assignment structure to better fit your needs—shorter papers, fewer papers, etc.

Do you think the learning potential of student interaction is lost or compromised when we fuel students’ contributions by giving them points? An assignment option like this doesn’t totally change that dynamic—there’s still a grade involved—but it does offer students a different perspective.

MOOPies – Mini Online Open Projects from Bio-Treatment of Wastes class at Mac Campus

By Grant Clark, Bioresource Engineering

This year, the students in the Bio-Treatment of Wastes class and I are doing an experiment. I have asked the students to do a group project with a twist: each group is producing a 5-minute video, about a bio-treatment topic, to be posted to YouTube. These are our Mini Online Open Projects, or MOOPies. Each MOOPy is introduced by its creators during the BREE 518 lab period and then we view and discuss it together as a class.

I invite you to view the first MOOPy ever produced!

Please leave an encouraging and instructive comment on YouTube for its creators.

In-Situ Biological Treatment of Contaminated Soil

by Kaitlin Lloyd, Kendell McBride, Brenda Moore, and Pernilla Talec

This video explains the two most important methods of In-Sity Biological Treatment of Contaminated Soil, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):bioventing and phytoremediation. Bioventing involves the injection of air into the vadose zone of the soil, increasing the indigenous microbial activity, which in turn increases the rate of removal of the pollutants. Bioventing is particularly efficient at targeting pollutants from petroleum products. Phytoremediation is the use of plants to extract, degrade, contain, or immobilize contaminants in the soil and water. The U.S. EPA classifies phytoremediation into 5 different sub-processes:phytoextraction, phytodegradation,  hytostabilization, phytovolatilization, and rhizodegradation. Currently, phytoremediation is used to remediate many classes of contamination, including petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, pesticides, explosives, heavy metals, and landfill leachates.

Looking for the right answer

By Laura Winer, Teaching and Learning Services

EDUCAUSE is an association with the mission of improving higher education through the use of information technology.  So it was a little surprising that the keynote speaker at EDUCAUSE 2013, Sir Ken Robinson, chose to show a short video featuring the work of third grade children. When there is a correct answer reports on an admittedly non-scientific study that nonetheless makes an important point: how you ask a question will influence the kind of answers you get. When students thought that there was a “right” way, the answers converged; when there wasn’t that expectation, the answers diverged.  As I think about questions as filling a dual role of assessment and stimulating thinking, the convergent/divergent continuum will be useful to help create alignment between instructional goals and assessment strategies.

Why undergraduate students are teaching my entomology course – repost from

By Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences
Repost from Arthropod Ecology

This term I’m teaching an introductory Entomology course at McGill. These days, however, I’m not lecturing at all – the students are doing the teaching. For the past couple of weeks, and for the next couple of weeks, groups of students are lecturing on the part of the course called ‘overview of the insect Orders‘. Typically, this section of the class is a little dry for one person to teach – it’s a standard series of lectures on the Insect Orders – and covers the  evolution, phylogeny, biology, ecology and economic importance of the Insect Orders, starting with Collembola and moving through to the ‘Big Four’ – the Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Coleoptera.

This term, I decided to turn the tables, and students became the professors. They provided me ideas on what Orders they were most interested in, and based on their feedback, I assigned them to groups and scheduled who would teach what. I also provided them a detailed outline of what was expected. This is not a trivial task – preparing lectures, and lecturing, takes an incredible amount of preparation and time and energy. These lectures are graded (with a rubric), and thus in addition to the peer/instructor pressure for students, this part of the course is part of their final grade.

Here are some refections about the process, so far:

Perhaps what has struck me most with this experience is that the students are delving into the content to a level that I would not have done on my own – in part because I simply would not have the time if I was lecturing on all the Orders. The students, by becoming ‘experts’ on a topic, have more time to dig out the most interesting and fascinating facts about the Orders. They are hunting down the true controversies surrounding the systematics of different Orders, and presenting them like seasoned veterans.  They are taking ownership over the topics, and with such ownership comes responsibility, and pride.

Lecturing is so much different than the typical short-format presentations that students are used to. They have plenty of experience giving presentations to their instructors and peers, but these are seldom more than 15 or 20 minutes. Filling up 50 minutes is a very different ball game. It requires a different set of presentation skills – skills related to thinking on your feet, preparing for unanticipated questions from the audience, and experience with a more spontaneous form of science communication. In my experience, these skills are seldom developed during an undergraduate student’s academic program.

What is also evident with this process is that the students are having FUN with the content and FUN with the lectures. They are linking to the best videos and images for their Order – they are challenging each other with who can find the most fascinating facts about a particular Order. They are smiling, laughing, and genuinely passionate about what they are presenting.  They are also deeply supportive of each other – they ask good and fair questions, engage with the content, work to make the experience positive for everyone. (by the way, I have been tweeting some of the fun facts from this course using the hashtag #ENTO330 – please follow along!)

The education literature supports the ideas I have written above, and the overall process is defined as ‘peer teaching‘.  As the title of Whitman and Fife’s report states “to teach is to learn twice”  , and although caution is warranted when executing peer-teaching, that report does highlight the fact that learning can occur effectively under peer-teaching scenarios. More recent literature from Dioso-Henson (2012)  shows that “reciprocal peer tutoring” (i.e., students run tutorials instead of instructors) “produced significantly larger academic gains than traditional classroom instruction“.  Those interested in delving into the Education literature on this topic should see Topping’s (1996) article.

Now, what I have not provided here is any perspectives from the students, and Graham Scott correctly pointed this out to me. Once the course is over, I will bookend this post with another post containing some refections from students. It’s important to see whether or not my positivity is a reality from their perspective! So, stay tuned for that!

In sum, we often talk about Higher Education being about teaching and learning, with the assumption that the teaching is done by a Professor and the learning is done by the student. Peer teaching, I believe, is a valuable method by which undergraduate students can be fully immersed in the process. The learner can become the teacher and this makes the experience so much richer, for everyone.

Instructors: please contact me if you want more details on this process. I will be happy to share the details – assignment overview, grading rubric, etc.


Topping, K.J. 1996. The effectiveness of peer tutoring in further and higher education: A typology and review of the literature. Higher Education 32(3): 321-345.

Dioso-Henson, L. (2012). The effect of reciprocal peer tutoring and non-reciprocal peer tutoring on The performance of students in college physics. Research In Education, 87(1), 34-49.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

Is Intellectual Curiosity a Strong Predictor For Academic Performance?

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics
Re-post from Tomorrow’s Professor Blog

Here’s an article I received from the “Tomorrow’s Professor Blog” run by Rick Reis. Getting students to invest in their educations intellectually is an excellent predictor of success. Who knew? Maybe this is the best argument I’ve seen for why we should get students interested in research as soon as possible.  Show them that the edge of human knowledge is the best place to be if curiosity is the driver of educational excellence. Not sure how MOOCs will do this- but face to face this works wonders.



The posting below looks at the importance of curiosity in academic performance. It is prepared by the Research and Evaluation Team, Office of Information Technology,( University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. In an effort to make research in the educational technology field more accessible, OIT\’s Research & Evaluation team produces frequent brief synopses of important recent studies. These synopses may be freely shared and used for non-profit academic purposes. For further information contact Dr. J.D. Walker (


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Mistaken Beliefs About Content

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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 Is Intellectual Curiosity a Strong Predictor For Academic Performance?

  What Does Research Tell us about Academic Performance and Curiosity

For better or worse, academic performance has long stood as a proxy for general aptitude. To understand what factors affect academic performance gives us a better understanding of how instructors can help students achieve their greatest potential in college. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that academic performance can be predicted by a combination of cognitive ability (or intelligence) and effort. Non-ability personality traits, such as effort, can be potentially more meaningful than intelligence because less able students can compensate for lower levels of cognitive ability by becoming more conscientious, studying harder, and paying greater attention to details and rules. Beyond cognitive ability and effort, researchers look to so-called investment traits to explain inter-individual differences among people’s drive to pursue, enjoy, and engage in learning opportunities. Intellectual curiosity conveniently describes this impulse, as does the researcher’s titular phrase, “the hungry mind.” Like cognitive ability and effort, intellectual curiosity positively associates with academic performance.

Several instruments have been developed to measure something like curiosity. The “Need for Cognition” scale measures the “tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking” (Cacioppo 81 Petty, 1982, p. 116). The “Typical Intellectual Engagement” (TIE) scale was designed to “differentiate among individuals in their typical expression of a desire to engage and understand their world, their interest in a wide variety of things, and their preference for a complete understanding of a complex topic or problem, a need to know….” (Goff and Ackerman, 1992, p. S39). Because these measures have similar conceptual underpinnings and share criteria validity for academic performance and intelligence, they appear to measure the same trait dimension, and, therefore, studies that use these scales can be rolled into a meta-analysis.

 Study & Methods

To investigate whether curiosity is a strong determinant for academic performance, Von Stumm, Hell, & Chamorro-Premuzic extracted correlation coefficients from three previous studies and performed four meta-analyses that focused on TIE to stand in for curiosity. For the new TIE meta-analyses, the researchers selected 11 studies (including several in which one of the authors had participated). They excluded studies that did not include empirical data, did not include zero-order correlations, or included previously reported data. In these studies, academic performance was expressed as either grade point average or an academic performance composite. From the extracted correlation coefficients and the new meta-analyses, the authors created five path models using a stepwise process, settling on a single, best-fit model.


The best fitting model indicated that intelligence, TIE, and conscientiousness were direct and inter-correlated predictors of academic performance. Within this model, general intelligence had the greatest impact on academic performance (β = 0.35), while curiosity and effort had equal, but slightly smaller (β = 0.20) impacts on academic performance. Together, general intelligence, effort, and curiosity explain approximately 25.7% of the variance in the dependent variable. The authors thus confirm their hypothesis that intellectual investment, including curiosity, is a key determinant of academic performance.


The authors suggest several important ramifications of this finding.

• Academic performance can be increased if students’ intellectual curiosity is regularly renewed and stimulated. Thus, students should be encouraged to follow   challenging paths and not be exclusively rewarded for their “acquiescent application of intelligence and effort.” Universities and colleges should seek to exploit   opportunities to inspire curiosity and reward productive novelty.

• Admissions officers should pay attention to intellectual curiosity as a strong predictor of potential.

• Future studies to examine predictors of academic success should seek to expand their range beyond intelligence and effort.


Technology may have a role in cultivating curiosity by providing greater access to new information, new ways to participate in culture through new media (Jensen et al, 2006), and novel methods of visualizing data. Curiosity might also have a role to play in orienting students toward life-long learning, which has already been shown to be influenced by such pedagogical practices as active learning, reflection, and tasks that encourage perspective-taking (Mayhew, M.J., Wolniak, G.C., & Pascarella, 2008).

 Study Limitations

As the authors note, the study is constrained by several factors, including the quality of the original studies in the meta-analyses. Further, only conscientiousness was used as a proxy for effort, ignoring academic motivation, self-efficacy, and ambition. The study also did not consider the cumulative effect of success as an ongoing magnifier for conscientiousness and curiosity. To correct for this, another study would have to consider the longitudinal effects of an academic course of study and not a single moment. Finally, the authors concede that despite the encouraging results that showed that conscientiousness and intellectual curiosity combined influenced academic performance to the same degree as intelligence, other variables likely to have an effect, such as choice of subject, socio-economic status, self-confidence, etc., were not factored into a final model. Seen in the context of these limitations, the study directs researchers to continue to explore the nexus of non-ability personality traits with intelligence to predict academic performance.


Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116-131.

Goff, M., & Ackerman, P. (1992). Personality-intelligence relations: Assessment of typical intellectual engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, S37-552.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education of the 21st century. Chicago, IL: The MacArthur Foundation.

Mayew, M.J., Wolniak, G.C., 81 Pascarella, E.T. (2008). How educational practices affect the development of life-long learning orientations in traditionally-aged undergraduate students. Research in Higher Education. 49(4), 337-356.

Von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588.

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Writing – part of the educational journey

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

I got involved with a teaching exercise called “Routes of Writing” run out of the McGill Writing Center. I was asked the following question: How do you perceive the relationship between academic writing and critical thinking?

In my mind, the two are inextricably linked. I have written a lot of papers. Nothing clarifies my understanding of my own work better than writing out my ideas. In writing, data gets translated into results and results get translated into a coherent narrative. Writing is the best way I know of to frame out a hypothesis and the most effective means to connect a hypothesis into what the best experiments to test it might be. For no other reason, students should write down their ideas often, and continue writing about them as they develop. As much as the activity of writing is crucial to developing and understanding my own academic work, it is equally important for developing an understanding of, and thinking critically about, the literature. Writing helps me connect different papers and analyze them collectively rather than simply thinking about them on their own. I guess that is my advice to you then … write about what you read, what you do and what you want to do. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, writing is an iterative process. For me, writing crystallizes and focuses critical thinking, and lays down the mental tracks for a life of reasoned understanding. It develops a necessary part of the intellectual skillset. It doesn’t matter where you are on your educational journey—first-year undergraduate or seasoned graduate student. Start now and don’t stop.

A lot of other thoughts and suggestions regarding writing and scholarship can be found at the link below.


Discussing what matters in higher education.