Sept. 13 workshop for faculty: Bringing research into the undergraduate classroom

Date: Friday, September 13, 2013, 9:30am to 12:30pm

As an instructor of undergraduate courses, have you wondered how to get students to ask better questions or to understand that knowledge is not black and white? In this interactive workshop, you will meet the Inquiry Network, a group of McGill professors who have been tackling questions like this and have created a framework for enhancing students’ understanding of the relationship between research and course content.  Participants will try out this framework and design new strategies for one undergraduate course.  Together, we will share interesting practices and develop new approaches for bringing research into the undergraduate classroom. For more info please contact

Note: Coffee/tea at 9:00am, workshop starts at 9:30am

Register here >>

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”

How much will MOOCs change McGill?

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, reflects on a March 2013 article published  in “Nature.”

The Provost recently asked for proposals for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at McGill. Interestingly, he also asked for feedback on the open question as to whether MOOCs might irrevocably change how we teach at McGill. The article linked here suggests that changes are coming- will these changes fundamentally alter the nature of the university campus? Will students even have to show up for some programs? The best interactions I have with students are not online- they are contacts in the hall, in the classroom and occasionally on the squash court. What will the university be like if we embrace MOOCs to the full extent possible? I don’t know. Maybe we ought to start thinking about that.

Read the full article here.

Hear this! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

Prof. Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences, writes about a podcast assignment he and his TA designed for a large undergraduate ecology class.

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrollment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

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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Adapt or die?

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, comments on an article  originally published in “BBC News Business”

The founder of Wikipedia is a big fan of MOOCs. Does that give you confidence in them? Like Alec Baldwin said in “The Departed”, cui bono (you can look that up on Wikipedia). Let’s hope our response is not the same as Matt Damon gave in in that movie! Maybe we can consider that a challenge to make our material more relevant and more interesting by becoming better teachers, not by driving our students to the web for more exciting lecturers.

Read the full article here.

The New Space Age

Google Office, Zurich, Switzerland (Doorly & Witthoft, 2012)

Lauren Soluk, graduate student in DISE , shares an opinion piece on the importance of designing institutional spaces that promote creativity.

Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, Schools Kill Creativity (if you have not, I urge you to watch it here). He argues that schools are educating people out of their creativity capacities and as a student, I would agree with this statement. That said, I am not here to write about the perils of schools or how to fix them because that topic is much to extreme to cover in less then 500 words. Instead, I want to consider a small change in institutional design that might help to spark the creativity movement in higher education. Today, I am going to write about space.

In recent years, there has been a shift in learning pedagogy for teaching practices to follow student-centred, constructivist methods[1]. Constructivist methods, and more specifically, social constructivist methods advocate that knowledge is constructed through the active participation of individuals and crowds. If we compare what we know now about learning to our current institutional infrastructure, one is bound to recognize that they do not parallel each other. Institutional classrooms were, and many still are, built for passive learning in a lecture format. There needs to be a change.

Space can be created and manipulated to foster innovative and creating thinking. For example, consider Google’s office in Zurich, Switzerland (see image at left). Rather than having standard cubicles for their staff, Google has opted for a more creative “office.” While I recognize that it is nearly impossible to have a space similar to this one in a university setting, I urge institutional designers to use this image as a springboard for creative classroom and learning commons designs.

Long & Crawley[2] have offered an alternative design method to the traditional approach to space design. They have developed the CDIO process (conceive, design, implement, operate), in which the learning environment is not viewed as space that needs to be redesigned but rather a “product” which needs to be developed. Following this CDIO process, we can ask the questions, “What kind of a space will produce creative and innovate thinking? What kind of space will support social constructivist learning pedagogy?”

From the Institute of Design at Stanford University, Scott Doorley and Witthoft brought readers a book entitled, Make Space, which was designed to set the stage for creative collaboration. Doorly and Witthoft provide tools (e.g. furniture and wall designs), situations and scenarios that can inspire thinking, case study examples, and a design template for how to build collaborative environments[3]. They introduce readers to design concepts such as Cul-de-sacs (spots to gather, linger, and chat), the peanut gallery (where spectators can drop in and out without disturbing people), T-walls for writing, and foam cubes for sitting .All of these concepts combined, and others, can blend to form collaborative and innovate learning environments.

So, with all of this information on how space can inspire and foster creative and innovative thinking, it is time for institutions to step up and put student learning first; let us take a step towards re-designing institutional space that supports active, student-centred and constructivist learning pedagogy (and maybe even dispose of the dismal lecture hall, for good!).


For further reading:

Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture and Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher. China:Abrams.

Moore, A.H., Watson, E. & Fowler, S.B (2007) Active learning and technology: Designing change for faculty, students and institutions.  EDUCAUSE Review, 42 (5), 42-61. Retrieved from

Lomas, C.P. & Johnson, C. (2005).  Design of the learning space: Learning design and Principles.  EDUCAUSE Review, 40 (4), 16-28. Retrieved from

Lippincott, J. K. (2009).  Learning spaces: Involving faculty to improve pedagogy. EDUCAUSE Review, 44 (2), 16-25. Retrieved from

Long, P. D., & Ehrmann, S. C. (2005). Future of the learning space, breaking out of the box. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 42-58. Retrieved from .

Wedge, C. & Kearns, T.D. (2005). Creation of the learning space: Catalysts for envisioning and navigating the design process. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 32-38. Retrieved from

Brown, M. (2005).  Learning space design theory and practice. EDUCAUSE review, 40(4), 30. Retrieved from

Teaching and Learning Services. (2013). Teaching and learning spaces. Retrieved from



 Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lomas, C.P. & Johnson, C. (2005).  Design of the learning space: Learning design and Principles.  EDUCAUSE Review, 40 (4), 16-28. Retrieved from

Long, P. D., & Ehrmann, S. C. (2005). Future of the learning space, breaking out of the box. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 42-58. Retrieved from

[1] Long & Ehrmann, 2005.

[2] as cited in Lomas & Johnson, 2005, p. 20.

[3] Doorly & Witthoft, 2012

Discussing what matters in higher education.