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)

Higher education – not what it used to be?

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics, shares an article originally published in “The Economist.”

Everyone should read this one! What are we trying to achieve – an educated citizenry or provide students with easy A’s? Chasing ratings doesn’t help. Can we blame postmodernism for this? 😉 It also seems the growth of university administration is not a unique problem here.

Read the full article here.

How “professional baggage” may be a key barrier in changing how we teach

A little while ago, a colleague in the UK sent me this article “Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity?” by Bronwell and Tanner. He knew I’d be interested – I’m always experimenting with my own teaching, but I’m also aware that I’m in the minority.

The article starts by making an excellent argument that we KNOW how to improve teaching at Universities, but little change takes place regardless. Bronwell and Tanner make the argument that barriers to Professors wanting to improve their teaching are often related to lack of training, lack of time, or lack of incentives. This fits with my impression of Academia, especially at a research-intensive University such as McGill. When I arrived over 10 years ago, I had little training as a teacher (other than a couple of short workshops), I had little time to devote to teaching improvement (I was barely ever one lecture ahead of the students!), and I was mostly encouraged to concentrate on developing my research program. There were not a lot of incentives to foster, improve, or change my teaching approach. I don’t blame anyone for this, nor am I bitter about my experience. It was the norm, and perhaps still is for most tenure-track Professors at a University with a significant research focus. So, as I began reading Bronwell and Tanner’s paper, it resonated, and I agreed that training, time and incentives were key barriers to changing pedagogy.

Bronwell and Tanner, however, ask a clever question: if we imagined those three barriers gone, would we see immediate improvements in teaching? Would Professors suddenly value pedagogy and teaching improvement differently, and find ways to change their approach to the classroom? Perhaps not – and this is where the article gets interesting.

The article focuses on “Professional Identity” as being a key barrier to improved teaching, but one that is often understudied and underappreciated. They define professional identity to be the following: “how they [scientists] view themselves and their work in the context of their disciplines and how they accrue status among their professional colleagues as academic scientists”. In other words, it’s the process related to the way that we become an expert in our discipline – the culture, the context, and the training we receive. It’s the intangible as well as the tangible things that become our professional baggage. Bronwell and Tanner argue that, for many scientists, we learn early in our careers to value research over teaching, and there is (for the most part) a greater emphasis placed on developing our research profile. There is often time and incentives to do some teaching (e.g., Teaching Assistantships are paid, and have hours associated with them), and there is training available (McGill’s SKILLSETS programs are a fine example). Regardless, the culture of science is mostly related to research and we are ultimately judged on research production rather than teaching. My personal experience supports this idea, and I have found myself often discussing this with my graduate students – I sometimes have advised them to avoid extra teaching responsibilities if it is going to slow down their research productivity.

Bronwell and Tanner go into a lot of detail about the tensions between the development of professional identities and participating in pedagogical change. They make a very strong case: among several lines of arguments, they illustrate that scientists are often afraid to change their teaching approach for fear that it may be frowned upon by their peers, or that their teaching evaluations might suffer (and, in in the short term, this may be true). They also argue that the scientific culture at large places a lower value on teaching than on research, and it’s hard to overcome this.

The article finishes with some ideas for change: “we need to find ways to challenge the assumption that a scientist’s professional identity should be primarily research-focused and consider ways in which teaching could become more integrated into the fabric of the discipline”. The authors suggest 1) graduate student and post-doctoral training goals need to be broadened, 2) scientific journals should include/value papers and research related to education, 3) scientific conferences should better integrate education into the (typical) research focus. These are intriguing, thought-provoking, and interesting ideas. But are they enough to shed some of our professional baggage? I’m a bit skeptical, but I do agree that some pretty fundamental paradigm shifts are required if we want to shake up the system, and see Professors placing higher value on teaching improvement.

New York Times Opinion piece: Who will hold colleges accountable?

As McGill considers developing massively online open courses (MOOCs), perhaps we should begin to reflect on how students are graded now and how this will change. With large classes we already have, there are concerns about how well we evaluate student learning and how those outcomes prepare them for their futures. Attached here is an interesting piece which covers the history of the credit hour and how our current methods of assessment are already failing students. Given the diminishing commitment of governments to higher education, perhaps it is not time to expand in this direction. Perhaps it is time to think about how to survive with our missions of teaching, research and service intact.

Click here to read the original NYT opinion piece

Welcome to McGill’s Teaching for Learning Blog

This blog is designed for faculty, staff and students to exchange ideas about teaching and learning at McGill University. It will feature posts on topics such as: the links between teaching and research; teaching and learning spaces; course design and program planning.

This blog is hosted by Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and features posts by many of the instructors and students we are lucky to collaborate with.  At TLS, we work to promote the importance of teaching and learning, and we do this through university-wide initiatives, program specific projects, and a lot of face-to-face meetings. Now the time has come to try something different: we want to start a larger conversation about teaching and learning within the blogosphere.

Would you like to share an experience, a resource or an opinion about teaching and learning? If the answer is yes, we are currently looking for contributors so please write to

Discussing what matters in higher education.