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

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.

Student multitasking: Myth or reality?

Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services, reflects on the article “Impact of Multitasking on Listening Effectiveness in the Learning Environment” originally published in The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Multitasking: can it be done? What are the implications for students’ learning? Students multi-task (in part thanks to technological advances) both in physical and virtual course environments. By and large, the research demonstrates that multi-tasking, or rapid switching between task, decreases one’s performance quality or increases the time a given task requires.

This recent article looks at the impact of multi-tasking upon students’ listening and writing performance during in-person and recorded lectures, and considers whether social presence (e.g. in-person versus recorded instructor) impacts task prioritization.

The results of the research clearly demonstrate that students’ completion of both the evaluated listening and writing tasks had a more satisfactory result in terms of student listening (accuracy of remembered information) and writing (quantity) for those who did not multi-task. However, the experimental design was such that multi-tasking students had 15 minutes to complete both tasks, rather than the 25 minutes for task completion accorded to the single-tasking students group. This begs the question of how much time would be needed (between 15 and 25 minutes) such that the quality and quantity measures would have been equivalent for the two groups?

What implications does multi-tasking have for teaching and learning? Are their ways to capitalize on this habit to complement the in-class learning experience with learning-related tasks (such as twitter or back-channeling during class, for example)?

How students rate their experiences at 62 Canadian schools

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics, shares an article about the 2011 Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement:

Ratings! Rankings! What does it all mean? Why does McGill score highly on some and not so highly on others? The NSSE suggests we have a lot of things to think about before we pat ourselves on the back too hard.

Read the article here.

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.

Discussing what matters in higher education.