Tag Archives: active learning classrooms

Create interactive images with Thinglink

I just ran across a very interesting tool for creating interactive images. Thinglink is a “freemium” tool (most features are free for educators) that allows you to upload any image and add “hot spots” linked to text, websites, videos, recorded audio and much more.  I created an example for Education 627, one of McGill’s first Active Learning Classrooms. Continue reading Create interactive images with Thinglink

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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What busy profs would like to read in a blog post about active learning

During a great workshop today on active learning in engineering at McGill I asked two questions (using Socrative) , of the audience. Here is a summary of 24 answers I received:

1) I would like to read blog posts about:

  • activities for large classes (18% of people)
  • activities for small classes (30% of people)
  • technology in active learning (22% of people)
  • wacky or creative ideas for active learning(30% of people)

2) I might read a blog post about teaching and supervision if…

  • It takes into account the sheer lack of time and resources for preparation; ie quick and easy ideas to engage a bored class!
  • it was linked through twitter
  • It was regularly updated and interesting!
  • It does not take too long
  • it helps me achieve better my teaching objectives compared to my current teaching practice
  • It related to economics / social science a bit
  • Its short and introduce tips and examples
  • It gives concrete practical examples of activities for teaching and making students more active
  • I was interested
  • I knew where to find it
  • It dealt with distance education
  • they talked about encouraging creativity and critical thinking
  • it was about new and creative strategies that I can use in my class
  • it included the occasional evidence-based pieces that demonstrate real impact
  • Give ideas about how to get the students more active
  • It’s concrete, thoughtful and provides ideas
  • it was relevant and to the topic. I also would like to see it promoted within the departments to encourage conversation about teaching and learning
  • It is useful

My summary is that people want to hear about all types of different aspects of active learning and they would be motivated to read posts if it interesting and provided something useful.

Originally posted on waterunderground.

Why undergraduate students are teaching my entomology course – repost from arthropodecology.com

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.

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.