How do young undergraduate students learn best?

young students at post-secondaryIt should come as no surprise to me that the longer I work at UBC, the younger the students look. I can’t tell the difference between someone who is 17 and 26 and even photos of newly appointed faculty members make me feel “old”.

I frequently wonder how the generational gap between educators and students affects the teaching and learning of undergraduates. Given that 87% of undergraduate students at UBC are 25 years or younger, there is a compelling need to better understand how these students like to learn and how they learn best.

I recognize there is a whole literature on the first year experience (FYE) (see note 1) and a growing recognition of these students’ needs. See, for example, the research section of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (USA).

I have not yet delved into that scholarship and perhaps the answers to “How do young undergraduates like to learn?” and “What teaching practices best promote their learning?” are in the FYE literature.

However, If I were an overworked and overwhelmed instructor and wanted some accessible ideas to address the above questions–specifically as it pertains to young undergraduate students–I might feel out of luck. A quick google search with the search terms “How do undergraduates like to learn?” brings up many results along the lines of “What courses should you take” or “What’s it like to study [history, business, physics etc]?”. Everything reads like it was written by someone my age:)


Note 1: As an educational developer, I am well aware of the excellent and extensive literature on teaching and learning in post-secondary. What I’m eager to discover is whether there is accessible and current literature that focuses on the young adult. 

Helping students incorporate instructor feedback

Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal (Sadler, 2010).

In articles I read about student peer feedback, Sadler’s work is repeatedly referenced–hence my interest in reading this paper. Below are some of my notes from “Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal” by Dr. Royce Sadler.

Sadler argues that “regardless of levels of motivation to learn, students cannot convert feedback statements into actions for improvement without sufficient working knowledge of some fundamental concepts.” (p.537)

  • “For students to be able to apply feedback, they need to understand the meaning of the feedback statements.” p.535
  • Ideally, feedback helps students engage in divergent thinking (ie, not memorization, not one narrow response)
  • The literature on feedback has often declared that feedback aids learning (i.e., it can accelerate learning)

Those who have studied how students respond to instructor-provided feedback, acknowledge that, in order to improve communication, we need to:

  • Raise students’ understanding of assessment criteria
  • Recognize that the medium of communication matters (certain comments/ideas/etc are more likely to be communicated in writing, others more likely to be communicated orally. See p.537)

Challenges associated with feedback:

  • Feedforward and feedback are essentially about telling and disclosure and typically consist of 1-way messages from instructor to student.
  • Students have trouble assimilating feedback from instructors into an existing knowledge base.
  • “Complementary attention should therefore be directed to what students make of the feedback, rather than just its composition. Seen from the learner’s perspective, this represents an emphasis on visibility (to the student) rather than disclosure (by the teacher)” ” (p.539) [I really like that quote]

Interpretive challenges faced by students

Students face at least three interpretive challenges when trying to capitalise on feedback. In order to be able to make critical connections between feedback and their work, students need to have knowledge/understanding of three relevant appraisal terms and concepts. Sadler urges that “these assessment concepts must be understood not as abstractions but as core concepts that are internalised, operationalised and applied to concrete productions” (p.548).

The core concepts are:

  1. Task Compliance.  Did the student comply with the basic specifications of the assignment? A simplistic example would be: if the instructor asked for an essay, did the student produce an essay (vs, let’s say, a podcast).  I’m oversimplifying here.
  2. Quality.  Sadler defines quality as “The degree to which a work comes together as a whole to achieve its intended purpose” (p.544). Determinations of quality require judgements of many different things and also require diverse forms of judgment. As such, we need to create planned opportunities for students to practice with feedback.
  3. Criteria. A criterion is a “property or characteristic that is useful in the context of quality and quality determinations” (p.544). Students need help grasping the role and nuances of the criteria used in the assessment. Part of the challenge here is that some criterion have sharp boundaries and others don’t.

Even once the students understand these concepts, learners still face the challenge of assimilating the teacher’s feedback into an existing knowledge base so that it can be drawn on in the future (and this task draws on tacit knowledge, as well as an understanding of the concepts). “As with all learning, newly acquired knowledge needs to be consolidated before it decays if it is to have any positive influence on future works” (p.540).

A helpful summary from the section“A way forward”

Sadler writes:

“There are four basic tasks for peer appraisal, and they can be expressed as questions in the following order.

Does a particular response qualify as an attempt to address the issue specified in the task description? This is a category question, not a quality issue, and can be decided only after analysing the work as a whole.

The next question is: How well does the work achieve the purpose intended? This gets to the heart of the determination of quality.

Third: What are the grounds for the judgement reached, using whatever criteria are appropriate to substantiating the valuation?…

The fourth and final question is: How could the work be substantially improved? This requires advice in terms of the work as a whole, and on specific deficiencies or weaknesses.” p.547


Reference: Sadler, D. R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535-550.

Photo from Pexels

Building rapport with your students

Building rapport with your students: help them understand their role as active civil participants in the classroom

Much has been written about how faculty members can create rapport with their students.  I suspect most of us have had the experience of teaching a class, posing a question and/or seeking a reaction, and getting minimal-to-no response (even after giving adequate wait time)! Ugh. For someone like me who values connection, these moments aren’t high points.

Recently, I was listening to Dr. Todd Zakrajsek speak on the Teaching in Higher Education podcast. Though the episode was about laptops in the classroom, Todd briefly addressed ways instructors can build rapport with their students by helping them understand what it means to be an active civil participant in the classroom (episode time stamp 31:15 – 32:34).

Here is what he suggested:

  • At the beginning of the course, speak with your students about being an active civil participant in a community (i.e., the course)
  • You may say something along the lines of “If I’m talking about something I feel is important and relevant to the course, you can be an active participant by nodding at my periodically, you may smile, or show me other facial expressions.”
  • “When you (the student) asks me questions, I will listen to you and give you non-verbal feedback that shows you I care about what you’re saying. Could you please do that for me too?”
  • “When I’m up here [front of class] and look out and see a sea of faces that are buried in their laptops or without expression, that makes my job hard–and my job is to help you learn stuff that is going to help you!”
What I liked about Todd’s message is that–instead of focussing on how to educate students to do active learning [which is also important]–it directly addresses the student-instructor relationship. An instructor who shares words such as those in the bulleted list is saying to their students “your reactions and responses to what I am saying/teaching/sharing matters; you matter to me”.

What are some of the ways you educate your students about being an active participant in your classroom, especially as it pertains to building instructor-student rapport?

Additional resources on instructor-student rapport:


Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Koriyama_Polytechnique.jpg

“I don’t read my student evaluations of teaching”

FIGURE 11.2 360-degree feedback

At a recent meeting about the evaluation of teaching, a faculty member bravely disclosed: “I don’t read my student evaluations of teaching”.

I held my breath as I gauged the reaction of the other committee members, all of whom were in positions of authority/power in their department, faculties, or schools when it came to the evaluation of teaching.

“The ratings and comments,” she continued “do not help me improve my students’ learning.” She described her experience of having read previous evaluations as distressing and confusing. This was not a case of an uncaring, uncommitted instructor. This was a situation of intentional self-care.

At about this time of the year, instructors at the University of British Columbia (UBC) receive the results of their online student evaluations of teaching (SEoT). As someone who works in the field of enhancing teaching and learning, I encourage instructors to review the students’ ratings and comments. I will continue to do so but I hold a sincere recognition of how anxiety-producing it can be for instructors (those who have received strong ratings in the past and those who haven’t).

In my role as an educational developer, I have a deep concern for faculty member wellness. And while I am delighted by all the attention being put to student wellness, I think there needs to be the same attention put to the health and well-being of faculty members.  With that in mind, and tying back to the issue of student evaluations of teaching, below are a few suggestions for alleviating the stress associated with reading one’s evaluations.

If you are feeling stressed about reading your SEoT, here are some suggestions for things to do before you read the results:

  • ask a trusted friend or educational developer from your teaching and learning centre to read your SEoTs before you do and summarize the results
  • “pick a good time to do so, when you will have enough time to digest at least some of the information, have privacy, and can give yourself some mental ‘space’ to analyze the information.” (Vanderbilt Center for Teaching)
  • “have a glass of wine” (suggested by my colleague)
  • do something that typically makes you feel good (i.e., exercise, listening to an upbeat song, etc)

This Chronicle article and the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching have helpful suggestions for things you can do after you read your results.

I would love to hear from you on ways you prepare, ahead of time, to read and process your SEoT results.  Please leave your comments below.


Photo credit: Jurgen Appelo Flickr https ://flic.kr/p/8VBCoV

Peer review of teaching videos

I’m excited to share a series of videos on the formative peer review of teaching. The purpose of these videos is to enhance understanding of, and skills for, the peer review of teaching. These videos are for both reviewers and reviewees.
The videos can be found on the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s YouTube Channel at the “Formative Peer Review of Teaching” playlist: https://www.youtube.com/user/ctltresources/playlists

The specific videos are:
This project started as an attempt to create videos myself. The result was cheesy looking videos which were painstakingly long to create.
Since I am not a particularly patient person (my children and spouse would wholeheartedly agree), and because I appreciate high quality work, I was thrilled that, in the end, the videos were a produced with the expert help of Michael Sider and UBC Studios.
Please send me your feedback via email (isabeau.iqbal[at]ubc.ca), twitter (@isabeauiqbal) or in the comments box. You can, of course, leave comments on YouTube.