Tag Archives: novice-expert


I have spent the last three days at the annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in Toronto. Wow, I have hit exhaustion. So many ideas. So many engaging conversations. Inspired. Overwhelmed. I can’t do it all. But I can do. The challenge over the next few days for me will be to hold on to the most important nuggets. A list of some key ideas to help:

  • Embrace the Smackdown in Teaching Smackdowns. Try to find out what real issues are facing faculty in our department, and invite conversation. Consider a panel including undergrad and grad students, faculty, and administrators. Ground the discussion in the literature. — from Pedagogical Provocations workshop (e.g., Connie @ U of A)
  • A cat doesn’t come until the can opener sounds. Creative insight doesn’t occur with out work. — a metaphor Amanda Burk heard
  • What in my courses is taught/assessed, taught/not assessed (and so on to fill out the quadrants)? Decision points. — from someone Amanda Burk heard
  • Students learn what they do. What are students in my classes doing?
  • To download a Youtube video, add pwn before youtube in the url.
  • To teach “knowledge-ability” (1) enage in real problems, (2) with students, (3) while harnessing the relevant tools. — Michael Wesch @ Kansas; implications for my 208 assignment; see ideas document
  • To examine  test questions: What is the test question asking? What learning is the question evaluating? How can it be re-written so these align? Consider cognitive load theory. — Joanne Nakonechny
  • “On an exam, I ask you to be competent, not clever. On an assignment you have 2 weeks to think about, I ask you to be clever.” — another participant’s comment re: evaluation
  • Break down a tough exam question. Think out loud as I respond. What assumptions do I make? Can I structure the question so that students demonstrate understanding of the theory, then ability to use it, then ability to apply it, then ability to turn it on its head. — insight from Joanne’s session.
  • Email my former student Gillian about her work on the NSSE.
  • Think about how I can help demystify academia for my students.
  • At the first year level, you are joining the professional academic community. What impact does that have for my first weeks of class? Tie professional communication to job preparation. Email and general etiquette. Give examples of high quality work, compare to poor quality, and differentiate them. — from Professionalism session (Waterloo connection)
  • Celebrate failure: “How fascinating!”  — from Nicola Simmons’ session (Waterloo office of learning and teaching)
  • (How) can I contribute to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning? What will that look like in my career? How can I balance this in the context of my other responsibilities, especially in terms of time? — from Nicola Simmons’ session (Waterloo office of learning and teaching)
  • What excites me about SoTL is the potential for collaborating with students and colleagues, making a meaningful contribution, expanding the impact of my work, staying accountable for my teaching and learning actions. — from Nicola Simmons’ session (Waterloo office of learning and teaching)
  • Grad student teaching portfolio resources: http://www.mcgill.ca/tls/teachingportfolio/
  • Interdisciplinarity: There are more commonalities that one would think. The creative process as described by artists is not unlike the process of developing research and writing it up. We don’t talk about it in the same way, but the processes of attempts, failure, revision, inspiration, feedback/peer review — and the accompanying emotional roller coaster — have many parallels. There are also common issues in teaching people to do really difficult things: e.g., learn technical proficiency and content, critically evaluate their own and others’ work.

This list became much longer than I had anticipated it would, given my fatigue. Yet one of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that whenever I’m close to exhaustion, I can easily be energized by thinking about teaching and learning.

learning something new

Yesterday I began my journey into learning how to garden! With the guidance of our friend, Lesley Duncan, my husband and I transformed our condo’s dull, concrete balcony into something beautiful, complete with outdoor acacia wood flooring and a variety of filled planters.

I know next to nothing about growing plants. So when we set out in the garden centre I felt a bit anxious and confused. There are so many variables to consider: annual/perennial, sun needs, water needs, space needs, height needs… it was tempting to just give up. But I want to learn. Basic gardening can’t be that difficult, and the results can be beautiful.  So I sought Lesley’s help. She is a thoughtful, patient (award-winning!) teacher generally, and is also quite knowledgeable about horticulture. She helped us make decisions by listening to our needs and ideas, taught us how to plant, when to water, and so on.

Throughout the process, I felt keenly aware of my novice status. I felt emotions including excitement, anxiety, and a strong desire to avoid messing up. The experience reinforced something I have come to learn about myself: I often prefer to learn in communion with others. When I needed to learn about gardening, I didn’t turn first to a book or a website. I turned to a friend, a tutor, a guide, who could help me identify what I needed to know now in a sea of possible knowledge. (I’m now reminded again: “We teach who we are” (Palmer).) It was fun learning something new, but I’m not sure how much fun (rather than stress) I would have had if I didn’t have such a knowledgable, kind guide.

At the end of the day, when we were remarking about the future possibilities of bright flowers and voluptuous herbs, Lesley wisely noted that if something went wrong — a plant didn’t like it there, got over/under-watered or whatever — we would just learn not to do that again next year, but that it wouldn’t be a catastrophe. This simple nugget of wisdom offered me a productive way to frame whatever happens to our plants over the summer. Thanks for being such a great teacher/guide/friend, Lesley!

gaining expertise

What? During a workshop about learning goals and assessment at the TAG Institute, we were thinking about what it means to be an expert in a discipline. It occurred to me that expertise comes when a person is aware of what she knows and what she doesn’t know. From there, an expert has enough knowledge of the field to be able to identify what she needs to know to solve a given problem, and is able to locate and evaluate how well that knowledge fits her needs. I thought that this process takes a certain amount of humility to recognize shortcomings. Another participant at the workshop thought this process takes a certain amount of arrogance to seek and evaluate knowledge, and to contribute to the literature when one finds gaps in the knowledge that’s out there. Upon further reflection, I think the process takes a bit of both humility and arrogance.

So What? What this means for me in the classroom is that I would like to convey to my students that it is ok to be wrong, particularly when the educated response was well-reasoned and based on research findings. What is most important, arguably, is the ability to recognize an error and (know how to) seek the truth, however that is defined in a given discipline. 

Now What? I’m starting to realize the implications of one of my overarching course goals: Students will to be able to think like a psychologist. This goal is difficult to evaluate: How will I know when a student can “think” critically using psychological research? Part of addressing this objective will involve the use of ongoing, formative feedback as a source of dialogue in the classroom (rather than solely conducting judgemental evaluations involving grades). Including formative feedback as part of the process of learning will give students the space to be wrong, hopefully without the anxiety of formal evaluation. The trick will be to do this effectively in classes of 200-500 students. With this many students, a peer-based system will be imperative for addressing this course goal seriously.


As we look at homes to purchase and work on contracts for offers, I’ve been acutely aware of how much I don’t know about realty and gigantic purchases. It seems there are a million variables to consider, all the while watching guard for being ripped off and trying to snag as good a deal as possible. Throughout the process we have been guided by the enormously helpful advice and expertise of our realtor. He has been there to help us through this immense decision. To give us options we may not have otherwise explored. To notice potential problems. To think about contract clauses and write them in legal prose. It has been tremendously reassuring to have him there. But I also feel a bit vulnerable. I am aware that he has the power to mislead and misinform us, either unintentionally or intentionally. It’s not that I’m suspicious, but I am not naive.

In all novice-expert combinations, novices are in a vulnerable place. My experiences  over the past week have reminded me of the critical element of trust between teacher and student. It is my responsibility, as a teacher, to provide complete and accurate information to the best of my ability. It may be worth thoughtfully approaching how to developing trust with my students, trust that I’ll help them to learn content, but especially to think for themselves. I’ve always felt that way (indeed, it’s my professional ethical responsibility), but I’m especially reminded this week.