Tag Archives: writing

“Writing-to-Learn” in Intro Psych

While flying to the APS convention in Washington DC today, I was perusing a back-issue of the journal Teaching of Psychology. I came across an interesting article that made me consider a new paper-writing option for my intro psych class. In two studies, the researchers asked intro psych students to upload 16 brief (1-2 paragraph) statements that expanded on one concept from a 10-concept shortlist from each chapter. The paragraphs were graded for completion only (just a check to make sure they were topical), and were then coded for topic choice. Students responded better to midterm exam questions on topics they had previously written about than to questions on topics they had not previously written about–even when students had been told specifically which concepts to write about (Study 2).

What I’m finding particularly intriguing about this study is that (a) students seemed to learn the concepts better after writing about them, (b) the task seems pretty simple and straightforward for students (“What I learned about the concept is…” or “An example of the concept in my life is…”), (c) it may promote strong study habits that can be transferred to other topics and courses, and (d) because it’s ungraded and tracked online, it seems logistically manageable in a very large class.

Indeed, my classes are pretty large (depending on the year/term, they range from 250 to 400 students). Couple that with very limited TA resources, and fitting in writing is always a challenge. Currently I assign one 600-word application-style paper in each term. Recently I added a peer feedback step using peerScholar software, and that worked out pretty well. Informally, students reported learning from reading others’ papers, yet few seemed to revise their work at all, let alone implementing changes based on others’ feedback.

Maybe the assignment in this study could be a worthwhile pursuit. In this research paper, the authors noted that completion of all 16 was worth 10% of the students’ grade. I’m not sure I could offer that just for completion… we have pretty strict grading standards here in UBC Psych. But once I cut it in half (separating term 1 101 from  term 2 102) that’s only 5%… that seems more manageable.

I continue to ponder… as I lie awake… on Pacific time… in Eastern timezone.

Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo)

I just found out about Academic Writing Month via this link posted on Twitter by CTLT.  It’s a cousin to National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo), during which people commit to completing a 50000 word draft of a novel. For #AcWriMo, the scope is broader: anyone engaged in academic writing can commit to a giant goal and go for it! What struck me most when reading about it was the acknowledgement that December is supposed to be a time of celebration, and yet it ends up being packed with work put off while classes are in session. Since May I’ve been trying to prioritize my mental and physical well-being, and #AcWriMo actually fits with that spirit. I happened to tweet I was interested, and the organizers (@PhD2Published) were so encouraging I decided to dive in and set some goals! Because we all know there’s good research evidence on the power of publicly declaring your goals, I offer them here. It may not meet a 50000 word mark, but these are the projects I aim to complete by November 30:

  • History of Psychology paper comparing my life journey in psychology to a famous psychologist. I’m choosing Mary Calkins, our first female APA President. (12 Pages) Finished November 6. 4494 words.
  • Teaching of Psychology grad seminar course syllabus in preparation for next term (~8 pages, draft already complete) Progress November 13.
  • Ethics application to study the learning outcomes of the Teaching of Psychology course (~5 pages) Progress November 15.
  • Finish grant application for Peer Review software/services Review (with collaborators) (~5 pages, draft already complete). Finished November 14.
  • Complete draft of Team Testing manuscript (with N. Mirriahi from Arts ISIT) (~30 pages; currently have draft of 5 pages) Progress November 19. 
  • Magna proposal for e-seminar on Active Learning in Large Classes (~3 pages)
  • Active Learning manuscript for publication (~20-30 pages; already 2 pages of notes collected)

Wow, that list includes everything I had planned to complete by the end of December. Some are already in progress but just need that extra push. #AcWriMo just may do the trick! Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have them done before December (at least in draft form)? So there they are, my goals for November. I’ll update as I go… now… time to begin!

What do profs do all day?

Wow, I’ve been writing a lot lately… just not here! Check out my latest article for the Ubyssey (UBC’s student-run newspaper). And in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s a copy…


Most people probably think they could tell you what a university professor or instructor does. There’s probably little bit of reading, some research and some teaching. But how much do people actually know about how professors spend their days?

I’m a tenure-track faculty member here at UBC in the teaching stream. This means that next year, after four years of full-time teaching, my performance will be evaluated by colleagues, and if I am deemed “excellent” enough, I will be hired permanently by UBC. My title will change to senior instructor, but (I think!) that’s the only major change.

Indeed, the more common tenure-track stream for faculty involves being evaluated primarily on research. That means teaching vies for attention with research, the activity that ultimately determines whether a faculty member advances. I enjoyed doing research, but it was immediately clear to me that I love teaching students. I am passionate about the creative and deeply human process of helping someone think differently, so this teaching track is a perfect fit for me. That’s a glimpse into the big-picture career level of professorship. What does the daily life of a prof actually involve?

I teach about 500 students across three courses this term. That means I am physically in the classroom for nine hours each week. And I’m in the teaching stream: I teach double the amount of time as my closest research colleagues.

It’s easy to assume we do very little throughout a typical day, or that we just wait around for students to email us. When I was in undergrad, I used to think that was true. As it turns out, I work for about 60 hours each week (and some years that number has been as high as 75 or 80). Most of my time is spent preparing lessons, although the percentage of time I spend on course preparation has decreased over the past couple of years.

The first time I teach a course, I spend about 20 to 30 hours a week on that course alone. This preparation includes choosing and reading the textbook, deciding what concepts are most important or challenging or interesting, designing lessons that help students learn those concepts, and designing learning assessments like exams and assignments. All of this preparation requires an understanding of the discipline and how people learn, both of which inform my choices while creating learning experiences and assessments for my students. Each time I revisit a course, I strive to improve my expertise in how to teach it effectively. Sometimes this means overhauling entire lessons or assignments, but much of the time this means deepening my knowledge by reading journal articles and making more subtle changes to lessons based on last year’s notes and new developments in the field. After about four or five rounds of a course, I’m down to spending about eight hours a week on it, outside of class.

I also coordinate learning events, like speaker series. I sit on a number of committees to help make the university function well. And I also write. Writing is a major part of most academic posts. Last year I co-wrote a textbook on Research Methods. More recently, I have been writing an application to the federal agency that funds humanities research (called the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to convince them to fund my upcoming conference on training graduate students to teach.

After that is a new syllabus for next term, and a research article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. One of the challenges involved in academic work is constantly switching from major broad projects to day-to-day details of teaching courses. But it’s a fun challenge, and one that the general public needs to understand.

Why I Blog

Yesterday the Communications Assistant for the Faculty of Arts emailed me about featuring my blog on Artswire. She asked me why I blog. It was a great question that got me thinking about my initial motivations and how they’ve changed over the past couple of years. Here was my reply:

I blog for two reasons. First (and this was my initial motivation), I blog for professional  development. It gives me a space to record my thought processes around teaching and learning, as well as document some artifacts of my teaching activities (e.g., syllabi, evaluations). Second, I blog to give my students a glimpse into my thinking and to expose me as–gasp!–a real human person. This came second only because I didn’t expect students to actually read it! After they started responding I realized I could harness this tool for this purpose.

I tweet (@cdrawn) for the same two reasons, but their order is switched. I started tweeting to share snippets of my thoughts and activities with interested students, and have ended up with some great professional networking in the teaching & learning community both @ubc and broadly.


As of last night, I have completed draft 1 of Cozby and Rawn (2013), Methods in Behavioural Research, First Canadian Edition! My stomach did a somersault when I hit “save” on that last chapter. Excited and relieved to be done; nervous of what other instructors and students will think of it. I did my best work on every chapter, but of course it’s never going to be perfect (where’s the fun in that?).

I never expected to be writing a textbook at this stage in my career (i.e., early!).  Then I got the opportunity to take an existing textbook that I had been using for a few years and update/adapt it for a Canadian audience. It took a long time for me to decide to do it–it’s so much work!–but I immediately knew that I would ultimately agree. See, here’s the thing about me: I have built my life by jumping on opportunities that have passed my way, and then carving my own opportunities to grow, which has led to more and more opportunities. I had to. I was raised by a very large, very loving extended family, and for them I am grateful. But I don’t come from money or big connections or a tradition of higher education (let alone post-grad). I was once a kid with modest dreams and a mountain of people who cared for me.  My earliest teachers offered enrichment and suggested extra-curricular activities. I jumped on every chance I had to do more, learn more, grow more. As I did, my circle grew too. Fifteen years ago I could never have imagined I would be here, writing a textbook and teaching psychology at a world-class university in a world-class city 4000km away from what I used to call home.

But opportunity means risk. Taking a leap into uncharted waters is not for the faint of heart. Heading off to undergrad a mere half hour from home felt devastating at the time, but I knew I had to do it. It was the next opportunity. Then four years later, with a well-developed independence in tow, I moved across the country. In many ways it wasn’t as difficult that time. I didn’t end up with the same set of opportunities here that I initially expected, but I worked hard, seized the opportunities I found, and created more.

So if you’re about to start your time at UBC — or start a new year here or anywhere — I encourage you to figure out what opportunities you want, and go find them. Don’t be afraid to jump on them when you do. Or if you are afraid, but you know it’s probably best for you in the long run, take a deep breath and do it anyway.