Tag Archives: teaching

Connected Teaching (short book review)

This post was written for “What we’re reading“, a feature in the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s Dialogues newsletter.

It is a short review of “Connected Teaching” by Harriet Schwartz, PhD.

Book cover for Connected Teaching by Harriet Schwartz


In post-secondary teaching and learning, relationships matter.

They matter as much as (and possibly more than) course design, proper use of technology and other elements we typically associate with promoting understanding and “good teaching.”

Given my interest in the role of emotions in teaching and learning, I was eager to read Connected Teaching by Harriet Schwartz, PhD.

This book addresses the significance of the connection between students and faculty members and explores “teaching as a relational practice.” Drawing from Relational Cultural Theory (a theory Schwartz helps her reader learn about throughout the book), the author argues that “we are at our best when we have the capacity to engage and maintain growth-fostering relationships”. These relationships need not be long-term and can occur even in a single meaningful interaction.

Connected teaching, Schwartz describes, consists of five elements: energy, knowledge, sense of worth, action and desire for more connection. She proposes that care, presence, invitation and enthusiasm are essential elements of connected teaching because they convey to students that they matter and that their challenges are real.

What I especially appreciated about this book is that Schwartz does not depict connection as an easy process or a given. She writes honestly about disconnection, power, shame, blind spots and boundaries. That is, she is upfront about the challenges involved as we aim to build connection(s) with our learners.

What remains most with me about this book is Schwartz’s compelling messages about mattering and how it is central to connected teaching. Her work echoes other scholars’ work (see, for example, The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most by Felten et al.), who have highlighted the importance of creating a sense of belonging to student learning. To “matter,” reminds Schwartz, is to feel we have a place in others’ lives, and our presence makes a difference to them.

If you are keen to explore the role of connection in teaching and learning, I recommend Connected Teaching.

Interested in learning more about Connected Learning before reading the book? Listen to this Teaching in Higher Ed podcast episode where Harriet Schwartz discusses her book.

Schwartz, H. L. (2019). Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Give students choice in their assignments

The other day, I was part of a focus group organized by an instructor so he could get student feedback on a group assignment he had designed and implemented for an intense 2-week module in a Health Sciences masters program. Participants were students who had completed the course last term. In that course, students could opt to complete a group project or an essay-based exam.

Toward the end of the focus group session, one of the students, we’ll call him Matt, said “I was confused why there was a choice in the course assignment”. He explained:  “I’ve never had a course where students can choose between a group project or an exam and I was curious why we were given a choice.”

I was stunned. What?! This student has never been given a choice in his final assignment? In my own teaching within the UBC Faculty of Education, I always give the students choice; and in my experience as a student in that Faculty, I seem to recall that was always the case.  I assumed it was fairly common practice.

In this post, I will briefly explore reasons to give choice in student assignments.


Giving students choice helps them establish relevance

When you offer students assignment choices, they engage in a decision making process about the pros and cons of the options presented. In making a choice, they need to figure out what is interesting (to them) and personally relevant (Carl Weiman Education Initiative, 2013). Sure, some (maybe even many) try to figure out which assignment will likely result in the highest grade. Nevertheless, all students have to consider the options and make some decisions based on what is most relevant and helpful to them, individually, at this time. This is drastically different from the instructor telling students why an assignment is relevant or simply assuming that the student can ‘see’ the relevance of doing a particular assignment. Along with their final submission, you may ask students to provide a 2-3 sentence explanation about why they chose assignment X–this might give you interesting insights.

Giving students choice taps into their motivation

In “How Learning Works” the authors write that “students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn” (Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M., 2010, p.69). Read that one again–there’s a lot to it! I find it notable that the sentence doesn’t end with “sustains what they learn”, but rather with “sustains what they do to learn“. Motivation, defined in this way, is about the process of learning and is tied to the notion of learning goals. Ambrose et al. point out that when students are guided by their learning goals (as opposed to their performance goals) they attempt to “gain competence and truly learn what an activity or task can teach them” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p.72). As instructors, this is what we strive for.

Giving students choice can prompt creativity

Unsurprisingly, creativity is defined in various ways. Here is a definition I like from Creativity at Work: “Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.”

When students are not given every parameter for completing an assignment, they will engage in some creative processes. Creative thinking and critical thinking are connected and both are under the broader umbrella of learning.

As an instructor, I’ve been delighted on multiple occasions by the creativity students bring to their assignments when they are given choices.

Bonus benefit: Giving students choice makes marking more fun for the instructor

I don’t have any data on this, other than my own experience:

When I give students choice about their assignments (see here for example), I end up with a fair bit of variety. I have received videos, artwork, essays, mind maps with deep reflections, and more! This variety makes marking more fun for me.


Given that one of the key characteristics of learner-centered teaching is
“it motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes” (Weimer, 2013), then giving students choice is good learner-centered practice.

If this isn’t something you have tried, I strongly encourage you to do so! If you have any questions on how to go about this, I suggest you contact the teaching and learning centre at your post-secondary institution as I’m certain the fine folks there will be able to help you. You are also welcome to contact me.


Ambrose, S., M. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, and M. Norman (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Carl Weiman Education Initiative (2013). Motivating learning. Retrieved from http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Motivating-Learning_CWSEI.pdf

Weimer, M. (2012). Five characteristics of  learner-centered teaching. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/five-characteristics-of-learner-centered-teaching/.


Photo credit: (By complete fluke the picture I picked is by Derek Bruff, a fellow educational developer). Link to Derek Bruff’s picture above: https ://flic.kr/p/9vpdf7

Big ideas and course design


“A big idea must have pedagogical power: It must enable the learner to make sense of what has come before; and, most notably, be helpful in making new, unfamiliar ideas seem more familiar….a big idea is not just another fact or a vague abstraction but a conceptual tool for sharpening thinking, connecting discrepant pieces of knowledge, and equipping learners for transferable applications.”

(Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.70)


Below are some notes on the concept of “Big Ideas,” as presented in Understanding by Design. This information is part of the Course Design Intensive, a 3-day workshop for university instructors seeking to design or re-design a course.

Big ideas are at the core of a subject/field. They are often abstract, non-obvious, and counterintuitive to the novice (Note 1). Big ideas are essential for making coherent connections in a field and are a conceptual anchor that makes facts more understandable and useful (p.80).

A big idea can manifest in various formats (phrase, words, question etc). In pedagogical practice, a big idea may appear as a helpful:

  • concept (e.g. adaptation, perspective)
  • theme (e.g. “coming of age”)
  • on-going debate and point of view (e.g. nature versus nurture, conservatives vs liberals)
  • paradox (e.g. freedom must have limits)
  • theory (e.g. evolution vs natural selection, social constructivism)
  • underlying assumption (e.g. markets are rational)
  • recurring question (e.g. “Can we provide it?” “Is that fair?”) 
  • understanding or principles (e.g. correlation does not ensure causality, the reader has to question the text to understand it)  (p.70)

From the above examples, we can see that big ideas are:

  • broad and abstract
  • represented by few words
  • universal in application
  • timeless (p.69)

In summary, a big idea:

  • provides a conceptual lens
  • provides breadth of meaning by connecting and organizing many facts, skills and experiences
  • points to ideas that are at the heart of expert understanding of the subject/field
  • requires “uncoverage” because its meaning or value is rarely obvious to learner
  • applies to many other inquiries and issues over time (great transfer value) (p.69)



Note 1: Wiggins & McTighe distinguish big ideas from basic ideas. The latter, they write, are “the basis for further work; for example, definitions, building-block skills, and rules of thumb.” (p.67).

Basic term Core idea
Graph “Best fit” curve of the data
Ecosystem Natural selection
Fact versus opinion Credible thesis


Photo credit: Stephanie Carter, “dandelion” https ://flic.kr/p/349d57

Predicting: 5 key messages from “Small Teaching”

I recently read “Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning,” an excellent book1 by Dr. James Lang. To help me remember what I read and as a way of sharing some key messages from the book with a broader audience, I have decided to write some blog posts on select concepts. The first post was about retrieval practice and this second one is about predicting.

“Making predictions about material that you wish to learn increases your ability to understand that material and retrieve it later” (Lang, p.43)



1) When students take time (even just a few seconds) to make predictions about material they are about to learn, it increases their retention (or the memorization of facts) and comprehension (or the use of those facts in other contexts).

2) Even when the prediction the student makes is incorrect, it can increase subsequent retention. However, as Lang cautions, learners “have to receive fairly immediate feedback on the accuracy of their predictions or pretest answers if we don’t want those wrong answers to leave a deeper impression than the correct ones” (p.52). Providing fast feedback to students is essential in all prediction activities.

3) Prediction has a positive effect on retention and application of knowledge for the following reasons:

a) prediction helps implant new facts more strongly into the brain’s network of connections (and this promotes the activation of new facts in diverse contexts). “Prediction helps lay a foundation for richer, more connected knowing.” (Lang, 2016, p.49)

b) prediction activities can help students identify gaps in their knowledge.

c) prediction activities (and pretests) give students a better understanding of what the final assessment may consist of and this might help improve their study preparation.

4) As the instructor, you should speak with your students about why you are asking them to make predictions and/or take pretests on material they haven’t learned yet. By doing so, they will understand the ‘power of prediction’ and won’t feel you are being unfair.

5) Prediction questions should be at the conceptual level. In other words do not ask questions that are ultra-specific and that require students to draw on precise prior knowledge. Lang reminds us: “Predictions work because they require students to draw up whatever knowledge they might have that will assist them in making their prediction.” (p.59)

To learn more, see the Faculty Focus post titled: Learning on the Edge: Classroom Activities to Promote Deep Learning by James Lang.

Reference: Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Photo credit: Motion blur by Frank Monnerjahn  flic.kr/p/4Ny6Md

Retrieval practice: 5 key messages from “Small Teaching”

I recently read “Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning,” an excellent book1 by Dr. James Lang. To help me remember what I read and as a way of sharing some key messages from the book with a broader audience, I have decided to write some blog posts on select concepts. This first post is about retrieval practice (see here for an entire site created by Dr. Agarwal and devoted to the topic).

“The more times any of us practice remembering something we are trying to learn, the more firmly we lodge it in our memories for the long term.” (Lang, 2016, p.20)


5 Key Messages about Retrieval Practice from Small Teaching

  1. Students’ learning is enhanced when students are given opportunities to practice remembering.
  2. Give students multiple chances to practice remembering (i.e., frequency matters).
  3. As you design and select retrieval practices to give your students, make sure they are aligned with the high-stakes assessments you will be giving during the course. For example, if your students’ final exam (accounting for a significant portion of their marks) involves multiple choice questions (MCQs), make sure you give in-class retrieval practices that allow students to practice MCQs.
  4. When possible, use retrieval practices that involve writing and not only on oral practice. The former enhances learning and also means that everyone has to participate.
  5. If you are asking a retrieval question during class, remind your students not to look for an answer in their notes or textbook. When students draw information from their brain, this helps their long-term retention.

For more information on the science of learning and a host of ideas on how to implement small teaching, get the book!

You can also read posts on small teaching by James Lang here:

Footnote 1. Why do I think this book is excellent? Because:

  • This book is well written (key ideas are clearly communicated; his writing is tight and accessible; he makes good use of story telling, plus he manages to weave in humour).
  • Research based. Lang draws on relevant research studies to make a case for why the concepts he writes about matter to teaching and learning.
  • Loads of practical ideas.

Reference: Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Photo credit: Ben Francis, Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/8vLYT5