Category Archives: Teaching Techniques

Are You Using Think-Pair-Share Correctly?

Do you use think-pair-share in your classes? Are you doing it right?

Recently, I (virtually) saw Eric Mazur speak on Peer Instruction, his teaching technique that incorporates a variation of traditional think-pair-share (Mazur, 1997). This reminded me of key aspects of think-pair-share that I had either forgotten or haven’t always implemented. Thinking back to my experience as a student, I think instructors often miss key aspects of think-pair-share, reducing its effectiveness.

You may be thinking, “Really? Isn’t the process fully explained in the name?”

Sort of, but there is surprising nuance involved in well-executed think-pair-share, especially the highly effective version used in Peer Instruction.

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Do Students Need to Learn Facts in the Age of Google?

Yes. Next question.

Okay, like all things, this is more nuanced. When this question is posed, the intended point is often that students should be engaged in higher-order learning rather than spending all of their time memorizing disconnected facts. I generally agree with this sentiment, but in order to engage in higher-order learning, students need a solid grasp of the relevant facts and how they are related. In some ways this is obvious, but other reasons behind this may surprise you.

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Second Chances at First Impressions

[Author’s note: I had nearly finished this post in January 2020, but during the ensuing pandemic chaos, I pushed it aside until now. This is essentially a pre-COVID time capsule, though I’ve added a post-COVID epilogue.]

A few years ago, I underwent peer evaluation of my teaching as part of a reappointment review. While being observed by a colleague, I was quite thrown off my game as he frequently stood up in the back of an auditorium full of seated students. I was baffled about what he was doing. Later, he explained that he was standing to see how many students were using their phones. Most of them, apparently. How did my course arrive at this point?

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Reflections on a Philosophy of Teaching

Teaching philosophies are unique documents. They are incredibly personal and thus quite challenging to write. They also behave a bit as a diary, reflecting ourselves from a very specific place and time. It’s been over a decade since I wrote my first. I’m not quite sure where that original document lives, which is all the better, as I imagine a re-reading would involve a fair amount of cringing. I’ve revised my philosophy a number of times, usually for job applications but most recently for my tenure package. I (somewhat facetiously) made a graphic of this revision cycle.

This figure aims for a laugh, but at a deeper level, I appreciate having a document that grows and changes as I do. Each revision is an opportunity to reflect on that growth.

I’ve never shared my philosophy publicly, but I’m now feeling brave enough to do so. I can’t imagine any of this document will surprise colleagues or readers of this blog, but hopefully it will give readers some food for thought as they reflect on their own practice. Here we go:

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An American in China Part 2: My Teaching Practice

Now that I’ve given some context about my teaching in China, I can talk about how I adjust my teaching practice when I teach in China (and when I teach Chinese students at UBC).

The foundation of my teaching practice is compassion and empathy for my students. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold my students to high standards, but I consider the background of my students and teach with kindness, fairness, and respect. I recognize the incredible challenge of learning in a foreign language and in a very different cultural context. This perspective serves my ultimate goal, student learning. Continue reading

Okay. I was wrong. I’ll use a microphone when I teach.

I’m stubborn. If I’m shown to be wrong, I’ll freely admit it, but I require a high standard of evidence. I teach a class of 175 in a large lecture hall. I don’t use a microphone. I don’t want to use a microphone. I have a strong speaking voice. I can project. I don’t need a microphone. Speaking unamplified feels more natural to me. It’s like I’m having a conversation with my students. When I use a microphone, it feels artificial. It feels too formal. I feel like a megachurch preacher or a TED Talk speaker (not in a good way) lecturing at my students.

I am wrong.

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Two-Stage Exams for English-Language Learners

Twice a year, I travel to China to teach intensive 2-week forestry courses (in English) to Chinese undergraduates. Students face several challenges in this learning environment, but English-language ability is the biggest. (I’m not criticizing the students’ abilities. It is simply a key component of the learning environment. I have utmost respect for students taking a course taught in a foreign language.) Students in my courses have a wide range of English abilities. For students with decent English skills, learning in a foreign language introduces extraneous cognitive load (translation efforts use some cognitive bandwidth, leaving less available for learning). Unfortunately, students with marginal English skills simply miss or misunderstand much of what I say when I teach.

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First Thoughts on Two-Stage Exams

I gave my first two-stage exam a few weeks ago. It wasn’t an approach I had considered until very recently. I had previously heard of exams with a group portion, but at that time the benefits weren’t clear to me, and frankly, it sounded odd so I didn’t give it much thought. A few months ago, I was reintroduced to the idea by Judy Chan at a UBC Course Design Intensive workshop. After hearing the process described in detail, the value was immediately clear. This concept aligns with my interest in facilitating effective learning strategies for students, in this case, retrieval practice.

The exam I just gave was a radical departure from anything I’ve done before. During the group portion, I could see through the students’ animated discussions that they were more engaged with the material than ever before. Two-stage exams will be my main approach from this point forward.

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One Weird Trick to Promote Academic Integrity

Patrick’s note, October 17, 2021: Though this post still represents my experience and thoughts, the Shu et al. (2012) paper cited below has been retracted due to evidence of fabricated data. I have addressed this in a subsequent post.

My Academic Integrity Baseline

My first academic teaching position was at Middlebury College, a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont. During freshman orientation, students pledge to follow the school’s honor code. Faculty are expected to provide clear instructions and expectations regarding citation practices, collaboration, etc., and students are expected to follow these policies without faculty policing. When a Middlebury student submits an assignment or exam, they write and sign the honor pledge on that work.

“I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.”

This made part of my job as a faculty member quite easy, as it was the students’ responsibility to follow and enforce academic integrity. If fact, faculty are not even allowed to proctor an exam without special permission of the Dean of the College.

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I’ve Been Studying All Wrong: Highlighting and Rereading

As an undergraduate, my study regimen mostly consisted of:

  • Reading and highlighting assigned material (usually)
  • Doing assigned homework / problem sets
  • Taking notes during class
  • A week or so prior to exam…
    • Rereading the portions of the text that I highlighted
    • Reading chapter summaries
    • Rereading my notes

These are typical learning strategies, and they seemed adequate at the time. (However, grad student Patrick really wished undergrad Patrick had retained some more calculus and linear algebra.) Now, in my perpetual quest to become a better teacher, I’ve been dabbling in the cognitive sciences literature. The research around effective learning strategies (AKA studying techniques) has been especially interesting. I now realize I could have been studying much more effectively and efficiently. This literature has been wonderfully summarized by Dunlosky et al. (2013) in a comprehensive review of 10 common learning techniques used by students. Here is a small part of what they found:

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