Hello, my name is Prof–, no Doc–, no, ugh.

I have the pleasure of teaching a course at UC San Diego called “The College Classroom.” It’s a course for graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning in higher education. Sometimes it’s theoretical, like when we talk about constructivism or mindset, sometimes it’s practical, like when we talk about various evidence-based instructional strategies, and sometimes it’s extremely practical, like what to do and say on the first day of class of the course you’re teaching.

(Image by Peter Newbury)

(Illustration by Peter Newbury)

On that first day of class, when you’ve finally created sufficient materials, found the classroom, figured out how to connect the &%@# adapter to your laptop to display your slides, and at last, flip on the microphone — yeah, at that moment, you’re not at your best. You’re nervous and exhausted and excited and… And that’s not the moment when you want to be making important decisions that will impact the rest of the course.

So, I prompt my students to think NOW about those decisions, especially:

I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.

I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.

I use clickers to gather their choices, not because there’s a right answer but because it encourages everyone to think and commit (for now) and click, and the spread in the votes demonstrates there’s no one correct answer. The discussion following the vote is rich.

So many possibilities

Here’s as many of my students rationales as I can remember. I’ll use pretend instructors Michael (Mike) Jones and Elizabeth (Beth) Smith as examples.

  • My students are graduate students and postdocs, recall. Almost all of them were uncomfortable with Professor. We all know that “professor” is a title you earn at university through tenure-track and tenure positions. “Professor” means a lot and no one wants to misrepresent their status and level of achievement. I totally agree. But students are likely to call you Professor because that’s who teaches at university, right? When a student raises his hand and asks, “Professor Smith, could you explain how you got that again?” he’s not expecting this

    Oh, sure. But first, let me say I’m not actually a “professor” because I’m still working on my thesis. Once I defend and find an tenure-track position — fingers crossed, have you seen how competitive the market is — then I’ll use professor. But back to your question…

    This is why you should decide now what you want your students to call you, and let them know.

  • Same goes for “Dr. Jones,” say the graduate students in  my class. That’s a title that’s earned through hard work that they have not yet completed. No one wants to falsify their credentials.
  • Many of female graduate students feel they’re stuck with “Elizabeth” (or “Beth” if only your grandmother calls you “Elizabeth”) because they’re uncomfortable with “Miss Smith.” They often feel they must work extra hard to establish their credentials and gain the respect of their students, and “Miss” seems like it works against that.
  • I recently heard of 2 situations where the women in my class are okay with “Miss”:
    • One woman says she’s been teaching in high school and there, she uses “Miss Beth” with her students.
    • Another woman in my class, a person-of-color, says in her community, “Miss Beth” is a sign of respect and an accepted way for a student to address a teacher.
  • Many deliberate chose to use their casual, first names like Mike or Beth because they want to create a more collegial feel in the classroom, trying to remove the barrier between students and instructor.
  • When I was teaching, I also told them what I didn’t want to be called because Vancouver already had a Dr. Peter and he deserves every morsel of recognition and respect he earned through his outreach.
  • I think everyone in my classes saw, like so many other aspects of working in higher eduction, it’s easier for the male instructors to make this decision.

And that’s really the point of this whole exercise in my class – to make a decision. Now. When you’ve got time and you’re thinking straight.

Do you teach? What do your students call you? Why did you pick that name?

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Teaching students to think like experts – CSUgrit Symposium

I have the pleasure of facilitating a pre-conference workshop at the Cal State University LA Symposium on University Teaching. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown, Cat Haras, and Adrienne Lopez at CSULA’s Center for Effective Teaching and Learning.


I’ll be talking about how to get your students thinking in expert-like ways by using peer instruction (“clickers”). Peer instruction is a powerful, versatile, evidence-based instructional strategy that lets you turn your classroom into, as Ken Bain says in What the best college teachers do, (2004) a place where “students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation.” (p. 108)

Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)

Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)

Workshop Resources

  • Here’s a summary (PDF) of the key findings from How People Learn
  • This is a collection of peer instruction questions to critique during the workshop. Watch out – some of these are good and some are bad!


  • Here are the workshop slides.

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Teacher-as-alchemist, turning silence into gold

I teach a course about teaching and learning in #highered to a dedicated and enthusiastic group of graduate students and postdocs. One of our sessions is about “teaching-as-research,” something the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network describes like this:

The improvement of teaching and learning is a dynamic and ongoing process, just as is research in any STEM* discipline. At the core of improving teaching and learning is the need to accurately determine what students have learned as a result of teaching practices. This is a research problem, to which STEM instructors can effectively apply their research skills and ways of knowing. In so doing, STEM instructors themselves become the agents for change in STEM teaching and learning.

Teaching-as-Research involves the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of students and teachers.

* CIRTL focuses on STEM but this description of scholarly teaching applies to every discipline, from Anthropology to Zoology


In my class, students begin outlining a teaching-as-research project they could execute in their next teaching opportunity. When we get to the part about the design of the experiment, I show them this  fantastic video by Derek Muller.


Go ahead and watch. Play along with Derek and try to solve the puzzle.

The point is to be wary of confirmation bias. If you do some kind of intervention in your class and then students get good course marks, well, you don’t really know why. It could be just another white swan.


Mine is a teaching and learning course so I work hard to model the practices we discuss. When using video in class, I recommend the instructor prompt the students to watch the video like an expert in the field would watch it. That way, students can anticipate and recognize when key events occur, so they’ll be prepared to contribute to the discussion after the video.

So, please watch the video again. This time, watch for the golden moments when people got it, those light-bulbs-going-off, “A-ha!” moments when you know learning occurred.

When I watch the video, there are a couple of times when I sit up, point at my screen and exclaim, “There! Right there! Something just clicked in that guy’s head!”

Three times…

Those golden moments are rare and precious. If there’s potential for one to happen, you don’t want to get in the way. So, please watch Derek’s video again. This time, now that you know something magical happens a couple of times, watch carefully for what happens just before the light bulbs go off. I noticed something and I want to see if you notice it, too.

Did you notice?

Here’s what happens starting at 2:05 in the video

Derek: Hit me with three numbers.
Woman: 3, 6, 9
Derek: Follows my rule.
Man: Oh, that didn’t follow my rule.

Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller's "Can You Solve This?" Text added by Peter Newbury.

Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller’s “Can You Solve This?” Text added by Peter Newbury.

That’s the golden moment. And what happened just before something clicked  in the man’s head?

A pause.

An eternity-long, 5-second pause.

No prompt from Derek.


Just silence.

Our students need time to think! So quit yapping at them, filling every silence with information and helpful(?) hints. Learning is hard. It takes time. Time to think. Telling them what to think, how to think, when to think — that’s not helping them learn. They need to experience what to think, how to think, when to think for themselves.

Silence is golden. Go create some in your class.

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