Flip or flip not, there is no try to read Chapter 3 before class please pretty please

Every learner needs to build new concepts into their own pre-existing knowledge. That’s the constructivist model for teaching and learning and ultimately, I believe, the rationale and justification for active learning. Like I said on Twitter a few weeks ago,

So what goes into that “prep” to support every students? Here’s my train of thought:

A guide for preparing students

For now, I want to focus on these steps:

To manufacture time for active learning and to create the guide for students, the instructor should look at the topics, section, ideas, learning outcomes — whatever unit of knowledge they’re using to plan the course — and decide which of these are easy enough the students can learn on their own, and which are challenging and need to be explored together in class. There should be clear distinctions between what students are responsible for, what will be covered together in class, and what won’t be covered. My friend, Robert Talbert, gives a nice description of using Bloom’s Taxonomy to classify his learning objectives and picking a cutoff between what students can do on their own and what they need to do together.

Here’s how I picture it, with students responsible for the blue topics, leaving the orange topics for class:

Students are responsible for learning lower level (blue) topics before class, leaving the higher level (orange) topics for class. (Graphic: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

I have privilege of teaching a large group of UC San Diego graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning. At the end of the course, each student backward-designs a 50- or 80-minute lesson with learning outcomes, assessment, and instructional strategies. They also select readings and other pre-class activities, including guidance for their students about how to prepare for class.

They’ve all done a great job recognizing students don’t need to read all of Chapter 3 and 4 in order to prepare for tomorrow’s class. But many wrote guidance like, “Read Chapter 3, paying attention to the notation and the differences between the 3 theories presented by the author.” To me, that looks like this:

Students are asked to learn a little about everything before class. In class, the instructor goes over everything in more detail. (Graphic: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

To prepare for class, the students learn a little about everything. Then in class, the instructor goes over each topic, expanding on what the student started to learn. And that can lead to problems:

  • students don’t know how much they have to learn about each topic – there is no definition of mastery — and so they don’t know if they’re ready for class
  • the instructor is probably asking students to learn conceptually-challenging concepts they’re not capable of learning on their own — that’s why they come to class!
  • if a student doesn’t do the pre-class readings, that’s okay, the instructor will go over most of it in class. In other words, why bother reading next time?
  • a student who does the pre-class readings may not see the value of that effort because the instructor went over it anyway. Again, why bother reading next time?
  • there’s a risk in the “clear distinction” version of guiding the students, too: if a student doesn’t do the pre-class reading, they will struggle in class because the instructor is assuming they have the required background knowledge.

How to you get them to do it?

If you’re going to ask your students to invest a considerable amount of work in the class, they need to know why. “Because I said so” isn’t sufficient. Here are two ways to get buy-in:

  1. Show them it’s valuable by letting them use their new knowledge and skills in class. If a student prepares for class and gets to, or better yet, has to, contribute to their and their classmates’ learning, they’ll do it again next time. And similarly, if they didn’t need to prepare,  because the content wasn’t used or because the instructor went over it anyway, they’ll think twice about preparing for the next class.
  2. Along with the pre-class guidance, instructors should plan for a pre-class reading quiz. The quiz questions assess students’ mastery of the (blue) topics they’re responsible for learning. A student who follows the guidance should have no trouble getting 100% on the quiz and a few percentage points toward their grade. Bonus: the instructor can check the students’ success on the reading quiz to ensure they’re prepared for class (or plan to cover a topic that was shown to be too difficult for students to learn on their own.)

Guided Practice and Preparation

Robert Talbert wrote an excellent description of the guided practice he gives his students before each class. I’ll leave the last word about supporting in-class, active learning to my friend, Beth Simon. She’s infectiously enthusiastic about flipping her class in order to create an engaging and rich learning experience when she and her students meet face-to-face.

(Graphic courtesy of Beth Simon, UC San Diego)

(Graphic courtesy of Beth Simon, UC San Diego)


Posted in How People Learn, teaching | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

There and back again.

I’m thrilled to announce that in July, I’ll be starting a new job as Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives in the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal Academic at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

polarisdotcanadaFor me, this is a return to Canada, to British Columbia, and to the University of British Columbia community, though in Kelowna, rather than Vancouver where I went to graduate school, taught, and was part of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

My 4 years at the Center for Teaching Development, now part of the Teaching + Learning Commons, at UC San Diego gave me the incredible chance to run a Center and then witness and contribute to the growth of a campus-wide teaching and learning network. For the opportunity to try, fail, get feedback, and try again (h/t Ken Bain) I thank my colleagues Beth Simon, Gabriele Wienhausen, Kim Barrett, Martha Stacklin, Steve Cassedy, the many faculty and staff I’ve worked with, and the hundreds of graduate students and postdocs who voluntarily participated in my teaching and learning course, The College Classroom. Their enthusiasm and dedication is inspiring.

I’m also incredibly grateful for the chance to learn with, and learn from, my colleagues in the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network. I couldn’t help myself from observing how Bob Mathieu, Kitch Barnicle, Robin Greenler, and Jeff Engler lead a diverse group of colleagues, making sure voices are heard, making timely, informed decisions, and communicating those decisions in ways welcome collaboration and growth. These are all skills I will need in my new job.

I’m very much looking forward to conversations and projects with new (and old) colleagues Cynthia Mathieson, Simon Bates, Michelle Lamberson, Heather Hurren, Greg duManoir, Heather Berringer, and many, many others.

I feel this is the job I’ve been preparing for throughout my teaching and learning career. Perhaps I can finally get rid of the impostor syndrome that’s been hanging around ever since I left the math classroom nearly 20 years ago.

There and back again :)

[Update 2/18/2016] Fixed a typo: It’s the Centre, not Center, for Teaching and Learning. Finally, after 4 years at UC San Diego, my fingers and typing muscle memory have become Americanized. Center. Color. Counselor. Language, too: I’m going to have to re-train myself to talk about marking and marks instead of grading and grades,  about Terms instead of Quarters, and most importantly, about KD instead of mac-n-cheese.

Posted in professional development, UBCO | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

I refuse to say yes to doing nothing about sexual harassment

Are there enough negatives in that title to confuse you? Good. But it’s nothing compared to the confusion I’ve felt this week. And my discomfort is a drop in the bucket of confusion and anxiety experienced every. single. day by woman who have been or are being sexually harassed.

The astronomy community was rocked again this week. I came to my current career via astronomy education and I know, not just “know of”, but personally and professionally know, all the people involved.

People who I admire and respect are making contradictory statements.

Some statements are so concrete, it’s impossible they’re both right. I can’t pledge allegiance to one without calling the other a liar. I can’t accept one side and I can’t accept two sides. The only option seems to be accept zero sides and do nothing.

No, that’s what I cannot do.

Doing nothing about allegations and instances of sexual harassment is how these behaviours have been allowed to continue.

I’m fortunate and grateful to have smart and powerful women in my community who are willing to listen to me, advise me, help me recognize what I believe, help me figure out what I can do. (If you’re part of the UC San Diego community and you’re struggling with harassment, I know Gabriele Wienhausen and Marnie Brookolo will make time for you.) They helped me recognize something we all agree on: we must condemn sexual harassment and this condemnation must be intentional and visible.

This is something I can do.

I’m putting it here in public in writing so I can hold myself, and you can hold me, accountable.

I will use Twitter to broadcast my stand on sexual harassment. This one tweet is ludicrously insufficient but it’s not nothing.

I will continue to teach the students in my teaching and learning course about recognizing and respecting the diversity of their students, about eliminating microaggressions, and about creating a learning environment where every student feels they can make a valuable contribution to the class. Not only that, but I will continue to practice modelling that behaviour as I teach the course.  Learning through diversity is one of the core ideas of the CIRTL Network where the curriculum of my course originated. This week, my friend and UC San Diego colleague, Adam Burgasser, shared with me the “Nashville Recommendations” for creating an inclusive astronomy community

My colleague Marnie Brookolo urged me I to go beyond confirming my own condemnation of sexual harassment and get my colleagues to do the same. I’m part of the UC San Diego Center for Advancing Mathematics, Science and Engineering Education (CAMSEE) which “connects individuals across mathematics, science, and engineering to advance undergraduate learning and produce scholarly educational research.” On January 13, we met with Becky Petitt, UC San Diego’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Becky congratulated us on making diversity an ongoing and integral part of our practice. To continue to earn that praise, I will organize my CAMSEE colleagues to write and make public a statement condemning sexual harassment in our community. NASA did it. So can will we.

I will not remain silent, eyes averted, when I witness harassment. (I did stay silent at a conference reception a year ago and it’s bugged me every day since. I still remember the conversation I had with myself – I recognized this senior, male professor’s funny anecdote was harassment, I knew I should say something, but I chickened out. Dammit!)

These are small actions, but if each of us refuses to say yes to doing nothing, perhaps these somethings can begin to create an environment where every member of the community is welcomed and celebrated for the unique strengths they bring.


These updates are here so I can be accountable to myself. This is absolutely not about me looking for thanks or a pat on the back. Instead, I need to prove to myself that I’m not just talking but actually doing.

ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. In a meeting with a job candidate, one of the people made a comment that included the candidate’s marital status and what their spouse does. The candidate had not volunteered that information. That information should have no bearing on our assessment. After the meeting, I spoke confidentially with that person to point out they’d shared private information about the candidate. This person was all, “Oh damn, I’m also so careful about that! Alright, I’ll be more careful now…”

ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. I went to a (different) job candidate’s teaching demo. The candidate is a young woman in a STEM field. She included a simulation in her lesson and as she was setting up the simulation, a man in the audience (a faculty member) said, “Miss, I think you selected the wrong parameter for the simulation…” Without a pause, the candidate said, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t make assumptions about my marital status and called me Dr. ____. Thank-you for pointing out that parameter…” Okay, that was freakin’ awesome! I almost clapped (but recognized that could throw her off her lesson.) After the presentation, I made a point of speaking with her and let her I noticed what she’d done, that it must have been difficult (calling out a faculty member in the Department you’re applying to!), that it was awesome, and that she should be very proud of herself. This is about recognizing other people’s condemnations of sexual harassment and letting them know those actions are noticed and appreciated. It’s a way I can use my privilege to foster an inclusive, diverse, equitable, welcoming community.

ThumbsDown_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 26, 2016. In my teaching and learning class, I asked students for their thoughts about something. A student suggested exactly what I was hoping for. Her answer was so good, I kinda’ sputtered and mumbled because I didn’t know what to say. And I’m 99% sure I saw her react – as if I’d announced to the class she was wrong. If you have any hint of imposter syndrome, having your instructor smirk or snicker at you would crank it up to 11.  I sent her email the next day. My wanted to admit I’d made a mistake, apologize, affirm she has valuable contributions to make, and thank her for generously sharing those contributions. It’s so hard to write that email without victim-blaming

  • “I’m sorry if my behavior today…” IF? Yeah, like it’s your fault you reacted.
  • “I’m sorry if you felt…” IF? YOU felt? Again, your fault.

Declaring what you did and apologizing, without the recipient being forced take some blame or offer forgiveness, is hard. I finally went with this (redacted to preserve some anonymity.)

Hi ____,

At the beginning of [our class], I asked everyone about [today’s topic]. You gave an answer so good, I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled something that gave you the idea that what you said was wrong.

I’m really sorry about that. That was a wrong on my part.

You have valuable and unique insights and experiences and I greatly appreciate your generosity and willingness to share them.

See you in class,


I’m very grateful this student took the time to reply, and greatly admire that she wrote a message [published here with her permission] that doesn’t “forgive me”:

Hi Peter,

No offense taken, but I absolutely appreciate you taking the time to extend an apology just in case. Having taught for a few years now, I have had my share of awkward or bumbling responses! I understand.

Thank you for the good example. See you next week.


Posted in astro 101, professional development | Tagged , | Leave a comment