Teaching for learning blog

Subscribe to Teaching for learning blog feed Teaching for learning blog
Discussing what matters in higher education.
Updated: 3 hours 17 min ago

Highs and Lows of Course Evaluations

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 09:00

Student ratings and comments in course evaluations can bolster teachers’ sense of efficacy. But even a single less-than-favourable rating or comment has the potential for disproportionately occupying our thoughts. This phenomenon—of focusing on the one or two negative comments among a sea of positive ones—is common.

Maryellen Weimer addresses this matter in her recent blog post What to Do About Those Negative Comments on Course Evaluations. She makes several suggestions for how to stop obsessing over those few less-than-favourable evaluations, stating: “It requires concerted effort and the application of some self-discipline.” Among her suggestions:

“Step back. For the moment, let it go and move on to something else. Read every positive comment three times and smile.

Look again later, but with objectivity. How many negative comments were there, versus no comments and positive ones? Try deleting the emotional language in the comment. Make it sound like constructive feedback and then consider what happened in the course that might have generated the response. Does the student have a point?”

Click to read Weimer’s other suggestions.

What suggestions do you have for dealing with the one or two poor course evaluation comments among a sea of positive ones?

Getting Students To Distinguish Fact From Fallacy In The Media

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 10:27

Faculty of Management Professor Elena Obukhova is eager for her students to become “discerning media consumers.” In a recent article in The McGill Reporter “How a Desautels professor is sensitizing students to fake news,” Professor Obukhova describes an assignment she gives students to develop their skill at critically evaluating media content so that they can discern facts from fake news.

“With the aim of imparting information literacy to her BCom students, Prof. Obukhova, with assistance from former McGill Associate Librarian Edward Bilodeau, designed an assignment about the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations that would allow them to grapple with distinguishing fact from fallacy in the media.”

The first part of the assignment calls upon students to write their own biased version of a news article. Professor Obukhova explains: “Teaching somebody how to make a biased or a fake news story is a way to inoculate them from being susceptible to bias and fakery.” Read more.

Many instructors have students do assignments to bolster their critical thinking skills. Pervasive fake news means that learning materials for creating critical thinking assignments are at our finger tips. What critical thinking assignments do you give your students? Post descriptions below!

Exploring issues surrounding The Royal Victoria Hospital site development in a McGill Law course

Mon, 05/28/2018 - 09:00

For the first time, Professors Kirsten Anker, Yaëll Emerich and Tina Piper from the Faculty of Law teamed up to teach the “Property” course (LAWG 220 D1 and D2), a new year-long “integrated course teaching civil, common and Indigenous property law.”[1] Their students’ final assignment was to create a poster related to the development of the Royal Victoria Hospital site. Working in teams, the students had to “explore property issues related to the development of the former site of the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH).”[2] Specific objectives for students were to:

  • “Develop collaboration skills by working together on a project
  • Apply [their] knowledge of property law to an actual situation in the local environment
  • Translate legal knowledge to individuals in a public forum.”[3]

As part of the assignment, students displayed their posters in the Atrium of New Chancellor Day Hall. I walked around and asked several students if they could tell me briefly what they had learned from this assignment:

  • Sara Gold felt that the assignment allowed her to apply property law concepts to a concrete example, and look at how these laws could affect the city and its inhabitants. This project felt personal to Sara, a native Montrealer with family working in the medical field.
  • While considering the ecoterritory of the RVH site in relation to aboriginal laws, Anisha Samat realized that the First Nations’ approach to the environment is much more fluid; the interior and the exterior are not seen as separate entities but rather as complementary.
  • Eric Abrams realized that the law has a very westernized definition of “value” in regards to property, taking into account only economic aspects of the site and neglecting added value to society.
  • Alix Genier and her group looked more closely at heritage laws, and discovered these include only aesthetic aspects of the property and neglect to take into account the site’s story and former function. They researched how the RVH site could embrace its history and heritage, and be inclusive of the various minorities that had a part in its story.

I also spoke with Professor Piper about the teaching experience and the outcomes of the course. She said that although students sometimes struggled with the collaborative aspect, overall she was pleased with their work and impressed that students found new, original documents about the site.

 What are some historical facts that you would like to share about the RVH site?

[1] Excerpt from the course syllabus, provided by Prof. Tina Piper

[2] Excerpt from the “RVH Assignment Instructions” distributed to students; provided by Prof. Tina Piper.

[3] Excerpt from the “RVH Assignment Instructions” distributed to students; provided by Prof. Tina Piper.

Featured image by Jeangagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

My Love Affair with the Document Camera

Fri, 05/11/2018 - 10:38

“Recently, I heard one of my students ask his friend, ‘If you were stranded on an island and could only take one item with you what would you bring?’ I started thinking about the question as it applied to my classroom. The thought came to my mind, ‘What is the one item in my classroom that I absolutely could not do without?’ […] My eyes landed on […] my document camera” (Borel, 2014). I didn’t write that. But I could have. It aptly captures my sentiments about the doc cam, as it’s often referred to.



I love using doc cams because they’re a simple and dynamic tool for engaging students in learning in class. Doc cams sit on classroom podia … long necks poised and ready for action with the touch of a button. One of my favourite strategies is to have students—individually, in pairs or small groups—hand-draw complex concepts on paper to illustrate their understanding. Volunteers then display their drawings on the doc cam for class discussion. During such discussions, students’ understanding of the concept is often deepened, and they tweak their drawing in real-time while their paper still rests on the doc cam. This strategy allows for immediate instructor and peer feedback, and it allows me to easily assess students’ understanding of concepts so that I can adjust my teaching, if needed.

Read about other doc cam strategies in this post by Bryn Lutes: Encouraging Critical Thinking with a Document Camera. In a short video entitled Active learning: Creative ways to use a document camera to engage students, see how one instructor at Iowa State University uses the doc cam in her chemistry class.

Many doc cams have a feature that allows for taking a snapshot of the material being displayed. These snapshots can be saved as jpegs, for example, and then posted to myCourses. Using this snapshot feature, I create a cumulative archive in each course site of exercises or problems worked on in class using the doc cam. Suggestion: Write dates and page numbers at the top of each page. Students can use this archive for review and study throughout the semester.

If the doc cam doesn’t have the snapshot feature, you can collect student work that was displayed on the doc cam and scan it. Simply feed the papers into a copy machine on campus to create one pdf. You don’t need to scan pages one by one.

The main reason I love doc cams is because they are a simple means for promoting interaction in the classroom. How have you used doc cams for engaging students in learning in class?

Doc cams are installed in many classrooms at McGill. If you teach at McGill, you can check online to see if classrooms you’ve been assigned to have a doc cam. If you’d like to learn more about using a doc cam, please complete the Educational Technologies Consultation Request Form and select “Classroom AV” from the selection of “which educational technology do you want to learn about.” We’ll show you not only which button to press, but also how you can use the doc cam to engage students in learning in your classes.



Borel, J. (2014). 15 Fabulous ways to utilize a document camera in the art room [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.theartofed.com/2014/09/01/15-fabulous-ways-to-utilize-a-document-camera-in-the-art-room/

Lutes, B. (2015, August 3). Encouraging critical thinking with a document camera [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/2015/08/encouraging-critical-thinking-with-a-document-camera/

Peer assessment within and among teams

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 09:00

A number of instructors at McGill have implemented peer assessment (PA) in their courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the topic.

Professor Marta Cerruti teaches Materials Surfaces: A Biomimetic Approach (MIME 515/CHEE 515) to undergraduate and graduate students in the Faculty of Engineering. In a conversation about her experience with PA, she shares how she implemented PA in her course both within and among student teams, reflects on students’ PA experience, and gives advice for instructors thinking about trying PA in their courses.

What was the major assignment in this course?

Over the semester, students had to work in teams to develop a presentation and an accompanying report on an engineering topic of their choosing.

How were the teams formed?

Inspired by the work of Barbara Oakley, I decided to assign students to teams, rather than having the students choose their own. This allowed me to maximize diversity in the teams, as Oakley recommends. Specifically, I considered the students’ past performance, their disciplinary focus—whether they were in chemical or materials engineering—and whether they were undergraduate or graduate students. There were just over 30 students in the course, so in total, there were 10 teams of three to four students.

How did the assignment play out?

Students received feedback from peers on other teams on their presentation assignment twice – once mid-course on a short presentation and once at the end of the course, on a longer presentation. As well, they assessed their teammates twice on how well they were working together within the teams – once mid-course as a practice round, and once at the end of the course, which could affect their grade. In all, there were six main steps:

First, students submitted a two-paragraph summary of their project proposal via myCourses. That was ungraded, and only the co-instructor and I saw it. We gave feedback on the summary.

Second, teams gave a mid-course team presentation for which they prepared outside of class. The team presentations were three minutes each. In a speed-dating format, the teams presented to other teams during one class period:

  1. One team presented to another team. The listening team took notes on the presenting team’s message and performance, in preparation for giving feedback.
  2. The teams switched roles, so that the other team also had a chance to present. The listening team took notes on the presenting team’s message and performance.
  3. The teams had 10 minutes to provide oral feedback about the presentations to one another, based on their notes.

Then each team repeated steps A, B, and C with three more teams.

After class, students individually gave constructive written feedback using Office Forms to each team whose presentation they had seen. The Office Forms tool was easy to use for this feedback among teams, for the students and for me. (screenshot below; full feedback form here:

The teams then gave feedback on the feedback they received [editor’s note: such feedback is also referred to as “back evaluation”] – that is, they indicated how useful the feedback was, both in words and with a number on a scale of 0 (not useful) to 2 (very useful). Then the TA went through the written feedback and numbers, and transformed the 0, 1 or 2 into a grade. We had already explained to the students in the course outline how these numbers would be transformed into grades.

An advantage of these short presentations was that just from walking around the classroom – even though I did not listen to or provide feedback on the presentations at this stage – I was able to see who was engaged and who wasn’t. In certain teams, some people were visibly participating more than others. So it was immediate feedback for me to realize if there were teamwork issues or not.

Third, the student teams revised their presentations based on the in-class discussions among teams and the written peer feedback, and then they uploaded a revised version of their 3-minute presentation to myCourses. These were PowerPoint slides with a recorded voiceover which had to include all team members’ voices. I graded these uploaded mid-course presentations and gave feedback.

Fourth, the students practiced rating and commenting on the cooperation of their team members with a mid-course peer evaluation (p. 29), where students filled in a hard-copy form outside of class describing each team member’s contributions. The next class period, the students brought their forms to class. The students met in their teams and discussed these forms for 20 minutes. By filling out and then sharing the evaluation form, each team member could learn what the others thought about their work within the team. This was meant as a wake-up call in case anything was going wrong in the teams. During that time I walked around and asked a few questions to hear how things were going overall.

Fifth, each team presented for 10 minutes to the entire class. This occurred during three class periods at the end of term. They also submitted a final report. Each student was assigned to give peer feedback, again using Office Forms, on three presentations – one per class period. One of the feedback questions was “What do you think was the take-home message?” This question let students see if what they wanted to convey was actually understood. A few days later, each team had to write a one-page addendum to the final report on what they would do differently based on the feedback from peers.

Sixth, after the final presentation, each student rated and commented on their own cooperation within their team, and the cooperation of their team members, in an Office Form. This peer rating was also based on Oakley’s work (p. 30). These peer ratings contributed to students’ final grade. Then all their team assignment grades were multiplied by a factor depending on their peers’ assessment of their individual contributions, based on a formula that Oakley describes (p. 31). Because of this formula, each student’s ultimate assignment grade varied somewhat from that of the other students on their team. Students saw the results of the formula but did not see the comments of their peers for this round of evaluation.

What did students think of the experience?

They took the PA seriously and seemed to find it helpful. I gathered some feedback with a short, anonymous survey at the end of the course. Here are a couple of their comments: “I learned how to structure critiques in a soft manner” and “I learned how to make use of my critical evaluation skills.” The comments were quite positive.

And students mostly seemed happy with their teammates’ contributions: with one exception, all the average peer ratings were “excellent” or “very good”.

In the case of that one exception, one team had two students who had contributed to the mid-course presentation and two who hadn’t. The team asked to meet with me because they weren’t getting along well and wanted to change their team membership. In the meeting, it seemed that two of the students had higher expectations for the work quality than the other two.

I thought a lot about what to do. Since the students didn’t seem to be working together at all, I offered to split the team of four into pairs, such that the two students with higher expectations would work together, and the two students with lower expectations would work together. I allowed the pair of students who hadn’t contributed to the presentation to create a new presentation. Ultimately, the two students who seemed to have lower expectations got fairly low grades. If team members hadn’t assessed peers’ contributions to teamwork, these students probably would’ve continued as in other classes, where some team members don’t do much work, yet get the same grade as the team members who do more work.

What advice do you have for instructors considering having their students do PA of teamwork?

I can suggest a few things:

  • Have students do PA mid-course and at the end. It’s helpful because students become familiar with the task and understand ahead of time what the expectations are.
  • Explain to students in advance how assessment of their peers can impact their grades. Show specific examples, saying “Here’s an example of what happens to someone’s assignment grade if you give them a satisfactory, or an excellent, for their contribution to the team.”
  • Put a couple of team graded assignments earlier in the term. Students were instructed to only include the names of team members who contributed to the assignments. By having a couple of smaller assignments earlier on, students can safely remove someone’s name from an assignment to send a message without dramatically decreasing their grade. For instance, next time I plan to have the initial two-paragraph summary submission as a graded assignment for a few points. That way, if a student does not contribute to the assignment, that student’s name may not appear on the assignment and this effectively signals that there is an problem.


Do you use PA to have students provide feedback on one another’s contributions to teamwork? What questions do you ask students to respond to when they provide this feedback to one another?

Sharing is Caring: When Colleagues Exchange Knowledge

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 09:00

One of the reoccurring elements explained to me on the first day of my Practicum at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) was the emphasis the TLS team places on feedback and cooperation. The idea sounded helpful; colleagues working together to support one another. I don’t think I truly grasped the importance of the cooperative working environment they developed until I hosted my first meeting at TLS.

This meeting, attended by 8 of my colleagues, was a feedback session to receive advice on my current project of connecting instructors with teaching resources to Indigenize their curricula (resources will be available soon on the TLS Teaching Resources webpage!). The advice I received helped me gain a different perspective on the project I was so deeply entrenched in. I began seeing areas of improvement that I previously did not notice and was looking at my project in a new light I didn’t think possible. How did I get to this point? It’s all thanks to the cooperation of my colleagues and their willingness to share their expertise.

This might sound familiar. Plenty of offices or similar working environments share a similar style of cooperation between co-workers, so don’t be surprised when I tell you this style of learning and sharing is similar to a pre-existing concept: it’s called a Community of Practice.

I was first introduced to Communities of Practice (CoP) during my undergraduate degree in Education where this practice was discussed in the context of educators supporting one another, and sharing their experiences and expertise to help others improve their practice. The term, coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, is not limited to Education and is one that benefits multiple environments. From researching to teaching, a Community of Practice can have real advantages for instructors.

What is it?

A Community of Practice is made of three main components: the domain, community, and practice.

  • The domain: the area of interest that brings people together.

Example: this could be the domain of Librarianship (my current field of study)

  • The community: the people who engage with the domain together.

Example: this could be my instructors from Information Studies or librarians working in the field.

  • The practice: the active part of this concept, where real engagement and participation occur between community members

Example: this could be the collaboration between instructors in developing assignments, syllabi, or research

All three concepts are interdependent and work together as displayed in this diagram:

What differentiates a Community of Practice from a group of individuals simply sharing their interests is that a CoP is an on-going and continual process where its group members are actively engaging and reflecting upon their activities so they may help others in their domain develop competencies and succeed. The process of reflection is a secondary part of a CoP but is important nonetheless. Reflection provides the opportunity to better understand a concept and imagine its impact on the domain at hand.

This sounds familiar…

It’s true, you may have already begun developing a CoP through informal knowledge sharing with colleagues, however I urge you to move towards a true Community of Practice. Why might this official move be important? By formally labelling this process, community members may continue to actively engage with their goals and stay committed to the domain. With such a title, community members may feel comforted knowing they are recognized, respected, and part of an official group where they may continue to advance their professional development goals. Placed in solid ground, community members may begin to see real changes occurring in their environment. Since a CoP relies so heavily on intercommunity interactions, there is great potential for growth amongst the community which will only serve to benefit the surrounding environment and greater domain.

Communities of Practice need not remain static in their domain or goals. Once a group is formed, it can be simple to transition to other areas of need that instructors may have. What started out as a community focusing on improving their lectures may transition to a group sharing assessment methods or ways to support student engagement. Furthermore, a CoP is not limited to a physical environment. There is plenty of growth in online CoPs, also known as VCoP (Virtual Community of Practice), for those seeking support in different ways. New instructors can find support or inspiration in such communities while practiced teachers may find new ideas or contribute to critical discussions. For a concrete idea of what a CoP may look like at McGill, here are some examples of CoPs at Teaching and Learning Services:

Where do we go from here?

If a budding CoP exists in your surroundings, the next step forward is to continue developing the community so that it may stand on solid ground. This can include gathering like-minded colleagues in a formal group that you may call a Community of Practice. If you are looking to establish a group, communicating with compatible individuals can help formalize a domain and community, while searching online allows the opportunity to join an existing VCoP.

Plenty of opportunities exist in the world of CoPs, where will you go next?

References and Recommended Readings:

Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger), by Learning Theories. https://www.learning-theories.com/communities-of-practice-lave-and-wenger.html

Community of Practice Development Manual: A Step-By-Step Guide for Designing and Developing a Community of Practice, by George S. Gotto IV, Ann Turnbull, Jean Ann Summers, and Martha Blue-Banning. http://ktdrr.org/resources/rush/copmanual/CoP_Manual.pdf

Communities of Practice: Knowledge Sharing Tools and Methods Toolkit. http://www.kstoolkit.org/Communities+of+Practice


Pedagogy x Support: An Up-and-Coming Collab in the Classroom

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:00

The passing of a family member and brief hospital admission marked my first two months at McGill. (Please keep reading, I promise I won’t regale you with a tale of woe here.)   Thanks to an advisor at the Office of Advising and Student Information Services (OASIS), I was able to withdraw from courses or defer exams, finishing my first year largely academically unscathed.  My situation was not unique – almost all of my peers have experienced some difficulty that was detrimental to their wellness.  After speaking with more students, I realized that I was incredibly fortunate to have accessed and been supported by resources at McGill (OASIS, McGill Counselling, McGill Students’ Nightline).  While a variety of on-campus services for student support exist, many students are either unaware of or are unable to access them for a variety of reasons.  As a result, some students do not receive support from McGill and the challenges they face significantly hinder their ability to learn. (Read student testimonials here, here and here.)

After my first year, I began volunteering with peer support organizations and psycho-education groups, and I felt incredibly grateful to be a member of supportive, empathetic communities. But, I was still wondering about larger, structural issues at hand.  I started thinking about how we could reduce the barriers that student experience when seeking support. Needless to say, this is an overwhelming task! What seemed easier to me (retrospectively, it was more difficult than I anticipated) was to look at how students could be supported where they already are.  So, I started thinking about how students could be supported in the classroom, the one place all students go, and how they might experience the care of supportive communities there.

One might argue that cultures and goals of classrooms and mental health support organizations are vastly different. Classrooms are fundamentally concerned with education and the advancement of learning.  On the other hand, mental health support organizations are by nature dedicated to providing support. Despite this obvious divergence, I think it’s necessary to question why academic environments must be so distinct from “supportive communities”.  When the challenges student face outside of the classroom may inhibit their ability to learn in the classroom, this natural connection between pedagogy and support becomes more apparent.

The intersection between pedagogy and support isn’t novel, but it’s often overlooked as an integral part of many post-secondary institutions’ strategies for mental health and wellness. With one third of the student population experiencing mental health concerns, it’s clear that McGillians are in need of holistic, multi-faceted support.  Why then is our university, an institution dedicated to the academic flourishing of young people, not using its primary locus of interaction with all students (i.e. the classroom) to provide support? Pedagogy rooted in support for students student can foster belongingness and community, and is a fundamental component of an institution that promotes the wellbeing of its students.   

So, what might a “pedagogy rooted in support for students” look like? It is not asking instructors to assume the role of psychiatrists.  Recognizing boundaries and limits is best for instructors and students alike. It also does not look like sacrificing academic rigour.  Instead, it might look like basic training in active listening and developing a knowledge of resources available to students. Or, it might look like purposefully selecting pedagogical strategies that foster student-student and student-instructor connections. It might look like purposefully building community in the classroom.

Two years ago, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and the Faculty of Arts embarked upon a project to provide instructors with a comprehensive resource to build community in the classroom.  This serendipitous collaboration arose from discussions about student support at the Faculty of Arts Committee on Student Affairs and a desire for collaboration between TLS and the Faculty of Arts.  The “Faculty of Arts Toolkit for Building Community in the Classroom” was developed for instructors throughout the spring and summer of 2017, and piloted with eight instructors in the Faculty of Arts during the 2017 fall semester.  It includes concrete tools for course design (pedagogical strategies), supporting students in difficulty, getting feedback from students on community in the classroom and self-care for instructors. The toolkit is a work in progress and we are beginning to develop a second version using feedback from the pilot and community consultations. We are currently gathering examples and testimonials, so please do let us know if you have experienced community in a McGill classroom, or if you know or are an instructor who is actively working towards this goal!

‘Tis the season: reviewing multiple choice question exam results at the end of term

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 09:00

If you teach at McGill and give students multiple choice question (MCQ) final exams, you’ll be receiving a “Test Item Statistics Report” from the Exam Office sometime after the end of term. This report, also known as an “item analysis report,” is sent to you along with the exam results. The report lets you know all kinds of interesting things about your exam, such as:

Photo credit: “Exam” by Alberto G. is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
  • how difficult your questions were
  • how well your questions discriminated
  • how well your distractors worked

The numbers in the report may seem daunting to interpret, but resources exist to help you make sense of them. McGill’s Exam Office links to an interpretation report that will help you understand the numbers.

Publisher website: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group

If you’d like to be walked through the statistics step-by-step, with detailed explanations and concrete examples of what the numbers mean, we recommend a resource that even the most numbers-challenged among us can understand: Chapter 6, Improving Your Tests, in Learning and assessing with multiple-choice questions in college classrooms (Parkes & Zimmaro, 2016). The book is available online through the McGill library.

As the authors explain, the interpretation of item analysis reports is contextual. They pose the question: “How difficult should your MCQs be for students?” (p. 72). The answer to that question has to take into consideration the purpose of the exam: Is it to measure what students know/don’t know (as in gate-keeping)? Is it to assess what students have learned from your teaching? These might be competing goals. The authors address this matter on pages 71-73. Emphasis is on the importance of interpreting numbers in context.

Need help writing quality MCQs? Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) usually offers a workshop in the fall term that addresses best practices for writing MCQs, including assessment of higher order learning. If you’re a McGill instructor interested in attending this workshop, please check the TLS calendar in the fall.


This blog post was inspired by Prof. Argerie Tsimicalis, Ingram School of Nursing, who suggested that support for interpreting MCQ statistics be more widely advertised at McGill.

This blog post was reviewed prior to publication by Rhonda Amsel, professor of statistics in the Department of Psychology.


Parkes, J., & Zimmaro, D. (2016). Learning and assessing with multiple-choice questions in college classrooms. New York: Routledge.

Which Moments In Canadian History Do Undergrads Believe Matter?

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 09:00

That’s what McGill Prof. Laura Madokoro wanted to know. Laura teaches Canada Since 1867 – Interrogating the Nation: Moment by Moment (HIST 203). This semester, students working in small groups have been assigned the task of selecting a “moment” they believe really matters to the history of Canada and then presenting an argument to support their choice. Each group has selected one moment from 1930-1979 and one from 1980 to the present. Students present their arguments in class and publish them in a blog called Moments that Matter: Canadian History since 1867, along with photos and embedded videos.

So, what moments have students chosen? Wait—before you read on, what do you think students have chosen?

Crise d’Oka – SQ et forces canadiennes “ by SamuelFreli is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Here are a few examples: the immigration points system (1962); the last execution in Canada (1962); the Rocket Richard Riot (1965); abortion legislation (1969); the October Crisis (1970); patient zero in the Aids epidemic (1984); the creation of Cirque du soleil (1984); the Ecole polytechnique massacre (1989); the Oka Crisis (1990); the election of Kim Campbell (1993); the launch of a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women/Highway of Tears (2015).

Read students’ arguments for their moments in the Moments that Matter blog.

Which moments in Canadian history do you believe really matter? What’s your argument?

What is my teaching approach (or philosophy)? Prompts to help you identify underlying beliefs and values.

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 09:00

Many instructors putting together a teaching portfolio for tenure or promotion find themselves stumped by this question. Maybe you are still relatively new to teaching. Maybe your approach is part personal experience as a former student, part trial and error. Maybe you have found your groove, but you never actually spent any time pondering about your underlying philosophy. So what are you supposed to write in your teaching portfolio? How do you begin?

My advice is to start by reflecting about a few different contexts or situations to uncover your underlying beliefs and values. Here are a few prompts to choose from:

  • Think back to the time when you were a student. Who was your favourite teacher? Why was this person your favourite? What did they do that made you want to come to class? What did they do to support your learning? In what way has this person become your role model?
  • Think of an event or situation when you really enjoyed being an instructor. What was happening? What were the students doing? What were you doing? What exactly was it that made you feel good at that moment?
  • Think of a situation when you thought, “Yes, they got it! This is exactly what I wanted them to learn.” What did the student(s) say or write? Alternatively, what behaviour did the student(s) display, what task did they perform?
  • Think about your own learning. What do you have to do to succeed? How do you learn best? How do you sustain your motivation? What can an instructor do to facilitate or support the process?

Thinking about one or more of these prompts can help you better understand your approach to teaching and your identity as a teacher. Do you see yourself as a guide, a coach, an entertainer, or something else? What are your goals for your students? This will depend on the course, but when you start thinking about it, you should be able to discern a few themes. Do you mainly want students to develop a deep understanding of the theory or instill in them a love for your field? Do you want them to develop a few discipline-specific skills or promote a certain mind-set? All of these or something entirely different?

Once you have identified your main goals, you can start thinking about your strategies. What are you currently doing to help your students reach these goals? Provide a few concrete examples that demonstrate how your actions as an instructor line up with your goals and values. If you have positive student comments from course evaluations that are relevant for the points you are making, insert the most thoughtful ones to show that your approach is working.

Like all good pieces of writing, portfolios should not be written at the last moment. Give yourself enough time to revise your teaching philosophy section a few times. What are the main points you are trying to make? What is the organizing principle? Are you going from underlying values to concrete examples? Do you have different sections for undergraduate versus graduate teaching? Teaching versus supervision? There are many different ways of writing a teaching philosophy and while I recommend you look at examples, I encourage you to remain authentic. Let your personality shine through because this is the most personal part of your teaching portfolio.

There are many good resources out there that go into more detail than this post. Check out this teaching philosophy writing guide by the Center of Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota.

For more guiding questions (for the teaching approach as well as for other parts of the teaching portfolio), see this document, guiding questions for portfolio development.

If you are a McGill University instructor, you can access the University guidelines as well as sample teaching portfolios from tenured faculty on the TLS website.

Varied approaches to implementing peer assessment

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 09:30

A number of colleagues at McGill have been thinking about how peer assessment (PA) can be integrated in courses and have generously shared some of their reflections on the topic.

Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde is an Academic Associate at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) who works on the Faculty of Engineering’s eLATE (enhancing Learning And Teaching in Engineering) initiative. In a conversation about her experience supporting instructors with their implementation of PA, she shares how varied PA assignments can be, describes her collaborations with instructors, reflects on peer assessment of teamwork, and provides advice for instructors thinking about trying PA in their courses.

How did interest in Peer Assessment (PA) in the Faculty of Engineering come about? 

It started with FACC 100, an Engineering course where PA had been happening for a while. The instructors thought the experience was important for students and thought it should be incorporated into other courses. As well, instructors mentioned that in the limited time available, they really wanted to do certain types of activities—including those that involve giving students feedback on their work—but from a logistics point of view, this was difficult given the number of students in the course. So while concerns about time for giving feedback inspired some instructors to consider PA, PA ended up growing into a meaningful teaching and learning strategy. Now, several instructors in Engineering have their students do PA assignments.

Can you share some examples of the PA assignments instructors have developed?

Sure! In a first-year course, students peer assess one another’s short essays. In another course, PA is used for student group presentations, and in yet another course, an instructor has tried using PA for lab reports.

Also, two instructors have had their students do PA with formula-based and coding assignments. An instructor who is using PA in a computer engineering and computer science course wants students to see that there can be different ways of getting to the same answer. Reading peers’ work helps students come to understand how their peers may have approached the same assignment in different ways.

How do you work with the instructors who are exploring PA?

There are a few ways:

  • I try to have instructors who have already implemented PA talk with those who are starting to explore PA because I think that kind of information sharing is meaningful: instructors are the ones who go through the experience of developing the assignment and of getting students’ feedback.
  • We have one-on-one discussions where we think about how PA could be used in class.
  • We offer brown bag lunch discussions where colleagues can share their teaching experience with one another, either within the Faculty of Engineering or as interdisciplinary events.
  • We present at conferences. For example, we had a presentation at the SALTISE Conference on PA, where I co-presented with instructors from Engineering, Medicine and Science, and ÉTS. It was interesting because the instructors all had different approaches to PA; the tasks were completely different. But we were able to show a table (see below) where they compared the assignment goals and then discussed how they used different software tools that facilitate PA.

Thanks to that presentation, some CEGEP instructors have started using the PA strategies and software, and they’ve been in contact with me and with the instructors about implementing PA.

TLS is interested in learning about cases where students assess their peers’ contributions to teamwork. Do you know if this strategy is used by instructors in Engineering?

Yes, quite a few instructors in Engineering have their students assess how they work together as a team. It’s a popular strategy because it makes students accountable for their work. In classes of 200 students, instructors were receiving emails along the lines of, “This student’s doing nothing!” So we started introducing PA of teamwork. Complaints began to decrease because students realized, “You know what…I can give him a low mark if he’s not responding to emails, if he’s not submitting his work on time.” So, that’s a strategy that both instructors and students appreciate. There’s a rubric (see below) that several instructors have been using for this purpose. It includes criteria such as respect and problem solving skills. It’s set up as a table, and the first column has the various criteria, such as “the person listened to others’ ideas;” “the person used good problem solving strategies” and so on. There’s a self-assessment column where each student assesses him- or herself according to these criteria. And then the students assess their teammates in the next columns, according to the same criteria.

Usually students are honest in their assessments, and on those occasions when students’ marks for themselves are very different from the marks their peers have given them, the instructor can see that and adjust the grade if deemed appropriate.

What would you suggest to instructors who are thinking about trying PA with their students?

I have four suggestions:

First, ask yourself, “What’s the actual goal of the activity? Why do I want students to do PA?” Explaining your rationale clearly to students can help them to understand why you are asking them to do PA, for instance, to develop their ability to give and receive constructive feedback. When students graduate and move on to careers in academia or industry, if they have a peer-reviewed paper or project, they have to be able to receive feedback. If the instructor doesn’t explain the goal of the PA assignment, some students may wonder, “Why would a peer be giving me feedback when we have exactly the same knowledge?”

Second, recognize that some assignments are appropriate for PA and some may not be. Some assignments might need to be adapted first. For instance, if an assignment is too long, students might be overwhelmed. So, you can shorten it.

Third, think about how you will do PA, and what software you might use (if appropriate). What support might you need to implement the assignment? I remind instructors that TLS offers consultations on many aspects of teaching, including developing assignments and using software to support PA.

Fourth, talk to your colleagues. Connect with other people to talk about how they have been using PA in their classes. I can give the whole theory and rationale for why PA can be useful, but the instructors are the ones who are actually doing it. Also, when instructors are in the same discipline, among themselves they can say, “How about trying XYZ?” Their background knowledge of the discipline impacts the questions they ask, and how they phrase suggestions, which can make a difference in how meaningful questions and implementation suggestions are to their colleagues. That way they learn about what their colleagues are trying in their teaching. The networking is really important.

Join the conversation! What PA assignment(s) have you asked your students to do? What suggestions about implementing PA would you like to share with other instructors?

Hacking myCourses: Printing quizzes

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 10:00

In this post in our new series “Hacking myCourses,” we look at a simple way to print out Quizzes created in myCourses. Just a quick reminder: we’re not actually hacking myCourses; we mean “hacking” the tools in myCourses to make them do something that isn’t obvious to do.


You may be in a situation where you need a PDF or paper copy of a Quiz created in myCourses, either to share with a colleague or to have a paper copy handy. Unfortunately, when you try to “print” a Quiz from myCourses, it doesn’t do it so nicely…

Step One

After you’ve created your Quiz, Preview it.  (Instructions)

Step Two

Once you’ve reached the page with your Quiz questions, print the frame in which the Quiz questions appear. You’ll need to use Firefox or Safari to do this.

  • (Firefox) Right click within the frame with questions > This Frame > Print Frame > Print to PDF.
  • (Safari) Right/command click within the frame with questions > Print Frame > Print to PDF.

This will generate a PDF version of your Quiz. You can save the PDF and/or print it.

Yes… there’s an added bonus!

This functionality allows you to use the “Shuffle questions” feature to generate random versions of paper-based exams. Random versions of multiple choice exams are required by the Student Assessment Policy (section 8.1.1).

Check off this box on the Quiz properties page:

Then, preview the Quiz as many times as you need; each preview will generate a random version. Print the Quiz following the instructions above.

Concerned about accidentally making the Quiz available to students? Make sure it’s set to Inactive. An inactive quiz is like having it in draft mode. You can still preview/print an inactive Quiz.

Pro-tip: make sure there are no page breaks in your Quiz.

Pro-tip #2: have a paper version of a Quiz that you want to put into myCourses? Try using Respondus, which is available for free to McGill instructors.

Looking for help on myCourses? Visit the TLS myCourses Tips page; check the index in the Knowledgebase for myCourses, or request a consultation.

The Lunch Spot: Let’s talk teaching

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 15:26

What do 2 prize winning instructors, 10 instructors from a variety of disciplines and TLS staff have in common? They recently came together for an informal lunch to share experiences, ideas, questions, and tips about teaching. As a newcomer to the TLS team, I was glad to be able to join them. It was an opportunity to hear about TLS services in depth, as well as what was on instructors’ minds. Together, they engaged in a spirited exchange on a variety of topics.

Discussing controversial subjects in class: While instructors agreed that it is important to let students express themselves and hear everyone’s opinion, it’s also important that all students feel comfortable. Professor Laila Parsons from the Department of History and Classical Studies shared her approach, which is to get student buy in around the content, avoiding the divisiveness of debating opposing opinions.

Getting students to read the material: Students do not always read the assigned material, often opting to use information found on the web. Opinions seem to diverge on this subject, with some instructors arguing this is the students’ problem while others argue that this made the instructors’ jobs more challenging as students may not be coming to class with the same knowledge base. One solution that was proposed was to embrace the students’ use of the web by allowing them to use it while answering difficult homework questions, forcing them to research the subject.

Allowing the use of laptops in class: Depending on your perspective, laptops can be a helpful tool or a big distraction. While instructors all agreed that seeing their students type furiously, or worse, browsing social media during their lectures is distracting to them as well as to other students, strategies to manage the distraction vary: some instructors limit access to the devices and use them to engage students in specific contexts, while others forbid laptops entirely.

The role of social media in the classroom: Informal Facebook groups are often created by students so they can keep each other updated on classes and work progression. The instructors that were present agreed that social media can seem intimidating and that they aren’t familiar enough with the existing platforms to use them as tools in their classes. Justin Fletcher from TLS pointed out that many similar tools are available on myCourses, including discussion boards.

Using polls in the classroom: While instructors don’t want their classes to turn into game shows, using pollling in class can help gauge student comprehension. Thanks to Polling@McGill, students can answer multiple choice or open ended questions directly from their laptops or cellphones with results becoming available immediately.

It was both interesting and rewarding to see both new and experienced instructors mingle and share opinions and strategies. The Lunch Spot was also a great opportunity to let new instructors know about some of our initiatives, and we hope you will be able to join us at the next one!

Hacking myCourses: Auto-grading open-ended quiz questions

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 13:54

Welcome to our first post in our new series “Hacking myCourses”. We don’t actually mean “hacking” myCourses (as not to raise eyebrows at IT Security)… but rather, how can you “hack” the tools in myCourses to make them do something that isn’t intuitively obvious to do?


You may be in a situation where you want to grade open-ended questions automatically for completion rather than for correctness. Here is a trick you can use to auto-grade open-ended questions such that anything a student enters in the answer box receives full points.

Step One

When creating your Quiz questions, use the Short Answer (SA) question type, NOT Written Response (WR). SA questions are auto-gradable; WR are not.

Step Two

At the top of the page, click on the drop-down menu (downward pointing triangle at the top right corner of the frame) and turn off the new Question Creation Experience.

Step Three

Set your answers as “^” and “$”, and set the evaluation type to Regular Expression. What this does is mark anything entered in the box as full points.

Make sure to increase the number of rows and columns accordingly to make the answer textbox larger. By default, the textbox for a SA question is tiny because it is expecting single words or short phrases that can be automatically graded.

This is what your answer blank section should look like:

You can then preview the quiz and take the quiz in the Student View to ensure that any answer receives full points.

Note that you can change the point value for the question on the Quiz Properties page.

Looking for help on myCourses? Visit the TLS myCourses Tips page; check the index in the Knowledgebase for myCourses, or request a consultation.



eLATE Teaching Week: Professors open classrooms for peer observation

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 09:00

Teaching can be an isolating endeavour. Instructors often prep material on their own, go to class, teach, and then go back to their offices. What they do in class is almost like a hidden act shared only between themselves and their students. Especially at a research-intensive university, instructors don’t always have opportunities or make the time to chat with colleagues about what goes on in their classrooms. But such conversations have the potential for being valuable in that they can inform instructors’ choice of teaching strategies; they can inspire and motivate instructors to innovate in the classroom.

For one week last semester (November 20-24, 2017), eLATE (Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Engineering) held its first Teaching Week, an initiative that addressed the isolation by providing an opportunity for instructors in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science to “open” their classes for observation by their colleagues. Faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and senior PhD students could learn from peers and see first-hand the implementation of a variety of teaching strategies. Some 15 professors from Architecture, Chemical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Physics, and Urban Planning participated. Those wanting to observe had to register for logistics reasons, but other than that, the event was fairly informal—there were no articulated learning outcomes and instructors were not being evaluated by their peers! By fostering peer observation and discussion of teaching practices, eLATE’s Teaching Week sought to build a community of practice to enhance pedagogical excellence in the Faculty of Engineering. The initiative included “coffee and chat” and “happy hour” gatherings where colleagues could reflect on and discuss the classes they had observed during the week.

Dr. Maria Orjuela-Laverde, an Academic Associate at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services who works closely with the Faculty of Engineering and plays a key role in advancing eLATE talked with me about Teaching Week.

Carolyn: What motivated the eLATE team to hold an open-class teaching week?

Maria: In 2016, several instructors asked me how to implement certain teaching strategies, but despite my best descriptive efforts, they had trouble visualizing how these strategies would actually play out in the classroom. Seeing demonstrations of specific strategies seemed like a logical way for instructors to develop their understanding of new teaching strategies. I did some research and found that other universities, such as Harvard and Yale, have open classroom events. The eLATE team adapted existing open classroom models to McGill’s context.

Carolyn: You’ve told me it was a successful event. How do you know it was a success?

Maria: Well, there are several indicators of success:

  • A larger-than-expected number of instructors was eager to open their classes for observation.
  • A larger-than-expected number of colleagues registered to observe classes. In at least one class, seven observers attended.
  • One professor told me that in the 21 years he’s been teaching at McGill, this was the first time he’d been invited to a colleague’s classroom, and he was delighted to have had the experience.
  • Soon-to-graduate PhD students who are seeking faculty positions found the observation opportunity valuable as a means for stimulating reflection on their own teaching ability.
  • Instructors said they wished the event could have extended over more than one week because scheduling conflicts with other commitments limited the number of classes they could observe.

We’re so pleased with participants’ reactions because Teaching Week is an example of how a culture of teaching has grown and continues to grow in the Faculty of Engineering. It’s the result of many years of working with the Faculty, and getting to know the people and their specific teaching interests. Opening classrooms for observation has been possible because of relationships built over time. Many years of eLATE activities have served to not only positively influence teaching practices but also to create a culture of teaching, where there is trust and openness. Teaching has actually become a topic instructors want to talk about.

Carolyn: Are there any plans to hold this event again?

 Maria: Yes! Instructors have requested a repeat event. In fact, they’ve requested to have it every term so that they can observe those courses that are offered only once a year. We’re also thinking about holding a teaching week for graduate students, where they can open their tutorial sessions for observation, for example. Another idea we’re developing is an “online teaching week,” which would involve a platform where colleagues could view one another’s online activities, such as videos used in flipped classrooms. Instructors are eager to see how colleagues implement teaching strategies online.

Have you ever observed a colleague teach? What did you learn from the experience?

Student Emails: A Creative Video Guide to Email Etiquette

Fri, 12/15/2017 - 12:31

While many students have mastered the art of email, others tend to take “poetic license” – unclear subject lines, omitted course name or student ID, or even an occasional use of an emoticon!

If you’re an instructor, suggest students hone their email communication skills by watching a short instructional video produced by Teaching and Learning Services. Share the link with students through myCourses and add the link to your course outlines!

If you’re a student, get together with some friends, take out some snacks, and sit back to enjoy this brief instructional video.

Interested in knowing more about writing emails to instructors? Check out Re: Your Recent Email to Your Professor and Email Etiquette: Guidelines for Writing to Your Professors.



Webinar: Simple Strategies to Improve Student Learning

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 11:00

How can you help students connect related concepts in your course?

Join us for this second webinar in our series that will address questions and offer ideas on selecting teaching strategies based on how students learn.

  • December 13, 12:15-12:45pm: Connecting: Teaching students to organize knowledge

Register now online!

Helping Students Communicate Science – Beyond the Classroom!

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 10:28

There’s a new course at McGill. It’s called Communicating Science (CCOM 314). Diane Dechief, a Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, designed the course and is teaching its first run this semester.

I interviewed Diane to learn what the course addresses and how she designed it. The first thing I learned is that communicating science is a growing interest for many scientists.  

Diane explained: There’s a movement, both online and off, toward increasing science communication. It’s a push for academics to become better at talking about their research to non-specialists, and for scientists, in particular, to assert their knowledge, control their message, and communicate with the public more broadly.

As examples, Three-Minute Thesis competitions for Ph.D. students are now popular internationally, including at McGill. And online, there’s the Twitter hashtag #scicomm: this tag is used when people post research findings intended for non-specialist audiences.

Carolyn: Who are your students and what do you want them to get out of the course?

 Diane: The students in this first run of the course are undergrads, largely in their final year. They’re from a variety of academic backgrounds, but mostly science — neuroscience, physiology, chemistry.

By the end of the course, I’d like students to be aware of real life opportunities for communicating science to a broader public. They should be able to explain theories or concepts from their field with an awareness of specific audiences, and to be intentional about using metaphors responsibly and avoiding jargon.

Imagine, for example, students majoring in physiology who want to become medical doctors. In addition to communicating within the medical community, they’ll need to communicate with patients. The course offers students the mindset and practice to do this.

Carolyn: What are the assignments?

 Diane: Students complete five assignments that capture a variety of genres and target different audiences. Each assignment requires drafts and revisions, and has interim steps that culminate in the final product.

The first two writing assignments are informative: a New York Times Trilobite-style piece, and a profile of a McGill researcher.

Read how undergrads in a Pharmacology course at McGill make findings from journal articles accessible to lay audiences.

An Op-Ed and a policy brief are the persuasive writing assignments. The final group project is a podcast that communicates science to Montreal high school students. Podcasts were included in our course “readings,” so we discussed models and anti-models throughout the term.

Carolyn: How do you make communicating science real for students?

Diane: One way is by inviting guest speakers who do the kinds of things we talk about in the course. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, was our first guest.

Photo credit: Torsten Bernhardt

Ingrid Birker, who does science outreach for the Redpath Museum, took us on a tour of the museum and shared techniques for engaging different types of audiences. Senior Communications Officer Katherine Gombay from McGill’s Media Relations Office also visited the class.

Katherine Gombay has a background in radio, and she did this beautiful thing where we listened to a podcast excerpt and we paused several times within the first 45 seconds to talk about what we were hearing and what effect what we hearing had on us. This activity impressed upon students the power of even the subtlest features of podcasts.

Additionally, the final drafts of three course assignments are posted on our private WordPress website. For me, as well as the students, seeing their written work in this “real world” environment is powerful. Students read their peers’ work with interest and even comment on each other’s Op-Eds.

Carolyn: How did you actually go about designing the course?

Diane: I began by reflecting on one main question: “What are the real life writing opportunities that students have and will continue to have throughout their lives?” The answer to this question led to the creation of the learning outcomes.

From there, I started brainstorming the assignments that would allow students to achieve the outcomes. I was able to get some valuable feedback from other instructors at the Teaching and Learning Services Course Design Workshop.

Photo credit: Owen Egan

During a group feedback activity, I presented my assignment ideas and asked about the utility of the assignments in light of my course goal.

One prof, who had done a post-doc in California, thought that the researcher profile assignment was really useful. He’d been interviewed and thought it was enriching for junior researchers as well as students to get that kind of interview practice.

Carolyn: I know you’re only part way through the course, but I’m wondering: do you know how students feel about the course so far?

Diane: Yes! I made a point of doing a mid-course evaluation. I provided several prompts and said: “Address as many as you want to; just write a paragraph or two and don’t write your name on the paper.”

One thing that I learned from the students’ responses was that although they hadn’t seemed keen to give oral presentations when we discussed the possibility in class, privately, a number of students really wanted to do this. I’m now teaching my students how to give oral presentations, and they are quite confident at the front of the class.

Carolyn: Creating a new course is a lot of work. You didn’t have to create a new course. What motivated you to do it?

Diane: There’s support at McGill for grad students and faculty members to become stronger communicators of their research. I work mostly with undergrads and I thought it would be beneficial for them to learn these things as part of an undergraduate education.

CCOM 314 is the kind of course I would have wanted in my undergrad degree. I now have a chance to give students a piece of education that has a strong potential for enriching them personally and professionally.

Carolyn: Teaching a new course can be a professional development opportunity for an instructor. Can you tell me about something you learned?

Diane: Communicating science to a variety of audiences is not easy, but it is increasingly important. Designing this course has made me realize that like anything, these communication skills can be developed: students need to learn and practice each piece and then have the opportunity to see the effect of putting all of the pieces together.

Do you have your students communicate science in different ways to different audiences? Let us know what assignments you give your students.

Upcoming Webinars for McGill Instructors: Simple Strategies to Improve Student Learning

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 15:33

How can you help students remember more of what you teach them? How can you help students connect related concepts in your course?

Join Teaching and Learning Services for a webinar series that will address these questions and offer ideas on selecting teaching strategies based on how students learn.

  • November 21, 12:15-12:45pm: Remembering: Teaching students to remember important information
  • December 13, 12:15-12:45pm: Connecting: Teaching students to organize knowledge

We hope you can join us for a virtual lunch chat!

Register here.

How do I get students to engage with course readings?

Thu, 10/19/2017 - 09:00

Co-authors: Helle-Mai Lenk, Emiri Oda, Diane Maratta

This post, co-authored by McGill instructor Helle-Mai Lenk, her former student Emiri Oda, and Diane Maratta, a Learning Technology Consultant with McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, describes the implementation of Perusall, a tool for engaging students with course readings by having them do online, asynchronous annotations in context to which peers can respond.

Helle-Mai: When asked what they find particularly challenging about their first year at McGill, the students in my McGill Writing Centre (MWC) courses inevitably mention the amount of reading. They feel overwhelmed by not only the volume but also the complexity of academic discourse. They look up unfamiliar vocabulary, pick apart complex sentence structures, and highlight what they consider key points, but it’s a long and arduous process. Often they’re bored; sometimes they get lost. In the courses I teach at the MWC, I aim to help students develop more effective strategies for reading academic texts, such as providing an active reading environment. I feel that an active reading environment improves engagement and comprehension. But how to tackle this challenge of not only getting students to read, but also to engage with the course readings? I sought help from Teaching and Learning Services (TLS).

Diane: During class time, many instructors use teaching strategies, such as inquiry and discussion, to engage students with course materials. However instructors are often uncertain about what strategies to use outside of class time. Common questions resurface, such as “How can I get students to generate and share knowledge outside of class?” or “How can I get students to engage with the content?” So, I often meet with instructors to guide them through the process of selecting and implementing online strategies that engage students outside of class time. Helle-Mai came to TLS searching for such a strategy: to have students actively engage with course readings. I suggested Perusall. Perusall is a collaborative annotation tool which allows students to read and mark up texts interactively online in small groups. Pedagogically, the tool has the potential to add value to students’ learning. It can enhance critical inquiry and foster social learning, and it offers the potential for debating perspectives and interpretations.

Since my role as a learning technology consultant involves guiding instructors with the choice of effective educational technologies, as well as implementing them effectively, I have to ensure that the technology does what it claims to do as a piece of software, and pedagogically, as a teaching or learning tool. At TLS, we tested Perusall to determine the learning curve required to use it both for instructors and students, the assessment value of the tool, and the potential for social learning. Such testing allows us to have an informed conversation with the instructor about the best way to implement the tool. Prior to implementation, Helle-Mai and I had some additional conversations about the way she would use the tool with her students, such as the size of the student groupings in Perusall.

Helle-Mai: In Fall 2016, I piloted a collaborative assignment with Perusall in one of my academic writing courses for students whose first language is not English. Academic English 2 (CESL 300) usually attracts students who are in their first semester. One of the assignments in this course is a 750-word problem-solution essay where the problem to be addressed is plagiarism. As sources for this essay, students are restricted to a list of ten readings on this topic, both scholarly and lay, from which they must cite a minimum of five. At least two of the sources cited must be scholarly articles on the list. For many students, this is their first exposure to peer-reviewed academic articles. Although we prepare for reading by examining the structure of scholarly texts and going over some pre-reading strategies, the actual reading of a specific scholarly article is done online using Perusall. Since the article chosen is one of the readings on the list, the students are motivated to read it because it will help them complete the essay assignment. Also, as plagiarism is a problem that engages the students personally, they’re interested in the subject matter. Finally, since they’ve already had an in-class discussion about the problem of plagiarism, they’re interested in comparing the solutions they came up with to the ones proposed in the reading by two university professors.

Labeled for reuse: http://www.usafe.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/257165/team-keeps-bases-communications-needs-on-track/

Intentionally, I kept the instructions for the collaborative annotation assignment broad and inviting.

For this assignment, you will annotate a text (Teh & Paull, 2013) collaboratively with two of your peers. The purpose of collaborative annotation is to promote critical reading and to stimulate discussion about the topic of Essay 2.

Today I will send you an access code. Log on to Perusall.com using Facebook, Google or Twitter. Enter the access code. Open the document and begin to mark up the text with marginal notes.

You can argue with the text, raise questions, make connections to other readings, evaluate it, extrapolate from it, ask for help if it is difficult to understand, assess its relevance to the essay topic, connect it to personal experience, express excitement at discovering new or surprising ideas, or any other reaction.

In order to get 3 marks, your annotations should be more or less evenly distributed throughout the text and the time period. They should include new comments and questions as well as replies and comments to existing threads.

The annotation period will close on Thur. Oct. 20 at 9 pm.

My goal was for students to read the entire 16-page article, engage with the content and develop knowledge by sharing ideas. I think I succeeded. Over the three-day period students had to do the assignment, all 24 students in my class participated and the academic article was marked up with almost 600 comments! Many of these comments illustrated insightful thinking and the comment threads suggested that students’ ideas were evolving as a result of peers’ comments.

Example annotations on Perusall site (https://perusall.com/downloads/scoring-examples.pdf)

Emiri: Perusall definitely supported my learning as I could share the readings collaboratively and annotate documents with ease. My peers and I could share opinions, discuss, and ask questions with one another. As the users can express their opinions and thoughts about whatever topics that intrigued them, I discovered new viewpoints and problems from others. Furthermore, the discussions I had with my classmates taught me some different approaches to controversial issues which brought new perspectives and solutions to our mind. Also, asking and answering questions about the reading helped our learning and deepened our understandings of the materials in the document.

Even though it was my first time using Perusall, I found it rather user-friendly. Firstly, logging into the software by Google, Facebook, or Twitter is highly convenient. Secondly, adding comments on the document is fairly easy. The users only have to select the sentences to which they want to comment and then a comment box automatically appears. It was never difficult to keep up with new comments since Perusall gives notifications. Lastly, the design of the software is very simple. On the reading screen, there are only a few function buttons beside the document which are easy to use and never bother the users reading it.

With Perusall, I can add underlines and take personal notes on the document on screen. It reduces the time and cost to use printers, so it’s environment-friendly. If more courses used Perusall, I would be able to keep all my assigned readings online; this would make it easier for me to revisit the readings and my notes whenever I want. In addition, the auto-save function of the software prevents me from losing all the study notes and highlights I took due to sudden system errors. Overall, Perusall has enabled me to learn more efficiently with my peers and I would like to keep on using such an easy-to-use learning platform.

Diane: If you’re a McGill instructor interested in engaging your students in their learning outside of class time, take a look at this Educational Technology Ecosystem for inspiration. Thinking of adopting a new educational technology? Use the Technology Implementation Plan (TIP), a thinking guide for implementing new educational technology in your class. For additional guidance on implementing educational technologies, request a consultation with a learning technology consultant at TLS. Finally, check out other strategies for getting students to engage with course readings on TLS’ How do I …? page.


Teh, E. C., & Paull, M. (2013). Reducing the prevalence of plagiarism: A model for staff, students and universities. Issues in Educational Research 23(2). Retrieved from http://www.iier.org.au/iier23/teh.pdf

How do you engage your students with course readings?


McGill University is located on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. McGill honours, recognizes and respects these nations as the traditional stewards of the lands and waters on which we meet today.