DIY workshops

Sometimes your staff or students could really benefit from a workshop on a particular topic. Here is a template for creating workshops for any aspect of academic development for staff or students. I have used this successfully for workshops about teaching and supervision.

  1. Pick a topic you want a workshop on: quality supervision, teaching international students, writing journal articles….
  2. Get practitioners for a panel (students or staff). They need to be excellent at the topic, and also reflective; they should have thought about and articulated what they do. Choose diverse practitioners to give different points of view. 3 is a good number for a 1 hour workshop, and you can increase the amount of time for each of the activities listed below if you want a longer workshop
  3. Develop some questions related to the topic, and tell the panel that you will ask them to start by responding to some or all of these questions. The questions should be about the sort of issues the workshop participants will be grappling with (see the example below)
  4. Write a blurb for the workshop which includes the panel members and the questions, and use this to advertise the session
  5. I use a whiteboard to list each idea that is suggested by a panel or audience member. As an option, this can then be compiled into a word document that lists the answers to the questions, or a list of tips and techniques.
  6. Timing of the session: I use the following schedule for the workshop. If you have a longer workshop give longer for each stage.
5 minutes Have audience introduce themselves to someone they don’t know and chat
5 minutes Ask the audience to thank the person they were talking to and introduce themselves to someone new. Finish the 10 minutes by asking them to thank the person they were talking to.
Introduce the session and the panel
20 minutes Give around 5 minutes per panel member for initial response to questions, then ask the audience to talk to someone beside them and share what they took from the panel comments.
10 minutes Q&A from audience and general discussion
5 minutes Ask the audience to talk with the people beside them: What is the most important thing you take from the session? What will you take away? Have a few people share with the whole group
2 minutes Finish with the panel: What is the main advice you have for the audience about the topic?

Example 1: Teaching failures, blunders and catastrophes: Learning from our mistakes

We all make mistakes when we teach but we rarely talk about them. We may even think of failures as a mark of a bad teacher, even though we can’t enhance or improve our teaching, or try out innovative practices, without making teaching mistakes. In this highly interactive session, three award-winning teachers will share experiences of their teaching failures, blunders and train wrecks. Participants will discuss these experiences and what they tell us about teaching and learning. This will be a fun and stimulating session where we can talk about our failures and how to deal with them. Our aim is to collaboratively develop a kinder approach to teaching, where we acknowledge mistakes as necessary to our process of professional learning.

  1. What is one major teaching failure you can share with staff?
  2. What have you learned from your teaching failures? How have they enhanced your teaching?
  3. What is the best way to approach ‘failures’ in teaching? Eg do you try to see them as a learning experience? Do you seek them?

Example 2: Teaching Challenging Topics

Our students sometimes are challenged and confronted by the topics we teach, not because they are academically difficult, but because they raise sensitive issues that might be upsetting, disturbing or distressing. What we teach might remind them of upsetting incidents from their past (eg abortion, adoption or sexual violence), or it might confront their ethical or religious concerns (eg dissection), or even confront a deeply held assumption or prejudice (eg indigenous approaches to the Law or Planning). Sometimes we know our topics are likely to be confronting for some of our students and we can prepare for this, but often we cannot predict when a topic might be challenging, and so we also have to have a plan to deal with unexpected upsets.

Join us to hear the panel share their strategies for teaching challenging topics, and then join the panel for further discussion.

  • How can we plan for our teaching when we know we might be including challenging topics?
  • How can we teach challenging topics so we support students who might be upset?
  • How can we maximise learning despite, or perhaps because of, the challenging nature of what we teach?
  • What do we do when we have students who are unexpectedly upset?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Different kinds of teacher knowledge

One way to understand what is required for good teaching is to analyse the different kinds of knowledge a teacher needs. This analysis then allows a teacher to identify the areas where they are strong and the areas in which they need further knowledge. For example in another blog post I pointed out that a teacher needs to know their particular students, and this knowledge can only be developed while teaching the students (or just before you teach them).

A teacher needs a wide variety of different kinds of knowledge. Imagine you were teaching Rob algebra. What knowledge would you need?

  1. First you need to know algebra or you can’t teach algebra.
  2. But this is not enough, as you don’t yet know what Rob already knows or doesn’t know, and so you don’t know where to start with teaching algebra to Rob. This means you also need to know about your students (in this case, Rob).
  • But knowing where Rob starts from is not enough, if you don’t know how learning happens. You have to know how learning occurs in order to foster Rob’s learning about algebra. This means you need to know how learning happens.
  1. But this isn’t enough if you don’t know how to make that learning happen, so also need to know how to teach (which is understood as how to make learning happen).
  2. But it may be learning algebra is different from learning to be a physiotherapist, so you also need to know how to teach algebra. You need to know how to explain the concepts of algebra so that Rob can learn them, and how to foster the particular skills needed for algebra.
  3. Finally, you will be teaching in a context, maybe home tutoring or teaching a mathematics course, or giving the mathematical background needed for some other university course, so you need to know the educational context.

This framework is very useful for understanding your own teaching. What do you need to know for your teaching in your particular context? Which knowledge do you already have, which do you lack, and which can you enhance?

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.

Posted in Learning to teach | Leave a comment

The devil is in the detail

Sometimes we think we have a profound understanding of teaching, when actually our ideas are so vague and abstract that they are practically meaningless. For example, we might think that we have a deep understanding of teaching because we have changed our conception from a teacher as merely sharing what he/she knows, to a conception of a teacher as student centred, aiming to foster student learning. However, when we then consider what this means in practice, we realise we don’t really understand at all. Our understanding needs to be refined and enhanced by making it concrete, applying it to our particular situations and contexts, and giving examples to illustrate.

To illustrate this in more detail, I might think that I can help my students to be independent thinkers by asking them to justify their answers. But this is still a very vague insight because it is not concrete about what is said and done, in what situations, and why. Although all the following teaching practices count as “asking students to justify” only some are good teaching practice, and some are much better than others.  I don’t really understand what I mean until I distinguish which of these following concrete practices I mean when I say “I want students to justify my answers”.  There is a big difference between:

  • Just start asking my students “why do you think that?” vs. first explaining to them why I am going to ask them to justify themselves, and modelling how I justify.
  • Asking them “why?” once, vs.asking them regularly and frequently, so they get in the habit of justifying themselves.
  • Requiring an immediate answer from my students, vs. giving them time to think before answering.
  • Asking in a sarcastic tone as if their answer was stupid and wrong, vs. asking as if I am genuinely interested in their reasons
  • Dismissing their answer as incorrect, or leading them to what i consider to be the right justification vs. guiding them to elaborate their reasons, and asking the rest of the class how they might strengthen the justification.


Golding, C. (2017) For example? A philosophical case study of some problems when abstract educational theory ignores concrete practice, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(2), 476-490.

Posted in Reflection and improvement | Leave a comment

Teaching failures, blunders and catastrophes: learning from our mistakes

I recently organised a panel session on teaching failures. Three teaching award winners—Roslyn Kemp, Anthony Robins and Clinton Golding—shared some major failures in their teaching with a group of c.25 academics, and then we discussed what we might learn from these mistakes, and how best to relate to failures in teaching. This blog post summarises some of our ideas.


The failures we shared each involved trying something new, a major teaching innovation, that did not go to plan. Ros wanted to have all her students use I-Pads, Anthony redesigned the entire first year course for computer science (a course which fed into all the other papers offered by his department) and Clinton attempted to translate his face-to-face, discussion based teaching into distance learning and video conferencing. In each of these cases the students did not learn what we intended, hated it, or did more poorly than we expected.

Some underlying causes of the failures:

  1. Overconfidence in what we could achieve. We thought, “How hard can it be?” but underestimated what we could do. For example, Clinton underestimated how hard it was to manage the video conferencing technology while also facilitating learning.
  2. Assumptions about what students wanted or needed, or what would appeal to them, or what they could handle. For example, Anthony tested his new course content with demonstrators, on the assumption that his first years would respond in a similar way, but he underestimated the struggles of first year students with no programming experience.
  3. Assumptions about what will work based on past experiences, but which did not adequately reflect our current students. We all thought, “This should work!” but we failed to think about how we were teaching new cohorts of students and we could not assume that what worked for other cohorts of students would also work with this cohort.
  4. Mismatch of expectations between teacher and students. We often expected one thing from the students, while the students expected something else. For example, we expected critical thinking from students, but they expected to just be told the answers.
  5. Overreliance on a particular piece of technology or method with no backup plan

Different kinds of failure:

  1. Unexpected failure. My first time teaching via video conferencing was an unexpected failure. I thought it would be no problems as I had been teaching for a very long time and had won a number of teaching awards. But I had no idea of the cognitive demand of trying to manage the content, manage the class dynamics, and manage the technology all at the same time. I ended up rapidly exhausted and went into auto-pilot teaching where I said things but I didn’t really know what I was saying, just trying to get through it. This sort of failure is inevitable in your teaching as you can’t predict everything that might happen, and you can’t tell how your teaching will land until you have taught it.
  2. Failure that is invisible to the students. Sometimes we see our teaching as a failure but this may not be apparent to students. For example, after my initial unexpected failure with teaching via video conferencing, I ensured I had a number of backups in my teaching such as extra readings, and times to meet with me, so that even if my new teaching methods went badly, my students would still get valuable learning. This was one of the strategies for dealing with failure: have back-up plans that mean that even if you fail it won’t be an epic failure. For example, if the technology doesn’t work, make sure you have printed handouts as back-up.

Ways to manage and mitigate our teaching mistakes

  1. Plan for failure, and have back up strategies available, so you make sure you provide a great learning experience for students (while realizing that unexpected mistakes can and will happen).
  2. Realise that the first few years of teaching something new will be sub-optimal. But you can make sure they are not sub-par. In other words have a backup so the students have a decent learning experience while you experiment with giving them a great learning experience.
  3. Simplify your teaching: The panel members gradually simplified their teaching so we only use essential methods with fewer and fewer ‘frills’. For example, I often only use a whiteboard without a powerpoint, and I send extra notes to students afterwards. The simple methods have fewer distractions which mean the teacher has more cognitive capacity to listen to students and help them learn. This allows for maximum flexibility and reduces the threat of failure.
  4. Don’t make assumptions about what will work for your students, what they will be excited by, or what they can and can’t do. Ask your students, ask colleagues who know your students (eg who know first year Physics students at Otago), and test the methods to see what does and does not work for your particular students
  5. If a teaching methods fails, collect evidence about why it didn’t work and use the evidence to inform what you do next. Take a scientific approach to your teaching where you collect data and make changes to your teaching based on the data. You often will have incomplete evidence and so you have to hypothesise about what will fix a problem (sometimes the evidence doesn’t make it clear what the real problem is), then try a solution, evaluate whether it worked, and try a different solution if it failed.
  6. Look for feedback early so you can detect an imminent failure before it is a disaster. For example, find out if students are struggling before they hand in their assignments rather than while you are marking them. Then you can reteach what they misunderstood before it is too late.

How do you relate to failures?

  1. No blame. It is not the students fault, and it is not your fault (unless your teaching was irresponsible or reckless where you ignored issues that you knew were likely to lead to problems). If you planned well, based on good ideas about what good teaching is, based on knowledge of your particular students, and with a plausible plan for assisting them learn, then the ‘failures’ are a necessary part of learning how to teach well.
  2. Be kind to yourself: Everyone makes mistakes.
  3. Think: There are no failures, just possibilities for getting better. Essential for my academic development
  4. Think: How can I fix this? How can I provide a better learning experience next time? I call this taking an improvement or enhancement approach which is very different from blaming yourself or the students which does not allow for any improvement.
  5. Expectation or perception management. Find out what your students expect and if it deviates from what you expect, convince them that what you expect is better. For example, convince them that even though it is harder for them to come up with the answers, they will learn more and be better prepared for careers if they think independently.
  6. Develop self-efficacy as a teacher so you can ride out the mistakes confident that you are a good teacher, even though it is not going well right now.
  7. Persevere/persistence. Change takes time. Don’t give up because of an initial failure.
  8. But, occasionally run away and abandon a strategy that was a hopeless failure
Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement | Leave a comment

Meta-blog: Blogging as academic development



This blog is inextricably intertwined with my academic development practice. It is the result of my previous academic development work, it is my current personal academic development, and it leads to further academic development work for others.

  1. The blog summarises what I have learned from years of academic development. By working with many staff on many different issues of academic practice, and by reading the literature and conducting formal research on empowering academics, I have learned what the common problems are, and the fruitful solutions. The blog summarises the results of this informal, iterative, research into academic development.
  2. As I write the blog, I engage in my own academic development. As I write, I reflect on my practice as a teacher and academic, and I clarify, refine, elaborate and illustrate what I do, then I systematise this in a personal and useful theory of teaching and learning. What I end up with in the published blog is (I think) clear, well-illustrated, complex, informative and (hopefully) insightful accounts of different aspects of academic practice. Putting this another way, the blog is my informal micro-research about academic development. In the blog I develop and refine new ways of conceptualising academic development practices, and test how clear and informative they are.
  3. When I share the blog, it can facilitate and inform academic development for others. If I am consulting with a staff member about designing their course, I can share my blog posts about course design; if I conduct a workshop on supervision, I can send participants a link to my blog posts about supervising and postgraduate learning. What’s more, the blog allows for wide dissemination of this academic development advice and support. I don’t have to be personally involved in the academic development.
  4. Finally, the blog is also a model for how others can engage in reflective academic development about their own practice.
Posted in Higher education | Leave a comment

Tips for writing a convincing thesis

Here is a blog I wrote for Times Higher Education on writing a convincing thesis.


Posted in Postgraduate education | Leave a comment

Learning to write is like learning to play tennis: written feedback is not always useful

Sometimes giving feedback on student writing is straightforward. They have missed something important, so we tell them what they didn’t know, or we tell them to do what they missed: for example, “criterion is singular and criteria plural”, or “You need to put the reference in brackets.”

But written feedback telling our students how to write is not always so useful. Sometimes our students need to learn things that cannot be conveyed by written feedback. Leaning to write involves developing very complex skills – for instance, knowing how to make a clear point, or how to link one idea to the next – and these skills are learnt in the same way we learn to play tennis. Giving written feedback on these writing skills is like reading a book to learn how to swing a racquet. Instead, the skills can only be learned by isolating them and then practicing, using regular feedback from an expert coach to improve our performance.

The process of learning is something like this:

  1. Teacher gives instruction about what the aim is and how to achieve this
  2. Student attempts it
  3. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  4. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim and tries again
  5. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  6. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim, and tries again
  7. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  8. Keep repeating until student has met the aim, and is at the adequate level of performance


An example of this process for writing might be something like this:

  1. Teacher explains that a paragraph should only make one main point, and gives an example
  2. Student writes one paragraph, attempting to only make one main point
  3. Feedback from the teacher: “I can’t tell what main point you were making. What is the main point? Tell me out-loud and then write this down.”
  4. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to make it about the main point they said out-loud
  5. Feedback from the teacher: “I can see that you have included this main point in the paragraph, but you have also included this point and this point. Can you see that they are three different points, where each is about a different topic? You need to break this into three paragraphs, one for each point.”
  6. Student re-writes one paragraph, attempting to isolate only the first main point
  7. Feedback from teacher: “Great, it looks like you are only writing about the one main point. However if I didn’t know your topic, I couldn’t tell what the main point is in your paragraph because you have hidden it as the third or fourth sentence in the paragraph. Re-write the paragraph so the first sentence is the main point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates this main point.”
  8. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to put the main point in the first sentence.
  9. Feedback: “Great, you got it! Now try this again on a different paragraph, and I’ll give you some feedback.”

This process is effective for several reasons. First, it isolates a specific skill needed for academic writing which the student can concentrate on, rather than swamping them with vast amounts of feedback on multiple different skills. Second, it is quick and easy to do for a student. The student only has to complete a small task which takes very little time (much less than writing a whole chapter), and so they can quickly repeat multiple iterations (sometimes during a supervisory meeting), improving each time. Third, it is quick and easy for the teacher. Rather than having to struggle through an entire chapter where there are problems in every paragraph, the teacher is able to give quick feedback just when the student needs it to improve. Lastly, it allows the student to adjust their performance of the writing skill. It is never enough to tell them how to write a good paragraph – they can say “I get it” but their performance indicates they do not. Students need to try it, find out where they are going wrong, then adjust and try again, find out how to get better and then adjust, etc.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing | Leave a comment

Engaging teaching

Why am I interested in learning about some things (movie history) but I couldn’t care less about other things (motorcycle engines)? If we can crack the secret of intellectual curiosity we can make our teaching engaging for any student.

Posted in Learning, Learning to teach, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Promising leads for improving teaching

There are many ways to improve teaching, but in my experience when enhancing my own teaching or mentoring other teachers, there are three paths that are most likely to lead to improvement.

1. Covering too much

We commonly try to cover too much for students to digest, especially when we first start teaching a topic and we don’t yet know how long it takes to cover the material. For example, our lecture might be so full that we have to move to the next powerpoint slide before students have a chance to read it, let alone to understand it.

Path to improvement: Cut what you include so you only cover the essential and fundamental material. Make sure you give students enough time to understand what you say (which takes much longer than the time required to say it).

2. Mismatch of expectations

What we want from our students is often different from what they expect to do, and what students expect from their teacher is often different from what we are offering. For example, students expect to be given the lecture slides before the lecture, but the lecturer doesn’t want to do this; students expect to do less readings than the lecture expects them to do; students expect to be told the right answers, while the teacher expects independent critical thinking. Incompatible expectations like these often underlie troubles in teaching, though they are not always apparent. For instance, you might think your students are unprepared or lazy, but actually the problem is that they expect to be able to silently listen to a lecture while you expect them all to contribute to class discussions.

Path to improvement: First, find out what students expect. For example, their complaints and requests written in evaluation questionnaires are often a good indicator of their expectations. Second, judge whether giving them what they expect will help their learning. If it will help their learning, for example getting more feedback, then find a way to give them what they want. If it will not help their learning, then convince them why your way is better. It is not enough to tell them why you are not doing what they expect, you have to win them over so they see the merit in your approach.

See my other post, Disciplined learning, for more ways to motivate students to do what is good for their learning, even when they are reluctant to tackle these learning tasks.

3. Our teaching doesn’t work for these students

Sometimes how we teach, or the way we explain something, fails to work for our current students, even though it normally works, or it worked with a different group of students in a different context. The problem is a mismatch between our teaching methods and our particular students,  because we don’t know these particular students well enough. See my other post, Teaching is about who you know, for more on why knowing our students is necessary for teaching.

Path to improvement: First, find out more about your students so you can judge what is likely to stimulate their learning. Find out about their interests, plans for the future, prior learning, expectations of the course, etc. See my other post, Getting to know your students, for more on how you might get to know your students before you teach them.

Second, regularly check what your students understand so you can judge if your teaching has worked, or if you need to modify your approach. For example, ask multi-choice questions during class, or ask students at the end of your lecture to write for you what they now understand, and what they don’t yet understand. If most of your students give the wrong answer, or most students don’t understand something you have taught, you know that your approach to teaching this material was not effective for these students. You then need to reteach it for your current students, and teach it differently for the next group.

Posted in Learning to teach, Mentoring, Students | 1 Comment

Digging deeper: How do I tell where to drill?

When we write academically, one of our main tasks is to deeply explore the topics we write about. It is not enough to present a superficial overview, so we need to drill deep. Yet it is often difficult to judge where we need to go deep, or whether we have gone deep enough. Many students think they have deeply explored a topic, only to find that their marker disagrees.

To figure out how I deepen my own writing, I ‘reverse engineered’1 my own process of thinking. This might provide some guidance for tackling an otherwise mysterious process of digging deeper.

How do I judge where to drill?

First I sketch an overview of the topic to get the lay of the land. I need a map of the intellectual terrain that shows the relationships between all the main ideas, points or concepts which I could investigate. For example, if I’m writing about reflective practice, the overview might include ideas such as Gibbs reflective cycle, reflection as learning, the difference between reflection and learning, reflection on practice, and reflection as practice. I might also isolate the different elements involved in reflective practice such as uncovering assumptions, evaluating past practice, planning future practice, etc.

Next I rank the most promising areas for drilling. I look at each idea and decide which are the main ideas important for understanding the overall topic, or which need the most attention (perhaps because of some gaps in our understanding), or which ideas I am most interested in.

Finally I choose to focus on only the top ranked ideas, and I include only the quantity of ideas I can cover in the available time and word limit. For example, if I only have 1500 words and one week, I might choose to only investigate one of the main ideas, such as uncovering assumptions as one important aspect of reflective practice.

Sometimes I explain how I judge where to focus my investigation using the metaphor of travelling to a new city, rather than the metaphor of drilling. This is a useful way of understanding a research project like a thesis. A research topic is like a new city, and I start my exploration by wandering around the new city, reading almost randomly, until I have a good sense of the whole map. But you cannot research the whole city, so next I have to choose one building to explore, and one floor within that building, and one room within that floor in which I will work for an extended period of time. This means my research is on the city, the whole topic, but I investigate the city by working in depth on only one small area.

How do I judge if I have gone deep enough?

I start by asking what needs elaboration, justification and illustration about the idea that I am probing. For example, what do I mean by an assumption and what do I mean by uncovering an assumption? Why is this important for reflective practice? What is an example of someone uncovering an assumption, and how does this example illustrate the process of reflective practice?

I write my answers to these questions, and then ask about this new writing: what needs elaboration, justification and illustration? For example, if I described uncovering as assumption as finding out my prejudices, then I now need to answer the questions: what do I mean by a prejudice and what is an example of a prejudice?

I keep writing further drafts, and re-reading what I have written, looking for anything that needs explanation, justification and illustration until there is nothing more to elaborate, justify or illustrate, and the questions no longer arise. Then I know I can’t go any deeper.

Sometimes when I tackle 2 or more ideas, I write so much about one of the ideas that I can no longer fit all the ideas into my available word limit. In this case I have to delete one of the less important ideas as I cannot do justice to all of them. I might replace the deleted idea with a phrase like: “Another important idea is reflection during practice, rather than reflection after practice, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.”


[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

Posted in Reflection and improvement, Writing | Leave a comment

Snow writing

snow writingLike many people, I schedule writing time to make sure I fit it in my busy week. But sticking to your schedule is often difficult, and there are many good reasons why you might miss your writing time (like getting snowed in and unable to travel to work). Sometimes you just have to find creative ways to stick to your schedule, no matter what.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing | Leave a comment

The Slow Professor

Slow professor

The Slow Professor had me revise what it means to be an academic. It is well worth a read in full, but in short, I think the message is: stop worrying about time management and making time and fitting things in and instead focus on the pleasures of the academic life. Putting this another way, the authors of The Slow Professor encourage us to resist the corporatisation of academic life (a symptom of which is speeded up, efficient performance and the resulting need for time management) and instead devote yourself to what is academically pleasureable, meaningful and interesting. Devote yourself to collegial discussions, crafting your ideas into an article, working in the lab, the library or the field, fostering the love of your subject in a new generation, and creating ah-ha moments for your students.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

My student complains I don’t give enough feedback, but I give lots of feedback!

Here is my reflective, diagnostic process for figuring out what to do when I face situations like this.

My initial analysis of the situation: Although my feedback practices normally work for my students, they aren’t working for this student. I need to diagnose what the problem is and work out a strategy that will support this student.

My diagnosis process:  I talk with the student and read their work, so I can form a hypothesis about the underlying problem, then I devise a solution based on my hypothesis, and trial this solution. If that fails, I rule out the first hypothesis and go to an alternative, trialling a different solution based on the second hypothesis. And so on until I find a solution.

One diagnosis I always reject: It’s their problem (because they aren’t smart enough, or they shouldn’t have been let into my class, or they don’t do the work, or they simply ignore my feedback).

I don’t even consider this diagnosis, first because it is based on the fallacious idea: “I’ve tried everything, and it didn’t work, so it must be the student at fault.” But I haven’t tried everything, and it is impossible to try everything, so it is a fallacy to blame my current lack of a solution on my student. Put another way, it is an unjustifiably defeatist response. Instead I take the mindset that there is always a way to enable every student, but I may have to do some work to figure it out.

But most importantly, I ignore this diagnosis because it is irrelevant. The only relevant point is that my teaching is not working for this student. Blaming my student (or even blaming myself) is missing the point. The job I have as an educator is to devise methods that will work for this student.

As an aside, because teachers can be overworked, it is both honest and appropriate to think: “I don’t have time to sort out this student at the moment”. Then you can come back to a diagnosis and teaching solution when you have more time, perhaps when you are designing your next round of teaching. Just don’t fool yourself that there is nothing you can do.


Here are some of the diagnostic possibilities that I do consider, each one followed by a possible ‘treatment’. The list is not exhaustive, but does cover many of the most common areas of trouble for students.

  1. My feedback is not clear for this student.
    • Explain in several different ways, and find a way of expressing yourself that does make sense to this student.
  2. I am asking too much of this student, too fast. I’m asking them to do tasks that are too hard for them.
    • Break the task into do-able steps, and support the student to tackle each of these steps.
  3. They are terrified of the task, or they think they are incompetent.
    • Build their self-confidence and self-efficacy. Tell them they will succeed with time and effort. Give them doable tasks so that they experience a sense of success.
  4. They don’t understand what feedback is, what it is for, or why it is important.
    • Explain what feedback is, and convince them that it is beneficial for them.
  5. They don’t understand how to use the feedback I give.
    • Give them guided practice at using feedback to improve. Show them how you would use your feedback to improve a small aspect of their work, then ask them to follow the same process, using other feedback to improve a different aspect of their work.
  6. They expected more or different feedback than what I provide.
    • Negotiate with the student to align your expectations with theirs. Find out what they expected, and either convince them to change their expectations to what you actually provide, or change what you provide to better meet their expectations, or some combination of the two.
  7. The student has some deeper conceptual misunderstanding about the nature of the task for which I am giving feedback, for example, about what it means to write a critical essay. While they lack this foundational understanding, any feedback or instruction I give them will be misunderstood and pointless.
    • Identify concepts that are crucial to the task (sometimes called threshold concepts) – such as ‘argument’, ‘evidence’, ‘reasons’, and ‘convincing the reader’ – and help the student understand these concepts. Build this understanding before you tackle the issue of feedback directly.
Posted in Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement, Writing | Leave a comment

Learning is a journey

My colleagues and I have been researching student conceptions of learning using a research method called photovoice (Wang &Burris 1997; Wang 2006). Students take photographs that metaphorically represent learning, and then talk about what they have depicted. To prepare for a second round of this research, I decided to take my own photos to explore my own conception of learning. (Luckily for me, photovoice is about the quality of the ideas represented, not the quality of the photos).



We often start a learning journey without a clear view of the journey we will face. We might see some signposts, but they don’t always make sense at the start of the journey, and we only have a glimpse of our path ahead.




If we start the learning journey we get a clearer picture of the daunting climb we face.





But after the climb we realise that our initial view of our learning path was inaccurate, and there is much further to go than we thought.





With further progress we start to see a glimmer of light, the end of our journey?





And finally a whole new vista opens up for us, which we could not have imagined at the start of our journey. Now where to?



If this is a useful picture of the learning journey, then what does it say about good teaching? What would a good teacher be doing?

  • Guide students so they keep making progress along the path of learning
  • Motivate them to carry on, especially when they are unclear where they are going or how to get there
  • Build their self-efficacy so they feel that they are doing well, and that they will succeed if they carry on, despite difficulties
  • Give them feedback on what they have achieved so far, and what is next.


Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3 ), 369-387.

Wang, C. C. (2006). Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change. Journal of Community Practice, 14(1-2), 147-161.

Posted in Learning | Leave a comment

How do you judge whether someone is a good teacher?

Judging teaching is like diagnosing measles.

There are many things that can indicate measles, but no single indicator is proof of measles. A few spots doesn’t mean you have measles because there are plenty of other reasons why you might have spots. However, if you have spots and a temperature, and if the spots persist for longer than hives or insect bites, then you can be more confident of the diagnosis of measles.

Likewise, good scores on one evaluation questionnaire doesn’t mean you are a good teacher, because there are plenty of other reasons why students might have given good evaluation scores, and we don’t know whether the evaluations are equally good in your other courses (and neither does one bad questionnaire mean you are a bad teacher). However, if a teacher gets consistently good results from evaluation questionnaires from multiple courses, and over multiple years, and their peers also say they are a good teacher, and their students do well in their assessments, and in later careers, then you can be more confident that they are indeed a good teacher.

Posted in Evaluating Teaching | Leave a comment

Disciplined learning, when students are reluctant to tackle the tasks we assign

Sometimes we ask students to do a series of tasks that are necessary for their learning, but which they would rather avoid. For example, we might assign readings for every class, or ask them to complete weekly reflections, or to post regularly on a discussion board. What do we do if our students resist doing these tasks, or if they simply don’t do them? How do we deal with their complaints: “I can’t see the point”, “it’s too hard”, “It’s too simplistic”, “I don’t like learning in that way” or “I don’t have time”.

We are asking for disciplined learning

What we are asking of our students is a disciplined approach to learning, similar to how someone learns to be a ballet dancer, a musician or a professional athlete. Disciplined learning is needed for particular kinds of learning which can only be achieved with regular training and exercise, such as being fit, being a dancer, being a musician, or being reflective. To achieve this kind of learning, students have to follow a disciplined process, supervised by a skilled coach/teacher, where they have to do things they would rather avoid.

Disciplined learning is not easy. It involves regular exercise and training for students, where we push the students beyond what they would do if they were left to their own device, like the personal trainer who shouts “just one more, you can do it!” Students might not want to do another stretch, or play another series of scales, or write another reflection, but if they don’t do these tasks regularly and frequently, week after week, they will not be able to achieve the learning objectives.

It is pointless and inappropriate for us to blame our students if they don’t do the tasks we set. There are many demands on their limited time and energy, so of course they are reluctant to squeeze in our regular learning tasks around their study, their work and their lives. Nevertheless, we know that regularly doing these tasks is necessary for their learning. There seem to be three ways we might help our students to regularly tackle these disciplined learning tasks.

1) Require students to do the tasks and support them

Make the tasks a requirement of the course. By this I mean, no exceptions to the requirements to do the task. Regular exercise and training only works if it is done regularly. If you miss the exercise you get no benefit, even if you have a good reason for missing it. So, the requirement is that students do the tasks on time, every week, no excuses. Another way of seeing this is that the tasks are the course. They are not an optional add-on to the real course which might be attending lectures, they are the course itself.

Even if you require students to do the tasks, there are various reasons why students might fail to complete the requirements, with common reasons being “I forgot” or “I ran out of time”. So, to support the students to complete the tasks you need to be like a personal trainer and monitor their performance, remind them to complete the tasks, and make them accountable for having done so. This is easiest if you specify exactly what is to be done and by when, so you, the student and the rest of the class can tell if the tasks have been completed or not. Ask students to let you know when they have completed their task, and you can also marshal the power of peer pressure and have them accountable to the rest of the class for completing their tasks. If they don’t complete the task in time, have them complete it during class time while the other students are doing something else.

However, I avoid giving grades for disciplined learning tasks. Assigning too many graded assessments is detrimental for student learning (Wass et al. 2015), and it means students are only doing the tasks for the grade. Intrinsic or personal motivation provides better encouragement. Instead of offering grades, I have something like a learning contract, where at the beginning of the course students agree to complete the tasks as a condition of doing the course.

I also avoid coercion or punishment for not doing the tasks. I think fostering personal motivation, where students choose to do the tasks, is a better way to foster learning. It is better if they voluntarily choose to complete the regular tasks, choose to be accountable for completing them, and choose to have someone act as their coach who will push them to do the tasks and help them overcome any forgetfulness or weakness of will.

2) Motivate students to do the tasks

Fostering student motivation is also essential for disciplined learning. The only feasible and ethical way to ensure students will do the tasks we assign, week after week, is if they are personally motivated to do them. So, how do you motivate students so they want to do tasks they were previously reluctant to do?

Students become motivated to complete the disciplined learning tasks when they are convinced that these tasks are important. If the students see the value of doing the tasks, see why they have been assigned these tasks, then they are more likely to voluntarily do them. So, as teachers, we need to show our students how completing the tasks is a milestone on the path to some important learning goal. We have to convince our students that the only way they can obtain something that they find valuable is via these tasks. For example, a teacher might explain how the tasks are exercises for an important learning goal, and invite past students to share how they use what they learned from these exercises. Another teacher might confront their students with problems that the students want to solve, but which they cannot solve unless they complete the tasks. A third way to show that the tasks are valuable is for you to do the tasks along with your students. This shows that you actually value the task in practice, which can be enough to motivate them to follow your lead.

However, even if our students see the value of doing the disciplined learning tasks, in a sense they still may not want to do these tasks. Even if someone knows that they can only be a great athlete by getting up before the sun to train, they still may not want to get up that early. Even if a student knows that they have to do the readings to get their dream career, they still may not want to do the readings. The problem is that we have a hierarchy of conflicting desires. On one level we can desire to avoid something, but this can be over-ridden by our higher-order desires for some bigger goal. For example, my desire to become an excellent teacher overcomes my desire to avoid writing regular reflective posts about my teaching. This hierarchy is important for understanding how we motivate students to undertake disciplined learning – we have to appeal to their higher-desires (this extends the idea of higher-order desires in Frankfurt 1971 and Cam 2016).

A third element of motivating our students is fostering confidence or self-efficacy about the tasks. Students will be more motivated if they feel they are doing well on these tasks, or at least improving (Bandura, 1982). So, teachers should use class time so students can practise doing the tasks, and they should give regular and frequent feedback to build the confidence and capacity of their students.

Build trust so students are more likely to do the tasks you set

A further way of ensuring your students tackle disciplined learning tasks, is to foster student trust. Students will be more motivated to do the tasks we assign, and more likely to complete them, if they respect their teacher, have confidence that their teacher is competent in this area of teaching, if they trust their teacher is working to support their learning, and if they trust that they will benefit from following the teacher’s instructions.

How do you build this trust and confidence in your students? One way is to show that you value your students. They are more willing to trust your methods, and go along with them, if they think you value them. Another way is to show your students your credentials as a teacher and as a subject expert. In the first class or two your students will be sizing you up, and you need to show them you care about their learning, and you know what you are doing (and even better if you do this before the first class using pre-course emails).

Doing the task with your students can also help build trust. When you do the same tasks as your students you can indicate where you struggle, and how you overcome these challenges (this is sometimes called ‘intellectual streaking’, Bearman and Molloy, 2017). This shows your students that you trust them enough to expose your mistakes and errors. It also gives your students a more accurate view of how difficult these tasks are, even for someone who is experienced. This can reassure your students that their own struggles are normal, which gives them confidence to persevere despite challenges.

Sometimes student-trust can replace student-motivation. If students really trust their teacher, they will be willing to do the tasks the teacher assigns, even if they cannot see the point of these tasks. This is the Karate Kid approach to teaching. Mr Miyagi, the karate teacher, tells his student to paint the fence all day using up-down strokes with the brush, and the next day using side-to-side strokes, and alternating right and left arms. This seems like a complete waste of time to the karate kid who rebels, but Mr Miyagi then shows him how the movements he used for painting translate to karate punches and blocks. The karate kid then realises that he can trust Mr Miyagi: If he does the weird tasks Mr Miyagi sets him, he will learn something important, even if he doesn’t understand why he is doing these tasks. He learns to trust the teaching.


Note: Some of these methods for encouraging disciplined learning will also be useful when your students resist learning the content you are teaching; They are useful methods when your students complain “Why are we learning this?” because they think the topic is boring, irrelevant or pointless.



Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2): 122–147.

Bearman, M, & Molloy, E (2017) Intellectual streaking: The value of teachers exposing minds (and hearts), Medical Teacher, 39(12), pp. 1284-1285,

Cam, P (2014) Fact, Value and Philosophy Education. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 1(1), pp. 1-10.

Frankfurt, H (1971) Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Journal of Philosophy, 58(1), pp. 5-20.

Wass, R, Harland, T, McLean, A, Miller, E, Sim, KN (2015) Will press lever for food: behavioural conditioning of students through frequent high-stakes assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), pp. 1324-1326.

Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students | 1 Comment

Heartening a disheartened teacher

Sometimes a teacher gets disheartened, jaded or discouraged when they struggle to improve their teaching without result. They might think “I’m just a bad teacher”, “I’ve already tried that”, “Nothing works for my students”, “It’s not my fault”, or “I just don’t have time and energy to improve.” They are stuck and can’t see a way forward.

How might you hearten the disheartened teacher? I present three inter-related strategies:

Continuum of progress as a teacher

Help them to see teaching as a continuum from worse to better teaching. Everyone is somewhere on this continuum and no one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; No matter how good they are they could do better, and no matter how bad they are, they could be worse (eg if they were drunk in class after zero preparation).

If they are disheartened because they thought “I’m not a good teacher, and that’s all there is to it”, they become locked into being a bad teacher with no possibility of change. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, this opens up a growth mindset (Dweck 2015) or an enhancement approach to teaching (Golding and Adam 2016), where one’s ability at teaching is not fixed, and it is always possible to improve.

If they are disheartened because they think “I’ve already tried everything and nothing works” then they will dismiss any suggestions about how to enhance their teaching because they already do that. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, they can shift their perspective from whether they do or do not, to instead whether they do enough, or whether they could do it better. They move from “I already speak clearly and slowly in lectures, and plan my teaching, so there is nothing I can do to improve,” and instead they wonder “How can I make my lectures clearer for my students? How can I plan my classes better than I currently do it?”

If a teacher sees teaching as a continuum it is easier to identify areas of teaching that are going well, and other areas which could be refined, enhanced or improved. This allows then to be confident about some aspects of their teaching (the literature sometimes calls this self-efficacy eg Bandura 1982), which gives them a firm place to stand while trying to improve their teaching. They can see that they are doing OK, which allows them the confidence to work on the more risky areas where they could improve.

In many institutions there is also a threshold on the continuum which teachers have to cross in order to be considered good-enough (eg the threshold might that 70% or more of their students agree or strongly agree that they are an effective teacher). But ‘good-enough’ is merely an arbitrary point on the continuum, which an institution says is the required standard. If you are below the threshold you are not a bad teacher, and you can always enhance your teaching and get over the threshold.

Progress by developing different teaching knowledge

An additional way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to show them that any teacher can improve by developing one or more kind of knowledge about teaching (Shulman 1987). All teachers know some things about teaching, but lack other knowledge. From this perspective a teacher can be heartened that they know some important things about teaching, and they can see a path for progressing their teaching by developing other knowledge.

For example, you can hearten a disheartened teacher by showing them that they already have the content knowledge for their subject – they know their subject. They also know general teaching methods such as how to explain things so someone can understand, how to organise a powerpoint slide-show, how to ask questions to probe student understanding, etc. However, they may only partially know other things. They might not have enough pedagogical content knowledge about how to teach their subject to their particular students. Although they know how to teach their subject to postgraduate students, and to first year students in one country, they don’t know what will work to teach this same content to second year students in a different country with different students.

Teachers can be heartened if they understand that diverse knowledge is needed for teaching, because it is obvious that lacking some knowledge doesn’t make someone a bad teacher, and because it indicates that access to improvement is by developing more knowledge. For example, the disheartened teacher can get new knowledge about their students, and use this to tailor their teaching so it will work for these particular students. In this way they develop more pedagogical content knowledge about what is the best way to explain this tricky concept to these students, and what tasks and activities these students will find engaging and intriguing rather than boring and irrelevant.

Teach the students you have

A similar way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to help them realise that different groups of students need to be taught in different ways, and so there is no such thing as being a good teacher in all situations, but only good teaching for these students. They can provide good teaching for some students, but not for others. So, they can improve by translating their methods which are successful in one context, for one group of students, to a different context and a different group of students.

If teachers are disheartened because they think that their students are to blame for poor teaching results (“students are not doing enough work” or “students don’t have the basic knowledge they need”), then they will not be able to see anything they can do to improve. However, if they instead see that teaching involves teaching the actual students in front of you, with all their particularities, then they will easily see ways they can improve.

Having poor results for one group of students doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it just means you lack some important teacher knowledge. To improve, you need to know:

  • Their expectations about learning and about their teachers
  • Their preferences and dislikes in relation to learning
  • Their background knowledge
  • Their interests

This knowledge is essential so a teacher can pitch their teaching for their actual students, rather than pitching it for the ideal student, the assumed student, or how the students should be. Once you know your particular students it is much easier to develop effective strategies for getting them to where you want them to be rather than wasting time with strategies that would only work with different students.


Shulman, L (1987) Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), pp. 1–22.

Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), pp. 122–147.

Golding, C and Adam, L (2016) Evaluate to improve: Useful approaches to student evaluation, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, (41)1, pp. 1-14.

Dweck, C (2014) How Can You Develop a Growth Mindset about Teaching? Educational Horizons, 93(2), p. 15

Posted in Mentoring | Leave a comment

What methods should I use in my teaching?

How do I decide whether to teach using case studies or key readings, whether to offer a lecture or to use the allocated time for directed problem solving? Should I assign practice exercises, and should they be completed individually or in groups, with or without peer feedback? In other words, how do I decide what teaching methods to use?

A teaching method is anything a teacher might do to foster or support student learning. This includes methods for helping students understand the content, methods for building a supportive learning environment, as well as the tasks assigned to students. Teaching methods include, but are not limited to, class discussion, independent problem-solving, individual inquiry, virtual world simulations, powerpoint presentation, video presentation and student presentation. The range of possible teaching methods is limited only by your imagination.

Given the diverse possibilities, choosing an appropriate teaching method might seem arbitrary. Yet it can be a deliberate, considered judgement if you see your teaching methods as tools for the job of fostering student learning. Then it is obvious how you choose a teaching method: first be clear on what the job is, and then design a useful tool for this job.

Be clear on what the job is

To clarify the learning job you have to clarify: 1) the particular learning outcome you want, 2) the kind of outcome this is (is the outcome new knowledge, understanding, skill, value, behaviour, or way of being?), as well as 3) the learning process that will lead to this outcome; the process by which students get to the learning outcome. For example:

  1. You want your students to understand photosynthesis. More specifically, the outcome is students will be able to explain the concept of photosynthesis, using their own words, as well as being able to apply this conceptual knowledge to explain how photosynthesis occurs in particular cases.
  2. This learning outcome involves students having new conceptual knowledge, and also new skills in applying abstract conceptual knowledge to particular cases.
  3. How does someone learn conceptual knowledge? They need to be offered some information about the concept, perhaps from a lecture or in a book, but they also need a chance to assimilate this information into what they already know. How do they learn a skill? This involves an iterative process of attempting the action (in this case applying the concept of photosynthesis to explain different cases), then getting feedback, using the feedback to improve, then attempting the action again, etc.

To fully understand the job our teaching methods have to do, we have to think developmentally. We have to chart the whole learning path our students will need to take, starting from their initial understandings and skills (including their typical misunderstandings and mistakes), through various stages of their growing understanding and developing ability, until they reach the final outcomes.

Design the right tool for the job.

The second step is to think of what you and tour students can do that would foster this learning process, and what tools are useful for this job. For example, you might have decided that you want your students to be independent thinkers, and now you design methods that will enable your particular students to learn independence.

I sometimes I see this as choosing from a box of pre-existing tools, but a generic tool may not be effective in any particular teaching situation, so it is often more like designing a tool for the very specific job you have. You need creativity to design a teaching method that will lead to your particular learning outcome, in your particular context – it has to work for you and your students.

You don’t have to design your teaching methods on your own, especially if you are new to teaching or unfamiliar with many teaching methods. Talk to others to discover the methods they use, and to get advice about methods that might suit your context. Alternatively, or additionally, you might read some articles or books, attend a workshop, or do your own research.

When you design a teaching method, you also have to think about the hidden curriculum – how your unintended, unconscious methods can affect student learning. For example, if one learning outcome is that your students can make independent judgements, your chosen teaching method might be to ask students to grapple with open-ended problems without obvious answers. However, you also have to consider what they are learning from the other things you do when you teach – your hidden methods. For example, many teachers instinctively respond to student answers by telling their students whether they are correct or incorrect. Unfortunately what the students learn from this unintended, hidden method is that there are right answers, that the teacher has them, and that they should rely on the teacher to judge whether an answer is right or wrong. In this case the teacher’s hidden methods are unintentionally undermining their attempts to foster independent thinking.

Following from this, you also have to make sure you use the teaching method in a way that will let you complete the job. So, for example, even if powerpoint can be a useful tool to get your learning outcomes, there are multiple ways to use it, and some may be inappropriate for your intended learning outcome. Using powerpoint to summarise the main concepts in a few words might be useful to prompt your students to explain photosynthesis in their own words, but if you give too many details in the powerpoint, the students might find it hard to escape your way of explaining photosynthesis, and so be unable to articulate their own understanding of this concept.

Evaluate and improve

Even after going through this process of designing your teaching methods, you can’t be sure whether a teaching method will work until you try it with your particular students and evaluate its success. So, fully answering the question ‘what teaching method should I use?’ will probably take several years of creative design, testing, evaluating, improving and retesting. This at least involves an informal process of research into teaching, and might involve a formal research process.

Posted in Planning teaching | Leave a comment

That’s a good question

Sometimes in a seminar, lecture or discussion, if we don’t know the topic we feel like we can’t really participate or engage. We might know nothing about postmodern accounts of learning, for example, or the learning styles of accounting students, so we feel like we can’t say anything useful, nor ask any questions. However, there are many ways to engage intelligently with a topic, even if it is unfamiliar. There are techniques for asking intelligent questions that do not require a deep understanding of the topic.

Some questions are about substantive aspects of a topic and can only be asked if you have some understanding of the topic. For example, how is Lyotard’s perspective related to Smetsky’s account of learning without a learner? But other questions simply ask for further thinking about a topic, whatever the substantive topic might be:

  1. What do you mean by x?
  2. Can you give me an example of x?
  3. Can you say more about x?
  4. Why do you think x?
  5. What would be your recommendations about x?

I sometimes call these thought-encouraging questions because they encourage further thinking about any topic: You simply replace the x with something that has been said. For similar reasons they are also called Socratic questions or critical thinking questions.

Thought-encouraging questions are useful for critical analysis or exploration of any topic. In fact, these are the questions I ask myself to assist me to dig deeper into a topic I don’t fully understand – they force me to reflect and clarify my ideas.

Asking a good thought-encouraging questions is simply an expression of puzzlement about what someone is saying; you ask the question that flows from your puzzlement:

  1. If I wonder about what they mean, then I might ask: “what do you mean by x?” OR “can you give an example of x?”
  2. If I’m puzzled by why they think this is true, or I wonder what their justification is then I might ask: “why do you think x?” OR “what evidence is there to support x?

Questions like these are useful tools for engaging in any seminar, lecture or discussion. However, you might also be reluctant to ask questions if you are concerned that only stupid or ignorant people ask questions. However, this is not only a limiting concern, but it is inaccurate. Only the intellectually sharp can ask probing question, and asking these questions is the sign of reflective engagement, not stupidity. I frequently ask these questions, especially when I don’t know much about the topic under discussion. I listen carefully to the speaker, and if I wonder what they meant, or how their idea would translate into practice, or what their reasons are, my first reaction is simply to ask them to explain further, and I express this as a thought-encouraging question. I think that they have not explained themselves, not that I must be stupid if I don’t know.

Posted in Higher education, Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement | Leave a comment

Building a shared conception of critical thinking

If every teacher and every paper in a multi-disciplinary course uses their own conception of critical thinking, students end up more confused than critical. So how do you build a shared understanding of critical thinking in a multi-disciplinary course?

Go concrete: Find agreement about what a critical thinker does. For example, they give reasons and explanations, they uncover and question assumptions, etc. It will be virtually impossible to get agreement if your discussion remains solely in the abstract realm of terms like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘reflection’. Instead look at what thinkers do – their thinking moves or thinking behaviours.

Agree on a developmental core: Find agreement about the developmental core for students learning to be critical thinkers, rather than trying to find agreement about the final, expert version of critical thinking. The critical thinking of a scientist is different from the critical thinking of a health professional. But the path to learn these expert kinds of critical thinking is similar, and there are developmental stages that all students need to go through. Find agreement on the critical thinking needed for a first year student, which will be the basis for eventually learning to be a doctor or an anatomist, or a physicist, etc.

A doctor has to judge likely diagnoses based on what they observe, and what they know about potential conditions. A scientist has to evaluate the evidence from multiple studies in order to make an informed conclusion. However, at the start of the developmental process, a six year old critical thinker merely has to learn to use the word ‘because’ appropriately in a sentence. A first year student at University is at a developmental stage between these two extremes. What is the developmental core of critical thinking that builds on using ‘because’, and which can equally lead to thinking like a doctor or thinking like a scientist?

For example, perhaps first year critical thinkers need to explain, justify and apply. Firstly they have to explain and justify their answers (rather than merely repeating the answer they memorised), and secondly, they need to apply what they learn in lectures so they can solve problems. If they learn these two aspects of critical thinking in their first year, they have the foundations for later learning the more specialised versions of critical thinking.

Stick to a small developmental core: If you stick to what critical thinkers do, and the developmental core of critical thinking, you are likely to find agreement about critical thinking even in a multi-disciplinary course. However, don’t try to include all aspects of expert critical thinking, but only the developmental core.

Having a few core thinking moves or thinking behaviours like justifying or applying is more useful than trying to include everything. Learning to be a critical thinker is like learning to be a great pianist. They both require lots and lots of practise doing ‘scales’ where students are asked, again and again and again, to explain, justify and apply. For example, for every answer you give, you might ask them “why is that the correct answer?” By regularly and frequently engaging in this thinking, students internalise it until it becomes second nature to them and they are critical thinkers. They will learn more by repeating this simply prompt than they will by frequently adding in new prompts and new aspects of thinking.

Assess critical thinking moves and behaviours: You can assess their thinking based on whether they do the core thinking. Do they give reasons or not? Do they apply their knowledge to solve novel problems?

Design assessment tasks that cannot be completed except by using the critical thinking moves. Students should be unable to give an answer by remembering the lecture or the text-book, or by googling. Tasks that involve evaluating and applying are useful for this purpose.

When you assess make sure you distinguish between assessing whether they have said the right thing (you agree with them) and whether they have done the thinking (they have given reasons to justify their answer). Just like assessing mathematics, you need to assess whether they have the right answer independently of whether they have demonstrated their working or their thinking. For example, they might have the right answer but have not given any reasons or explanations to back this up. Alternatively they could have the wrong answer but demonstrated excellent explanation and justification based on a false premise. The second example shows good critical thinking, but the first one does not, yet we are likely to only reward the first answer. When assessing critical thinking we have to put aside whether we agree or disagree with their answer and instead look for the thinking. For example, if they give us the wrong answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?” and if they give us the right answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?”

Posted in Planning teaching | Leave a comment