The Joy of Teaching: EOS Profs Find New Ways to Enrich the Classroom Experience

Clickers are remote controllike devices that allow students to anonymously answer multiple-choice
Clickers are remote controllike
devices that allow students
to anonymously answer multiple-choice
questions at the click of a

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 3 | Mar.
5, 2009

By Brian Lin

“Fun” may not be the first word faculty always choose to describe teaching. It is, however, for Sara Harris and Roger Francois from the Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS).

The two oceanographers co-taught a first-year course for non-science students last term when Francois, a research scientist who only began teaching large survey courses when he joined UBC four years ago, used clickers for the first time.

Clickers are remote control-like devices that allow students to anonymously answer multiple-choice questions at the click of a button. The results can be tallied and shown immediately to the class.

“The obvious and basic use of the clickers is as a quiz tool,” says Harris, who has used clickers since 2006 and has been working with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) to incorporate clickers and other proven teaching methods into EOS courses.

“But when you pose thoughtful questions, they become a powerful facilitator of discussions,” says Harris.

Harris says using clickers was a learning experience for her but recent surveys have shown that students are finding the clicker exercises challenging and they provoke students to discuss material both before and after they register an answer.

That increased student engagement is what made teaching fun for Francois. “There is definitely more interaction between the students and myself compared to before. Essentially you see students becoming more interested and more involved,” says the professor and Canada Research Chair in Marine Geochemistry, who adds that he often gets bombarded with questions after class by students invigorated by the discussions.

“You feel that you’re doing a better job. It’s gratifying.”

“I think it’s pretty fun when students collectively have this ‘Ah-ha’ moment,” says Harris. “As an instructor, I often work with an individual student who’d come to my office confused. We’d go through a concept together and when they get it, it’s great. But that’s one student – when it happens with 150 students, that’s pretty satisfying.”

This infectious sense of satisfaction may be why 69 per cent of tenure track EOS faculty members are currently engaged in some form of pedagogical reform, according to recent statistics compiled by Brett Gilley and Francis Jones, two of the four CWSEI Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) working in EOS.

“Faculty members are involved either as lead instructors in one of 12 currently targeted courses, as members of corresponding workgroups, or by receiving specific support from the STLFs,” says Jones. “We estimate that out of the more than 6,200 students who enrolled in EOS courses last year, 70 per cent were affected by these efforts.”

For example, STLF Erin Lane has been carefully measuring the degree to which students are paying attention and participating in Francois’s class and documented what sorts of teaching activities achieve the most engagement. This feedback has allowed Francois to fine-tune his teaching.

In addition to activities supported by CWSEI, EOS was the first of the science departments to receive funding for a five-year transformative plan – the department is also undergoing a curriculum review to ensure its 11 bachelor degree streams are made up of courses that progress logically and meet the needs of its students.

“At the best of times, curriculum reform is like pushing water uphill with a garden rake,” says EOS Department Head Paul Smith. “This is because it takes considerable time and energy, both of which are in short supply in the busy lives of faculty.

“The combined efforts of CWSEI and the universal curriculum review have contributed to a high level of enthusiasm within the department.”

Prof. Douw Steyn has also sensed greater interest in teaching among his colleagues. He teaches second- and third-year courses in the environmental science program and uses a variety of activities, including mock town hall meetings, to keep his students deeply engaged.

“As instructors, our role is to facilitate student learning rather than capturing them by way of lecturing or making them read a particular set of texts for a course,” says Steyn. “And we’ve got to instill in them a sense of responsibility in their own learning.”

To do this, Steyn guides his students to conduct a mock town hall meeting on a topical environmental issue such as fish farming. Students role-play different perspectives on the issue: as scientists presenting findings on the environmental impact, as government officials promoting economic growth, or as journalists covering the meetings.

“The students have to research not only the technical side of fish farming but all of the opposing and proposing views,” says Steyn. “Then they have to communicate it.”

What CWSEI has added to this teaching style, says Steyn, is the scientific investigation of the impact these different approaches have on student learning. With the help of STLFs, the department is evaluating student understanding of key concepts, class participation, and their overall attitude towards their field of study before and after specific courses or modules within a course.

The CWSEI’s strong emphasis on learning outcomes (what the faculty want the students to take away and retain long after they’ve finished the course) and on using pedagogy that is based on what is known about how people learn are also making both the instructors and students more aware of what is being taught, why, and how best to learn it, say Steyn and Jones.

As for Francois, he’s co-teaching the course he shared with Harris with another instructor, who is now using clickers for the first time.

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Peer Teaching Network

Faculty of Science instructors who want all of the benefits but none of the stress of a peer review now have a new option: the Peer Teaching Network (PTN) launched recently by the faculty’s Science Centre for Learning and Teaching (Skylight).

“The PTN is designed to support faculty in developing their instructional skills in a collegial and informal setting,” says Jack Lee, a research associate with Skylight who modeled the new initiative in Canada after similar programs in the Europe and Australia.

Faculty members who join the network are matched with a colleague from a different department in Science. The pair meet first to discuss their expectations and issues they’d like to address, followed by a visit to each other’s class. They then exchange feedback in a debrief meeting.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the standard teaching practices of our own discipline and forget to look and see what’s new in other areas that we could adapt to our own,” says Rachel Pottinger, a computer science assistant professor who participated in the pilot program before PTN was formally launched.

“I had the opportunity to see a fascinating class that some day I hope our department could emulate. I also got a chance to talk to someone about my teaching who was not already biased – for good or bad – by the norms of teaching in our discipline.”

For more information or to join PTN, visit