Asking Questions

Have you ever thought about what it takes to ask students a question in the classroom? It is not as simple as it seems.

Asking a question is a little like being a good comedian, it takes timing. Ask the question, pause, restate the question, then call on someone to answer.  The pause is the key piece to asking questions effectively.

Giving a pause after asking a question allows students to think of the answer. Everyone will be processing at different times, at different speeds.  If you are fan of the oral communication models, recall that some students may have barriers that mean decoding your statement takes time: some students may not know the material as well, others may have to translate your words out of English, then interpret their answer back into English before they can answer.

Restating the question helps with that pause. It gives everyone a chance to catch up; it also gives students a different interpretation of the question in case they were struggling.

Calling on students also involves some thought. Do you call students out by name?  Do you only pick volunteers?  That’s a decision that you have to make as an instructor.  It can be difficult: someone who doesn’t raise their hand but is asked anyway and truly doesn’t know may be embarrassed and become resentful. Only asking the student who raises their hand may get you the ‘eager beaver’ and leave everyone else out.  (I use a combination, sometimes drawing in that student who isn’t always verbal, and other times using the student with their hand up.)

What if the student gets it wrong? I try to help the student achieve the right answer; not give them the answer, but lead them to it.  Another tip for this that I’ve heard but not used is to have another student give the answer, then return to the original student and have them repeat or paraphrase to ensure they now understand that.  (I’ve always checked back for a confirmation but never asked for a repeat back as I didn’t want to embarrass the student)

Always repeat the answer though, ensure that everyone heard it, and heard the correct response.

But let’s back up: why ask questions? Asking questions serves two purposes, both around feedback.  Asking questions provides feedback to the student: do they understand the material correctly? It’s also feedback to the instructor: am I teaching the material correctly?  If students are getting questions wrong, it is an opportunity to revisit the material before moving on, correcting any issues.

Asking questions is not as simple as it seems, but they are invaluable part of teaching.

Teaching a Skill

Many courses include a skill component, at the completion of the course, students will be expected to do something with the material taught. Not just be able to repeat it, but use it in some fashion.  Teaching a skill is somewhat different from teaching knowledge, and instructors should plan their approach accordingly.

The traditional approach to teaching a skill is TELL – SHOW – DO TOGETHER – PRACTICE (ON OWN) – REVIEW. The instructor begins by telling students what is going to be done, just like a knowledge piece: what are we going to learn, why, how does this benefit the student?  Then show the students what will be accomplished, typically the whole piece.  Then breaking it down into small chunks, the instructor shows part #1.  This is followed by the instructor and the students doing the first part together; students are then allowed to practice on their own.  This gives the instructor an opportunity to check that everyone has achieved an acceptable stage on this part, and provide feedback to individuals – reinforcing the things being done correctly and providing correction to those that need it.

Once that is done, the next part is added, repeating the steps. This follows until the whole part is taught, and students can now practice this whole piece on their own.

The largest difference between teaching a skill and teaching a ‘piece’ of knowledge is the practice, students need time to practice a skill in order to be able to master it. Mastery may not occur in the classroom, but the bulk of the time in a ‘skill’ lesson should be on practice.  Some suggest as much as 65% of class time should be on student practice; I temper that number by remembering that it will depend on how the students are progressing, their prior knowledge of the material, how well they master it, etc..

If you reflect back on learning a musical instrument, learning a sport, or even learning to walk as a baby, teaching a skill traditionally follows the basic patter of show – do together – practice. If you are looking for a quick reference on teaching a skill take a look at:

If you prefer a more in depth look at teaching a skill and some of the reasons behind why this approach works, check out:


Copyright and Teaching

A July 12, 2017 federal court decision found that York University had violated Canadian copyright law.  While the specifics do not exactly match up with PACE, the case does highlight the need for university administrators and instructors to be cognizant of copyright rules and ensure that they are followed.

The University of Winnipeg revised the copyright policy in 2016, and the revised policy and procedures are published on the internet:

PACE instructors should take a moment to review them and ensure that the material they are presenting follows the rules.

Since taking on this position, I’ve discovered that the rules are not always as straight forward as they seem.  Instructors, like students, need to ensure that credit is given for sources used, that the use fits within the fair dealing provisions of the law, and that the material is shared appropriately.  If any questions arise, get in touch with me, your program manager, of the University’s Copyright Office directly to get some advice.

As the York University case highlighted, a university policy provides some guidelines, but the specifics of the material, how the material is shared, with whom and how many people it is shared, all play a role in deciding if the use complies with the law.

If you want to review the federal court decision, you can access it here:

New Look for Nexus Coming Soon

From the University tech office:
“Our Learning Management System is getting a facelift. Starting on August 16, you’ll notice a new look for Nexus.  A cleaner interface, new fonts, and updated icons mean that your courses will look more polished and modern than ever.
The new user interface, called the Daylight Experience, was built with a responsive design. This means that it adapts to different screen sizes and looks great on laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Nexus functionality and workflows are not changing. This new look is designed to make the experience more consistent and visually appealing, as well as easier for you to create and update your courses.
Some of the changes that are being implemented to improve the design include:

  • Simplified navigation design that is responsive for smaller devices
  • Wider page layout for your content so that it’s the focal point of the page
  • New fonts, icons, colors and simpler formatting of widgets provide a consistent experience

We’re excited for this change and the improvements that we’ll see in Nexus. More information and updates will be posted soon. Stay tuned.”

Remember that Nexus can be used for part time courses, not just full time!  Just ask your program manager and we can set it up.

Student Perspective: Textbooks

Textbooks are always a ‘hot’ topic with both our students and our instructors.  For students, there is the issue of cost versus need.  The cost of textbooks is always rising, and students often look to juggle expenses based on their sometimes limited income.   On the instructor side, failure by students to have the textbook and read the material before class is always a source of frustration.

In setting up a course, instructors identify if a textbook is required for a course, or it is optional.  If a ‘requirement’, instructors are telling students the book is a must have for the course.  In purchasing the book, students are expecting to make use of the text beyond just a reference.  If the textbook is not required week to week, instructors can consider listing the book as ‘optional’.

In listing a textbook as ‘required’, instructors should ensure that each week material from the text is woven into the course. This could be in the form of discussions, learning activities, or assignments.  In doing so, instructors should be cautious that they are not just making use of the text because it is there, but that the use of the textbook is enhancing the learning.  Does the text provide examples or further discussions of concepts beyond the class?  In short, what value is there for the student in having the textbook.

To help reduced costs, instructors can look at open textbooks, or even course packages made from different parts of free textbooks, available through  (See previous post for more information on that) Or course packs can be made from other material under certain conditions (contact me or your program manager to discuss that option)

In assigning readings, instructors should be mindful of the student perspective.  At PACE, our students are in class Monday to Friday, 9 till 4.  If each course calls for 200 page so of reading, on top of assignments, quizzes and exams, students will not be able to keep up!  Readings should be reflective of what is needed for the course; when appropriate, direct the readings – are there key concepts students should look at?  Are there specific pages to read, instead of whole chapters?  Is there a question or problem that students should be learning about before class?  Providing some structure to the readings can help students narrow down the focus of the readings, enabling them to come to class more prepared, in turn alleviating instructor frustration.

Selecting and using a textbook in a course requires careful consideration of how the book enhances the course.  Including a relevant book with a well thought out approach will raise the chances the students will read it, reducing instructor frustration in the classroom.

Learning Assessments and Group Work

Many of our courses incorporate group work as part of the course, with an assessment component included.  Many of our students complain about group work and corresponding marks that come out of the project.  Including group work in a course should be done with careful consideration of the issues presented.

Students often complain about group work because of the disparity in contributions and the concern of ‘free riders’, students obtaining a higher grade than they should while putting in a minimal amount of work.  Certainly a valid point, but it also takes some reflection on the fact that not everyone has the same abilities.  Where one student sees someone as not contributing enough, another student may be working to their capacity.  As the instructor using group work, it takes reminding the students that not everyone has the same abilities.

As the instructor, using group work also requires regular, and frequent, check-ins with the students to ensure that the group is working.  As many of our students are still learning how to function as a team and how to be organized, the instructor needs to play a large role in helping the group to progress with their work.  This can mean the instructor needs to create an agenda or expectations for each week for the groups.  The instructor then needs to follow up by checking in with the groups to see what is happening and ensuring each team is progressing, and everyone is a part of the planning and work.

There is often a comparison between working in small groups and being on a team in the workplace.  It’s important to recognize that there are some differences and instructors need to account for that, in particular around the issue of conflict.  When you have difficulty with a team member in the work place, you can go to the supervisor for assistance; in the classroom, that supervisor is the instructor and should be actively involved with the group to address issues early.   Students should not be expected to discipline or correct their classmates; even dealing with small issues may require instructor’s help, as students are still learning these skills.

As a method of evaluating learning, group work needs to relate to the learning outcomes, as does any assessment piece.  The advantage with group work is the ability to have students tackle problems larger than they could on their own.  Assignments should be designed with this in mind; there should be a concrete reason group work is being used as a part of the course, connected to the learning outcomes for the course.

Evaluating this work often leads to conversations about how to do so fairly, in a manner that reflects the contributions of everyone.  This is not an easy task, with many different views.

Some instructors like to use peer assessments as a part of group work evaluation.  This allows for the opportunity to involve the group in scoring their classmates on their contribution.  Peer evaluations can provide the instructor with a look at group dynamics and interpersonal skills.  Some instructors also  use peer evaluations to also grade work product.  Both of these areas should be entered into with caution.  Peer assessments can be manipulated, up or down, by students or groups of students to influence marks, making scoring on interpersonal skills more of a popularity contest than a measure of ability. Student scoring work content and quality is often viewed as problematic as students are still learning the material and may not be in a position to grade quality of work for the course objectives.

Sometimes, peer assessments are used only as a contribution toward the grade.  The final grade for the group work is adjusted only when there are extreme issues.  Another approach has been to assign ‘bonus’ marks for certain roles within the group:  for example the leader or the collator.  These positions receive a slightly higher grade than their team mates in recognition of the extra work their role requires.

The use of peer evaluations can be problematic though for grade appeals.  Any grade within a PACE course can be appealed.  Having a peer evaluation as part of a grade will require a well-established rubric, documentation from students to justify the grade, and oversight from the instructor.

While group work need not be avoided completely, instructors looking to include group work should do so with caution.  There needs to be a clear link to the learning outcomes, a well thought out grading system, and the use of peer evaluations needs to be done so with caution.  Frequent and regular involvement of the instructor is a must to make a group project a success.