How Hard Should Your Test Be?

When I started as an instructor I struggled with the idea of how hard to make my tests and assignments.  Even with time, it is still a bit of a guess.  This past month, the Scientific American posted a blog summarizing some recent research.

In short, you don’t want your course or exam to be too easy, then students are challenged and true learning doesn’t occur, nor do you want the test to be so hard that no one can pass it.  The ideal sweet spot for learning is 85%.  At that point, students are being optimally challenged and are still getting enough correct answers to engage their interest and keep them motivated.

The theory is derived from the work of a team lead by Robert Wilson for the University of Arizona, whose team studied the ideal point of difficulty to enhance the learning of material and how the level of difficult impacted that learning.

If you want to read the blog post, click here:

If you want to read the research paper that it was based on, you can read it here:




Plan for the Unexpected

As you plan your day in the classroom, keep Murphy’s Law in mind, what ever can go wrong, will go wrong.  Make time for mistakes, for discussion, make time for the unexpected so that you don’t have to rush through the materials, so that there is time for questions.

Murphy would tell us though, that something will go wrong and the class will move faster than you though.  So, have a back up.  That material that is extra, that way if time moves too quickly, you have something to fill in with.

Make room for the unexpected.

Are Learning Styles Real?

When I was learning to be an instructor, I was taught two key points that I was told to ensure all of lessons plans addressed.  One was the Learning Pyramid and the other was learning styles; it was stressed that to be a good instructor, these needed to be in every lesson.

The Learning Pyramid is a theory that people learn only a small part of a lecture, learn 10% from reading, learn 20% from audio/visual, and so one till you get to the base of the pyramid that says we learn much more by ‘doing’.

If you’ve heard of that theory, I hope you’ve also heard that it’s false.  There are a number of articles out there that show it’s not true, including some that show the supposed source never put out the stats that the pyramid claims:

I quickly picked that up and have dropped it from my materials and teaching plans.  Now it seems the other ‘must do’ I was taught is also false; teaching styles are myth says a lot of research, and yet it persists:

Rather than try to cater to every learners’ style, it’s more important to be clear and gain understanding by teaching material in a variety of ways. The type of material and understanding being sought will play a larger role than ‘learner style’ – teaching someone to do something (like play soccer) needs tactile / hands on work, while teaching someone to be able to define concepts will lean more to discussion or lecture.

The Forgetting Curve

Ever had that moment where you’ve met someone and two minutes later, you can’t recall their name?  Or read a passage in a book, but you can’t remember what it said?  Think of your students, how much do you think they remember after the class is done?  Would you believe they can forget as much as 80% by the day after your class?

Back in the 1800’s, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, did a study on how people forget what they’ve learned.  It was a limited study, but the theory has been replicated and become known as the Forgetting Curve.

The Forgetting Curve is exponential.  The student walks out of the lecture knowing 100% of the material, by the day after 50%-80% is gone!  Each day after that gets progressively worse.  By day 7, students have forgotten significant amounts of material.  A month after a lecture, students may only retain 2% – 3% of what they learned!

Graphically, the forgetting curve has been portrayed like this:


(source: )

A huge part of beating the Forgetting Curve is on the student.  Doing recall exercises the next day, ie., studying.  But as instructors, we also play a role in beating the Forgetting Curve:

-Over the duration of a course, or even during a lesson, build in repetition.  Reinforcement is a big part of beating the Forgetting Curve.  During the lesson, build in repetition, to help ensure the material is being learnt.  Then in subsequent classes, come back to it, reinforce the material and ensure that it is being retained.

-Make the lesson, and the material, memorable.  Teach the lesson in a way that students will remember it; give the lesson meaning so students know why they need the lesson, show the teaching point matters.  Deliver it in a way that works for students and will be memorable – be that a game, a story, an example, an activity.

-Share memory tricks.  Is there a mnemonic or memory device that can help to learn the material? Share it!  (How many of us still recite 30 days hath September, April, June, and November….?)

-Be clear in your teaching.  The worse piece is delivering teaching points in a way that can’t be easily followed.  If students struggle to get the material in the first place, they won’t be able to recall it later.  So ensure that the lesson you’ve created is clear TO THE STUDENT.  Too often it’s clear to the instructor, but it’s the student that matters!

Want to know more about the Forgetting Curve, and how easy it is to beat with studying, check out the University of Waterloo post:

Want to see some more ideas about how to improve delivery to beat the Curve, this post is specific to online learning (and was the inspiration for this post), but the ideas can be adopted:

Making the First Day Better

Today is the first day back for students after the winter break, and some new courses start up this week. It’s very timely that the Chronicle of Higher Education put out this post called How to Teach a Good First Day:


Gold plating in the Classroom: A Lesson from Project Management

Gold plating is a term in project management that refers to the project team putting extras into the project.  Extras that are not asked for by the client, extras that are not being paid for by the client.  In general, it’s considered a bad thing and should be avoided.  The classroom is the same as a project, gold plating should be avoided. In short, it’s about trying to teach too much.  A common theme in a lot of literature aimed at college and university instructors.

In the classroom context, gold plating is adding in extra teaching points, expanding the lesson beyond the learning outcomes, or adding in trivia to expand the class.  In general, it’s a bad thing for our students.

With most of our classes at 36 hours, with students in the full time program taking courses five days a week.  Students rush to finish assignments, cramming for tests, and juggling any home commitments they have.

Gold plating puts extra pressure on students to learn more points, to try and retain ideas and concepts that aren’t needed.

It’s not that ideas and concepts shouldn’t be expanded on to ensure understanding, adding personal stories and examples that help students fully understand and apply the main lesson.  Those should always be there, but adding in extra material that takes the course further, that should be viewed with skepticism.

As an instructor, strive to find the balance between delivering what the student needs, what PACE wants, and adding in too many extras.

The 8 Second Rule

When you pose a question to the class, how long do you wait before you give the answer or rephrase the question?  A study at a US college found that instructors answered their own questions in less than one second.  That’s not enough time for students to:

  1. Process what’s been asked.
  2. See if they can formulate an answer to the question.
  3. Formulate an answer in their head (how they will convey their answer).
  4. Decide if it is safe to answer.
  5. Raise their hand, or speak (depending on the cultural rules in the classroom).

A better practice is to wait 8 seconds, even counting in your head or out loud to give students time to think.

If you add to point #1 that many of our PACE students need to translate the question in their heads, and translate the answer back, that adds additional time that it takes.  So pause.

Source: Eight Seconds that will Transform your Teaching:

Improving Writing Skills

October’s Workshop Wednesday was a presentation by Scott Poole, EALTCP Coordinator in the UWinnipeg’s English Language Program.  Scott talked about what instructors can do to help improve the writing skills of our students.

There is no magic bullet that will make students write better.  Writing is a skill that takes time and feedback in order to improve.  Scott offered a number of ways that instructors can help with.  To highlight just three:

  1. Conferences: one on one coaching with students is the best way for students to get meaningful feedback and for instructors to assess that the feedback has been heard and understood.
    While not easy with the numbers in some of our classes, this may be done selectively with those students that need more help than others.
  2. Rework: for students to truly learn and get the opportunity to improve, students need repetition.  In the ideal world, that means allowing students to rework submissions so that they can build on their skills and get more feedback.
    As our classes generally run over very short periods of time, this may not always be possible.  A variation of this can be achieved by laddering assignments, where they build or come together so that students get that opportunity to apply feedback and try to learn and grow in their skills.
  3. Peer editing: even when peers’ skills may be weak, getting a second set of eyes to look at a document can help both people to grow their skills.
    This does not mean that the peer rewrites the paper, and the topic may itself need some coaching and explanation in our classes as this is a new concept for many.  The benefits though can be tremendous.

In general, we run an Instructor Workshop session the first Wednesday of most months.  They are always voluntary, we encourage you to come and share experiences, meet other instructors, and pick up some tips.