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:




Adaptability is a cornerstone of instructing

As an instructor, being able to adapt to your audience is a key feature of success.  Being able, on the fly, to adjust your examples so they are meaningful to your students helps to keep your lecture ‘live’ and connected to everyone.  Watch this example of Sir Ian McKellan teaching to see it in action:

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:

Grade Insurance

Welcome to 2019!

When I was studying for university, I had a professor who offered grade insurance on day one of the class.  By doing an extra assignment, students could get insurance worth one mark toward their final grade.  If a student was one mark short of passing or one mark short of the next letter grade their assignment was read and, if it met the minimum requirement, it earned the mark to bump a student up so they didn’t fail or earned them the next letter grade.

To be eligible, students had to submit the extra assignment BEFORE receiving their first mark.  Much like insurance on your car, you can’t buy it after you’ve had an accident.

To be read, students had to be one mark short of the next letter grade.  Not two, not three, one mark and one mark only.  Students were told up front that if they fell one mark short and hadn’t taken out ‘insurance’, there would be no discussion about adjusting or raising their grade.

To qualify for the mark, the submission had to meet an established and posted rubric.  This was standard to any assignment.  It included components on grammar, content, writing skills, etc.  To earn the mark, students had to earn a C or better on the assignment.  It was not a case of submitting the extra work and automatically getting the grade as the submitted assignment still had to meet a minimum level of effort and quality.

Like any assignment, this extra insurance assignment had assignment instructions that spelled out the ‘question’ to be answered in the assignment, the format, the length of the response, and the due date and time.

Given that a portion of marking is subjective, no matter how good a rubric is designed, this grade insurance is a way for the instructor to head off debates about the subjective qualities and to alleviate the pressure from students looking to raise their grade.

Next class I teach, I’m going to give it a try.

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.

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.

Tips on Assignment Instructions

As another group of students settles into month two of their program it is interesting to see how questions are repeated between the different programs and over the years.  A common theme that comes up is on assignment instructions.

While not universal to all students, many of our students express feeling overwhelmed with keeping everything up to date and straight in their minds.  To help them out, instructors can try some of these tips:

  • put assignment instructions into stand alone documents on Nexus.
    • This helps students in being able to quickly find the instructions for each assignment within each course.
  • put assignment instructions into a stand along folder for assignment instructions on Nexus
    • Like above, it becomes a one stop shop for students to be able to find what they need.
  • ensure that instructions contain all the information students need
    • While it seems basic, it’s easy to take for granted what students want to know: due date, due time, format for submission, length of submission, font size & style, line spacing, first person / third person, value of the assignment, rubric or marking criteria

Giving students a one stop shop that answers all their questions helps reduce anxiety in students and also helps cut down on questions for instructors!

Dealing with Free Riders in Group Work

Group work, and the problems associated with it, is a common topic at PACE.  This week’s communication piece from the Faculty Focus newsletter talks on the issue of free riders in groups, those people riding on others’ coattails:;s=FF180920;utm_term=FF180920&utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Students+Riding+on+Coattails+during+Group+Work%3F&utm_campaign=FF180920

This short article gives 5 tips to reduce this from happening.  It’s worth a read to look for some ideas on how to address this issue in our classes.   Things like plotting out group work so that sections are due over the duration of the course, designating class time to establish rules on day one and then regular check ins thereafter, and having an individual component to the group project.  All worth giving consideration to in planning your next course.

Lessons for Teachers from the Restaurant World

In January, 2010, Grace Johnson wrote an article for the Teaching Professor called ‘100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do’: Adapted for Teachers. She took 10 items off a list that appeared in a New York Times’ blog about how restaurant staffers should act and converted them as tips for university / college instructors.

When I read over Grace’s list, there were three items she had that leapt off the page for me. These are quoted verbatim as she wrote them:

#1 – Do not let anyone enter the restaurant without a warm greeting. Do not let anyone enter  your classroom without a warm greeting.  Smile, face your students, and make them feel welcome.

#9-Do not recite the specials too fast or robotically or dramatically. You aren’t deliver a soliloquy or auditioning for a part.  Do not lecture too fast or robotically or dramatically.  Teachers shouldn’t be delivering soliloquies.  They aren’t audition.  We are talking to students wo are hearing the topic for the fist tim (OK, maybe the second for those students repeating your class).  Although we have delivered this lecture once or twice each semester for the last 19 years, it needs to be as fresh and interesting as it was the first time we presented it.

#63 – Never blame the chef, the bus boy, the hostess or the weather for anything that goes wrong. Just make it right.  Never blame the registrar’s office, the information technology office, the bookstore, or the department staff assistant for anything that goes wrong.  Just make it right.  Take the needed time to resolve problems or direct students to the person with the power to fix what has gone wrong.

There’s a lot of truth to these and they struck home to me as reminders of our role in the classroom.

If you’d like to read the full article, you can see it here with a subscription to the website: