Putting the Team in Team Teaching

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“One of the most predictable contradictions in American college classrooms is that a solo instructor confronts a classroom full of diverse students. No matter how much she might strive to empathize with different learning needs, racial traditions, and personality types, any individual teacher is inevitably limited by the boundaries of her personality, learning preferences, racial group membership and experience . . . As teachers we all bring different gifts and handicaps to the table. A team that works well is aware of the different talents of its members and attempts to mix these as equitably as possible” (Brookfield, 2015, p 102).

The idea of creating a learning environment that capitalizes on the strengths of each member while minimizing weaknesses is so exciting! After all, aren’t ‘two heads better than one’? Brookfield (2015) states, “ . . . when two or three people with different racial identities, talents, and personalities form a teaching team, the possibilities for connecting to a wider range of students expand exponentially” (p 102). Yet, when I reflect on my experiences of ‘team teaching’ in workshops and in the online environment, I must confess it hasn’t been exciting at all – in fact sometimes it has been quite frustrating!

Are two heads really better than one? According to Ludden (2016), it depends on how they interact. In the past, it was thought that group work intelligence was determined by the average intelligence of the members or that one really clever team member who takes over and runs the show (Ludden, 2016). Research from Woolley (as cited in Ludden, 2016) reveals that the group actually develops a group mind and that the determining factor in how well the team performs is not based on “ . . . accumulated knowledge or skill set . . . (but) how well the individual team members can read the emotions of team members” (para 10). In other words, “ . . . a group composed of members who have moderate intelligence but are very good at reading each other’s emotions can outperform a group with high average intelligence but low social perceptiveness” (Ludden, 2016, para 12).

Another factor that impacts team functioning is how alike or diverse team member personalities and cognitive styles are (Ludden, 2016). Too close and there are limitations to the approaches the team will use, but too diverse and there are breakdowns in communication and a loss of empathy amongst team members (Ludden, 2016).

Too great of a diversity in teaching perspectives certainly was the cause for the feelings of vulnerability and frustration Dabbs (2013) had during “ . . .a very tough first year . . . “ (para 3) of teaching with a co-teacher who did not share her enthusiasm for teaching “ . . . in new and authentic ways” (para 1). As someone who is equally and enthusiastic about the very same thing, I can relate!

Team Teaching Advantages and Disadvantages, (n.d) lists the disadvantages of team teaching as follows (para 12):

Team teaching is not always successful. Some teachers are rigid personality types or may be wedded to a single method. Some simply dislike the other teachers on the team. Some do not want to risk humiliation and discouragement at possible failures. Some fear they will be expected to do more work for the same salary. Others are unwilling to share the spotlight or their pet ideas or to lose total control.

Despite the challenges team teaching presents, students do indeed value its impact on learning. Here are the results of a survey of 440 students taking a large undergraduate marketing class in Australia where team teaching was employed (Yanamandram & Noble, 2006, Abstract):

Despite the relatively weak forms of team-teaching adopted to teach this subject, the majority of the students liked the concept of team-teaching. The findings in this study suggest that team-teaching can facilitate student learning through the generation of interest and exposure to ‘experts’, but can hinder student learning if the team fails to act as a cohesive unit and work together to adequately link learning concepts. This study also argues that the most critical factor in determining the success or failure of a team-teaching effort is the actual composition of the team. A key implication of this study is that a team that comprises of ‘good teachers’ (perceived as those skilful in teaching large classes) is far more important than a team comprising of ‘experts’ in different knowledge areas.

Team teaching requires strong communication skills, dedication to ensuring skillful teaching is taking place, commitment to the team effort and a thorough understanding of the key concepts in order to reach the potential it can have on student learning. In order for this to take place, team members first have to be able to work together.

Tips on Working Together

For me, the clearer I am with myself about what is important to me the better I am able to communicate my expectations to team members. Murawski and Bernhardt (2015) suggest using tools to help a supervisor be able to understand how best to pair teams together, but if like me, you don’t always have a choice in who you will be team teaching with, understanding where everyone is coming from sounds like a good idea. Some tools to use to help identify teaching perspectives include:

Murawski and Bernhardt (2015) also acknowledge that sometimes teams may need “ . . . couples therapy” (para 30) if problems continue. For me, I feel that accessing my manager and or the teaching and learning centre in my university may also provide some more ideas of how problems can be worked through.

Once the team in on the same page in terms of teaching perspectives and approach the next step is to implement best practices with the approach. Here is a list of 10 ‘commandments’ that I thought really outlines these key concepts and will help pave the way to successful team teaching.

 The 10 Commandment of Team Teaching

For all of the commandments that Anderson and Landy (Leavitt, 2006) made, I was able to find supporting evidence from Brookfield (2015). I will definitely need to post these in my office!

  1. “Thou shalt plan everything with thy neighbour” (Leavitt, 2006, p 1)
    • “Team teaching is not two or three people agreeing to carve up a course into sections so that each person does 30 or 50 percent of the sessions. Properly conducted, team teaching involves all members of the team planning the course, writing the syllabus, specifying learning objectives, conducting the class, and evaluating student work” (Brookfield, 2015, p 141).
      • For the online course I teach, I need to ensure that my co-teacher and I are involved in all parts of planning by preparing content material jointly – either each taking on different parts and then providing constructive feedback or actually sitting down to the work together.

2. “Thou shalt attend thy neighbour’s lectures” (Leavitt, 2006, p 1)

  • “ . . . (E)very team member is in the class all the time so that she or he can complement and support whatever the lead teacher is doing (Brookfield, 2015, p 142).
  • An online course doesn’t have lectures per se but there are Discussion Forums and a Clear as Mud Post where we as instructors provide feedback to students about their anonymous muddiest survey questions (there are 5 surveys throughout the course). Instead of just having one instructor answering the questions, we could each take turns and then provide comments and debate concepts with each other in the forum (see commandments 3 and 4).

3. “Thou shalt refer to they neighbour’s ideas” (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “In team teaching we can hear a colleague explain and idea or contribute some information then show students how we connect it to our own stock of knowledge” (Brookfield, 2015, p 145).

4. “Thou shalt model debate with thy neighbour. (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “One of the meta-agendas of higher education is teaching students how to disagree in ways that don’t shut down further communication” (Brookfield, 2015, p 143).

5. Thou shalt have something to say, even when thou art not in charge (Leavitt, 2006, p 2)

  • “There will always be time when one instructor has more knowledge or experience than another, but when this is the case the teacher with less content knowledge has an important role to play as a skilful questioner and also as an observer of the class to ensure that everybody is getting the chance to participate” (Brookfield, 2015, p 152).
  • While this may be hard to make happen online, there is a face-to-face workshop where case studies are reviewed as a group. Having one person field questions, while the other observes classroom dynamics and takes a closer look at the students’ work would help to ensure that everyone is able to participate.

6. “Thou shalt apply common grading standards (Leavitt, 2006, p 3)

  • “Specifying the criteria by which students work will be assessed is crucial in any classroom but never more so than in a team-taught course. Ideally, it should be possible for either faculty member to slot into the grading role and assign the same grade or number of points for any particular piece of work” (Brookfield, 2015, p 151).
  • In the online course, there are rubrics for marking case studies and discussion forums, but one of the problems could be that my co-teacher and I may mark differently if we identify different issues, recommendations and relevant evidence to support decisions for the cases. In order to mark the same, we need to be able to work through the case studies together first, come up with a list of key issues etc. and then use that when we mark.

7. Thou shalt attend all staff meetings (Leavitt, 2006, p 3)

  • “Team members plan, conduct, evaluate, and debrief all activities together. This is the sine qua non of team teaching.” (Brookfield, 2015, p 150).
  • I feel that my co-teacher for the online course and I need to meet by phone every week to ensure that grading, discussion forums and plans for the next week’s module are discussed.

8. Thou shalt ask open questions (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • “When a solo teacher tries to convey the different viewpoints or theoretical frameworks that exist on an issue, he or she is always working within the confines of being a singular voice . . . Team teaching allows your partner to pose a question or contribute an insight that opens you up to a genuinely new way of thinking about something” (Brookfield, 2015, p 145).
  • The online forums and Clear as Mud post provide wonderful opportunities for both of us to pose questions to students and each other.

9. Thou shalt let thy students speak (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • Team teaching reaches a wider variety of learners. Solo teachers teach out of their preferred learning style. Although we can all expand our repertoire of teaching practices, there is a limit to how much we can change who we are (Brookfield, 2015, p 142).
  • I love researching information and will often take a very theoretical approach to a topic – an approach that may not work for all people. Engaging my co-instructor into the discussion forums will encourage more participation from the students, as it will appeal to a broader range of learning needs.

10. Thou shalt be willing to be surprised (Leavitt, 2006, p 3).

  • In team teaching there is no clear source of authority and knowledge in the classroom. This can create an environment of discovery and inquiry (Brookfield, 2015, p 144).
  • One huge advantage of teaching online is that you have time to think something through before you post it, but this is not the case in the workshops. Team teaching sounds like a very exciting adventure in learning!



Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Dabbs, L. (2013) Back to School: Teaching with Authenticity Edutopia George Luca Educational Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-with-authenticity-lisa-dabbs

Leavitt, M. (2006) Team Teaching: Benefits and Challenges The Speaking of Teaching Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University Fall 2006 Newsletter Vol.16, No.1. Retrieved from: https://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/teamteaching.pdf

 Ludden, D. (2016) Are Two Heads Better Than One? It depends on how they interact. Psychology Today Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201602/are-two-heads-better-one

Murawski, W.W. & Bernhardt, P (2015) An Administrator’s Guide to Co-Teaching ASCD Learn Teach Lead Educational Leadership December 2015/January 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 4 Co-Teaching: Making It Work Pages 30-34. Retrieved from: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/dec15/vol73/num04/An_Administrator’s_Guide_to_Co-Teaching.aspx

Team Teaching – Advantages, Disadvantages (n.d.) Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com. Retrieved from: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2493/Team-Teaching.html

Yanamandram, V.K. & Noble, G. (2006) Student Experiences and Perceptions of Team-Teaching in a Large Undergraduate Class University of Wollongong Research Online Faculty of Business Faculty of Commerce. Retrieved from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1238&context=commpapers


Striking the Balance: Teaching with Credibility and Authenticity

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Photo: A. McKenzie

David-Lang (2013), summarizes John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012) this way: “The big idea is – know thy impact! Expert teachers are not wedded to specific teaching strategies – rather, they regularly focus on evaluating the effects they have on students, and adjust teaching methods accordingly” (Summary of the Summary).

Of the influences that teachers can have on student learning which ones do you think are the top 3 of the lot? Interestingly, it isn’t feedback or metacognitive strategy programs (they rated highly but not the highest) and it certainly isn’t matching students with learning styles, which rated low – it is (David-Lang, 2013, p 10):

  • Providing formative evaluation to teachers;
  • Teacher credibility in the eyes of the student;
  • Student expectations.

I have already been reflecting on the importance of instructor feedback so that was expected but it was the “(t)eacher credibility in the eyes of the student” (David-Lang, 2013, p 10) that surprised me. Yikes! I had better get reflecting on teacher credibility!

Brookfield (2015) acknowledges the importance of teacher credibility and pairs it with another term – authenticity. So, in a nutshell, what exactly do these terms mean?


“Credibility is the perception that the teacher has something important to share and that whatever this “something “is (skills, knowledge, insight, wisdom, information), learning it will benefit the student” (Brookfield, 2015, p 43). Indicators of credibility include (Brookfield, 2015):

  • Expertise ( p 43) – “students say it is reassuring to know that the person in charge of their learning clearly knows, and can do, a lot” (p 43);
  • Experience  ( p 46) – the perception that the teacher is able to “ . . . draw on a substantial history of teaching the course” (p 46);
  • Rationale  (p 47) – sharing rationale behind classroom decisions- “Students say that it inspires confidence to see that teachers clearly have a plan, a set of reasons, informing their actions (p 48).

It certainly makes sense to me now why credibility is so important to students. When I reflect about teachers I think of as having high credibility, I would say I learned a lot from them because I trusted them; I focused on everything they said and did because I knew I would learn something. In other words, what they said and did mattered to me.


 “Authenticity is the perception that the teacher is dealing with students in an open and honest way” (Brookfield, 2015, p 43). Indicators of authenticity include (Brookfield, 2015):

  • Keeping your words and actions congruent (p 49) – walk your talk! Sometimes we may not even know that our actions and words are incongruous which is why it is so important that we obtain student feedback;
  • Full disclosure (p 50) – “ . . . find ways to communicate your criteria, assumptions, and purposes and then . . .keep checking in to make sure students understand them” (p 50);
  • Demonstrate responsiveness (p 51) – Respond to student concerns;
  • Disclosing Personhood (p 52) – “Personhood is most appropriately evident when teachers use autobiographical examples to illustrate concepts and theories they are trying to explain, when they talk about ways they apply specific skills and insights taught in the classroom to their work outside, and when they share stories of how they dealt with the same learning fears and struggles that their students are currently facing” (p 52).

I can certainly see how the 2 go hand in hand – I need to know my stuff, to share my thinking with my students, respond to feedback, model the behaviour that aligns with my expectations of students and share appropriate personal experiences. I can also see how striking a balance between credibility and authenticity can be challenging, for example being knowledgeable without being authentic could come off as arrogance, and being too frank about your flaws could affect your students’ perceptions of your expertise.

Here is a video featuring Stephen Brookfield  sharing his insights on credibility and authenticity.


Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass


David-Lang, J. (2013) The Main Idea current education book summaries: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, Hattie, J., 2012 retrieved from: http://www.tdschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/The+Main+Idea+-+Visible+Learning+for+Teachers+-+April+2013.pdf


Flattening the Power Gradient: Brookfield’s Core Assumption #4

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It was when I took my first PIDP course 3250 that I learned that Knowles, who, 50 years ago, shifted the educational paradigm of adult education from that of pedagogy– “ . . . the art and science of teaching children” to that of andragogy “ . . . helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1973, as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 46). Brookfield’s Core Assumption #4: “College Students of Any Age Should Be Treated as Adults” (p 23), reflects this key concept.

In his explanation of this assumption, Brookfield (2015) states that even college students who are still in their teens need to be treated as adults. When I reflect back upon my 17 years old college freshman self, I can certainly appreciate why this is a good reminder for teachers because I know that sometimes, I and my other teenage freshman college colleagues didn’t always act in ways that would make one think appropriate of an adult. Below is an explanation from Brookfield (2015) that I think provides a wonderful insight into why, however, this core assumption is so important:

The first is that as they move into early adulthood, 18-22 year old students are becoming increasingly self-aware of who they are as people, who they are as learners and who they are as moral beings. They use college to develop their independent identities (Jones and Abes, 2013) become self-authors of their lives (Baxter Magolda, 2004), find purpose (Nash and Murray, 2010) and create meaning (Daloz Parks, 2011) out of their experiences (p 25).

 The only way that teachers can help students make the changes Brookfield (2015) describes above is to flatten the power gradient and respect college students’ needs as adult learners, which according to Knowles are as follows (Pappas, 2013):

  1. Self-Concept
    As a person matures his/her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
  2. Adult Learner Experience
    As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to Learn
    As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.
  4. Orientation to Learning
    As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
  5. Motivation to Learn
    As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles 1984:12).

As this is the last of Brookfield’s Core Assumptions for skillful practice (2015) I would like to conclude with this final statement: “These four assumptions of skillful teaching are deliberately proposed at a level of generality. How each plays itself out varies enormously from context to context” (p 26).

There is so much more to learn!


Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

 Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pappas, C. (2013): The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles eLearning Industry. Retrieved from: https://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles

Gaining Insights: Brookfield’s Core Assumption #3

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The PIDP 3260 course is opening my eyes to the importance of Brookfield’s 3rd Core Assumption; “Teachers Need a Constant Awareness of How Students Are Experiencing Their Learning and Perceiving Their Teachers’ Actions” (p 22). I see how, in spite of our best self-perceived efforts to create a learning environment, learners may have very different opinions about their learning, so unless we use the right tools to obtain feedback we will never know what our learners are thinking.

Here is a link from the University of Waterloo that lists some great strategies to use as a way to obtain feedback from students. Some of their suggestions are (Tools for Reflecting on Your Teaching, n.d.). :

  • Questionnaires
  • One minute paper
  • Muddiest point
  • Blank index cards
  • Suggestion box
  • In-class trouble shooting sessions

Brookfield (2015) also includes suggestions for other feedback tools like twitter, TodaysMeet and the Critical Incident Questionnaire which he has created and has posted online.

An important point to keep in mind is to not let yourself fall prey to the syndrome that Brookfield himself confesses to having, the ““. . . Perfect-Ten” syndrome . . . the unreasonable desire to want to collect a batch of CIQ (Critical Incident Questionnaire) forms at the end of every class that contains no negative comments and a surfeit of compliments” (Brookfield, 2015, p 38). I must confess that I too am afflicted by the syndrome and, even though I also intellectually understand that this not possible in “ . . . the contextual, complex nature of learning . . .” it still happens. I suppose the next time this happens I will go back and apply Core Assumption #3.


Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Tools for Reflecting on Your Teaching. (n.d.). Centre for Teaching Excellence Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/professional-development/enhancing-your-teaching/tools-reflecting-teaching

Taking a Closer Look at Brookfield’s Core Assumption #2 : Critical Self-reflection

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Photo Credit: A.McKenzie

For me, Brookfield’s (2015) 2nd Core Assumption “Skillful Teachers Adopt a Critically Reflective Stance Towards Their Practice” ( p 19) hits home; unless you apply a critically reflective stance on your practice as a teacher, you run the risk of not only having students not learn, you could even being doing harm without realizing it, see: Taking a Hard Look at Experience. 

I guess it’s been good for everyone involved that self-reflection is something that I have really grown into. When I took my first course PIDP 3250 my initial self-reflection and evaluation assignment (I had to give myself a mark) felt very awkward and uncomfortable. But the more I learned about learning and the more I practiced it the less awkward it has become. I confess that the discomfort feeling hasn’t gone away but I have learned that those feelings are like road signs that let me know that there is something important for me to learn.

Identifying what it is you want to reflect upon is key. Cox (n.d) states “(t)he first step is to figure out what you want to reflect upon. Are you looking at a particular feature of your teaching or is this reflection in response to a specific problem in your classroom?” (para 7). She then outlines the following ways to get information (para 8):

  • Self-reflective journaling;
  • Video recording;
  • Student observation – feedback from students;
  • Peer observation – feedback from peers.

Finally she suggests analyzing the results by looking for reoccurring themes. To find solutions to these challenges she suggests looking to peers and learning communities.

Here is a great video, called ‘Effective Teacher, Reflective Practice’ by Deb Hill that sums up self-reflective practice this way:

In this video, the author outlines four questions that teachers should ask themselves (1:49-3:50 min)

  1. Is the material worth learning?
  2. Are the students learning what the course or class is supposed to be teaching?
  3. Am I helping and encouraging the students to learn or do they learn despite me?
  4. Have I harmed the students?

The author also encourages teachers to keep a teaching portfolio where they (3:56 – 5:17 min):

  • Keep track of what course learning outcomes are;
  • Reflect on how teaching methods helped foster achievement of learning outcomes;
  • Provide evidence of student achievement/performance;
  • Provide evidence that teaching methods contributed to the learning that took place.

The discussion of how we can use tools to assess how our actions as a teacher are affecting learning also fits under Brookfield’s (2015) 3rd Core Assumption: “Teachers Need a Constant Awareness of How Students Are Experiencing Their Learning and Perceiving Their Teachers’ Actions” (p 22).



Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Cox, J. (n.d.) Teaching Strategies: The Value of Self-Reflection TeachHUB.Com. Retrieved from: http://www.teachhub.com/teaching-strategies-value-self-reflection

Hill, D. (2013) (YouTube) Effective Teacher, Reflective Practice Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUvz_-R5820

Zimmerman, B..J. (1990) Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Success: An Overview Educational Psychologist, 24(1), 3-17 Lawrence Erbaum Associates, Inc. Retrieved from http://itari.in/categories/ability_to_learn/self_regulated_learnin_g_and_academic_achievement_m.pdf 

Teaching So They Learn: Brookfield’s Core Assumption #1

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Brookfield’s (2015) first core assumption about skillful teaching is: Skillful Teaching is Whatever Helps the Student Learn” (p 15). “At first glance this seems a self-evident, even trite, truism – a kind of pedagogic Hallmark greeting card,” (p 15) states Brookfield (2105). But perhaps, as the cartoon above illustrates, it is a bit more complicated than that.

What I have discovered so far is that learning isn’t just about being shown or told something. It is a complex interplay of cognitive and emotional factors, situational factors including how much sleep we get and when we get it in relation to the learning, and student motivation. It’s about using the right instructional strategies, shifting the paradigm to student centered learning and asking the right questions at the right time. As Brookfield (2015) states sometimes it’s about “ . . . do(ing) things as a teacher that you might otherwise avoid because you feel that somehow they are unprofessional or deviant” (p 17). For me, this assumption means taking risks, opening my mind to be curious about what and how I am teaching and to always be assessing if my students are learning: in other words “(a)dopt(ing) a critically reflective stance . . .” about my teaching practice – which just happens to be Brookfield’s Core Assumption #2 ( p 19).


Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Reflection: Be Happy and Learn!

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Reflections Photo: L.. Schmidt


Objective: Although “we may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Taylor as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p.170, italics in original citation).

Reflective: I have experienced first hand that I am a creature whose ability to think is directly impacted by how I feel. When I feel relaxed and excited (like when I am in a museum), I love to explore, check out everything and cram in as much knowledge as I can in one day, but when I’m stressed (like when I had to write university calculus exams), I get sweaty, my heart races, my mouth feels like I haven’t had anything to drink for about 3 days and I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag.

What is going on? Why am I curious and ready to learn in one case and panicked and unable to learn (or think) in the other? Why does calculus still give me the shivers after 30 years (I have yet to take another calculus course) but every time I go to a city I want to check out the museum?

Interpretive: Barkley (2010) states: “despite higher education’s historical emphasis on the purely intellectual, many educators today recognize that the body, heart and mind are all involved in learning . . .” (p 33). Barkley (2010) goes on to state that “(h)ow students feel – about life, about themselves, about what the teachers are trying to teach them – plays a critical role in how they learn” (p 33, italics in original).

Why does how we feel play such an important part in learning?

In response to stimuli like pain, stress and paradoxically, pleasure, our nervous system sends out neurotransmitters known as endorphins, to bind with receptors that are associated with not only pain control but emotion and memory processing (Scheve, 2009). The majority of emotion and memory processing occurs in the limbic system which also “. . . controls the individual’s basic value system, enhances or suppresses the short-term memory . . . (and) determines how the brain will respond to all the information received” (Mackeracher as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 169).

Going back to my example, when I am in a relaxed, stimulating, non stressful environment like the museum, I feel happy, my brain releases endorphins, my limbic system decides oh ya, this feels good, I learn more and I remember more.

Noxious stress, however, has a very different effect on the limbic system. When we feel anxious or fearful, our limbic system gets over-stimulated and becomes incapable of processing and storing new information (Willis, 2014). Even the neural pathways to the pre-frontal cortex where higher order thinking like decision-making occurs (Prefrontal cortex, n.d.) are compromised. No wonder I can’t think my way out of a wet paper bag when I am stressed.

Feelings or emotions associated with learning can come from two different sources: “. . . the emotional climate in which learning occurs and the degree to which emotions are associated with the learning content” (Barkley, 2010 , p 35).

As an educator, I direct the environment in which the learning takes place. By creating a positive learning environment I can facilitate an emotional climate that will enable learning to happen. By being in a positive learning environment, students will feel good while they are learning and “ . . . a learning experience that connects with a memory of a positive learning experience will be embraced and seen as positive” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 170).

Decisional: As I waded into the readings about what entails facilitating a positive learning environment I began to realize that there is an almost overwhelming number of factors at play here. Here’s just a few:

In an attempt to condense some of the learning I gleaned from all of my readings, I compiled this table of strategies along with some rationale and a few classroom examples.

                       6 Strategies for Creating a Positive Learning Environment
Strategy Rationale Classroom examples
Allow for self-direction in learning


Adult learners’ need to be respected for their right to chose how and what they want to learn. (Knowles assumption #1) Merriam & Bierema, (2014)

Autonomy has been identified as a key motivator (Merriam & Bierema, 2014).

Have students complete a feedback form about the course – what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they would change after the first week.

Have a suggestion box outside your office or class.

Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Provide a choice of topics for assignments. Motivating our Students (n.d.)

Provide opportunities for enrichment and self-directed learning.

Address the physical comforts of the students

Merriam & Bierema, (2014)



Being uncomfortable isn’t going to help anyone learn. Adjust lighting, heating, etc., as needed.

Encourage students to tell you if they are not comfortable

Provide breaks as needed – if students are looking bored, after an intensive learning session or when bathroom breaks are needed

Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Respect your students! Make them feel valued for who they are and what they know.


Fostering a climate of mutual respect will create a feeling of collaborative learning.

Happy brains release endorphins that make positive memories and more learning!

Experience is an integral part of an adult’s identity (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 50).


Get to know your students’ names.

Be accessible to students – let them know how to reach you and what your hours of availability are.

Value student views and experiences and reward student contributions to the discussion.

Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Glenn Introduces Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Provide positive and timely feedback. Be clear about expectations and model what you value. Motivating our Students (n.d.)

Create a safe place for students to learn. Let them know that it’s ok to make mistakes.

Get to know your students and learn about their experiences.

Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Glenn Introduces Creating a Positive Learning Environment

With permission, share student exemplars with the class Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Learning needs to be relevant and have a purpose Adults need to know the reason for learning something (Knowles assumption #6) (Merriam & Bierema, 2014)

Purpose has been identified as a key motivator (Merriam & Bierema, 2014)

Adults are more problem focused than subject centered in learning (Knowles assumption #4) Merriam & Bierema, (2014).



Use the K-W- L strategy

Provide authentic learning activities for students i.e., engineering, medical or business case studies and/or problem based projects for students to work through.

Help students make connections between current learning and past and/or future learning. Motivating our Students (n.d.)

Teach a skill right before students need to use it Motivating our Students (n.d.)

Foster a sense of community

Motivating our Students (n.d.)

When students feel that others value the learning they will too. Motivating our Students (n.d.)

“An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning” (Knowles assumption #2 (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 47)

Communities of practice are built on participant experiences and provide the basis for learning Merriam & Bierema, 2014)

Use online discussion forums not only for online course but for large classes where involvement in discussions may be challenging Motivating our Students (n.d.)

For online courses create online icebreaker activities where students can get to ‘meet’ one another

Use audio and video recording for online courses Motivating our Students (n.d.)

Create a facebook page (i.e., the VCC School of Instructor Education)

Facilitate, not dominate classroom discussions Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Deliver a well-designed course.


Adults have high expectation of their learning

Providing a course that is appropriately challenging will encourage the desire for mastery which has been identified as a key motivator.(Merriam & Bierema, 2014)


If possible, obtain an evaluation of teaching effectiveness i.e., TABS Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Apply learning strategies that are proven to promote learning. (David-Lang, 2013)

Assess for evidence of learning, clarity and appropriate difficulty of learning intentions and success criteria David-Lang, 2013, p 12

Offer a variety of learning opportunities like group work, discussion forums, multimedia presentations, blogs, field trips, etc.

Read the cues of your students if they are bored or confused address the issue immediately Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.)

Be enthusiastic in your delivery of the material – enthusiasm is infectious!

Creating a Positive Learning Environment

“Provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know” Motivating our Students (n.d.) para 15

Ensure that there is alignment of the activities and assessments and student learning outcomes.


Bloom’s Taxonomy An Introduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy (n.d.) Centre for Teaching Excellence , University of Waterloo Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses-and-assignments/course-design/blooms-taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (n.d.) The Center for Teaching and Learning Division of Academic Affairs UNC Charlotte. Retrieved from: http://teaching.uncc.edu/learning-resources/articles-books/best-practice/goals-objectives/blooms-educational-objectives

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Creating a Positive Learning Environment YouTube

David-Lang, J. (2013) The Main Idea current education book summaries: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, Hattie, J., 2012 retrieved from: http://www.tdschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/The+Main+Idea+-+Visible+Learning+for+Teachers+-+April+2013.pdf

Glenn Introduces Creating a Positive Learning Environment YouTube

Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Motivating Our Students (n.d.) Centre for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. Retrieved from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/creating-positive-learning-environment/inclusivity-accessibility-and-motivation/motivating-our-students

Pre-frontal cortex (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex

Scheve, T., (2009)  “What are endorphins?” HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved from: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/endorphins.htm

Tips on Sustaining a Positive Learning Environment (n.d.) Tomorrow’s Professors Mailing List Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=368

Willis, J., (2014) The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning Edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-behind-stress-and-learning-judy-willis

Sleep and Learning

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-2-26-16-pmPhoto credit: A.McKenzie

Science of Learning Featured Article

One common challenge that exists for many of us that live in this 24/7 world is getting enough sleep. As a perinatal educator this poses a very real problem. I have students that arrive to start an all day workshop bleary eyed and floppy tailed after working through the night on the maternity unit. Determined to find a technique that I could use to help people learn despite being sleep deprived, I began looking around at some of the research. While I confirmed that the loss of focus, the decreased ability to take in, process or retrieve information and the inability to make sound decisions (Sleep, Learning and Memory, 2007) are not just imagined symptoms, I was not able to find any real solutions to manage these challenges except providing coffee (which I sometimes do), chocolate (which I do) (Stoller, Papp, Aikens, Erokwu & Strohl, 2009) and naps (which happen all on their own).

So, I decided to look at the sleep and learning situation from another lens – is there a better way for people to learn when sleep and time are at such a premium? This research article by Mazza, Gerbier, Gustin, Kasikci, Koenig, Toppino and Magnin (2016) demonstrates that it is possible to “relearn faster and retain longer”. It involves learning and relearning and sleep but what is important is the timing of when these happen. Let me explain, but first, let’s take a look at the validity of the experiment.

Evidence for the reliability of the article

The authors’ wealth of research experience and clinical experience is evident in the way that they conducted the experiment:

  • Quality research relevant to the study was analyzed and presented – this included the effects of relearning on retention, the effects of spacing on relearning and the effects of sleep on memory retention;
  • Organization of the content is logical, content appears free of bias;
  • Clear purpose and methodology outlined – the purpose was to investigate what impact relearning after a period of sleep or wakefulness would have on long term memory retention;
  • Research design issues with another experiment investigating sleep and spaced learning were noted and improved upon – for example instead of using recall or recognition as a measure of memory retention, a relearning paradigm was used;
  • Participants were carefully selected and variables were controlled for – sleep quality, circadian topology, level of sleepiness, and basic long-term and short-term memory capacity;
  • Study was done in accordance to international law and local ethics committee – Declaration of Helsinki, French ethics committee;
  • Results were thoroughly discussed and alternative interpretations were reviewed;
  • Applicability of the study results – “These results suggest that an uninterrupted sequence of learning, sleep-dependent consolidation, and relearning (that is, repeatedly alternating study and sleep) is particularly efficient for long-term retention” (Discussion). The authors focused on adult learners and specifically procedural memory but they did speculate that this may be transferable for skill acquisition and retention as well.


Summarize the principle or principles described in the article.

In order to fully understand the principles behind their research design, the authors of the study touched upon several key learning strategies that have been shown improve memory and, according to the science of learning, changes the neural pathways in our brain (Michelon, 2008):

  • Repetitive practice – every time you practice something you relearn it. Thus the more you practice something the less time and less effort it takes to get to the level you want to achieve (Mazza et al, 2016);
  • Spacing effect – a concept or learning objective is presented to learners then a period of time to pass (days, weeks, or months) is allowed to pass and then the same concept is presented again (Casebourne, 2015). The cool thing here is that the advantageous interval for the spacing is determined by the length of time between the first learning session and the final test; the longer the interval the longer the spacing between the learning and the review (relearning session) before the final test (University of California, 2008).
  • Interleaving effect – is where several concepts or skills are presented during the same learning session. These are then alternated for repeated sessions (Stenger, 2016) i.e., ABC ABC ABC.
  • Sleep – Mazza et al (2016), discuss how sleep aids in stabilizing the learning via the “ . . . reactivation and integration of newly encoded memories into preexisting and permanent knowledge networks . . .” (para 2). Memory consolidation during sleep in strongly correlated to the degree to which the individual feels that this information or skill will be needed in the future (Born, & Wilhelm, 2012).

Understanding that all of these learning strategies enhance learning, Mazza et al (2016) proposed analyzing what effect interleaving repeated practice and sleep together would have on learning.

Let’s take a quick look at the study.

40 adults were randomly assigned to either a ‘wake’ group or a ‘sleep’ group and later another 20 adults were assigned to a control group. For the first session all participants were presented with 16 Swahili-French word pairings and given 7 seconds to study per pairing. After this, participants were asked to type in the matching French word for the Swahili word that was displayed, followed by a 4 s display of the correct match. This constituted the first retrieval attempt. Participants were given the opportunity to continue matching pairs until they matched them all correctly.

Participants in the ‘wake’ group had the first session at 09:00 and then came back for a relearning session at 21:00 that day which involved a first retrieval attempt and then repeated attempts at matching until they got them all correct.

Participants in the ‘sleep’ group had their first session at 21:00, had a period of sleep and then had their relearning session at 09:00 hr the next day which also involved a first retrieval attempt and then repeated attempts at matching until they got them all correct.

Participants in the control group had a first session at 21:00, had a period of sleep and then another first recall session at 09:00 the next day but no further opportunities for relearning.

1 week and 6 months after the relearning session all groups performed a midday recall task without corrective feedback.


During the initial learning session, results for all groups did not differ significantly. Results during the relearning session, however, were significantly different between the ‘wake’ and the ‘sleep’ groups with the ‘wake’ group requiring twice as many list trials to reach relearning criteria as the ‘sleep’ group. The performance of the control group was not significantly different than the ‘sleep’ group but was significantly better than the ‘wake’ group thus supporting that sleep aids learning.

1 week later and 6 months later, however, the ‘sleep’ group out performed both the control and the ‘wake’ group which supports the premise that sleep together with relearning is crucial for long term memory.


Mazza et al (2016) state that their results “ . . . indicate that when the interval between successive study sessions is filled with sleep rather than with wakeful activity, the process is much more efficient because it both facilitates relearning and enhances long-term retention” (Discussion).

With time and sleep in such short supply, I need to help promote efficiency in learning. Understanding that interleaving learning and relearning with sleep can help students learn faster and for longer sounds like it is just the ticket. Given that I often do not have students for two days it sounds like this could be tricky to implement. Time to get the creative juices flowing!

Applicability of the principle to practice

One of the workshops I facilitate is the face-to-face component of an online perinatal course. Due to the amount of material that needs to be covered it has just been extended from one 8-hour workshop to a one and one-half day workshop. Originally, I was planning on spreading out the content over the two days but since reading this study I have decided to have the students interleave basic skills and concepts learned and practiced on day one – problem solving (case study that involves triage and assessment and management of labour) and skills stations (birth in the absence of the primary care provider and post partum haemorrhage) – with a night’s sleep and then repeat (relearn) the same concepts again day two with another case study and student demonstration of the same skills.

The challenge is applying the findings of this study to one day workshops. Presently the expectation for the fetal health surveillance workshop is that students complete the required reading (a textbook) prior to attending. Due to sleep and time constraints, this often does not happen so I am required to introduce new material to students all in one day. What I am proposing to do is to develop a short quiz that will review the key terms and concepts and have the students complete it the night before the workshop. This way students that do complete the textbook reading will have an opportunity to relearn an additional time before attending the workshop and those that do not complete all of the textbook reading will review enough of the material to complete the exam (hopefully).

I realize that compliance is always an issue so I will endeavour to create an exam that is succinct and fun. (Learning is fun right?) I will review the answers to the quiz first thing in the morning. I realize that this does not replicate the learning sessions outlined in the study and that the quiz is not guaranteed to be completed but I am hoping that at least some of the students will take this on as I feel that even a small chance of improving the quality of the learning for the workshop and retention for application to the workplace will be worth the effort.

Analyzing this study has brought to light yet another aspect to consider when employing effective learning strategies. Incorporating sleep with learning and relearning appears to be an effective way to help students “relearn faster and retain longer”.

Mmm, anyone ready for a nap?


Image source : Pixabay


Born, J., & Wilhelm, I. (2012). System consolidation of memory during sleep. Psychological Research76(2), 192–203. Retrieved from: http://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-011-0335-6

Casebourne, I., (2015) Spaced Learning: An Approach to Minimize the Forgetting Curve ATD Association for Talent Development Retrieved from: https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Science-of-Learning-Blog/2015/01/Spaced-Learning-an-Approach-to-Minimize-the-Forgetting-Curve

Mazza, S., Gerbier, E., Gustin, M., Kasikci, Z., Koenig, O., Toppino, T., Magnin, M., (2016) The Science of Learning Featured Article Relearn Faster and Retain Longer Psychological Science Vol 27, Issue 10, pp. 1321 – 1330. Retrieved from:http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797616659930

Michelon, P., (2008) Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain Sharp Brains. Retrieved from: http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/02/26/brain-plasticity-how-learning-changes-your-brain/

Sleep, Learning and Memory (2007) Healthy Sleep Retrieved from:


Stenger, M., (2016) Interleaved Practice: 4 Ways to Learn Better By Mixing It Up informED. Retrieved from: http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/learning-strategies/interleaved-practice-4-ways-to-learn-better-by-mixing-it-up/

Stoller EP, Papp KK, Aikens JE, Erokwu B, Strohl KP. (2009) Strategies Resident Physicians Use to Manage Sleep Loss and Fatigue. Retrieved from: med-ed-online.net/index.php/meo/article/download/4376/4558

University of California (2008). Improving Long-term Learning Through Spacing Of Lessons. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081118141708.htm

Writing a Critique or Review of a Research Article (2014) University of Calgary Writing Support Services, Student Success Centre ucalgary.ca/ssc/writing-support. Retrieved from: https://www.ucalgary.ca/ssc/files/ssc/wss_critique_2014.pdf


Constructivism – Learning by Constructing Meaning from Experience


Image Source

Learning Theory Highlights

Merriam and Bierema, (2014) inform us that “(c)onstructivism is less a single theory of learning than a collection of perspectives all of which share the common assumption that learning is how people make sense of their experience – learning is the construction of meaning from experience” (p 36). Inherent with the belief that individuals construct their own meaning from their experiences and shape their own learning, is an understanding that there isn’t a single interpretation of the learning (that of the instructor), but limitless interpretations as students take in new experiences, reflect on them and give them meaning (Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning, 2004; Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d.).

Socrates has been credited with being the forefather of constructivism (Constructivism for Adults, 2015) and, even today, Socratic questioning is used to help with critical thinking skills (The 6 Types of Socratic Questions, n.d.) – one of the skills integral to the constructivists’ approach to creating understanding in learning (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach, n.d.).

In the modern age, theorists, Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky (Merriam & Bierema, 2014) and Bruner (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d.) have shaped our present understanding of constructivism.

Piaget (1896–1980), “. . . dismissed the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 12) and offered an understanding that as we progress to adulthood, we construct meaning “. . . at more sophisticated levels . . .” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 36) “ . . . by creating and testing (our) own theories of the world” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 12).

Dewey  (1859–1952) called for a move away from memorization and rote knowledge and towards more authentic learning in which students could “ . . . demonstrate their knowledge through creativity and collaboration” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 10). Dewey also believed that “(s)tudents should be provided with opportunities to think for themselves and articulate their thoughts” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 10).

The idea of social constructivism was brought forward by Vygotsky (1896–1934), who “ . . . drew attention to the very important role of the sociocultural context in how people construct meaning from experience” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 36). While constructivism and social constructivism share many of the key points, social constructivism recognizes that the dynamic process of learning occurs within a social and cultural context and that learning is essentially collaborative and that learners are integrated into a “ . . . knowledge community” (Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism, n.d, para 3).

Melding the concepts of social constructivism and cognition, Bruner (1915-2016), emphasized learning through discovery, dialogue and self-reflection (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d.; Chamber, Thiekötter & Chambers, 2012) and proposed three principles to guide the development of curriculum summarized as “readiness to learn”, “spiral organization of curriculum” and “going beyond the information given” (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d, para 9).

While there are other constructivist theorists who offer principles to be applied to the learning environment, the characteristics of constructivist teaching that I found to resonate for me as a perinatal nursing educator are those defined by Jonassen (1994), as cited in Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d. para 4):

  1. Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.
  2. Multiple representations avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.
  3. Constructivist learning environments emphasize knowledge construction instead of knowledge reproduction.
  4. Constructivist learning environments emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.
  5. Constructivist learning environments provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.
  6. Constructivist learning environments encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.
  7. Constructivist learning environments “enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.”
  8. Constructivist learning environments support “collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition.”


Brandon and All, as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 37, stated: “(t)he essential role of nurse faculty is to engender active-learning processes . . .” – a process that constructivism engages. Applying the principles of constructivism and creating the characteristics of constructivism defined by Jonasson in the online perinatal course that I re-developed and teach enabled me to engender active learning processes in the students.

When re-developing the online course, I had to be mindful that the principles of constructivism were followed as closely as possible all the way through the course: in the modules that presented the basic concepts, the formative assessments and in the assignments that were for marks. To help me understand the basic framework I needed, I turned to Bruner’s 3 Principles of Curriculum development (Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner), n.d, para 9):

  1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness to learn): Stakeholders as well as students indicated that they wanted the course to promote clinical competency and not just provide theoretical knowledge; learning needed to be focused on clinical applications.
  2. Spiral organization: While the basic physiology of pregnancy and birth is straight forward, pregnancy, birth and post partum care are far from simplistic once you factor in the physical, emotional and learning needs of each family in addition to the many complications that can occur. Thus material learned from earlier modules needed to be reintroduced into later modules at increasing levels of sophistication. This would help to ensure that the material could be easily grasped by students.
  3. Going beyond the information given. Perinatal nurses need to be able to think critically and adapt to new and unexpected situations as each case they will encounter is unique. Providing readings that encompasses the entire scope of perinatal nursing would be overwhelming and would not allow the students time to process the information until they are ready. Constructivism meant that, with guidance, students could build on their experiences and seek out the learning that they felt was most appropriate for them at the time.


The characteristics of Constructivism by Jonassen as cited in Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d. para 4) and outlined earlier, provided the remaining framework for course development. The constructivist concept of self-reflection works in synergy with the RN’s professional practice expectations (CRNBC, 2017) and critical thinking through case based learning and collaborative learning support the environment that RNs operate within.

Changes to practice are frequent and continual, hence life long learning is another reason why I chose the constructivist approach to the course.

“If nurse education is to truly prepare nurses to function in this environment then the aim of nurse education has to change from “learning what is known” towards “educating for the unknown future” (Segers, Dierick & Dochy, 2001, as cited in Chambers, Thiekötter & Chambers, 2012 p 106).

“Another aspect of constructivist learning is that it lays the foundation for the concept of lifelong learning. Since the constructivist model of learning requires the student to be more active in and take more control over the learning process, it helps to develop the student’s ability to learn on his or her own and supports the concept of lifelong learning” Schell, G. & Janicki, T (2013, Winter) para 18).

Role of the Learner

The concept of andragogy and its assumptions that the adult learner is self-directed, contains a wealth of experience, has a readiness to learn that is closely related to their social role and is problem focused were put forth by Knowles almost 50 years ago (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). It therefore follows that when adult learners encounter a learning environment founded in constructivism they should feel that the environment matches their needs and that they would eagerly embrace the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. This, however, may not always be the case.

Jonassen et al (1999) as cited in Thompson, K (n.d. para 15) “ note . . . students must wrestle with the responsibility that comes from being truly in charge of one’s own learning. While some students are somewhat reticent to assume these responsibilities, when given the opportunity most enthusiastically share their constructs with those of other students, often engaging in lively discussions (and further developed conceptualizations).”

My experience with applying constructivism to the online perinatal course has been similar in that some students seem to require more support as they start the course but by the end they seem to become more empowered to manage their own learning. The mantras I learned in my PIDP 3250 course and the ones I share with my students are that learning is messy and learning is a lot of work.

Role of the Instructor

Creating learning from experience, implies that the locus of control shifts from the instructor to that of the student (Schell & Janicki , 2013). Thus, instead of being the dispenser of knowledge, the instructor becomes a facilitator that helps guide students to understand the major concepts, to assist them to develop new insights and new constructs (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach, n.d.) and to reflect on how their constructs fit with the knowledge community (Thompson, n.d.).

Providing guidance to students about how they can best learn is another role of the instructor. I really like the concept of describing the instructor as an expert learner:(t)he teacher’s role in a constructivist classroom isn’t so much to lecture at students but to act as an expert learner who can guide students into adopting cognitive strategies such as self testing, articulating understanding, asking probing questions, and reflection (Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach n.d. para 22).

Classroom Examples

Applying constructivism to an online course isn’t without challenges; experiential learning like field trips, face-to-face interactions with the instructor and peers is not possible. It is, however, still possible to get students critical thinking and learning together.

“Constructivism supports the education of nurses by improving critical thinking skills and encouraging a rapid adaptation to changes in evidence-based practice. Developing the ability to gather information, analyze it critically, evaluate it experientially, and then develop a new framework for the information is the best way to produce nurse graduates with critical thinking skills” (Candela et al 2006 as cited in Nyback, 2013 p 10).

In the online course there are 9 case studies –one each week for weeks 2-9. Case studies involve cases they can expect to see clinically and require students to apply Bloom’s higher order thinking skills like applying, analyzing, evaluating and proposing recommendations for care. Recommendations include psychological as well as physical considerations, team communication and suggestions for how to deal with barriers to communication.

Students post their case study responses to the discussion board where their colleagues read and discuss each other’s plans of care. Even though it is not an expectation, I have found that many students will share personal experiences and reflections relevant to the case study and post these in response to their peers’ posts. I have found that peer-to-peer learning through constructive feedback (social constructivism) plays a large part in the learning that takes place. Even though each week the cases are marked using a rubric and feedback is provided regarding their recommendations, students have mostly already self-corrected their material based on feedback they have received. Students have told me that the case studies were an integral part of their learning.

Below is a video that summarizes the concepts of constructivism quite succinctly and provides some great classroom examples.


Chambers, D., Thiekötter, A., Chambers, L (2012). Preparing student nurses for contemporary practice: The case for discovery learning. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 2013, Vol. 3, No. 9. Retrieved from:http://www.sciedupress.com/journal/index.php/jnep/article/download/1794/1413

Constructivism for Adults. (2015, February 17). ETEC 510, . Retrieved from http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/index.php?title=Constructivism_for_Adults&oldid=62500.

Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner) (n.d.) Instructional Design. Retrieved from:http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/constructivist.html

CRNBC (2017) Professional Responsibility and Accountability. Retrieved from https://www.crnbc.ca/Standards/ProfessionalStandards/Pages/ProfessionalAccountability.aspx

Education Theory Constructivism and Social Constructivism (n.d.) Open Educational Resources of UCD Teaching and Learning, University College Dublin. Retrieved from:http://www.ucdoer.ie/index.php/Education_Theory/Constructivism_and_Social_Constructivism

Learning Theory – Constructivist Approach (n.d.) State University.com., Retrieved from: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2174/Learning-Theory-CONSTRUCTIVIST-APPROACH.html

Merriam, S.B. & Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nyback, M., (2013) A Constructivists Approach to Teaching and Learning at the Degree Program of Nursing Novia University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved from:https://www.novia.fi/dmsdocument/29

Schell, G. & Janicki, T (2013) Online Course Pedagogy and the Constructivist Learning Model Journal of the Southern Association for Information Systems, Volume 1Issue 1. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jsais/11880084.0001.104/–online-course-pedagogy-and-the-constructivist-learning-model?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Smith, M.K. (2002) Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education, the encyclopedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/jerome-bruner-and-the-process-of-education/

The 6 Types of Socratic Questions (n.d) Retrieved from: http://www.umich.edu/~elements/probsolv/strategy/cthinking.htm

Thompson, K (n.d.) Constructivist Curriculum Design for Professional Development:A Review of the Literature. Retrieved from: http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~kthompso/projects/lit_constructivist.html

Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning (2004) Concept to Classroom WNET Education. Retrieved from: http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html

Trends in Adult Education Part #3: The ‘Aha’ Moment


Photo: A.McKenzie

Ok, I have to make a major confession.

I am a nurse that works in and teaches the specialty of maternity nursing – in other words I work with women as my patients, with women as my nursing colleagues and with women as my students. When I re-wrote the curriculum for the online perinatal course I teach I thought about the clients that my students will encounter and included cultural sensitivity material and information about LGBTQ(2S). I had students work through exercises that examined their biases and preconceptions. I really thought I had it all covered. I was in fact feeling pretty good about how it all came together, until I read this article on gender equality.

You see, I did not, even once, think about how the curriculum and its delivery would be perceived by a male student. I completely gapped on thinking that a male student would indeed be taking the course at some point. The sudden realization had me reeling – how could I be so blinded by my own bias?

Don’t get me wrong, I greatly value my male colleagues. I value their talents and insights. It is just that because I never work with any men (as nurses) in maternity I didn’t even consider that they would ever be taking a perinatal course.

Now I am reviewing the course again to check for anything that might be seen as gender insensitive. I am using this checklist offered by the University of Fribourg, a Questionnaire for the evaluation of gender equality in teaching and so far so good  🙂

I really hope that I won’t have to wait too long before have male students take the course. I am very keen to learn with them as we travel on this journey of learning.


Evaluation for gender sensitive teaching (n.d.) Project e-qual – Teaching, Gender, Quality University of Fribourg. Retrieved from: http://www.unifr.ch/didactic/assets/files/didactic/Eval_course_gender_en.pdf