Excuses, Excuses: “I missed the exam because….”

We’ve all heard them: “My grandma died”, “I was vomiting all last night”, “My third cousin had a wedding”, “I had pink eye”, ….   If I was a grandparent of a college/university student, I would be afraid for my life around exam times. Then again, the grandparents of some students seem to have the miraculous ability to reincarnate and die many times over.

Whenever a student provides an excuse for missing an exam or missing a deadline for an assignment, as a professor, I am put in a difficult situation.  If a student’s excuse happens to be valid and honest, I do not want to be insensitive to the student’s challenges.  I am aware of the reality that many students must cope with many stresses in their school, personal and work lives. On other hand, I do not need a sixth sense to realize that too many students fabricate excuses as a part of their MO for success in school. For those students, I want to ensure that they do not get an unfair advantage relative to the other students in the class.  However, I also do not want to take on the role of Professor PI to check the veracity of students’ excuses.

It is a constant challenge to not become so jaded that I doubt the integrity of every student that has an excuse for missing an exam or assignment. Count me now as being a little more jaded. I heard an interview of Jane Collins, a nurse at the student health centre at Saint Mary’s University. After 19 years of writing sick notes for students, she recently said she had had enough. She said,

“It just seemed like there were the same students coming in all the time. Usually it’s, ‘I’ve been throwing up all night’ and they looked so well. I’m like ‘What, you’re throwing up all night? You look awesome.’ Or students say, ‘I have a really bad cold, I couldn’t possibly write my exam today and I have two tomorrow.'”

She also said she was spending at least an hour every day dealing with students requesting sick notes.



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My Teaching Philosophy


Recently, I had to express my teaching philosophy in 1 to 2 pages. This was for an application to teach a course at another institution. I have a lot of thoughts about teaching, but I have never before had to express those thoughts in a coherent fashion as a “philosophy”.  The process ended up being quite enlightening. Well, here is what I wrote:

What is my teaching philosophy? In the five years since I started teaching at the post-secondary level, I suspect that my teaching philosophy has evolved substantially. A couple of months ago I started on a personal reflective journey by starting a blog (reflectiveprof.com) to share my thoughts and experiences in teaching college students.  I wanted to create a written chronicle of the various disparate thoughts and ideas I usually have throughout a semester.  Forcing myself to put my ideas in writing on my blog for everyone to see has made me much more proactive and motivated to implement new approaches in my teaching. As well, at a more profound level, I wanted to use the blog as a tool for reflecting on who I am as an educator.

I recently completed a Teaching Perspectives Inventory (“TPI”) (teachingperspectives.com).  The TPI is a reflective online tool for assessing an educator’s approach to teaching based on D.D. Pratt’s five teaching perspectives:  Transmission, Apprenticeship, Developmental, Nurturing and Social Reform.

My TPI results indicate that my dominant perspectives are, equally, Transmission and Developmental. This is consistent with how I see myself as an educator.  With regard to Transmission, I consider myself to be an expert in my field with an ability to communicate complex concepts in understandable and relatable ways.  From the Developmental perspective, I challenge my students to develop their abilities to problem solve and to critically analyze situations.

Overarching my teaching philosophy is my personal philosophy of “kaizen”.   Kaizen refers to a philosophy of continuous improvement. The degree of each improvement may range from incremental to substantial. Every semester, I re-evaluate how I teach a course with a view towards improving how knowledge is explained to my students (i.e. the Transmission perspective) and how I can better engage my students to develop their problem-solving and analytical skills (i.e. the Developmental perspective).

What have I done to improve my “transmission” of knowledge?  These are some examples:

–          Bringing real and current examples and issues into the classroom.  In the aftermath of the US financial collapse, I brought in a guest speaker to help my students make sense of what happened. Most recently, for my online course, I created case problem discussions on Charter of Rights and Freedoms issues arising from the proposed Quebec Charter of Values and defamation tort issues related to the news stories on the Rob Ford crack cocaine video.

–          Improving powerpoints by presenting information more concisely, and by using animations to graphically explain concepts. The latter is especially helpful for more visually-oriented learners.

–          Using storytelling to illustrate abstract concepts.

–          Providing lecture videos in the form of narrated and animated powerpoints. I have received very positive feedback from my students about my videos, especially from students whose first language is not English.

–          For my face-to-face classes, I create a course website that is as useful and easy to use as a website for an online course.

–          Creating crossword puzzles as interesting review exercises.

The Developmental side of me continually tries to challenge my students to think in ways that they may not have done so before.  These are some examples:

–          In a face-to-face course, I incorporated weekly online discussions of case problems.  While we still have in-class discussions, the online discussions always involve many more students and have a higher quality of interaction since students’ thoughts must be put into written form.  Students learn by preparing their posts and also by reading what other students have written. I also provide my students with detailed written feedback.

–          I recently experimented with a “flipped classroom” approach which required my students to learn the course material on their own before coming class by watching lecture videos and to apply that material in class by working through case problems.  Under this approach, I noticed that my engagement with my students became more interactive and more personalized.

–          To facilitate better classroom discussions, I have used various online tools such as Socrative (socrative.com), Today’s Meet (todaysmeet.com) and Twitter.

My overall teaching goal is to reach and develop as many students as possible by continually improving how I teach.  In so doing, I recognize the different learning styles and needs of my students.


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My Experiment with a Flipped Classroom

In a previous post (Sept. 16, 2013), I wrote about my plans to try out the flipped classroom format with one of my business law classes. I teach three sections of a business law course. I chose one of those sections as the guinea pig for this experiment.  The other two sections could be said to be the “control” subjects.

Over two weeks, I taught contract law to the three sections.  For the two control sections, I followed the traditional format of covering the material in class with a lecture mixed with interactive exercises.

For the guinea pig or “flipped” section, I provided my students access to lecture videos and told them to watch these videos before coming to the classes. In class, we worked on and discussed case problems which applied the material covered by the lecture videos. I had my students work on each case in small groups (3 or 4) and then had full class discussions. While they were working in the small groups, I went around the classroom to provide individualized guidance and feedback to each group.

Last week, all of the sections were assessed with a test which combined multiple choice questions and case problems.

How did it go?  Here are my observations:

– For the flipped section, I noticed a drop in class attendance of about 20%. This is probably because I had stressed to my students that if they did not properly prepare for class by watching the videos, they would not benefit much from coming to class.

– The energy level in the flipped class was high and positive. The students were engaged and inquisitive.  I could sense the gears turning in their brains. However, a very small minority of students sat on the sidelines and did not engage themselves in working through the case problems.

– A number of students commented on how much they liked watching the lecture videos, especially the ability to replay parts they did not initially understand.  One particular student who is older and whose native language is not English sent me an email saying that the lecture videos were “marvelous” and a much better way for him to learn than standard class lectures.

– It was much more enjoyable for me to teach the flipped class, compared to the traditional classes.  I spent less time listening to my own voice and more time listening to and interacting with my students.

– How did they do on the test?  The class average for all three sections, including the flipped class, were pretty much the same.  However, the students who attended the flipped classes scored on average 6% higher than the overall class average.

Overall, I feel very good about this experiment and hope to incorporate more of this flipped approach in the future.


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Today, I heard Malala Yousafzai speak. She was being interviewed on The Current (CBC Radio One). To listen to Malala is to be inspired. I am awestruck by her courage, her humanity and her force of conviction.  It is no wonder that the Taliban were so afraid of this teenager that they tried to silence her with bullets.  She said in the interview, ““They wanted to silence one Malala, but instead now thousands and millions of Malalas are speaking.”  She has indeed given a voice to millions of girls deprived of basic education.  Malala is a role model not just for all girls, but for us all. 


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To Syllabus or Not to Syllabus

In my dreams, my students pore over every carefully crafted word in my syllabus.  In reality, I know that many of my students pay as much atttention to my syllabus as they do to Facebook user agreements.

Many of us, at the beginning of every semester, hand out stacks and stacks of documents as dense as commercial contracts to our students and tell them that they contain very important information that they need to read.

We all use syllabuses in one form or another. Why do we need them? I view a syllabus as serving two sometimes conflicting purposes:

  • To give students important information they need to succeed in the course; such as the topics covered each week, the assigned reading, and how they will be evaluated. It is important that we get students to read this information sooner rather than later in the semester.
  • To give students notice of important course policies on, for example, missing tests or exams, grading, and academic dishonesty.  This information needs to at least be pointed out and made available to students.

How can we make sure students read what they really need to know and also give them notice of important policies?

This semester, I took a different approach. I trashed my syllabus and, like a good Chinese meal,  broke it down into bite-sized webpages on my course website.  In this age of Twitter and texting, who has the attention span to read a 10+ page syllabus? This is what the outline of my “Orientation & Course Overview Module” looks like on my course website:

Slate screenshot

You’ll notice that nowhere does the word “syllabus” appear.  I have noticed many educators have a habit of tossing around technical educational terms like syllabus, rubric, summative, cognitive, etc. without regard to their audience. In particular, these terms are used with students. I bet that most students have barely a clue about what these terms really mean.  Why not use plain, functional, descriptive language?

Hopefully, my new online syllabus will make important information more accessible for my students.


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It’s not our world anymore. So why do we treat it as though it is?

I agree with everything in this post. That’s why I’m trying twitter and other modes of online discussion to engage my students.


The Geek Teacher

I’ve been thinking greatly about improving my own pedagogy within this digital age, and how to easily explain it, how to come up with tips and tricks to take those who weren’t born with an i in front of their names and help them see the world the way our kids do. Because if we want to teach our students, if we want them to truly engage and learn, we need to stop forcing them to meet us in our world, and we need to step into theirs. This is a truly frightening thing to do – I freely admit that. We all talk of a generational gap… but that’s not the issue now. It’s more of a reality gap…

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What’s a “conflict of interest”?: Explaining abstract concepts

An eternal challenge: how to explain an abstract concept that makes it real and understandable to students.

In the business law course I am teaching this semester to accounting students, I have a few minutes to explain the abstract legal concept of “conflict of interest”.  Since this phrase is used quite often in the news (usually about crooked politicians), most people think they know what a conflict of interest is.  However, if you actually ask most people to explain a conflict of interest, I bet that you will  get many totally erroneous answers.

In past semesters, I have explained that a conflict of interest for an accountant is when the accountant is in a position where the accountant’s personal interests may potentially conflict with the client’s best interests.  I also usually provide an example where an accountant is asked by a client to provide advice about obtaining financing from a finance company that is partly owned by the accountant.  After that, my students would usually shake their heads in a positive fashion to indicate that they understood what I was saying.  Then, come test time, I was often dismayed by my students’ utter lack of understanding of the concept.

This semester, I decided to tackle this a little differently.  I decided to engage students’ thinking to work out concrete examples of conflict of interest. I still explained the general concept of a conflict of interest, but then I asked my students to create examples of their own.  I had the students form groups of three or four.  Each group discussed and formulated an example.

Each group typed their answer into Socrative (socrative.com) (see my post “Part 2 – A Few More New Things I Am Trying”).  I set up a short answer question on Socrative which allowed my students to input their written answers.  Everyone’s answers were compiled on my laptop screen which was projected for everyone to see.  We then, as a class,  discussed and critiqued the answers.

Some of the answers posted by my students were surprisingly insightful, creative and even entertaining.  There were also answers that missed the mark totally or were just too short on detail.  Regardless of the quality of the answers, the learning opportunities arose from the formulation, discussion and critique of the answers.

As well, by having the students put their answers into written words,  it forced them to express their ideas clearly in a manner similar to what would be required on a test or exam.

I have a good feeling about how this approach went over with my students.  Let’s see how well they do on the next test.


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Flipped Classrooms at Wharton

Further to my post about my plans to flip my classroom, I read with interest a recent Business Week article which mentioned that professors at Wharton Business School are using their online course materials to flip their face-to-face MBA classes.  The article is primarily about Wharton making available for free some first year courses as MOOCs (massive open online courses).


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I always thought there was a huge communication gap between what’s in these elaborate legalistic syllabi and what students actually get out of them. Here’s a diagram that only a professor would laugh at. 🙂


Tabula Candida


It’s on the syllabus, right between the lyrics for the official college song and the dean’s sugar cookie recipe.

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The Flipped Classroom

In a few weeks, I am going to “flip” one of my classrooms.  It will not involve any heavy lifting of furniture, but it will involve turning my students’ learning experience upside down.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher/professor teaches the course material in the classroom.  Students are then expected to digest that material and apply it in homework activities, assignments and tests.  In a flipped classroom, the learning of course material occurs before the class even starts.  Students on their own use online resources such as video lectures to learn the material.  By the time they arrive in the classroom, they are ready to try to apply that material in class discussions or exercises.

I first heard about the flipped classroom on the radio while driving in my car last week.  Spark on CBC Radio One had a fascinating show focused on learning and education. Apart from the flipped classroom, the show also examined “laptop distractibility” which I will talk about in a future blog post.

I will try the flipped classroom with one of my sections of a business law course that I am teaching this semester.   I will provide my students in that class with online access to two sets of video lectures on contract law.  Each set consists of 4 or 5 video lectures of about 10 to 15 minutes in length. Luckily, I happen to already have those video lectures which I recently prepared for an online course that I design and teach.  These video lectures are animated powerpoint slideshows with audio narration.

I will need to stress to my students the importance of preparing for each class by watching the assigned video lectures.   The obvious risk is that some (or many) of my students may not do that preparation.  In class, I will apply case method teaching techniques (see my previous post) to engage students in discussions of case problems.

I will experiment with this for two classes in a few weeks.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


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