Build Collaborative Teaching Relationships With ‘Teaching Squares’

Each year in a quest to increase my teaching effectiveness, I consult with various resources to find new ways to connect with students.  Conversations with colleagues and mentors, articles from practice journals, and other blog posts have provided many new techniques to incorporate into my classroom.  One such idea was found in an article published on the Faculty Focus website (which you should follow if you don’t already).

The author describes a process where faculty create ‘teaching squares’ and use interdisciplinary relationships to improve their teaching.  Four faculty members from different disciplines visit each others classrooms within a given time period.  After all observations have been completed, they meet to discuss what they learned and share insights on teaching.  While this exchange may seem scary and an open invitation to criticism, the author insists that these conversations remain judgment free while providing opportunities to share new ideas and techniques.

To read more about this method click here:  Teaching Squares

Image credit: Empty Classroom by Nick CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



The Development of a Virtual Poster Session as a Class Assignment

Submitted by Charlene VanLeeuwen

A couple of years ago I was teaching one of my favorite courses to teach…a current issues course.  It never gets old because the students and I re-create it each time it is offered selecting topics that they are keenly interested in learning about. This most recent time we were facing some scheduling challenges and we decided to go with a hybrid or blended delivery format.  This presented the perfect opportunity to try out an idea that had been sitting on the back burner for some time…. a version of the Curiosity Projects that I learned about from one of my colleagues in Psychology, Stacey MacKinnon.

The Family Science and Kinesiology students in this course, Current Issues in Children’s Health and Development, used much of the structure for a Curiosity Project to develop a conference style poster on a topic of their interest related to children’s health and development. As this was a hybrid course, students used a virtual platform to share their posters with classmates and a broader audience within the department. Use of posters is well-documented in higher education literature as an effective teaching and learning strategy. What was less clear was whether moving to digital forms of presentation and interaction about the research conducted in developing the poster was effective in promoting student learning and communication.

Consultation with the e-learning instructional designers revealed that this had not been done before at our university. As a result, I wanted to document the process and evaluate the effectiveness of this learning strategy to inform further adaptation of this Curiosity Project. After the course was wrapped up, students were invited to share their perspectives on the assignment through an online survey. The findings were also used to provide the student perspective about this learning activity in a post for the Pockets of Innovation blog. The Cross Canada Pockets of Innovation showcase a broad range of examples of best practices in online learning from faculty and instructors in post-secondary education from across Canada. For more details on implementing a similar assignment, see:

Cross Canada Pockets of Innovation:  ​

Curiosity Project article



What Can I Do With This Major?

“What can I do with this major?  What job do I get?” are questions that many of us have heard throughout the years from our students.  Majoring in family science can be both a gift and a curse for undergraduates.  The gift is there are so many opportunities for careers under the family science umbrella that job prospects are limitless.  The curse is that some of our students get confused and even discouraged when faced with all these options.  Many have a difficult time finding their way and deciding what they want to do when they graduate.

My colleagues and I, determined to help our students find their way, created a course aimed specifically at the search for a career in family science.  Our Exploring Professions and Practices in Family Science course takes students on a journey through the domains of family practice.  This course exposes students to concrete examples of the types of jobs they will be prepared to get upon completion of their degree.  Course readings and lectures cover specific jobs, their requirements, salaries, and opportunities for advancement.  Invited guest speakers provide practical advice and networking opportunities that many students start to explore before they graduate.

We decided that our students would benefit from a course that exposes them to the four primary domains of family practice: family life education, mental health counseling/marriage and family therapy, family case management/planning, and early childhood careers.  Within each domain, students are exposed to specific jobs, professional practices, and ethical issues.  They are also asked to examine their level of interest in each domain to help provide clarity as they move throughout the course.

Students are excited about the course and have reported:

  • This course provides students with endless opportunities and resources to prepare them for their future careers. It is an excellent course to take for students who are not yet sure of what they want to do with this major.
  • This course is great for people who are looking for some guidance on where they want college to lead them.
  • The strengths of this course were exploring the different career paths within this major and field. It was nice to know that I do have options and many to choose from and I’m able to move from one to another. Taking what I learned from one job and applying it to the next.

So far, the only constructive criticism we have received about this course is that it should be offered earlier in their college career!

Many students enroll in a family science major and know exactly what they want to do when they graduate.  Whether it is child life, marriage and family therapy, social work, or law school we have a good number of students who have a clear understanding of why they chose this major.  This course was created for those students who have not yet reached that point. Students who are passionate about families or have always wanted to work with children, but they are not sure how or in what capacity to do so.

For more information on the foundation of this course, please read: Myers-Wall, J. A., Ballard, S. M., Darling, C. A., & Myers-Bowman, K. S. (2011). Reconceptualizing the domain and boundaries of family life education. Family Relations, 60, 357-372.


Image credit: College Degrees 360 CC BY-SA 2.0[email protected]/7658298768





Online Family Life Education Preparation?!

A recent conversation in my graduate parent education course is the catalyst for this post.  We were discussing the delivery of parent education intervention using online methods and technology.  During the course of the discussion, many students reported their desire to learn more about the ‘how to’ of online family life education programs. As a department, I think we do an excellent job of teaching both undergraduate and graduate students how to select appropriate programs based on populations needs and strengths.   We also spend a good amount of time focused on the evaluation of these efforts either throughout the process or at the end.  As a result of this recent conversation, it is apparent that we could do a better job in providing students with more hand-on opportunities to actually do online education.

We make the assumption that this tech-savvy generation of students is able to maneuver online with ease because web-based content has been a consistent influence throughout their lives.  Many of our current students have had access to computers, smartphones, and the internet since childhood.  They are abreast of websites and applications that can solve almost any problem.  But the truth is that most of their online knowledge is limited to either information finding and/or social media usage.

Instruction on the delivery of online family life education is an appropriate area of focus that family science programs should provide.  One comprehensive resource to aid in this is Hughes, Bowefs, Mitchell, Curtiss, and Ebata’s (2012) article which outlines effective delivery, implementation, and evaluation of online content.  The author suggest strategies in:

  • Problem analysis – assessing the need to be addressed with the online program
  • Program content – providing materials that are theory-driven, research based, and culturally appropriate
  • Instructional design – matching the activities to the preferences of the population
  • Program implementation – suggestions for recruitment and retention of participants
  • Program evaluation – evaluate effectiveness and quality of program

Since the initial conversation in my graduate course, I have referred students to this publication.  I also plan to use it as a guide to providing more opportunities for students to create online content either in class or as part of a larger assignment.

For more information see: Hughes, R., Bowers, J. R., Mitchell, E. T., Curtiss, S., & Ebata, A. T. (2012).  Developing online family life prevention and education programs. Family Relations, 61, 711-727.



Getting Undergraduate Family Science Students to…Read!

As an instructor, I consistently review and revise my teaching style in order to continue to reach a diverse population of student learners.  Lately, as in the last few years, I have noticed several trends with my undergraduate family science students.  My average student test scores have decreased despite using ‘tried and true’ methods of instruction.  Students also require additional information when completing course assignments and they request many more examples of previous student work than usual.  Also, student preparation for class seems to be at an all time low.  Fortunately, I devised a plan to address these issues and implemented them last semester.

After many discussions with colleagues about their evolving teaching techniques and countless hours researching ways to reach this generation of college students, I surmised that a major barrier to student success was reading.  Reading before class was something that was standard and expected when I was in college.  But today’s student has little interest in devoting hours to reading before each class.  Many of my students are non-traditional and as a result of work, volunteer, parenting and family responsibilities have very little time to read articles and chapters before coming to class.

Therefore, I came up with the bright idea to allow for reading time during class to increase participation and it worked!  I restructured my undergraduate courses with respect to the reading assignments.  Instead of using a textbook, I created a course pack which contained short (2-7 page) readings on each course topic.  Students were required to purchase the course pack and the expectation was that they would bring it to class each day.  I even offered extra credit to ensure they would do so.  At the start of class, I would post several reading/reflection questions intended to guide their ‘reading time’ which occurred during the first 10-15 minutes of class.  After reading, students were then instructed to discuss the main points of the reading with their classmates and share ideas as to how it related to the topic for that day.  Class would then proceed with my lecture consisting of Powerpoint slides, activities, and planned discussion topics.

Average scores on the first exam increased from 80 to 85 in one class and 83 to 87 in the other.  Students were also more engaged, knowledgeable about the material, and requested less instruction when completing course assignments.  On the mid-semester evaluation in response to what they like best about the course, students reported:

“I love having the ability to read course material in class and not outside of the class.”

“The class is put together well and the course pack is amazing. Super helpful.”

“Love the course pack! It helps me organize my notes and actually read the material…in class.”

Based on these results, I plan to use this format in upcoming semesters.  I understand that this approach may not be appropriate for all courses based on their complexity and content.  The courses that I used for this experiment were family life education and exploring professions in family science.  But I do think the idea of creating opportunities to increase student reading, both inside and outside of class, can be an important addition to any family science course.

“The MORE that you READ, the more things you will KNOW.  The MORE that you LEARN, the more places you’ll GO.” – Dr. Seuss 


Image credit: jwyg CC BY-SA 2.0


Graduate Student Assistants: Lessons Learned

When I first began my academic career, I was a teaching instructor responsible for teaching four classes each semester and advising 200+ students.  I wanted to eventually seek a tenure-track position so I maintained an active research program.  During that time, I was solely responsibility for my research and teaching and did not have graduate student help.  When I transitioned to a tenure-track position, I was given my first GA.  While excited to work with my GA and embark on a new role as mentor, I was somewhat lost and found it difficult to ‘share the load’.  How could I give my work to a graduate student when I was used to doing it all myself?

Needless to say, my lone wolf experience has made working with GAs a struggle for me to this day.  Each semester I am challenged with determining responsibilities for my GA, although it has gotten easier over time.  I have learned a lot over many semesters working with GAs, who run the gamut from outstanding to…less than outstanding.  These experiences have allowed me to focus more on the needs of the GA than my own.  I recognize the importance of the GA/supervisor relationship, which makes it easier for me to rely on outside help.

While I do not profess to be an award-winning GA mentor or feel I am breaking any new ground, I thought I would share some best practices that have helped me in my evolving relationships with my GAs:

Have realistic expectations and play to their strengths.  During our first meeting of the semester, I ask my GAs what they would like to get out of this experience. Most are very polite and report being satisfied with any research experience or the desire to do a good job.  But I have found that some have specific expectations (e.g., populations, data, teaching) of a GA position.  Especially those planning to pursue a doctoral program and career in academia.  While I can’t grant every request, I have found it helpful to establish realistic expectations from the very beginning.  For those students whose research interests are entirely different than my own, collaboration with other colleagues has proved beneficial.

Allow your GAs to take ownership of their assignments.  Students have commented how important this is both in class and in their GA positions.  They want to make the work they do work for them.  Which makes sense, because we are training future colleagues who will need this experience moving forward.  I have found that those students who are able to identify with the work and see themselves as part of a research team do much better as GAs.  They connect with the work and take pride in what they are doing.

Give them deadlines and stick to them.  My supervisory style started out with giving my GAs a list of semester assignments during the first two weeks of their contracted period with me.  I would follow up throughout the semester, but noticed that students had difficulty getting things to me in an appropriate time. I then began creating prioritized lists with both review and final deadlines which resulted in timely completion of assignments, with many submitted early.   Students report that having deadlines helps them to stay on task and organize their responsibilities each day.  They also request reminders and check-ins which leads to my next practice…

Meet frequently to track their progress, using praise when needed. This generation of students appears to work well with structure and direction.  All of the students that I work with (as a thesis chair or GA supervisor) are given the choice of how often they want to meet with me.  I figure that they best know what level of support they need from me.  99% of them ask to schedule in advance weekly or biweekly meetings that last throughout the semester.  While we communicate via email and online conferencing, students still request face-to-face meetings to discuss GA work and progress.  In addition, being a graduate student can often be a thank-less job.  I have found that using praise helps keep them motivated and engaged, especially when it comes to things they might not find interesting like entering and transcribing data or using theory.

Encourage their professional development. In the beginning, I struggled with the choice between teaching my GAs to do something new or to just do it myself.  Time is often an issue in academia and many of us do not have wiggle room for teaching remedial statistics or lessons on how to write a literature review.  To alleviate this issue, I refer my students to resources on campus especially if I notice they need additional training in order to work with me.  For example, if a student has little to no knowledge of the statistical software that I use, there is the office of faculty excellence which provides training all year round.  There are also writing centers, speech centers, and librarians who have been very helpful.  In fact, I require most of my GAs to attend at least one of these sessions.  We cannot guarantee that our GAs will have certain knowledge before they work with us, but we can help them get this knowledge without sacrificing our own valuable time.

I hope that those reading this have found it helpful in some way.  For those that do not struggle with delegating responsibilities, please comment with the techniques you use in your work with GAs.

Image credit: Hamza Butt CC BY 2.0


Using Case Studies in Family Science Courses by Deborah Gentry

Do you regularly use case studies when teaching your family science courses? If so, I would love to know more about your favorite case studies and, if you have assessed their effectiveness, how you went about doing that.



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