by Gregg Thurlbeck Tuesday February 19, 2013

Tuesday's episode of The Agenda contains an interview with psychology professor Steve Joordens, who teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). Joordens is on the program to discuss the web solutions his lab has developed to deal with the challenge of effectively teaching students in today's often extremely large university classes.

Three years ago, I interviewed Joordens for a profile documentary as part of TVO's 2010 Best Lecturer Competition. While we discussed a number of things about which Joordens is passionate, such as music, veganism, and critical thinking, it was obvious to me that he was pouring tremendous effort into his work on something called peerScholar.

PeerScholar is an internet-based peer assessment technology that was created by Joordens and Dwayne Pare as a means of bringing written assignments back into the mix in the sorts of large classes that have become all too common in the Canadian university system. Joordens teaches a course in introductory psychology that can have as many as 1,900 students enrolled. But having the course grade based entirely on multiple choice testing runs counter to everything that Joordens believes about the importance of teaching his students critical thinking skills. And so, when Pare suggested to his professor that there might be a technological solution to the problem, Joordens jumped at the chance to turn his classroom into a laboratory devoted to enhanced learning.

PeerScholar is now used at universities across Canada including McMaster, the University of Guelph, and the University of British Columbia. The program has also been adapted for use in grades 8 through 12, where it goes under the name Cogneeto.

But there are more Internet learning tools in the works from Joordens and his team of researchers at UTSC. The Digital Labcoat activity, created with his student Ainsley Lawson, launches with a survey of the students in Joordens’ class on a range of issues. The answers to these questions, which cover things ranging from shoe size to one’s perception of one’s own attractiveness, are loaded into Digital Labcoat. Then students are asked to log in and explore how a small subset of the answers to one question correlate to a subset of the answers to a second question. They are then asked to create a hypothesis and a title for their proposed larger exploration of this relationship.

In the next phase of the assignment, students log back into Digital Labcoat and check out the various titles submitted by their classmates. They choose a number of these that catch their interest, proving in the process the effectiveness of the titles their peers have chosen for their hypotheses. They then attempt to verify the hypotheses by running a new subset of the results through the program. This gives them a taste of the experimental "replication" process and the statistics formulae that form the foundation of much of the research they’ll run across in their further study of psychology. Digital Labcoat takes the relatively dry textbook coverage of the scientific process and brings it to life in an enjoyable and engaging manner, an example of what is often referred to as active learning.

Digital Labcoat is still in its early stages of development but, like peerScholar and Cogneeto before it, it’s going through a rigorous testing process to ensure that it enhances learning in the way that Joordens and his collaborators envision. There will undoubtedly be tweaks to the program along the way but even at this point the nearly 2,000 students who sign up for intro to psychology at UTSC are in for a richer educational experience than their class size would suggest.