As a way to recognize and celebrate teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students, the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and the Graduate Studies Office (GSO) offer the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. This annual award is given to a graduate student who demonstrates a strong commitment to teaching development and the highest achievement upon the completion of the CUT program. We are pleased to announce that Alexander Howse, PhD candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics and a recent graduate of the CUT program, was selected as the recipient of the 2016 CUT Award.
With a little more than a year left in his PhD program, Alex Howse’s CV already boasts an impressive record of teaching accomplishments: three teaching certificates from two Canadian institutions and a course instructorship in MATH117: Calculus for Engineering. Alex became interested in learning about university teaching while pursuing his master’s degree at Memorial University where he completed a teaching development program for graduate students offered through the teaching and learning centre. The program piqued his interest in learning about university teaching and helped him to successfully manage his teaching responsibilities when he taught his first undergraduate course at Memorial as a master’s student.
Upon starting the PhD program at Waterloo, Alex heard about teaching certificate programs for graduate students offered by CTE and decided to continue learning about university teaching while working on his doctorate. After he successfully completed CTE’s Fundamentals of University Teaching program, he enrolled in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT), a comprehensive teaching development program for PhD students who are interested in academic careers. Although some of the topics discussed in the program, such as learning-centred teaching approaches, were not new to Alex, he believes that the learning activities that participants are asked to undertake as part of the CUT, such as creating a teaching dossier, are helpful not only for immediate teaching responsibilities at Waterloo but also as a preparation for the academic job market.
When asked to reflect on his recent teaching experience as an instructor, Alex credits the improvements that he made in his teaching to the feedback that he received from two sources: CTE staff members who observed his classroom teaching as part of the CUT program and a faculty member in his department who observed his class as part of a departmental lecturing requirement for math PhD students. The feedback that Alex received from his observers and the discussions that took place after the classroom visits addressed different aspects of his teaching approach and gave him ideas for the upcoming classes, such as ways for effective presentation of material and increasing student participation during lectures in his class with more than 100 students. “Often you think that as an instructor, you are doing what you intend to do but then you get caught up in the flow of the lecture and lose sight of student learning. It’s nice to have someone come in, observe your class and discuss it with you,” says Alex.
Using the feedback from his observers, Alex worked hard to improve his lectures and to help his students do well in the course. He fine-tuned his questioning strategies, resisted the urge to give out answers and experimented with the use of a think-pair-share technique which offered his students opportunities to solve problems on their own before discussing them with pairs and eventually as a large class. He looked for ways to explain the material in a way that would allow him to reach students with different levels of knowledge. When he heard about the muddiest point technique at one of the CUT teaching workshops, he implemented it in his class to identify areas of material that students found difficult. Based on student feedback about the material that was not clear to them, he created summary sheets as a supplementary study tool for his students.
For the CUT research project which is intended to familiarize graduate students with the research on teaching and learning in higher education, Alex decided to examine the higher education literature on math anxiety. He felt that this is an important topic for math instructors and something he encountered frequently when working with undergraduate students who were comfortable with math as high school students but were struggling with the subject at the university level. According to Alex, reading the research on math anxiety helped him to understand the issue more effectively and prepared him for conversations with students on learning strategies and ways to cope with math anxiety.
Looking back at his experience in the CUT, Alex is convinced that the time that he devoted to developing his teaching knowledge and skills by completing the program was well worth it. “I took the program seriously and put a lot of effort into it. It helped me to improve my teaching skills and put me in a good position for future academic job applications. I would strongly recommend the program to PhD students, especially if they plan to teach at the university.”
Congratulations on the CUT Award, Alex!