Reflecting on Teaching Culture – Kristin Brown

(Photo by Peter Wolf, Queen’s University)

After working in graduate student programming at CTE for the past three years, this term I collaborated with Donna Ellis, CTE Director, on a SSHRC-funded project involving eight other Canadian universities. The project is developing and validating survey tools (the Teaching Culture Perception Survey) to measure indicators of institutional teaching culture. You can find out more about the project here.

The surveys have been conducted at four institutions over the past few years, and it was our campus’ turn this fall. We invited a random sample of 5,000 second and third year undergraduate students, all graduate students, all instructors teaching in Fall 2016, and all staff supporting teaching and learning on main campus to participate. We will be analyzing the survey data in Winter 2017 and are hoping to present preliminary results at the Opportunities and New Directions Conference on campus in April 2017 (PS: you should come!).

The end of term is an important time for reflection, so I will leave you with some questions to consider for the New Year:

  • What do you perceive as the teaching culture at University of Waterloo? In your faculty? In your department?
  • What can you do to enhance the teaching culture at University of Waterloo? In your faculty? In your department?
  • What can you do to enhance students’ experiences within the teaching culture at University of Waterloo? In your faculty? In your department?

Have a relaxing and happy holiday season – see you in 2017,

Kristin Brown
PhD Candidate, School of Public Health and Health Systems
Research Assistant, Centre for Teaching Excellence

Kristin Brown

Kristin Brown

Kristin is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Teaching Excellence and a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. She previously worked at CTE as a Graduate Instructional Developer.

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Teaching teaching to (future) teachers – Joseph Buscemi


Having an opportunity to reflect on my brief time with CTE is a most welcomed development. Not only for those interested in CTE, but for myself, this chance to pause and consider all that has transpired within my introductory entry into the world of CTE has been, quite frankly, remarkable. I’ve only just wrapped up my first term as a GID (Graduate Instructional Developer), though the wealth of experiences makes it feel as though I’ve been here much longer (and I mean that in the best way possible). Firstly, I suppose a bit of preamble is in order before we get ahead of ourselves…

Hi, my name is Joseph Buscemi and when I grow up I want to be a teacher. I didn’t always want to be a teacher (actually, for a while, I wanted to be a firetruck) but somewhere in the twilight of undergrad I came to realize that sharing information and inspiring others was an interest that could facilitate a career. With the benefit of youthful over-exuberance, I poured myself into cultivating my background information (in Cold War history) and improving my communication proficiencies. I received accolades for my conference presentations, tutorials and guest lectures, but it wasn’t until I co-instructed a course for the first time that I knew I had made the right choice to turn away from becoming a firetruck and to become an instructor.

Finally getting a chance to teach a course was a phenomenal experience and the tremendous encouragement I received from my students and co-instructor afterwards only served to push myself harder. My next course of action was to take advantage of UW’s fantastic (and free!) CTE fundamentals program. The plethora of knowledge I gleaned from only 6 workshops and 3 microteaching sessions was truly invaluable. The great facilitators of CTE pushed me even further as I learned to channel all my raw enthusiasm for teaching into incredibly effective teaching methods. After completing the program, I came across a call for facilitators and applied.

Fast-forward a few months and here I am, with a team that is unrivaled when it comes to their dedication to the craft of teaching. I am incredibly thankful to all the amazing individuals I’ve met at CTE who have helped to develop my teaching skills and provided the opportunity to pass these skills on to future teachers, such as myself.  The enthusiasm for teaching is infectious and I admit, after reading some feedback, I was delighted I infected other graduate students in-turn. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I began teaching teaching to teachers, but the expert team at CTE supported me at every step. After my first solo workshop, I was rushed by eager grad students asking for copies of the lecture and further advice. CTE’s programs have an uncanny ability to strike a chord and inspire excellence in teaching skills. Having just wrapped up my first BLOCK week, I was inundated with rewarding experiences and learners who expressed their sincere thanks for the program.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am constantly learning new things from the microteaching instructors as well! I recall a particularly amazing group of four Fine Arts students several weeks ago who provided my most memorable sessions to date. As they say, learning is a life-long journey and from the rawest learner to the most grizzled lecturer, there is so much to take advantage of within the CTE, I encourage you to find out for yourself. *


*I’m not sure who “they” are, but they say it.


A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning

Musical scoreI am an Online Learning Consultant (OLC) at the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. As OLCs we pride ourselves on a scholarly approach to course design and, as such, 20% of my time is allotted to research. One of the research projects that I began in Winter 2016 is a case study examination of a blended learning opportunity jointly offered by Wilfrid Laurier University and UOIT. In this case, not only did I have the opportunity to conduct research, but also to teach and contribute design changes to the course being researched. Both the research and teaching dimensions of this experience have been invaluable, greatly enhancing my perspective as an instructional designer. Read more »

Graduate and Postdoctoral Programming Updates – Jessica Jordao

Fundamenals Microteaching Session

Fundamentals Microteaching Session

During my short time as a Graduate & Postdoctoral Programs at CTE, I have come to realize how outstanding CTE’s graduate and postdoctoral programs really are. Our programs support UWaterloo graduate students and postdocs in their knowledge and skill development as university TAs and current and future instructors. The three programs offered, at no cost to the student, include the Fundamentals of University Teaching and the Certificate of University Teaching for graduate students and the Teaching Development Series for postdoctoral fellows.

During my time, I have been fortunate to receive feedback on the impacts these programs have had on graduate students. Participants have described our programs as integral to exposing them to new teaching approaches, increasing their ability to self-reflect and improving their confidence and skills in teaching. Here is what one participant had to say about his experience after completing one of our programs, “When I started doing my PhD, I never really considered the teaching component, but I have to admit that I really enjoy teaching now!” This feedback gives meaning and purpose to our work here in CTE, and we continuously strive to improve our programs and encourage participant growth.

As our enrollment numbers in teaching certificate programs for graduate students continue to grow, we are searching for ways to support our graduate students as they develop their teaching and communication skills through CTE programs. One of my initiatives this term included outreach to those registered in our Fundamentals of University Teaching program. This project included checking in with all 750 registered participants to offer support and follow up on their program progress. In doing so, not only were we able to improve our record keeping, we have also seen an increase in the number of program completions this term and were able to connect with participants who are now employed in faculty roles, not only across the country but across the globe! This outreach initiative provided us an excellent means to not only encourage and assist participants in successful program completion, but also increased participation levels in our teaching workshops for graduate students (even during the busiest times of the academic term)!

A second initiative, undertaken with the help of our Graduate Instructional Developers, TA Workshop Facilitators, and Graduate Programming team as a whole, includes amendments to our Fall term offering of the Fundamentals of University Teaching program, guided by feedback from participants. We have improved the program by introducing an orientation session and additional Q&A support sessions, where participants will receive additional support from our Graduate Instructional Developers. This support will focus on developing their microteaching sessions and provide further opportunity to engage with what they’ve learned.

As the Fall term draws to a close, I am delighted to report that we continue to experience increased interest in all three of our graduate and postdoctoral programs. We are excited about this and hope to see new graduate student participants in our teaching workshops next term. Watch out for the schedule of the teaching events for graduate students coming in the Winter term!

Five easy ways to support your students’ professional development – Charis Enns

5621810815_185b86a50d_bIt is that time of year when instructors receive a greater number of reference letter requests, as undergraduate students prepare applications for jobs, graduate school or professional degree programs. I have received a few of these requests from former students as of late, which has led me to reflect on ways that I could assist students in achieving their long-term career and academic goals in addition to writing letters. Although a positive reference letter may help students achieve their goals, there are many other simple steps that I could take to further support students’ professional development. Here are five practical suggestions that I have (or plan to) implement in my own teaching, in order to further support my students’ professional development:

  • Use authentic assessments: This is “a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills” (Mueller 2016). I often use authentic assessments in place of mid-term exams in my own teaching, asking students to demonstrate their understanding of course concepts by performing skills or demonstrating competencies that are required by professionals in their field of study. Even if you cannot replace traditional assessments with authentic assessments, consider creating in-class opportunities for students to practice and refine relevant skills. This will also provide you with valuable insights about the students’ competencies, that you can draw on if you are asked to write a reference letter in the future.
  • Develop a list of undergraduate journals: When undergraduate students tell me that they plan to apply for graduate school, I encourage them to consider attending an undergraduate conference or publishing a term paper in an undergraduate journal prior to submitting their applications. Conference participation and publications strengthen graduate school applications, but they also look good on job applications, as they speak to a student’s communication and writing skills. Consider keeping a list of undergraduate journals in your field that you can share with students on request. This list may also include details about the journals’ submission policies and the peer-review and publishing process, based on previous students’ experiences.
  • Bring professionals into the classroom: There are many different benefits of bringing a guest lecturer into your classroom. For example, some research suggests that students found industry experts to be more credible than academic experts when learning about concepts with practical application (Van Hoek et al. 2011). From a professional development perspective, inviting industry or community experts into the classroom may create networking opportunities for your students. It may also provide opportunities for professionals to meet students that could fulfill their employment needs (Wolfe 2011).
  • Create a listserv to share relevant opportunities: I regularly receive emails about jobs, internships and research assistantships that may be useful to undergraduate students. However, it is difficult to keep track of undergraduate students after a course ends. Consider creating an email list or a list listserv to distribute relevant opportunities to former students. Let upper-level undergraduate students  know that you can add them to the list if they are interested and that they can ask to be removed from the list at any point. Although there are other ways that students can find jobs, internships and research opportunities, many opportunities are shared through personal networks or associations that require membership fees.
  • Coach students on how to ask for a reference letter: If you are teaching an upper-level undergraduate class, consider reserving time towards the end of the term to provide students with advice on asking for reference letters. You may also consider developing a template email or a tip sheet that outlines what type of information you want from students requesting reference letters and includes information about resources that are available at the university to help with job applications and interview preparation. Alternatively, you can provide students with a link to this short article on University Affairs that provides students with great advice on asking for reference letters.

For more tips on professional development and ‘bridging the skills’ gap, click here to read a relevant blog post or review relevant Teaching Tips on CTE’s website.



Mueller, J. (2016). Authentic Assessment Toolbox.

Sniezek, T. (2005). Avoiding the pitfalls of the invited speaker. Exchanges: The on-line journal of teaching and learning in the CSU.

Wolfe, A. (2011). Student Perceptions of Guest Speakers in Marketing Education. In Marketing Management Association 2006 Educators’ Conference Proceedings.

Designing for the user experience — Pia Zeni and Matt Justice, Centre for Extended Learning

user-experienceWe’ve all encountered scenes like the one pictured above – you may even be looking at one outside your office window: pedestrians choosing to ignore the nicely-constructed, costly, often very pretty footpaths designed for them, and choosing instead to forge their own path.  But have you ever thought about what scenarios like this say about design?  Why aren’t pedestrians selecting the paths constructed for them? What do their choices say about the paths designers have constructed? What goal(s) motivate them to forge their own?  These are the types of questions user experience (UX) designers ask.

The picture presents a useful allegory for designers of any stripe: the idea being, of course, that if we want to design valuable things, we need to consult the needs, expectations, and yes, even wants, of our users.

Let’s translate that principle to an online learning context:  “If we want to design valuable online learning experiences for students, we need to take their needs, expectations, and yes, even wants into account.” Whether this strikes you as common sense, or fairly radical, it is a design approach that the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) has recently adopted with our User Experience Design for Learning (UXDL) framework, an adaptation of UX Honeycomb, developed by leading user-experience advocate Peter Morville.

You can learn more about our UXDL framework and how our design process is evolving to put our users – our students – front and centre at This is a new initiative for us, so we welcome your ideas, thoughts, and reflections.

Pia Zeni (

Matt Justice (


[Photo Source: Kalve, S. (2014, September 11). Design vs UX I Nydalen. [Photo]. Retrieved from]

Looking Beyond the Evidence: What’s Your Story? — Donna Ellis, Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence

Face covered with data
Have you ever felt overwhelmed?  I’m sitting at my computer on a late November afternoon contemplating what I have taken away from two recent events: a provincial symposium on assessing learning outcomes and an international conference for educational developers on transformative relationships in relation to fostering cultures of deep learning.

I attended numerous sessions and overall I came away with a sense of what I call “data overwhelmosis”. We have more data and more evidence available to us than ever before in higher education.  We have software to help us identify specific learning outcomes and each student’s level of achievement for each outcome. We have online templates for course syllabi that generate maps of the learning outcomes for an entire program’s curriculum. We can use learning analytics and data analytics to monitor students’ progress (or failure).  We can do social network analyses to show how we connect to one another, how information flows within a unit or across an entire institution (or beyond).  We know what educational development practices have empirical backing. The list goes on.  My point is that it’s clear that we can capture almost anything. We can collate massive amounts of data and generate evidence for (or against) almost anything you can imagine. But to what end? What’s the purpose? And what’s the overarching plan?

We’ve talked a lot about these questions as part of devising and implementing our Centre’s assessment plan as well as our upcoming external review.  Just because we can get data doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  How much is enough? What will we do with what we collect?  Why will it matter?  Data collection takes time and effort.  We know this from any research project we have undertaken.  In our line of work, any time that we ask our staff to input data about their work, this is time not spent working with a client.  There has to be a good reason to ask staff members to spend time in this way.  This is where the role of questions becomes critical.

For research projects, we determine research questions.  We did the same when devising our assessment plan.  These questions guide our every move:  our methodological decisions, the types of data we need, the appropriate analysis methods, and the way we write up our results.  The questions enable us to select the data that will help us determine answers, and these limited data become the evidence for our conclusions.  We’ve realized that we don’t need every piece of data that we could collect – just the data that are relevant to the questions.  This is a freeing revelation.

But it doesn’t end there.  The evidence isn’t enough.  We need to find the story.  What does the evidence mean?  How will it affect what we do tomorrow or in the next five years?  I worry that higher education in general – and educational development specifically – is getting bogged down in the weeds and not stepping back to identify what those weeds are telling us.  The examples that I noted in the second paragraph help to illuminate the issue.  But what are we overlooking?  Which way is the wind blowing now and in the future?  Our questions create important frames to make data manageable and even meaningful, but thinking about how to tell the story of the evidence seems the most crucial of all to me.

In the next few months, we will be aiming to tell the story of CTE in our self-study, which will extend far beyond what we convey in our annual reports.  We will be analyzing existing relevant data and collecting new data as needed to fill perceived gaps.  We will be striving to ensure that we have sufficient information to assist our external reviewers in addressing the questions set in the Terms of Reference for the review.  But from all of this, what we most need is to tell our story and listen to what it is telling us.  I’m not entirely sure what we’ll hear, but I am very intrigued by what will emerge.  The evidence is critical, but we need to move beyond it to better understand where we are and where we’re going.

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

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