A Day of Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning

What drives curiosity in our classrooms? Can curiosity be fostered or taught? These were just a few of the questions on the table at the University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference on April 27. Our ninth annual conference, this year’s event brought together over 320 participants from across all Faculties at Waterloo and neighbouring universities to explore the role curiosity plays in teaching and learning. University of Waterloo’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Feridun Hamdullahpur, opened the conference with a territory acknowledgment and shared personal reflections on teaching and learning that highlighted the connections between this year’s conference theme, Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning, and last year’s conference, Learning from Challenge and Failure.

Curiosity is at the heart of inquiry and exploration and is a powerful motivator for learning. It speaks to our innate interest in seeking out novel ideas, and applies well to the learning process our students engage in every day. Curiosity also has real-life consequences—psychological research demonstrates that curiosity is linked to greater well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and expressing gratitude) and can also serve as positive motivation—studies show that curiosity can lead people to ask more questions, explore novel stimuli, and persevere when faced with difficult tasks.

A full roster of 34 research and practice-based sessions and 7 poster presentations engaged with curiosity in teaching and learning. These sessions brought together the work of instructors, graduate students, and staff members from across campus and across disciplines. Thought-provoking questions were explored, such as “How do we ignite students’ curiosity about our fields?,” “How can we teach students to ask meaningful questions that draw on facts, hunches, unusual connections, and imagination?,” and “How can we be curious about our students’ learning, motivations, and goals?”

In his keynote talk, Dr. Peter Felten, Professor of history at Elon University and Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning and Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, kicked off the conference by asking, “Can We Teach Curiosity?” In his interactive talk, Felten asked participants to consider curiosity as a set of practices—as something that can be cultivated—rather than a personality trait. Recognizing curiosity as something instructors can nurture in students, Felten then asked how we know when students are curious. What signs do they give us? Felten gave instructors concrete strategies to cultivate curiosity in students, such as encouraging our students to be curious by acting curious, creating low stakes activities and assignments that invite students to ask questions and explore ideas rather than present the correct answer, capitalizing on concepts in your field that your students can be curious about, and prompting students to reflect on their own curiosity. He gave participants the opportunity to reflect on the teaching strategies and opportunities that we currently use (and could potentially use in the future) that encourage students to ask “why.”

The conference also featured a special “Igniting Our Practice” session. Two inspiring University of Waterloo instructors, Drs Vivian Dayeh (Biology) and Brent Doberstein (Geography and Environmental Management) recreated the learning spaces they design for their students by demonstrating how they ignite their students’ curiosity about their field and course. During the session, Dayeh showed participants that creative analogies can be used in our teaching by asking the audience to act like axons—an activity that she uses to demonstrate to students how neurons in the brain communicate with each. Doberstein demonstrated a model for involving the public in decision-making with the nominal group technique—he asked the audience to vote on different initiatives in the Waterloo region. Both speakers pointed out that their teaching demonstrations involved physical, as well as mental, components of learning, and that certain strategies can make concepts “stick” for students.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who contributed to the conference. We are especially grateful for the vision of the conference and financial support from the Associate Vice-President, Academic, Mario Coniglio. We also want to thank the Teaching Fellows, who were essential in shaping and promoting the conference. Departments across campus were also vital in promoting the conference.

We would like to extend many thanks to staff from Information Systems and Technology, Creative Services, and Community Relations who enabled the day to be documented in a variety of ways. We also thank Catering and Event Services for providing delicious food for participants every year as well as managing the registrations and logistics of the day, and we thank the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo generously sponsoring breakfast for the conference.

Lastly, we thank the presenters who contributed their time and expertise to an exciting program that ignited lively and important discussions around teaching and learning. We hope you continue these discussions with each other.

For further details about this year’s conference, please visit the conference website. We look forward to welcoming you at the University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference in 2018.

Crystal Tse

Crystal Tse

As the Instructional Developer, Research and Consulting at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Crystal Tse supports faculty and staff members on conducting research on teaching and learning by providing consultations, facilitating workshops on designing teaching and learning research projects, adjudicating the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement Grants, and chairing University of Waterloo’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference.

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Debunking the Learning Styles Myth – Crystal Tse

Photo of a person's brain outlined into aidfferent sections
Image provided by William Creswell under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Franz Josef Gall was a neuroscientist in the 1700s who developed phrenology, a field that attributed specific mental functions to different parts of the brain (i.e., that certain bumps on a person’s head would indicate their personality traits). This field has since then been widely discredited as pseudoscience. It is often comforting to be able to categorize things and put people into neat boxes, and phrenology is one example of this tendency. Learning styles is another example.

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning the work best for them. There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report on learning styles state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can certainly have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style. In a recent study, Rogowsky and colleagues conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught – learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

Instead of fixating on learning styles, I recommend we instead focus on engaging our learners in and outside the class (by using active learning strategies where appropriate – there is good evidence that active learning benefits learners in STEM classrooms, for example). As instructors we can also try vary our teaching methods so all students have a way into the material. Lastly, learning doesn’t always have to feel easy – research from growth mindsets shows us that feeling challenged and failure itself is important for students’ learning and growth.

Crystal Tse

Crystal Tse

As the Instructional Developer, Research and Consulting at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Crystal Tse supports faculty and staff members on conducting research on teaching and learning by providing consultations, facilitating workshops on designing teaching and learning research projects, adjudicating the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement Grants, and chairing University of Waterloo’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference.

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Why It Seems Like Your Students Can’t Write — Stephanie White

Whenever I talk with instructors here about how my job is to support them in their writing and communication instruction, I hear some version of the same response: “My students are brilliant, but they can’t write a sentence to save their lives!” No matter whom I’m talking to, regardless of discipline, job title, teaching experience, linguistic background, educational background, or teaching load, nearly everyone has the same anxieties around the role of communication in their courses. But I’m always glad to have the chance to talk about these concerns. If you’re one of those instructors I’ve talked with about teaching writing and communication in your discipline, you’ve probably seen my eyes light up as I eagerly launch into my spiel about the research on teaching writing and communication across the curriculum.

You: “My students are smart, but they can’t write!” Continue reading Why It Seems Like Your Students Can’t Write — Stephanie White

Stephanie White

Stephanie White

Stephanie White is an Instructional Developer at the UWaterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence, where she focuses on TA Training and Writing Support. In addition to helping run CTE’s certificate programs for graduate students and supervising graduate-student TA Workshop Facilitators, she teaches workshops for faculty and staff on designing effective written assignments, consults one-to-one with instructors in any discipline about their written assignments, serves on committees and working groups about communications outcomes at UWaterloo, develops resources about Writing and Communication Across the Curriculum at UWaterloo, and consults with instructors on training TAs in their departments.

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The ICE model: An Alternative Learning Framework – Monica Vesely

IMost often we approach the design of our main course elements – intended learning outcomes (ILOs), formative and summative assessments, and teaching and learning activities – by turning to Bloom’s Taxonomy (and most frequently the cognitive domain) to help us determine the appropriate level of thinking required and to help us express that accurately in our descriptions.

Sometime we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the distinctions that Continue reading The ICE model: An Alternative Learning Framework – Monica Vesely

Monica Vesely

Monica Vesely

Monica Vesely is an Instructional Developer with the Centre for Teaching Excellence where she conducts teaching observations, facilitates the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), coordinates the Teaching Squares Program, and assists new faculty with their teaching professional development. In her focus on new faculty, she chairs the New Faculty Welcoming Committee, supports new faculty initiatives across campus, consults with new faculty to assist them with the preparation of individualized Learning About Teaching Plans (LATPs), facilitates workshops and builds community through various communications and social events. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Monica worked with the NSERC Chair in Water Treatment in Civil and Environmental Engineering, taught in the Department of Chemistry, and designed learning experiences with Waterloo's Professional Development Program (WatPD).

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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 cel.uwaterloo.ca/honeycomb. This is a new initiative for us, so we welcome your ideas, thoughts, and reflections.

Pia Zeni (pzeni@uwaterloo.ca)

Matt Justice (matt.justice@uwaterloo.ca)

 

[Photo Source: Kalve, S. (2014, September 11). Design vs UX I Nydalen. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/steffenk/status/510005338545074177]

“Go on a field trip!”¹: An opinion piece – Anita Helmers

Magic School Bus book cover

As a student at the elementary and secondary level I always looked forward to day-trips to the zoo, the museum, or to a provincial park. Honestly, who wouldn’t be excited to be out of school for a day?

Regretfully I reflect back on my earlier field trips and can say I only appreciated them for the opportunity to get out of the classroom and took for granted the educational purposes. It was not until beginning my undergraduate career that I gained an appreciation for field trips and their educational experience (although it is still nice to get out of that lecture hall).

At the university level, field trips are few and far between for many students. But why is that? Field trips at the university level can offer hands-on “real-life” opportunities for students to, as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”¹ Field trips are an opportunity to put to practice the theories taught in the classroom. Field trips, as a teaching method, should be used to expose students to the realities of their surrounding environment and provide a safe, low-risk space to learn from experience.

I am not suggesting that professors take students to the Moon in a Magic School Bus; professors do not even need to take students off-campus. As a student in the School of Planning I have been taken on field trips across Ring Road to Laurel Creek to learn about water testing; I have travelled to North Campus to learn about soil horizons; and I have toured campus learning how to classify trees. The main goal for field trips should be to enrich students’ educational experience and to further exemplify the theories and concepts covered in class. Without wandering around campus staring at trees I would have never fully understood which elements of a tree to focus on in order to classify it. Or, I would have never had the low-consequential experience of cross contaminating my water samples from Laurel creek. Field trips should be used as a stepping stone from classroom to “real-life”; a step that is cushioned to allow for chances, mistakes, and a safe space for failures before the professional world.

I have also been spoiled with the opportunities to travel off campus – this is not something every university student can say. I was given the chance to explore Spongy Lake, the Distillery District in Toronto, Liberty Village in Toronto, and Guelph’s abandoned Correctional facility, to name a few places. Through these field trips I have learned ecological processes, planning practices such as adaptation, and the reality that I have so much left to learn before entering the professional world. I can say that without being exposed to the realities of my surrounding environment, I would enter the Profession of Planning with utopian, unrealistic perceptions of how cities develop.

So, although the University of Waterloo does not have a bus that can transform into a spaceship, a submarine, or even an alligator, students still desire hands-on experience and the chance to “get out there and explore!”¹ I ask that University professors consider field trips as a teaching method that is feasible for all disciplines. Whether you simply take students outside to study tree species or you take students across the country to practice the French language, any and all exposure counts towards an enriched education.

¹ “The Magic School Bus ™.” Magic School Bus | FAQs | Scholastic.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Image provided by xmoltarx under the Creative Commons “Attribution-ShareAlike” license.

VoiceThread Project: Call for Participation — Gillian Dabrowski

voicethreadAre you looking for ways to engage your students in learning? Consider partnering with the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) and the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to pilot a new instructional tool in Waterloo’s on-campus and online classes: VoiceThread.

You may be interested in learning about the pilot if your goal is to engage students in any of the activities below:

  • Idea sharing and interaction
  • Community building
  • Social learning
  • Peer instruction
  • Critical reflection
  • Presentation practice
  • Digital literacy skills building
  • Language practice

What is VoiceThread?

VoiceThread is a media-based discussion tool. A key feature of VoiceThread is that it enables you and your students to create digital presentations and make them the centre of a discussion. Presentations can include documents, images, PowerPoint slides, audio, or video. Students attach comments to the presentation using a keyboard (text), a microphone or telephone (audio), or a webcam (video). Discussions are asynchronous, meaning students are not online at the same time.

Why use VoiceThread?

Penn State’s Use Case Introduction gives several examples of why instructors use VoiceThread:

  • On-campus, create digital presentations on difficult to comprehend concepts and processes. Students can review content multiple times and ask the instructor questions on specific slides.
  • Enable students to present knowledge and research digitally. The class benefits from exposure to a multitude of topics. The presenter benefits from practice articulating themselves verbally and peer feedback.
  • Actively engage students in online lectures by prompting them to comment on specific slides or respond to questions posed within the presentation.
  • Increase your online instructor teaching presence and build online class community by initiating weekly kick-off discussions.
  • Create an online ‘seminar’ course experience where students grapple with heavy readings together in both written and verbal formats.

Pilot Details

The VoiceThread pilot is scheduled to run from Winter 2017–Winter 2018. Faculty who participate in the pilot will receive a VoiceThread account linked to their LEARN user account and a course site. Training and support for the pilot will be supported by CEL, CTE, and LEARN Help. Faculty participants and course participants will be asked to provide feedback via survey response, panel discussion, and interview.

If you would like to volunteer to be a part of this pilot, please contact CEL’s Gillian Dabrowski, gdabrows@uwaterloo.ca, or your CTE Liaison with the following details:

  1. Name
  2. Course information (CourseID, name, section) and expected number of students
  3. A description of how you will use VoiceThread in your course to support student engagement and assessment. How might VoiceThread help solve a problem you are experiencing with discussions or assessment as you currently use them?

More Information

References

Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE).