What do students value in online courses? — Dina Meunier, Centre for Extended Learning

CAUCE CNIE logoWhat do students value in online courses?

I had the pleasure of attending the 2016 CAUCECNIE joint conference here in Waterloo from May 30 to Jun 2. There were many interesting sessions, including a keynote by Marc Rosenberg describing Learning Ecosystems and another by Ken Steele highlighting the latest innovations in teaching and learning. A panel interview led by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities examined how provincial consortia, including our own eCampus Ontario, are promoting an environment of innovation in higher-education technology-enabled learning.

One session I particularly enjoyed presented the results of an online student survey at Wilfrid Laurier University. WLU surveyed students who had recently taken one or more fully online courses and asked them what they valued most in an online learning experience. The top three responses related to online course design were:

  • a well-organized course syllabus;
  • clear course expectations and requirements; and
  • a well-organized course structure (for example, information presented in manageable chunks, segments or modules).

As far as online teaching was concerned, students most valued:

  • fair and consistent grading of assignments and exams; and
  • clear and meaningful feedback on assignments and exams.

It seems to me that these values apply equally to face-to-face, on campus courses and to blended courses as they do to fully online courses. In fact, these items are closely aligned with Chickering & Gamson’s seminal work, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Furthermore, the results of this survey remind us that overall, students are searching for high quality in online education, a recommendation clearly articulated by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in their recent policy brief:[1]

“At the heart of this policy is a focus on the quality of online learning.  It is crucial that the same standards of quality that apply to traditional, in-classroom courses apply to fully-online courses as well. Ideally, instructors should be capable of teaching an online course as effectively as they would a traditional class.”

But how do you know if your course structure is well-organized or if you have clearly articulated course expectations online? Here are 3 suggestions:

Are there other ways you can ensure quality in your online course design and in your teaching? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

[1] Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (March 2016). Policy Briefing: Online Learning.

Dina Meunier is Associate Director of Online Learning, Centre for Extended Learning, University of Waterloo

“Learning from Challenge and Failure”: Resources — Julie Timmermans

Michael Starbird
Michael Starbird, keynote speaker at the 2016 Teaching and Learning Conference.

Presenters at CTE’s recent Teaching and Learning conference explored the theme of Learning from Challenge and Failure. As a follow-up to the Conference, we’d like the share the following list of compiled resources:


Articles and Blog Postings

Podcasts and Talks

Growth Mindset Resources


Distracted Students: Time for Us to Re-focus — Christine Zaza

Hands holding a smart phoneIn today’s university classrooms it is common to see students distracted by their laptops, tablets, phones, or smart watches.  Although they are physically present, those who are distracted by technology are not always psychologically or socially present or engaged in learning.  This is a widespread problem despite the growing body of research which shows that off-task multi-tasking with technology during class is detrimental to a student’s learning and to the learning of those around them.  Teaching distracted, disengaged students is leaving many instructors frustrated, discouraged, and deflated.

In their attempt to restore the learning environment, some instructors, and even some institutions, are banning laptops in their classes.  At the University of Waterloo, banning laptops in class is not an option because that practice not only violates UWaterloo’s Policy on Behaviour (Policy 33), it also violates provincial legislation (AODA and Ontario Human Rights).  (See the CTE Teaching Tip Sheet Laptops in the Classroom: Virtue or Vice.)  Although banning technology in class isn’t an option, instructors can ask students who use technology in class to sit in designated areas (e.g., sitting on the sides of the lecture hall) so that they don’t disturb others who are not using technology.

It is tempting to focus our attention and frustration on students, but students aren’t the only ones distracted by technology.  Faculty and staff are too, and they are sometimes distracted by technology at meetings, conferences, and other professional events.  Yet in those settings, this behaviour seems to go unquestioned.  Outside of the university environment, it has become the norm to be distracted by technology in the car, over dinner, at soccer games, grocery stores, etc.  With these ever-present distractions, the demands for self-regulation seem to be higher for all of us now that we have access to the entire world in the palm of our hand.   Many of today’s technological communications tools use persuasive techniques that make it harder for many of us to sustain uninterrupted focus.  It has become socially acceptable to disrupt our face-to-face interactions in order to communicate with friends and family via technology.  The problem is so prevalent that some people are turning to technology to help them block distractions from technology.  For example, Freedom is a technology-blocking app that allows individuals to block distractions on their electronic devices for selected periods of time, and the demand for this type of technology seems to be growing as people strive to regain control of their time and attention.

It is natural for teachers to want students to live up to their learning potential.  However, it’s easy to forget that students are mature adults who are ultimately responsible for their own education.  In discussing the problem of students distracted by technology in class, I have four recommendations to propose:

First, we should stop referring to technology as though it is a single entity which has only negative effects.  Technology can be used to improve student engagement in class, and it can be used to improve learning and facilitate communication, among other things.

Second, we should make the distinction between brief, minor distractions (e.g., quickly checking for or responding to a text, looking up a word in an online dictionary, checking a schedule or schedule reminder) and major, more disruptive distractions (e.g., watching videos or movies, playing video games, online shopping, engaging in lengthy chats in social media, etc.).

Third, we should apply the same standards and expectations to the entire campus community as we apply to students.   I have yet to hear anyone talk about implementing designated seating for technology users at staff and faculty meetings.

Fourth, we should use an ecological model as a framework for thinking about how to address this problem.  We can’t expect students to change their individual behaviour with technology without also considering the context in which they are choosing that behaviour and the larger context of the social norms which influence behaviour.

Rather than focusing on distracted students, let’s involve students in conversations about how technology-related distraction affects our campus community and what we should do about it.


Christine Zaza is CTE’s Faculty Liaison for Applied Health Sciences, Psychology, Sociology & Legal Studies, and Support Units.
Photo courtesy of Open Arms (Creative Commons License).

Artificial Teaching Assistants

The "draughtsman" automaton created by Henri Maillardet around 1800.
The “draughtsman” automaton created by Henri Maillardet around 1800.

The dream of creating a device that can replicate human behaviour is longstanding: 2500 years ago, the ancient Greeks devised the story of Talos, a bronze automaton that protected the island of Crete from pirates; in the early thirteenth century, Al-Jazari designed and described human automata in his Book of Knowledge and Ingenious Mechanical Devices; in the eighteenth-century, the clockmaker Henri Maillardet invented a “mechanical lady” that wrote letters and sketched pictures; and in 2016, Ashok Goel, a computer science instructor at Georgia Tech, created a teaching assistant called Jill Watson who isn’t a human – she’s an algorithm.

Goel named his artificial teaching assistant after Watson, the computer program developed by IBM with an ability to answer questions that are posed in ordinary language. IBM’s Watson is best known for its 2011 victory over two former champions on the gameshow Jeopardy! In Goel’s computer science class, Watson’s job was to respond to questions that students asked in Piazza, an online discussion forum. Admittedly, the questions to which Watson responded were fairly routine:

Student: Should we be aiming for 1000 words or 2000 words? I know, it’s variable, but that is a big difference.

Jill Watson: There isn’t a word limit, but we will grade on both depth and succinctness. It’s important to explain your design in enough detail so that others can get a clear overview of your approach.

Goel’s students weren’t told until the end of the term that one of their online teaching assistants wasn’t human – nor did many of them suspect. Jill Watson’s responses were sufficiently helpful and “natural” that to most students she seemed as human as the other teaching assistants.

Over time – and quickly, no doubt – the ability of Jill Watson and other artificial interlocutors to answer more complex and nuanced questions will improve. But even if those abilities were to remain as they are, the potential impact of such computer programs on teaching and learning is significant. After all, in a typical course how much time is spent by teaching assistants or the instructor responding to the same routine questions (or slight variations of them) that are asked over and over? In Goel’s course, for example, he reports that his students typically post 10,000 questions per term – and he adds that Jill Watson, with just a few more tweaks, should be able to answer approximately 40% of them. That’s 4000 questions that the teaching assistants and instructor don’t have to answer. That frees up a lot of their time to provide more in-depth responses to the truly substantive questions about course content.

More time to give better answers: that sounds like a good thing. But there are also potential concerns.

It’s conceivable, for example, that using Watson might not result in better answers but in fewer jobs for teaching assistants. Universities are increasingly keen to save money, and if one Watson costs less than two or three teaching assistants, then choosing Watson would seem to be a sound financial decision. This reasoning has far broader implications than its impact on teaching assistants. According to a recent survey, 60% of the members of the British Science Association believe that within a decade, artificial intelligence will result in fewer jobs in a large number of workplace sectors, and 27% of them believe that the job losses will be significant.

Additionally, what impact might it have on students to know that they are being taught, in part, by a sophisticated chatbot – that is, by a computer program that has been designed to seem human? Maybe they won’t care: perhaps it’s not the source of an answer that matters to them, but its quality. And speaking for myself, I do love the convenience of using my iPhone to ask Siri what the population of Uzbekistan is – I don’t feel that doing so affects my sense of personal identity. On the other hand, I do find it a bit creepy when I phone a help desk and a ridiculously cheery, computerized voice insists on asking me a series of questions before connecting me to a human. If you don’t share this sense of unease, then see how you feel after watching 15 seconds of this video, featuring an even creepier encounter with artificial intelligence.

Mark Morton

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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Introverts in the Classroom – Crystal Tse

Picture of birds on telephone line, with a single bird by itself.

Last year I attended a professional development seminar that involved four days of intense group work and meeting new people, and I was completely exhausted by the end of it.  As a graduate student, conferences were a lot of fun, but I would need frequent breaks during the day to muster enough energy to keep going the rest of the time. As a high school student I hardly spoke up during classes and my teachers would tell me what a shame it was that I didn’t share my good ideas. My name is Crystal, and I am an introvert.

What is an introvert? This is a personality trait associated with people who, compared to extroverts, do not derive their energy from social interaction. In fact, sustained social interactions have the opposite effect of draining them of their energy and mental resources. They are not necessarily shy or socially anxious (common misconceptions of what introversion is) – it just means that they are generally more reserved, and enjoy having time alone or with people they know well in intimate settings.

Where did this construct come from? The five-factor model of personality, or more commonly called the “Big Five” was validated by psychologists McCrae and Costa (1987) and includes the dimensions of agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, and most relevant, extroversion (you can take the Big 5 personality inventory to see where you might score lower or higher on along these dimensions). Their research has shown that these five factors can predict behavior, and appears in across different cultures in the world.

In the Atlantic last year an article was published on how introverts’ needs in schools are often neglected, as active learning strategies are encouraged and expected in the classroom. Introverted students benefit from having “quiet” time to reflect or complete individual work, and classrooms where activities such as group work and think-pair-share are the norm may at be odds at what they find are optimal learning environments. I’ve had many conversations with a friend and sessional lecturer, a self-identified introvert herself, about how she struggles with incorporating too many active learning strategies into her classes because she herself would struggle with having to do those exercises all the time.

That is not say to forego active learning strategies – there is good evidence for the benefits of active learning for example, in STEM fields. Active learning strategies can still be used, but they do not always have to involve group work or collaboration. They can include “one minute essay” questions or quizzes, and reflection activities. The flipped classroom can benefit introverted students, as they can complete readings and activities for the upcoming class individually, and have their thoughts and questions prepared beforehand.

Lastly, class participation is often valued, but introverted students may speak up less and to instructors, appear less interested or engaged with the material. This educator has a great perspective on this issue: You don’t want to alienate and punish introverted students by requiring that they speak up all time, but you also want to push students out of their comfort zone and allow them to develop their communication skills. He offers strategies that he has used to get students to speak up, and they’re simple, such as giving students time to think and prepare what they will say or transitioning from smaller to larger group discussions throughout the term.

It’s all a balance! As instructors and educational developers we can be more mindful of the introverts in the room, and come up with strategies (they don’t have to be extensive or immediately obvious to students) to engage, challenge, and draw out (but not tire out) the introverts in the classroom.


Image above provided by Scott Robinson under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Crystal Tse

Crystal Tse

Crystal is the Educational Research Associate at the CTE where she contributes to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning work and to program evaluation. She received her PhD in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, where her research involved applying psychological theory to inform evidence-based interventions that address different social issues.

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Learning to Leap via Experiential Education — Michelle Gordon

michelle gordonI can’t say enough about experiential learning.  By stepping outside of textbook learning and living the experience, you develop personal connections to the theory. In my experience, this personal connection creates a drive to learn more about a topic, similar to how when you meet a person you like, you want to know more about them. Through experiential learning, I have also found that I develop soft skills that are not replicable in classroom learning, and which stay with me long after the experience is over.

This fall I was fortunate to be one of six student delegates selected from the University of Waterloo to attend the 21st Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was held in Paris, France. Also known as COP21 for short, this conference resulted in the Paris Agreement — an agreement to limit climate change to well below 2C of warming — being adopted with the consensus of 195 states. This was a historic moment to be a part of, where climate change was front and center on the world stage and it was finally agreed upon that quick and drastic action needs to be taken on a global level. Climate change is one of the global challenges of our century, and I hope that COP21 will be written in history as the turning point towards a cleaner and brighter future without fossil fuels.

Through this experience I learned much more about climate change than I could have in an entire semester in the classroom, but I think the most important thing I learned is confidence in my ability to leap. I believe to leap, or to jump into something new and unfamiliar when the opportunity presents itself instead of waiting until you feel “good enough,” is an essential skill to succeed in what you want in life.

Theoretical Knowledge

When I first applied to be a student delegate for COP21, I was hesitant as I thought I was less knowledgeable than many of my peers who were applying. Because I am in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability program, I had a working knowledge of climate change but by no means considered myself anywhere close to an expert! I applied anyway, and was thrilled to be selected. I studied climate change negotiations leading up to COP21, and observed them all around me during the experience. From this I gained a deeper knowledge than I had expected, and I am glad to have made the leap to apply and learn as I went, even if I was hesitant about my experience beforehand!

Social Media

Before attending COP21 I used social media such as Facebook, but I was shy about voicing my thoughts about social and environmental causes. Leading up to and during COP21, it was our job as student delegates to involve the wider campus community in awareness of the conference and climate change. It felt very uncomfortable at first, but I began posting on Facebook, joined Twitter, and then decided to make the leap by volunteering to be one of the lead students on the delegation’s communications and social media team. I felt out of my element at first, but through working in a team with two other students we created a successful and engaging campaign.

Networking and Meeting Influential People

At the COP21 conference, you are surrounded by people from all around the world, many of whom are very influential and knowledgeable. At first I felt a bit intimidated and timid in approaching people. However, I gained confidence when professor Ian Rowlands arranged for a few students and me to chat with Marlo Raylonds (the Chief of Staff to Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change) as well as David Miller (the President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada and former mayor of Toronto). Chatting with these intelligent people help me build confidence in knowing that influential people are just like anyone else, and I will now feel more comfortable approaching leaders in the future.

Bringing Experiential Learning into the Classroom

I understand that not many teachers can simply take their students abroad on a whim.  However, experiential learning opportunities are out there — they just need to be found and acted upon!

I think that classroom and lecture studies are important, and can serve their purpose as theoretical foundations for experiences. However, I strongly urge students to be always searching for opportunities to experience their passions outside of the classroom, be it conferences, volunteering, or through work experience.  Remember, Google is your friend!  For example, an afternoon spent searching can uncover field courses you can take for credit abroad or in Canada, bursary programs, and much more. Teachers can support students by sharing opportunities that they become aware of, and urging students to leap: to apply, follow through, and have the confidence to make it happen.

Michelle Gordon is a third year undergraduate student in the Environment and Resource Studies co-op program. Michelle was part of the delegation of students from UW that attended COP21. Michelle’s other interests include outdoor education, ecological restoration, and illustration.

Graduate Student Teaching on Campus

As a Graduate Instructional Developer who works mainly with CTE’s Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program, I have the privilege of observing graduate students teach in classrooms across campus. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to observe over 35 classes taught by graduate students in all six faculties. I have been incredibly impressed by the quality of teaching by graduate students. They have taken concepts from CTE workshops (e.g., active learning, group work, formative assessment) and applied them directly in their teaching. They are using innovative teaching strategies, technologies, and engaging students in their lessons. The University of Waterloo community should be proud of graduate students’ dedication to, and passion for, teaching.

So how can we support graduate students in continuing to develop their teaching skills?

  • I think many of us would agree the best way to improve our teaching is to practice. In some departments, it’s difficult for graduate students to access teaching opportunities, but guest lectures are a great way to gain experience. If you’re teaching, consider asking the graduate students you supervise and/or your Teaching Assistants whether they’re interested in giving a guest lecture in the course.
  • If you know a talented Teaching Assistant or graduate student instructor, please nominate them for an award! Information regarding Graduate Student Teaching Awards can be difficult to find, so I’ve compiled a list here. If you know of any that are missing from this list, please post a comment and we will add them.


Graduate Student Teaching Awards

A) University-wide teaching awards

Amit & Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student (deadline: February)

B) Faculty-wide teaching awards

C) Department teaching awards

  • Biology – “Outstanding Graduate/Undergraduate Teaching Assistantship Award” (no link available)


Teaching Resources for Graduate Students:

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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