A primer on case-based teaching – Stephanie Verkoeyen


Last semester I was allocated a half RA-ship to develop case studies for a second year course in the Faculty of Environment. Case studies have traditionally been applied within the fields of Engineering, Business, and Health Sciences, though their application is slowly starting to trickle into other disciplines. In the social science context that I was working in, students would be applying some of the concepts and ideas discussed in lecture to a real world situation in an attempt to offer insight into some of the complexities surrounding environmental decision-making, and to get students comfortable with there being no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

Having never developed a case study previously, I struggled with where to start. Much of the material I read dealt directly with writing cases or teaching with cases, but did not go into detail on getting started with case-based teaching. As a result, I’ve put together a few steps to help anyone else who should wish to use case-based teaching in their own course.

  1. Integrating the case into your course

The first step is to decide how your case study fits into the existing course. This means thinking about the content it relates to (i.e. what concepts/ideas will students apply?), the amount of time required (some case studies are designed to be completed within a lecture, others span the duration of a course), as well as grade allocation, if there is to be an evaluation method attached. It is worth spending time mapping out these details because adopting a case-based teaching method can result in significant changes to how a course is taught.

  1. Defining the learning objectives

This step is closely tied to decisions relating to content. The goal here is to define why the case study is being presented – what are the goals of the discussion to take place? It is useful to refer back to lesson outcomes and/or course objectives to understand how a case study can be used to reinforce these aims. Or you may find that using a case study allows you to introduce new aims.

  1. Selecting the case

This may be the most challenging step of the whole process. Having clearly defined teaching objectives helps to simplify this stage by providing a set of parameters your case has to fit within. Once this has been established, there are a number of different suggestions about how to pick a good case example – it should be current, interesting or provocative, and/or relatable. When making my own selections, I tried to think about the range of views and opinions that might be expressed, the idea being that a broader range is more likely to stimulate discussion.

  1. Writing the case

Before writing the case, first define the questions students are expected to answer. This will determine what information needs to be included to allow students to answer these questions. Your teaching objectives will influence both the questions being asked and the presentation of the case. For example, if identifying what information is most relevant is an important learning outcome, you can also include irrelevant information in the case description. You need not restrict yourself to written materials when presenting a case study. Different multimedia, like videos and podcasts, can also be interesting alternative sources of information.

Once the case is developed, it is highly recommended that you create a teaching note. This document serves as a personal reference guide for how you will actually teach the case study, including information related to the planned agenda and your analysis of the case. The case analysis should consider the type of discussion that might result from each of the assignment questions, as well as follow-up questions that can be used to prompt this discussion.

For those interested in further information about case-based teaching, Teaching with Cases by Erskine, Leenders, and Mauffette-Leenders (2003) is an excellent resource. Developed for the Ivey School of Business, much of the information presented within can be adapted to a social science setting.



Stephanie is Workshop Facilitator at CTE and a PhD Student in the Faculty of Environment, where she is currently part of the Faculty’s Student Teaching Excellent Committee and Teaching and Learning Committee.

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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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Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates


Back in January 2012 I wrote about Piazza, the free online Q&A site used by instructors for teaching. Since then, Piazza has grown even more popular with STEM subjects. Piazza reports that over 1000 schools and 300,000 students have participated in online discussions using their system. Continue reading Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (pkates@uwaterloo.ca)

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‘As Long As You Don’t Get Sick’: Mental Health on the University Campus – Sarah Forbes

In the past few years, mental health issues have become increasingly visible as an obstacle in university education. Ivy League schools, such as Yale and Harvard, have been faulted for placing standuptostigmastressful burdens on their students without providing access to services that would help them manage the load. Rachel Williams, a student at Yale, wrote of her experience suffering from depression and attempting to navigate the withdrawal/readmission policy, ”Thinking back to that welcome packet, there is a conspicuous omission: ’We love you and want you and will provide for you and protect you, as long as you don’t get sick.’”

In this student’s case, her forced medical withdrawal from campus was prompted by her sense that her safety and security were in jeopardy at her university. Others felt that they were being forced to choose between staying in their programs at the expense of their health, or medically withdrawing with no guarantee of being able to readmit. After Luchang Wang explicitly referred to the readmission policy in her suicide note in January 2015, Yale promised to examine where it can do better. But is it too little too late?

These are the schools that students aspire to attend and educators strive to emulate, and even they are struggling with how to handle the mental health issues of their students. Therefore, it’s important for us to look at the experiences of those affected by these problems in our own community. This winter, Imprint published a feature article (I Don’t Live Here I’m Just Visiting) that discussed one student’s battle with depression and how it impacted her academic success. A key point in her narrative is the idea that the services were never going to be sufficient for the number of students that needed to use them, leading to wait times that could be extremely detrimental.

It took about a month of waiting for my first appointment. And then when I was walking to the bus to go to my first appointment, I got a call saying the counsellor I was meeting was taking a sick day and I’d have to reschedule. The next available time was a month later.

The University of Waterloo has committed to address this issue, but in the meantime students are left in the cold without the tools to handle their symptoms. Untreated mental health conditions can lead to withdrawal from courses, failing grades, late or incomplete assignments, and many other negative outcomes in the classroom. With the aim of keeping students in the university system, what can instructors do to help students?

At a classroom level, there are many actions instructors can take to improve the learning experience for those with mental health issues. A huge factor in student success is the sensitivity of the instructor, and this can manifest in many ways. For a student who has suffered a trauma, some seemingly innocuous subjects can cause flashbacks or anxiety attacks. An instructor who is willing to preface these topics with a warning or allow students to pursue alternate assignments will allow for greater success in their class. For students whose depression leaves them without the energy to complete assignments on time, flexible and reasonable extensions make a huge difference.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss specific accommodations and strategies in more detail, focusing on the debate over reasonably accommodating different needs while still accurately testing the abilities of each student.



Sarah Forbes

Sarah Forbes is an undergraduate in the Psychology department at the University of Waterloo and a co-op student at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

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Mini-Book Review – Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching – Cassidy Gagnon

In the eternal battle for power in the classroom, instructors and students butt heads for who should hold the power when it comes to how a course is handled and taught. And both parties’ have arguments to why each side sho3358374569_83a39b6ee8_muld have power.

Instructors argue that students would abuse the control of having any say in how a course is handled. Students argue that instructors are out of touch with what students want and that they forget what it feels to be a student again. Instructors have started to listen to students about these problems, but there is still a large amount of instructors using instructor-centered teaching, which is generally taught in a way that is ineffective in teaching students. And as it is, all instructors hold all the power. This, as a student, seems like a horrible thing. But there is a better way.

I decided to read “Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching”, one of the new books in the CTE library. In the book, authors Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bavill, and Peter Felten make the argument of allowing instructors to keep holding on to power in the classroom, but giving students a voice (besides written feedback at the end of the term). They make the argument that unless instructors make the actual attempt to listen to their audience, the students will be disengaged from the material taught. The partnership they describe rests on four main pillars: trust and respect, shared power, shared risks, and shared learning. The book also goes through many case studies and exemplars from different schools around the world, and the different methods that these professors use are also outlined as well.

The benefits are extensive as well. For one, you can control the amount of student contribution that students make to change the curriculum, whether you want to redesign how an assignment is given or want to overhaul the entire course. The ways that the students contribute are also extensive, and the ways to leverage students are outlined in the book as well. And finally, there are almost an infinite amount of ideas that students and professors can produce together.

This being said, partnering with students and redesigning something as small as an assignment is difficult. It involves a lot of student participation and the ability of the instructor to use feedback from the student ambassadors and the classroom to modify what needs to change. Sometimes, it can take several classes and a large amount of student data to change the way an entire course is implemented. As a new instructor, this would be incredibly difficult to achieve since you are dealing with the new challenge of teaching. The final barrier is the instructor’s acceptance to change: if instructors are stuck in their own methodology of teaching, then they will have created a huge barrier of what they think the students need versus what the students want. Because of this barrier, students will lose interest with the material after the first lecture.

I encourage not only new and old faculty instructors to read up on partnerships in the classroom, but also students. Speaking as a student, it is important to remember that we have a voice in the classroom. Instructors, it is important to remember that you have the ears to listen to students. And when both parties work together, hand in hand, we can mold the future of learning.

For interested readers, this book is available at the Centre for Teaching Excellence library (EV1 325).

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Cassidy Gagnon

Cassidy Gagnon

Special Projects Assistant for the Centre for Teaching Excellence for the Winter 2015 term. Currently a 3A B.Sc. psychology co-op undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo. Previous don at Waterloo Residences and current member of the UW Neuroscience Club. Loves to play a variety of musical instruments, reading, soccer and watching a lot of television in his spare time.

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History and Learning of the Internaut – Cassidy Gagnon


Those were the first letters sent through the “Internet”, back in October 29, 1969. The first use of the ARPANET link was established between the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Stanford Research Institute. The word they tried to send was “LOGIN”, but the system crashed when trying to send the “G” (a literal “lo”w). Decades later, the Internet has developed into a monster of complex links to different servers and computers that is one of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

The original purpose of the Internet (which is not, as everyone says, cat pictures) was to communicate information between the different universities to share research and information that could not be easily sent through the phone or the postal system. It was a system that encouraged learning from others’ information, and using that information to create more information, and so on. But after computers started to condense from the size of an entire room into a device that could fit onto your desk, becoming much cheaper, and connections that were starting to be created all around the world, the common people were finally given access to a large amount of information and tools all in a short amount of time. But this information, as wonderful as it was, could not be communicated properly with the masses.

First, some of the information to articles and journals were (and still are) blocked, unless you pay a substantial fee to access that information. As well, this information was made for people in the field they were in, so people from other fields of work could not understand the information that was trying to be relayed since it would be filled with jargon and complicated information.

But it wasn’t until Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, who started the Academy in 2006 on YouTube for the purpose of free tutoring lessons to friends and family in subjects of chemistry and mathematics. As time progressed however, the number of followers has grown to around 2 million and the site has broadened its focus: topics now include history, healthcare, medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, cosmology, American civics, art history, economics, music, and computer science, with videos available in 63 different languages.

A lot of other educators who wanted to provide free education to everyone followed suit, and more websites and YouTube channels popped up. For instance, my favourite educational channel on YouTube is CrashCourse, which currently covers subjects in literature, chemistry, world history (my favourite), biology, ecology, big history (as in the history of our universe), psychology and US history. Current sessions are going through the subject of anatomy and physiology, astronomy and US government and politics, while forecasted ones are going to be in intellectual properties and economy. Basically, everything you wanted to learn about a multitude of subjects in a very friendly and open matter that also brings up real world issues in the lessons.

As free and easy-access education is becoming more available, with different teaching styles, languages and subject matter being used, the future of online education is a bright one.

Cassidy Gagnon

Cassidy Gagnon

Special Projects Assistant for the Centre for Teaching Excellence for the Winter 2015 term. Currently a 3A B.Sc. psychology co-op undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo. Previous don at Waterloo Residences and current member of the UW Neuroscience Club. Loves to play a variety of musical instruments, reading, soccer and watching a lot of television in his spare time.

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Quick and Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure — Mark Morton

grammarOne of the things I enjoy most about working at CTE is the opportunity to work with c0-op students. Each term, we have a co-op student who writes Teaching Stories that feature Waterloo instructors whose teaching practice is especially effective or innovative. After the co-op student writes the teaching story, I’ll usually edit it and — because my PhD is in English — I really give it a thorough going over! Fortunately, we’ve always had co-0p students with excellent writing skills, so not much editing is needed.

Nonetheless, the process recently reminded me of a document that I wrote more than 20 years ago, when I was teaching first-year English courses at another university. I eponymously entitled it “Mark Morton’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure.” Rereading it, I still like it: it’s brief, efficient, and clear (which is not an easy job when you’re trying to explain the vagaries of English grammar!). Rather than have it languish on my PC, where it would eventually vanish when my hard drive crashes, I’m going to share it here as a PDF: Mark Morton’s Quick_and_Dirty Guide to Sentence Structure. Use it or ignore it as you see fit!

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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