Change is Good (and archives are also good). A.K.A. Goodbye, CTE Blog!

a pair of glasses and a book with a dark blue back cover and the last page showing the words The End sit atop a brown wood desk.
The End

Many years ago, we began the CTE Blog in order to engage with ideas in a less formal way for our various publics. Over time, we’ve had a small number of loyal followers (thanks!) and a wide readership for certain posts or series of posts. The blog has been a space for CTE staff, including our talented graduate students and undergraduate co-op students, as well as occasional faculty guests, to convey information, advice, and opinions from week to week and month to month since Fall 2008. After careful consideration throughout 2017, though, we have come to the conclusion that our efforts are better placed elsewhere, for now. The blog will continue to exist as an archive.

It’s impossible to do a proper roundup of all 450 posts to date, but some of our more popular posts have been:

Once in a while, we may end up Tweeting or otherwise referring to some of the rich resources that have come out of this ten-year experiment. We continue, of course, to add Teaching Stories and to revise our popular Teaching Tips on our Resources section of the CTE website. These latter receive millions of hits globally, so our attention will be focused on ensuring their quality while also planning new forms of communication as a result of our Self Study and External Review (2017).

Thanks for reading; follow @uwcte on Twitter, and visit our website often!


Fiction, Fun and Fractions – Paul Kates

Today I’m recommending some holiday gift books for youngsters in late primary school through to high school — books that weave together, as the title of this post suggests, fiction, fun and fractions.  Each book finds its own way to free math from the classroom and bring it into the richer world of life and imagination to let children see and explore some of the magic, surprise and beauty in mathematics. It is my hope that some of the anxiety children may have about math will be replaced with fun and wonder.

Number Devil: a Mathematical Adventure  by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 264 pages.

Robert, a boy of 12, is visited in his dreams by a cheeky devil who likes to talk about mathematics, which is not one of Robert’s favorite subjects at all. But Robert begins to like his imaginary discussions with his nightly visitor and comes to understand more of the mathematics he has seen before in class.  Over 12 nights of dreaming the devil shows Robert a wide range of mathematics topics (e.g. fractions, Fibonacci numbers, primes, series, etc) each explained in simple and engaging ways. And that is the goal of the book: putting fun and math together.

The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan, 256 pages.

This is a book that can be read aloud to a young child or read alone by anyone who enjoys an Arabian Nights fable. Thirty-four bite-sized episodes in the life of Beremiz Samir, The Man Who Counted, charm you with their elegance in both story and mathematical expression. Each episode presents an opportunity for the wise and learned Beremiz to call upon his mathematical ability to help someone in need or outwit troublemakers. The very young will enjoy the adventures alone until they are old enough to take interest in the simple, engaging puzzles embedded in the heart of each story, for this is a book to be read more than once.

The Math Olympian by Richard Hoshino, 482 pages.

This book is aimed at students from middle school to high school. Students who like math will learn a lot about problem solving to help them in their studies and maybe inspire them to enter the world of mathematics outside the confines of school. The book is constructed around five contest-level math questions. In trying to solve the questions, the main character, Bethany, passes on her mentors’ advice about how to understand mathematics. But the book is more than a very good primer about problem solving and math contests.

Students who don’t like math will be drawn into the story if they have a friend like Bethany, someone who does enjoy math. Bethany is excited about problem solving.  She puts her heart into doing the thing she loves and dreams about, becoming a Math Olympian. At the same time, Bethany is growing through her teen years like all her friends. The book is Bethany’s story, told in her own voice, about a struggle that many teens will find overlaps their own stories in different ways.

Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, 224 pages.

In a series of 21 fictitious letters to Meg, Professor Stewart addresses questions about the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and how to succeed in an academic career in university mathematics, from undergrad to tenure. With humour, common sense and insight the book answers many questions of interest and concern to students:

  • Why do math?
  • How do I learn math?
  • How do I create math?
  • How do I teach math?

My reason for including this book is to help students who are moving from high school to university and need to know how they can do well in their new, more challenging environment. The first half of the book is meant for them.

I hope you find something in this book list to interest a youngster who likes to be read stories or an older child who may or may not be too keen on math.  I hope the readers find the charm, delight and passion in these books that I see.

P.S. Allow me to add a book list site named Mathematical Fiction you may not have heard of that caters to works of fiction about mathematics and mathematicians.

A Culture That Constantly Strives to Improve – Magdalena Bentia

While sitting in an 8:30 morning class of over 100 students with caffeine as the sole driving force for consciousness it is easy to overlook the dynamics at play. It is easy to miss the carefully structured slides made with purpose to be as accessible as possible. As you pull your iClicker out it is easy to miss how each question was designed according to Bloom’s Taxonomy so that concepts are tested at different levels of comprehension. Designing a lecture that keeps everyone’s abilities in mind is not a simple task.

Upon starting to work at Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) I had no idea how many resources and mechanisms are in place to allow the teaching community at the University of Waterloo to continually improve. There is undoubtedly a necessary push to keep up with the ever-changing technology in the classroom but the aspect of being inclusive is not always as clear cut. It amazed me to see how many faculty and staff members at the university took time out of their day to participate in workshops at the CTE such as “CTE779: Accessibility in Teaching”. Teaching staff do not just settle and do their required job but rather look for ways to learn and improve their teaching methods so that their students get the most out of each lecture.

From an undergraduate student perspective it is comforting to know that there is genuinely a concern for creating the best learning environment where lessons learned will be fundamental in any future academic endeavors. It is through constant self-assessment and passion for teaching others that our community excels as a world-leading university.


Photo taken at the 2016 Teaching and Learning Conference by CTE Staff

Debunking Brain Myths – Crystal Tse

Image provided by NICHD under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

During the first lecture of introductory psychology, I usually give my students a true/false quiz containing myths about the brain (and other areas of psychology). Invariably students mark down some of these statements as true, and we spend much of the class dispelling these myths.

We use 10% of our brain

We see this myth perpetuated in the movie Lucy where the main character is able to reach her “full” potential by taking a drug that allows her to tap into the remaining 90 percent of her brain. She’s instantly smarter and even gains superpowers like telepathy. We know however, from ample research and basic knowledge about how the brain works, that this is not true.

The human brain only weighs on average 3 pounds (compare that to a sperm whale’s 17 pound brain!), but it takes up 20 percent of our body’s resources (e.g., oxygen, glucose). For such a small organ it’s pretty resource intensive, and for good reason. The brain is made up of tons of networks of neurons (the basic unit of our nervous system) constantly talking to each other, and brain imaging techniques such as fMRI scans have shown that our brains are constantly active over a 24-hour period. Your brain is working even when you’re unconscious—research shows that your memories are consolidated and transferred to long-term memory stores during sleep. Lastly, in studies of trauma to the brain, significant dysfunction can occur even when small areas of the brain are damaged, and that’s because we have evolved specific functions for particular areas of the brain and need all of them working together. Continue reading Debunking Brain Myths – Crystal Tse

Thank goodness for the slackers! — Marcel Pinheiro

Even in the modern age of STEM-education, a well-informed and considerate professoriate can still let their egos get the better of them. With shifting trends in pedagogy towards student-centric and, gasp, evidence-based decisions in instructional planning, we can easily fall victim to thinking we are leaving no one behind. We can imagine our classrooms full of well-prepared students, ready to fire on all Blooms’ cylinders, each day. It is, of course, midterm season, so we empirically know this is not true. Nonetheless, as we prepare for our next flipped session, scaffolded learning task, or class discussion we set our expectations high and count on eliciting random acts of higher-order thinking in our students. Continue reading Thank goodness for the slackers! — Marcel Pinheiro

Supporting Student Mental Health in the Classroom – Kristin Brown

Student behind a pile of text books.
Image used under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

Student mental health is an issue that is close to my heart. During my graduate studies, I co-founded Stand Up to Stigma, a student-led mental health initiative on campus partnered with Counselling Services and Health Services. I also created a CTE workshop regarding how instructors and TAs can support student mental health. I wrote a similar post to this one more than two years ago, but given the recent creation of the University of Waterloo’s President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health and Mental Health Wellness Day this week, I think it’s time to revisit it. Student mental health has been on the minds of many instructors and TAs; this blog post provides some of the resources available to help students in distress and promote mental well-being in the classroom.

 What’s the issue?

A recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association (2016) highlights the current issues University of Waterloo (n=1,955) and Ontario post-secondary students (n=25,168) are facing with respect to mental health.

Within the past year, percentage of
post-secondary students who had…
University of Waterloo Ontario
Felt academics were traumatic or very difficult to handle 58% 59.3%
Felt overwhelming anxiety 60.8% 65.4%
Felt so depressed that it was difficult to function 44.5% 46.1%
Been diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety 14.2% 18.3%
Been diagnosed or treated by a professional for depression 11.4% 14.7%
Seriously considered suicide 5.0% 4.4%

Continue reading Supporting Student Mental Health in the Classroom – Kristin Brown

Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

MSCI 100, a first year Management Engineering course taught by Professor Ken McKay, introduces students to the main concepts of the discipline in their first term. The course’s main goals are to introduce the core principles that students will apply throughout their undergraduate studies and to prepare them for their first co-operative education term.

The course was pedagogically redesigned based on including authentic self-directed learning, and providing students with opportunities to develop their professional skills (especially teamwork, project planning, time management and critical thinking). Professional Skills and Communication were taught within the context of the specific discipline as recommended in [1]. The overhauled course is composed of several activities/deliverables for students to experience multiple constructive failure-recovery cycles as a way to teach students the advantages of making mistakes [2].

In this blog post I will talk about the ‘case days’ experience, one of the cornerstones of the course that I helped plan and facilitate with the course’s teaching team. Three ‘case days’ were designed to provide an intense and deep learning experience regarding problem-solving, teamwork, and project management. On each case day, students, in teams, were given the case study at 8:30 am, their final product was due by 4:30 pm. There were no other courses, lectures, labs, or tutorials on these days. The requirements were vague, the problem was ill-defined, and the students were given ample opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Furthermore, not everything they needed to know had been taught in class and they had to teach themselves new material during these days. The students were expected to meet specific deadlines throughout the day and were given extensive rubrics. The student teams were assigned advisors (staff and faculty volunteers) who provided guidance throughout the day. The role of the advisors purposely diminished each case day. The teams eventually met requirements on their own, without any hand holding. Continue reading Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days