Each year, the Centre for Teaching Excellence and the Graduate Studies Office recognize and celebrate the teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students with the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. I sat down with this year’s winner, Amanda Garcia, PhD candidate in Systems Design Engineering and recent graduate of the CUT program, to get her take on teaching and learning. Amanda has taught Problem-Solving for Development, a second-year International Development course (INDEV 212) and Conflict Resolution (SYDE 533), a Systems Design Engineering course; has completed both the Fundamentals of University Teaching (FUT) and CUT programs, and began her teaching career during her undergraduate years, when she was awarded her first Teaching Assistantship.
The most important thing I learned from CUT (and FUT, to a lesser extent) is how to take a self-reflective approach to my teaching: thinking about not only what I’m teaching, but how I’m teaching it, and taking time to think about whether my approach is working or not. After most lessons, I try to think about how I could make it better next time, but also what aspects worked or seemed to resonate with students. Being able to assess/evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching allows me to make changes that will actually have a positive impact on my students’ learning. Self-reflection is also a nice complement to student/peer feedback on teaching.
Can you share a story or an example of where you have applied something that you learned from either program?
I ask my students for mid-term feedback in all of my classes. This is something that came up in CUT. I think it’s a great opportunity for me and my students to check in with one another and see if we’re meeting each other’s expectations (I usually have them give me feedback after the midterm exam). The “start, stop, continue” exercise is particularly useful, since it gives students specific things to focus on rather than asking for general feedback. It’s important to me that students are having a positive class and learning experience; their feedback helps me make any necessary changes (or have some important discussions about expectations) while there is still time left in the term. I take time to discuss their feedback in the next class, giving them an overview of the feedback I received and making adjustments as necessary.
When we met earlier, you talked briefly about overcoming your fear of teaching, and that now you find teaching really fun. Why was it important to you to overcome that fear? And since then, what has changed? What makes it fun now?
When I got to grad school, I knew that one of the things that I needed to work on was oral presentation skills and saw FUT as an opportunity to get some experience. My goal was simply to improve my “stage presence” and to try to deal with physical manifestations of my nerves. I wasn’t aiming to fully overcome that fear; that seems to have happened by itself. One thing that changed was how I viewed the teaching interaction. At first, it was a chore for me, something that I had to do but did reluctantly. Now, I think I see it more holistically: teaching is part of the challenge of transmitting knowledge/concepts to students who have different background knowledge and varying degrees of interest in the material, and of finding a way to evaluate that learning. Looking at things from this “big picture” angle positions the actual lectures as a piece of the puzzle; there is so much more to teaching than classroom time. The overall teaching challenge is very appealing and interesting to me. Lectures are a means to the broader end, rather than the end in and of itself.
The fun part for me is in the design challenge. There is a certain amount of material that needs to be covered in the term; not only do I have to cover this material, but I have to be confident that my students actually understand and can apply the material. My job is to figure out how to do all of this in a fun and engaging way for students. For me, it’s a fascinating exercise: breaking down a course into core competencies, building interactive lessons around them, and coming up with appropriate evaluation mechanisms.
If you had to give one piece of advice to new instructors about teaching or learning, what would it be?
Self-reflection and feedback from others are key. Develop your ability to reflect on your experiences. What worked? What didn’t? How could you do things better? Teaching is an iterative process. You won’t get it right on the first try (and that’s ok!), but if you don’t take time to think about your experiences, you will likely make the same mistakes over and over. You also need to open yourself up to feedback from others, whether they be students or peers. Part of the CUT program is a teaching observation—I found that particularly helpful. It’s not enough to only self-reflect; you need input from others in order to get the “big picture” of your teaching (and to avoid your own biases about your teaching). This input can help you learn about how others see your teaching and will almost certainly bring up things that were not on your radar. Feedback from others (especially students) can be scary; take it seriously, but not personally.
Interested in learning more about graduate programming offered by the Centre for Teaching Excellence? Visit CTE’s Support for Graduate Students.