“Transitioning from High School to a Post-Secondary Institution – What to Expect – Sunny Rakhra”

Every year thousands of students graduate from high school and look to pursue their life goals through post-secondary education. Leading up tstudents-with-laptopso the first day, students are excited about moving out, learning about a specific discipline, and having lots of freedom.  However by the end of the first week, some students are overwhelmed with the new responsibilities and changes.  I have described below four significant things I wish I knew prior to beginning my undergraduate studies.

  1. Professors are great!

Without a doubt, the relationship among students and professors is considerably different than the relationship between students and high school teachers. The class sizes are exponentially larger and some individuals may feel intimidated by professors. Consequently, students may be reluctant to ask professors for help.  Through personal experiences, I have come to a conclusion that professors are among the most helpful individuals on campus, because they hold scheduled office hours for students and are exceptional sources for career guidance.

  1. Independence

Whereas high school teachers might consistently remind students about upcoming assignments and exams, university professors might remind students about an upcoming assignment or exam only once or twice. Clearly, as students enter a post-secondary institution, it is the students’ responsibility to complete the assigned work and readings independently. Essentially, the university experience revolves around the goal of promoting independence.

  1. Sleep-Grades-Socialize

I am sure everyone has heard about how university students are only capable of choosing two-of-three options when it comes to sleeping, socializing, and obtaining good grades. However, such a statement is false, as many students are able to systematically balance all three options.  All it takes is excellent time-management skills, as such a skill will allow you to balance good grades, spending time with your friends, and obtaining the sleep your body requires.

  1. Make a schedule

Studies have indicated that it takes approximately twenty-one days to form a new habit or routine (Clear, n.d.).  With that in mind, establishing a study schedule will not only have a positive impact on an students’ grades and mental stress, but can also improve their time-management skills. Such positive outcomes are evident because once I began to follow a schedule, I saw a noticeable difference in my grades, while having much more leisure time.

In short, being prepared and recognizing the importance of making a schedule, understanding that professors are a vital tool for success, fostering the responsibility of independence, and defying the false ideology around sleep, grades, and friends will provide students a sufficient foundation on what to expect during the adjustment period

Finally, the University of Waterloo has Transition Programs  available for new students to make the adjustment process much smoother (University of Waterloo, n.d.).


Clear, J. (n.d.). How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? Retrieved 2015, from James Clear: http://jamesclear.com/new-habit

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Access Ability Services. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/disability-services/future-students/transition-programs


Teaching and All The Feels — Aimée Morrison

This post has been reprinted (with permission) from the Hook & Eye blog

feelingsI have that nervous feeling in my stomach again–those butterflies, or that flip-flopping feeling, a vague nausea and discomfort. It’s final paper time, and while I’m not writing any myself, I assign them. And it makes me incredibly nervous, shepherding my grad students through their projects’ various stages. I want so badly for them to succeed; I worry so much about how tired they look, or frustrated, or, worse, how silent they get.

Teaching. It’s very emotional.

Over the past ten years, as I have wrestled with my teaching persona, teaching practices, teaching goals, one thread runs constant–trying to manage my own emotions. I started out perhaps over-attached to results: if a student did poorly on an exam, say, I would take all that on as a personal failure of mine. There was a lot of crying. It was not helpful. I tried to learn to not take it as a personal affront when students were often absent. I had to learn that sometimes it’s not about me when students look bored and tired every single semester once week 7 rolls around. I was very emotional but about the wrong things and it was gruelling and ineffective.

Then, for a while, I tried too hard to swing the other way. Teaching became more contractual and transactional. I would lay out some rules and try to enframe the teaching situation as mutually beneficial but largely impersonal: trying to protect my own feelings and recover from my over investment in outcomes that were beyond my control, I tried to take my feelings out of the classroom. But even as I tried to pull away from my misguided mother hen tendencies, my students still sometimes cried, or got angry, and I was doing them a new disservice by trying to deny them that reality.

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

For me this starts with acknowledging that I care a lot about the material I teach, and I am, actually, really invested in having students learn it. This might be an ethical and respectful methodology for research on the internet, or it might be the history of the www, or it might be the difference between technological determinism and social construction, or it might be the design theory of affordance, or it might be feminist pragmatics, or it might be how to make a daguerrotype. It really matters to me a lot that students understand these things and, crucially, see the value in them.

When I teach, I necessarily make myself incredibly vulnerable to my students, by reaching out to them with ideas and sources and methods and assignments and illustrations, and asking them to hold on. It requires, I find, an incredible outlay of empathy for me to try to find where the students are at already, intellectually and ideologically or whatever, and go to them there to ask them to come with me to where the class is designed to take us. It is rarely the case now that I teach just from what I want to say; I’m always doing this sort of dance where I try to figure out the emotional temperature of the room, poll the interests, prod the knowledge base, and figure out a context-specific approach.

The best way I can find to describe it is this: It feels like being on a first date with 40 people at the same time. Every single time I teach.

To be clear, I’m not in it to be “loved” or even liked. I’m trying to put myself–Aimée Morrison, the situated human being–behind the ideas but of course teaching and learning are human acts so I’m still there. Reaching out, trying to get in 40 heads and hearts at the same time, trying to shift something in someone’s understanding: “even though this was a required course, it was surprisingly useful.”

I begin finally to understand that this is why teaching days are so gruelling. Why if I teach in the morning, I’m not going to be writing in the afternoon. It’s the interpersonal work, the mutual vulnerability, the work of empathy, the work of caring. In my worst moments I want to withdraw–I say things like, “If they won’t do the readings, to hell with them.” But really, I am usually overwhelmed with the sheer importance of the work I’m trying to do, and how much I care and how much I care about having students come to care about what I teach as well. I’m not naturally empathetic and I’m much more inclined to try to structure the world into rule-based interactions we can process cognitively and rationally, so the empathy required of teaching is not something I come to naturally. It’s something over time I’ve come to learn is crucial: learning is transformative, and thus scary and personal. Teaching must be these things too. All the feels.

— Aimée Morrison

Image courtesy of Nic Walker.

How Can Instructors and TAs support Student Mental Health? – Kristin Brown

when-we-break-a-bone-vs-how-we-deal-with-a-mental-health-issueStudent mental health is an issue that is close to my heart. Outside of my PhD research and work at CTE, I am the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Stand Up to Stigma, a student-led mental health initiative on campus partnered with Counselling Services and Health Services. Our goal is to start (and continue) a conversation about mental health at UW. Last term, I created a CTE workshop regarding how TAs and instructors can support student mental health – 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 (2013) highlights the current issues Ontario post-secondary students are facing with respect to mental health. Within the past year:

  • 59.2% of students had felt academics were traumatic or very difficult to handle;
  • 57.9% had felt overwhelming anxiety;
  • 40.1% had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function;
  • 12.2% had been diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety;
  • 10.0% had been diagnosed or treated by a professional for depression; and,
  • 10.9% had seriously considered suicide.

The link between mental health and learning

Mental health problems are negatively associated with several learning outcomes, including lower GPAs and an increased chance of withdrawal from academic programs (Eisenberg et al., 2009; Hysenbegasi et al., 2005). Several sources have advocated for a campus-wide approach to mental health, which posits that all members of post-secondary institutions (e.g., administrators, faculty, and staff) should play a role in student mental health instead of counselling services only (Kitzrow, 2003).

What mental health support resources are available for UW students?

  • Counselling Services: individual and group counselling, workshops (e.g., stress management, mindfulness, coping skills), emergency situations
  • Health Services: medical doctors, psychiatric services, emergency situations
  • Accessibility Services: academic accommodation for students
  • Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454): free, confidential, and anonymous helpline for any post-secondary student in Ontario; available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year
  • Here 24/7 (1-844-437-3247): connection to addiction, mental health, and crisis services at 12 agencies in Waterloo, Wellington, and Dufferin counties

How can faculty/staff support student mental health?

  • Queen’s University and Western University have excellent resources for staff and faculty that highlight common signs of distress, how to talk to a student in distress, and how to make referrals to support services.
  • The Council of Ontario Universities has developed a series of videos that explain the issue of mental health in the post-secondary population, how to support students in distress, and the role of the university community in supporting student mental health.

How can I incorporate mental well-being into my classroom?

  • Simon Fraser University: This evidence-based resource provides strategies and examples from Simon Fraser University faculty for how you can build well-being into your class.


Eisenberg, D., Golberstein, E., & Hunt, J. B. (2009). Mental health and academic success in college. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 9(1)

Hysenbegasi, A., Hass, S. L., & Rowland, C. R. (2005). The impact of depression on the academic productivity of university students. Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 8(3), 145.

Kitzrow, M. A. (2003). The Mental Health Needs of Today’s College Students: Challenges and Recommendations. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice: 41(1): 167-181. doi: 10.2202/1949-6605.1310

Reading with the Warriors Pilot – Zara Rafferty

Varsity hockey players reading to elementary school students

Back in teacher’s college, I wrote a research paper about the challenges surrounding boys’ literacy in today’s classrooms. Having always been an avid reader myself, I have to admit that I knew very little about the social and pedagogical factors that can help or hurt young students’ acquisition of essential literacy skills (for an introduction to this discussion in the Ontario context, start here).

This year, I set out to create a program here at UW that brings varsity athletes into elementary school classrooms to promote literacy skills and an interest in reading. While I hope that this program will benefit all learners, I believe it could have a particular impact on boys’ literacy. Male reading role models are one of the key strategies that classroom teachers recommend to support both boys’ literacy skills, and their attitudes toward reading and writing.

To this end, Reading with the Warriors was created in partnership with the UW Athletics Department. Last week we launched the first of five pilot sessions with two student-athlete volunteers from the varsity hockey team. Justin and Andy (pictured above) joined two Gr. 2 classes for story time and a craft related to the books they had chosen to read (Thomas’ Snowsuit and Just One Goal!, respectively). Justin and Andy shared their own reading history (e.g., challenges they had with reading, favourite books, why reading is important to them), and answered a variety of student questions relating to school, hockey, and life in general.

The program has been well-received thus far, and I am looking forward to continuing our pilot throughout the month. I am particularly grateful to the five student-athletes who have agreed to participate in the pilot sessions – they have been wonderful! If all goes well, it’s my hope that this will become a regular part of varsity athletics’ community programming beginning this Fall.

At the end of the day, it isn’t necessarily about the stories (although, those are important, too), it’s about students having the opportunity to see interesting, articulate men reading and engaging with books. Research and practice show that male mentors from the community can help all students, but especially boys, see a purpose in reading. I love the idea that our students can collaborate with classroom teachers to strengthen literacy skills in our little guys.

This program has also gotten me thinking: how often do we bring role models and mentors from the community into our university classrooms? I would love to hear examples from the UW community.

If you’re interested in learning more about boys’ literacy, check out this guide from the Ontario Ministry of Education: Me Read? No Way!

Turning Information into an Invitation – Trevor Holmes

I’ve been teaching undergrads since 1994 I guess, as a TA at first, and by 2001 as a course instructor. Since 2006 I’ve been the instructor of record on a large first-year cultural studies course (and assisted in 2005 on the same one). This post is in the head-scratching, old dog / new tricks category, and is about office hours.

wordcloud-welcome-heart-1Generally speaking, I hold 1.5 to 2 hours of office time for consultation with students. I’m happy when I see three to six students in a week, which only happens around essay writing time. Some students come for help getting started, others with drafts to go through together, and others afterward to understand feedback. Although I ask students to show up or make an alternate appointment, I probably only see ten percent of my class that way in a good year (I teach 200).

Over the years I’ve read about some ways to use office hours more effectively. Don Woods (McMaster, Chemical Engineering Emeritus and architect of their problem-based learning approach) always talks about using student ombudspeople (1 or 2 per 50 students), with whom the professor meets each week or two to have a dialogue about how the class is going. A former professor at York when I was a graduate student there used to have his undergraduates come in to receive their essays — they’d have to read them aloud to him in order to get them back (this usually led to a deeper understanding on their part of their grades and their own writing). Teaching tips abound — and of course CTE has our own version of advice for the beginning TA or instructor.

This year, though, thinking I was past all such tips — surely these are all for beginners, not for seasoned oldtimers like myself — I once again posted my office hours for the term in the learning management system calendar tool. Week in, week out… can I remove just the one instance over Reading Break this time? Yes! Great. But…

…instead of writing “Trevor’s Office Hour” like I normally would, I wondered what might sound more inviting. I’m so tired of the discourse of “information delivery” as our role in higher education. In lecture, I’m not an information-delivery specialist. My discipline isn’t about transmitting information from me to many. That is a subject for another post, but it’s important to think about the whole endeavour, and how I communicate this belief I have. If I simply post my hours as information, how am I welcoming the discussion and support I feel I can share with my first years? So, I tried instead posting the calendar entry with the words: “Trevor’s Office Time: Come and Visit me in xxxx-xxxx from 4:30 – 5:00” (and the same, but an hour, on the other day).

For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching, two students showed up for my first office hour before the first lecture day. I told them I was happy to meet them, we talked about their interests, majors, futures, and I asked them what made them come see me before the class had even begun. They said “because you invited us to come and visit you.”

I was pretty much gobsmacked, not having expected anyone to pop by until three weeks hence when the paper is due. I hope this signals an increase in the frequency of visits and the diversity of visitors. Pleasant surprises like this, that by the students’ own account were because of the three small words “come visit me,” are the kinds of things that keep my enthusiasm for teaching so high even after eight iterations of the same course.


Make Tutorials Matter – Mihaela Vlasea, Graduate Instructional Developer

It is often mentioned that with large engineering classes, it is difficult to truly engage students and provide them with the opportunity to get involved in classroom activities. I recently had the opportunity to teach a tutorial review session, for which I prepared extensively. I presented the material in a very organized fashion, while being careful to periodically ask a few questions while I was solving problems on the blackboard. Based on the answers I was receiving, as well as some feedback from the class, I felt that students understood the material very well. However, upon marking a final exam question, one very similar to the one I had solved in class, I was quite surprised to see that the majority were not capable to meet the basic framework of the solution. Upon reflecting on this fact, I realized that there is a major difference between students understanding my approach and them being able to solve questions on their own. This realization was quite important, because it has forced me to somewhat re-think my tutorial teaching strategies in the future.

Gear Wheels - photo by Ian Britton via flickr
Get the Gear Wheels Turning  (Gear Wheels photo by Ian Britton via flickr)

Provide more opportunity for students to think about the problem

Instead of dwelling on copying the problem requirements on the board, I could provide students with a copy of the question (wither on a Power Point slide or a handout) and ask them to take two minutes to read it carefully. Then, I would ask students a few clarifying questions to make sure they have understood the problem requirements.

Provide more opportunities for students to solve the problem

After going through the first step, I would allow students to work in pairs or about 2-3 minutes to discuss a few ideas on how to start solving the question. I feel that it is important, as it would make students feel that their suggestions are valuable to the development of the solution. This would increase their level of “ownership” over what is discussed in the class, rather than having a one-way teaching approach.

Facilitate and moderate discussions on alternate solutions

Often times, students only have the opportunity to be exposed to a single solution to a problem. Offering students the opportunity to think and suggest alternate solutions in a supportive environment would be a great opportunity to expose students to more approaches as well as to encourage creativity in engineering classes. This is a critical point that should be endorsed in tutorials. Students may be encouraged to propose an alternate solution in class or they may be to be allowed to post their own solutions on a forum or wiki page, where their peers can discuss or correct their input (this would be a bit harder to moderate, but it would certainly be interesting).

In general, I think that tutorials in engineering should be more student-focused and should promote discussion, rather than being an extension of lecture time. These are just some of my ideas which stemmed from recent experience in teaching tutorials in large engineering classes.