“Go on a field trip!”¹: An opinion piece – Anita Helmers

Magic School Bus book cover

As a student at the elementary and secondary level I always looked forward to day-trips to the zoo, the museum, or to a provincial park. Honestly, who wouldn’t be excited to be out of school for a day?

Regretfully I reflect back on my earlier field trips and can say I only appreciated them for the opportunity to get out of the classroom and took for granted the educational purposes. It was not until beginning my undergraduate career that I gained an appreciation for field trips and their educational experience (although it is still nice to get out of that lecture hall).

At the university level, field trips are few and far between for many students. But why is that? Field trips at the university level can offer hands-on “real-life” opportunities for students to, as Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”¹ Field trips are an opportunity to put to practice the theories taught in the classroom. Field trips, as a teaching method, should be used to expose students to the realities of their surrounding environment and provide a safe, low-risk space to learn from experience.

I am not suggesting that professors take students to the Moon in a Magic School Bus; professors do not even need to take students off-campus. As a student in the School of Planning I have been taken on field trips across Ring Road to Laurel Creek to learn about water testing; I have travelled to North Campus to learn about soil horizons; and I have toured campus learning how to classify trees. The main goal for field trips should be to enrich students’ educational experience and to further exemplify the theories and concepts covered in class. Without wandering around campus staring at trees I would have never fully understood which elements of a tree to focus on in order to classify it. Or, I would have never had the low-consequential experience of cross contaminating my water samples from Laurel creek. Field trips should be used as a stepping stone from classroom to “real-life”; a step that is cushioned to allow for chances, mistakes, and a safe space for failures before the professional world.

I have also been spoiled with the opportunities to travel off campus – this is not something every university student can say. I was given the chance to explore Spongy Lake, the Distillery District in Toronto, Liberty Village in Toronto, and Guelph’s abandoned Correctional facility, to name a few places. Through these field trips I have learned ecological processes, planning practices such as adaptation, and the reality that I have so much left to learn before entering the professional world. I can say that without being exposed to the realities of my surrounding environment, I would enter the Profession of Planning with utopian, unrealistic perceptions of how cities develop.

So, although the University of Waterloo does not have a bus that can transform into a spaceship, a submarine, or even an alligator, students still desire hands-on experience and the chance to “get out there and explore!”¹ I ask that University professors consider field trips as a teaching method that is feasible for all disciplines. Whether you simply take students outside to study tree species or you take students across the country to practice the French language, any and all exposure counts towards an enriched education.

¹ “The Magic School Bus ™.” Magic School Bus | FAQs | Scholastic.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Image provided by xmoltarx under the Creative Commons “Attribution-ShareAlike” license.

Why “Following Your Passion” Is Bad Advice – Elorm Agbeyaka

9318593026_fa45b15338_mFollow your passion; the mantra that successful people will preach to inspire those who will listen. I become a little weary every time I hear it. I have heard it preached from the likes of spokespeople, teachers, parents, mentors, and so on. I soon learned that this is not always the case, and in fact, it can be a hindering concept to believe in.

I recently watched a video of a commencement speech by Mike Rowe, best known as the host for the television series Dirty Jobs, given to PragerU graduates. In five minutes, he explained why he thinks following your passion is terrible advice. The main idea of his speech, what he referred to as “The Dirty Truth”, is this; just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it [1].  This implies that the hard work and effort that you put into your passion, does not necessarily mean you will obtain a successful lifestyle in that passion.

He goes on to describe the ineffectiveness of telling someone to follow their dreams, since it may not actually be clear as to what they are dreaming, and if that dream is feasibly attainable. The fact remains that passion and ability are two separate things.

To be successful, Rowe explains how following opportunity will more likely lead to prosperity, and that following passion can mean missing out on plenty of available opportunities. He uses the “skills gap” to illustrate his point; there are plenty of jobs that are available to which very few people are trained to do. This compares to the large number of people who are skilled at certain jobs, to which have few openings. Imagine how successful you could be if you went against the current and followed the path less beaten?5863884809_7dcbcea2e5_m

This was, personally, a very eye-opening concept that I had never really thought about. For most of my life, I was under the impression that hard work and perseverance meant that you could do anything you wanted. However, I believe much of what Rowe said is very true.

Now, this is not to say that following one’s passion is completely illogical; it’s not impossible to be successful at your dream. It is, however, important to gauge the pay-off towards your goal, versus how much effort, time, and money is going into it. To paraphrase Mike, staying the course only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Learn to pick your battles, and know when to tap out of the ring and take on a different battle that you believe can be concurred.

So now what? Instead of following passion in advance, what should be done instead? I decided to do some research and see what others had to say, and much of it was a relative reiteration of Rowe’s speech.

In an interview, Cal Newport, an author and 30-year-old assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, advocated for cultivating your passion, instead of following it. In essence, pay-off is greater when one decides to build a passion for their job. This is done by sharpening your skills and abilities within your work like a craftsperson, then shaping your working life towards the lifestyle that you desire [2].

Here are a few guidelines to help navigate you through your passion cultivation in the job market:

  1. Understand what skills and activities you excel at. Are you a good listener, or problem solver, or have always taken the leadership role in a group setting? What are you good at which you believe has been impactful or has made you particularly happy at one point?
  2. Understand where your skills can be applied. In what jobs and industries would you be able to hone your skills like a craftsperson, and gain more opportunities as a result of your improvement? Think broadly about your possible opportunities. For example, I love using Microsoft Excel, so I know there are a number of positions that would require proficiency in Excel than just Data Analysis jobs.

Seeing that it is convocation season for many University students, this might have some valuable insight for a number of graduates. Some will be entering the workforce, and may have hopes of landing that dream job, or pursuing that one thing they are passionate about. The real takeaway point: keep a mindful and realistic goals, and allow your passions to drive you throughout the journey. Take the time to understand if your passion is really what you’re meant to do, or if it is just meant to be a dream to hold on to.


[1] Mike Rowe – Don’t Follow Your Passion

[2] Joshua Fields Millburn – ‘Follow Your Passion’ Is Crappy Advice

[3] Nathaniel Koloc – Why “Follow Your Passion” is Pretty Bad Advice

[4] Lauren Friese –  Gen Y career advice: Don’t follow your passion. Do this instead.

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.

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.