“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


Communities of Practice — Rudy Peariso (Centre for Extended Learning)

build community

Community! Not often the first word that comes to mind when thinking of online learning, but it is for a group of like-minded instructors at the University of Waterloo. The inaugural meeting of the Online Instructors Community of Practice took place during the last week of April.

Sometimes online classes can have the reputation of being solitary for both teachers and learners. Although at the Centre for Extended Learning we work with instructors to dispel that myth for learners, we hadn’t fully considered the impact that online teaching has on instructors.  One of our instructors was looking for advanced workshops and a way to share her experiences, and the Online Instructor Community of Practice was born.

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) define a Community of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an on-going basis.”

Over lunch, hosted by the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), nineteen instructors, who teach online at the University of Waterloo, discussed the successes and challenges of teaching online.  Topics on student engagement, teaching presence, academic integrity, and blended learning all emerged.  Community members were overheard talking about how nice it was just to talk to others who had the same challenges and successes as they experience.

CEL is actively looking at ways to enhance the community, and have opted to offer a meeting once per term. Suggestions for the meeting include, a show and tell, select topics and a discussion of dilemmas. A newly created listserv gives instructors the opportunity to share suggestions and ask questions of the community.

If you currently teach online and want to join the Community of Practice, contact the Centre of Extended Learning.

If you are interested in establishing a Community of Practice for your discipline or interest, check out the following resources:

Image by Niall Kennedy, Creative Commons License.

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.

A Prelude to Pedagogy – Ilia Zenkov

LigImage of Neural Pathways in a Brainhts dim. A bright yellow beam illuminates the path to an exquisite 480kg creation: A Steinway & Sons Model D. The instrument’s golden cast-iron plate is striking against its velvet black finish. The silence is deafening. Energy and anticipation emanates from my fellow audience members. Without a semblance of warning enters Denis Matsuev – winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. As if struck by lightning, the piano begins to produce a breathtakingly intricate melody.

A brief pause arrests your attention. Two seconds of profound silence follow, the air all but crackling with emotion surging through the concert hall.

The audience’s inaudible sigh of relief is palpable as the second movement begins. We slide back in our seats, relax our shoulders, and resume breathing.

However, there is more to be examined here than a simple pause. These interludes are not just a component of the spectacular solo put on by Matsuev this past weekend – rather, the very nature of these interruptions has a deep-seated rooting in the neurological wiring of our brains.

Event segmentation: “The process by which people parse a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events” and “A core component of ongoing perception, with consequences for memory and learning.” (Zacks & Swallow, 2007).  The brain naturally separates perceived information into spatial (Biederman, 1987) and temporal parts (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). For example, a lecture hall contains chairs, desks, a podium, and a board. The brain automatically segments your perception of the lecture hall into such components so as to better remember it – to better store it in memory. In much the same way, boundaries in time allow the brain to temporally segment your perception of, for example, a piano concerto. Untitled

A graph of BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent signal) responses in various regions of the brain in a 10 second window surrounding a transition period, whereby the body rapidly increases blood flow to active neuronal tissues. From Sridharan et al (2007).


Perhaps by using these concepts and even combining them in lectures, we can better cater to the brain’s natural information processing circuitry and facilitate a greater degree of learning. According to Zacks & Swallow (2007), ”Those who identify appropriate event boundaries during perception tend to remember more and learn more proficiently.” By creating appropriate temporal and spatial boundaries in lectures – perhaps a minute break between two related notions, a short discussion period, or even carefully planning how to situate problems and solutions on a board – professors may well aid their students’ learning by approaching pedagogy with event segmentation in mind.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the peak of brain activity is at those moments of silence between transitions, when it indeed appears that nothing is happening (Sridharan et al, 2007).

fMRI images taken of subjects’ cognitive activity in the left and right sides of their brain while listening to music show that neurological signaling increases dramatically around the point between two movements. From Sridharan et al (2007). 

Perhaps most notable about this study is that while subjects’ attention to music differed, the anticipation of a transition point between movements was a universal phenomenon. Considering that the way our brains resolve our ongoing perception into discrete events is directly related to how our long-term memory updates from our working “short term” memory (Kurby & Zacks, 2008), this may very well be an effect worth exploring.

To encapsulate this compelling feature of the brain, I will provide a rather simplified analogy. Imagine a resonance effect: When you push a swing at just the right moment, you not only preserve the energy from its descent but add more energy to the system. However, if you push at the wrong moment you will not add energy. In fact, you will be taking it away! Similarly, we must use the brain’s inherent approach to information processing to our advantage, not to our detriment. Instead of longwinded lectures to drain students of motivation, it’s better to push them often and at just the right moments to promote a higher degree of learning. Event segmentation can help educators rethink the structuring and organization of their lessons, which in turn will help students expand on concepts and develop a more complete understanding of the ideas presented to them.

For further reading, this research and supplementary data is available online at these links:

Event segmentation

Segmentation in the perception and memory of events

Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks


Biederman, I. (1987, April). Recognition-by-components: A theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94(2), 115–117

Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008, February). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(2), 72-79.

Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., Chafe, C.H., Berger, J., & Menon, V. (2007, August). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521-532

Zacks, J. M., & Khena, M. S. (2007, April). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 80-84.

Notes from the Music Studio — Christine Zaza

playing pianojpgWhen I reflect on teaching and learning in higher education I realize that much of what I learned, I learned when I was a music student. Here are some of the highlights from the music studio that are just as applicable to university teaching and learning:

Practice, practice, practice. Actually, this would more aptly be phrased Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, but the rhythm just isn’t as good. I wouldn’t expect anyone to become a professional violinist without regular lessons with a qualified teacher. Regular feedback is critical to guiding students as they develop new skills. Without regular feedback, bad habits can become engrained and difficult to correct. In university, students learn a number of new skills and new ways of thinking and they need multiple opportunities to practice these skills with regular feedback. To ensure that students focus on the feedback and not just the grade, instructors can give a follow-up assignment students to make revisions highlighting how they have incorporated the feedback that they received on their first submission.

Practice the performance. When preparing for a recital or audition (a summative test), music students are advised to practice performing in front of friends, family –teddy bears if need be – several times, before the actual performance. Preparing for a performance is different from preparing for weekly lessons. Good performance preparation is crucial because in a performance you get one shot at the piece. There are no do-overs on stage. Similarly, when writing music theory or history exams, practicing the exam is an expected part of exam preparation. To facilitate this preparation, the Royal Conservatory of Music sells booklets of past exams. The Conservatory also returns graded exams so that students can see exactly where they earned and lost marks: considering that the Royal Conservatory of Music administers thousands of exams, three times a year, across the globe, this is a huge undertaking. At university, we know that self-testing is an effective study strategy and some instructors do provide several practice exams questions in their course. However, due to academic integrity concerns, the common practice is to deny students access to past exams as well as their own completed exam. I wonder if academic misconduct would be less of an issue if students were allowed to use past exams as practice tools. Amassing a large enough pool of past exam questions should address the concern that students will just memorize answers to questions that they’ve seen in advance.

Explicit instruction is key. It’s not very helpful to just tell a novice piano student to go home and practice. In the name of practicing, a novice student will, more than likely, play his or her piece over a few times, from bar 1 straight to the end, no matter what happens in between, and think that he has “practiced.” I know. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, and if you have a child in music lessons, I’ll bet you’ve heard it too. Explicit instruction means addressing many basic questions that an expert takes for granted: What does practicing look like? How many times a week should you practice? For how long should you practice? How do you know if you have practiced enough? How do you know if you have practiced well? Similarly, not all first students arrive at university knowing how to study. Many students would benefit from explicit instructions about learning and studying (e.g., What does studying look like? How do you know when you’ve studied enough? I’ve gone over my notes a few times – is that studying? Etc.

Know that students can’t learn it all at once. A good violin teacher knows that you can’t correct a student’s bow arm while you’re adjusting the left hand position, improving intonation, working on rhythm, teaching new notes, and refining dynamics. In any given lesson, the violin teacher chooses to let some things go while focusing on one particular aspect of playing otherwise the student will become too overwhelmed to take in any information at all. Suzuki teachers know that you always start by pointing out something positive about the student’s playing and that you can’t focus only on the errors. Students need encouragement. I think this is true at university as well. Becoming a good writer takes years and novice writers will likely continue to make several mistakes while at the same time improving one or two specific aspects of their writing. While giving feedback on written assignments, it’s important to acknowledge the positive aspects – that’s more encouraging that facing a sea of red that highlights only the errors.

Even if you didn’t take piano lessons as a child and even if have registered your 6 year old for hockey rather than violin lessons, I hope you’ll find these lessons from the music studio applicable to the university classroom.

 Photo privided by Samuel Cuenca under a Creative Commons license.

‘Seeing beyond the self’: Using reflective writing as an assessment tool – Dan McRoberts

82648702_800bccf11eFor many years, post-secondary educators have been encouraged to move outside the classroom and create transformative learning experiences for university students. Field courses, service learning, and cooperative education are all examples of the kinds of programming that have become increasingly common and popular amongst undergraduates looking to incorporate some unique and useful experiences in their university careers.

Despite the popularity and growth of transformational learning, questions persist about the most effective ways of assessing student learning that results from these experiences. Experiential learning is hard-to-measure so traditional assessment measures often fall short of the mark. Reflective writing is often at the heart of assessment measures employed to qualitatively measure transformative learning, with self-evaluation, and journaling common assignment formats. There are significant challenges with using reflection to assess students, related to the highly personal nature of the transformations being recorded. Pagano and Roselle (2009) find that there is usually little clarity or systematization involved in using reflective practice. What is involved can vary substantially between courses or instructors. Also, reflection tends to rely on students’ own accounts of events and responses and as such it is very hard to discern if learning has indeed taken place. Woolf (2008) also identifies concerns with the confessional ‘dear diary’ approach to reflective writing, as he aligns this with highly personal change or transformation. Given that much of the possible value in transformative learning comes from the opportunity to ‘see beyond the self,’ the question becomes how to design assignments and assessments that will help students develop this awareness and critical reflexivity.

Sometimes it helps to divide the task into two parts, one which focuses on personal development and the other that relates to key academic objectives or themes. Peterson (2008) profiles a service-learning course assessment that combined personal narrative with more academic analysis. Students were asked to prepare two journals with these respective foci, rather than being asked to write whatever came to mind. Doubling the student (and instructor) workload may not be the ideal solution, but fortunately there are models for designing reflective writing that can assess several components in the same assignment.

One is the DEAL model developed by Patti Clayton, which involves students Describing their experience, Examining the experience in light of specific learning objectives, and Articulating their Learning. The assignment is guided by specific prompting questions that encourage students to complete these various tasks in their reflective writing, from the who, what when and where of an experience (describing learning) to more detailed prompts about what was learned and how (examining and articulating learning).

Another, perhaps less well-known, approach is the ‘refraction model’ proposed by Pagano and Roselle (2009). Refraction tries to incorporate critical thinking into the process of reflection to encourage students to move beyond their own perceptions and consider how to address problems or scenarios they may have experienced in their course. This process begins with reflection and activities that are common to the assessment of transformational learning outcomes. From here, however, the authors propose using critical analytic and thinking skills to refract this knowledge and generate learning outcomes. The first stage – reflection – involves asking students to log events and journal reactions. The critical thinking phase asks students specific questions about these experiences, and the refraction stage invites them to suggest solutions and interact with others and their ideas about the same events or issues.

Whether or not the DEAL approach or refraction model are applied, it is useful to remember what Nancy Johnston from Simon Fraser University says about reflection as a means of assessment. “We are looking for evidence of reflection, which means that students are challenging their assumptions, appreciating different points of view, acknowledging the role of power and discourse, the limitations of their conclusions and in short moving from black and white understandings towards recognizing varied shades of gray.”

(image credit: Paul Worthington)

Making Teaching and Learning Visible at the University of Waterloo’s Teaching and Learning Conference – Julie Timmermans and Crystal Tse


 It is moving and inspiring to see 250 colleagues gathered for a day of thinking and talking about teaching and learning.  This year’s Teaching and Learning Conference took place on Thursday, April 30th, with over 200 people from the University of Waterloo and numerous colleagues from neighbouring universities participating in over forty research-based and practice-based sessions.

Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Ian Orchard, set the tone for the day: he opened the Conference by underscoring the value placed on teaching and developing as teachers at the University of Waterloo:

“The University of Waterloo values excellence in teaching, just as it does in research. […] Investing time in developing teachers is a vital aspect of fostering a culture that values teaching and learning and that develops teaching in a community environment.  This conference helps foster community, and makes the sharing of teaching experiences possible, creating a community of scholars of teaching.”

The theme of this year’s Conference was “Making Teaching and Learning Visible.” There is indeed much about teaching and learning that remains unintentionally hidden and unspoken.  And so, through this theme, we explored what we can do to clarify and communicate the processes underlying teaching and learning so that learners and teachers work towards the same outcomes.  We explored challenging and provocative questions, such as “How do we know what students already know, what they don’t know, and what they have learned?” and “How can we make the thinking underlying our instructional decisions more explicit for ourselves, our students, and our colleagues?”. Each of the day’s panel discussions, workshops, and presentations attempted to reveal and communicate assumptions or practices in some way.

Presidents’ Colloquium Keynote Speaker, Dr. Linda Nilson, pursued this theme in her talk, “Making Your Students’ Learning Visible: How Can We Know What They Know?”. During this session, Linda delved into one of the most common yet challenging questions we have as teachers: How can we gather evidence of and measure student learning? She advocated for setting measurable learning outcomes in our courses, and for ensuring alignment between these outcomes, teaching and learning strategies, and assessment methods. Drawing on examples from across the disciplines, Linda provided concrete strategies for measuring and interpreting gains in student learning.  If you’re intrigued by these ideas, you are welcome to download the slides and handouts from the keynote session, available through the Conference website.

A highlight of the Conference was the “Igniting Our Practice” session.  Two inspiring and award-winning University of Waterloo professors, Gordon Stubley, Associate Dean, Teaching in Engineering, and Jonathan Witt, Teaching Fellow in Biology, each taught us a concept from their courses and, in doing so, drew us into the ways of thinking of their disciplines. Does the impressive display of feathers in the tail of the male peacock serve an evolutionary purpose?  What do pre-tests reveal about fourth-year students’ knowledge of particular concepts in their third fluid dynamics course?   Through vivid examples, Gordon and Jonathan led us to think about designing teaching for student learning, and how we might integrate these ideas into our own teaching.

The Conference closed with a wine and cheese reception where colleagues had the opportunity to connect over a drink and some food.   Associate Vice President, Academic (AVP-A), Mario Coniglio closed the Conference, thanking people for their commitment to enhancing teaching and learning.  He also took time to recognize the many people who had contributed to the Conference, including the participants and presenters, the Teaching Fellows, members of the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE), people who chaired sessions and provided technical support, Creative Services, as well as FAUW.  At CTE, we’re particularly grateful for the vision and financial support AVP-A, Mario Coniglio, and Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Ian Orchard.

And now, it’s time to pursue the ideas that were sown at the Conference. And these actions have meaning and impact.  As Ian Orchard said,

 “All that you do as individuals allows students to be successful, allows teachers to be successful, and, if individuals are successful, the community is successful and therefore the University as a whole can be successful.  Thank you for all you do.”

For details about this year’s Conference, please visit the Conference website.  Planning for next year’s event has already begun!

(Image credit: Sanatanu Sen)