The Value of Saying No: An Exercise in Reframing — Donna Ellis

Crossed hands As an academic support unit, we are in the business of helping others.  But it goes beyond simply service – we help instructors to help themselves.  The reach and scope of our services can feel quite large since teaching and learning are so foundational to the university, and we receive numerous requests for our assistance.  Our staff members’ interests and ideas for projects are also quite broad.  However, sometimes we have to say no to requests we receive or ideas we generate.  Is this ever a good idea? Continue reading The Value of Saying No: An Exercise in Reframing — Donna Ellis

A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Amanda Garcia
Amanda Garcia, PhD Candidate in Systems Design Engineering

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.

Continue reading A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

Active learning is “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes” (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 2). Examples include team debates, think-pair-share, team-based learning, and using clickers or other technology to provide opportunities for discussion (for more on active learning, see our Active Learning Tip Sheet).

Photo taken at the back of a 200-seat lecture hall looking toward the front white board.
One of Waterloo’s large classrooms

But what happens when there are 300 students in your classroom? Many of these techniques scale to larger settings although they require additional planning. To help with designing and running these activities, I think about four design elements. For each element, I ask myself a set of questions to help plan the activity.

Continue reading Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

A Day of Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning

What drives curiosity in our classrooms? Can curiosity be fostered or taught? These were just a few of the questions on the table at the University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference on April 27. Our ninth annual conference, this year’s event brought together over 320 participants from across all Faculties at Waterloo and neighbouring universities to explore the role curiosity plays in teaching and learning. University of Waterloo’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Feridun Hamdullahpur, opened the conference with a territory acknowledgment and shared personal reflections on teaching and learning that highlighted the connections between this year’s conference theme, Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning, and last year’s conference, Learning from Challenge and Failure.

Curiosity is at the heart of inquiry and exploration and is a powerful motivator for learning. It speaks to our innate interest in seeking out novel ideas, and applies well to the learning process our students engage in every day. Curiosity also has real-life consequences—psychological research demonstrates that curiosity is linked to greater well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and expressing gratitude) and can also serve as positive motivation—studies show that curiosity can lead people to ask more questions, explore novel stimuli, and persevere when faced with difficult tasks. Continue reading A Day of Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning

From crisis to crisis: teaching in challenging times

A stressed out figure with head on desk surrounded by books
Bonhomme Stressed

I don’t know if it’s some kind of confirmation bias as I think about all the people around me, but this past term has seemed much more stressful for many staff, faculty, and students on campus. Including me! Burnout among students and instructors seems more prevalent than in prior terms.

I suspect that it may have something to do with uncertainties and the erosion of rights on every front as we all live through the (very real) simulacrum that is the 45th U.S. President right now, coupled with the ways in which media outlets and social media amplify certain kinds of story.

There are things that happen in the world over which we have no control, but that are part of an increasingly invasive news cycle. Even the weather network seems in constant panic mode with “Alerts” and “Special Statements” that, when opened, say little more than that typical seasonal weather is about to happen.

In the face of events that make the news ticker and get amplified by friends and family, it is often difficult to know what and what not to do in the classroom. Faculty have expressed to me a deep sense of care about how they themselves, and how their students, can best handle daily news of crises. One of the most cited web-based resources out there is a Vanderbilt University guide called Teaching in Times of Crisis. Originally written in 2001, after 9-11, it was updated by Nancy Chick in 2013.

The gist of this well-researched piece is that we should say *something* about a crisis event in class, but we should say it while also referring students (and ourselves I think!) to available resources. I strongly encourage people to spend some time reading this piece; it’s helped a lot of us to address things head-on in classes rather than ignoring the “elephant in the room.” These crises may be local or global — everything from bombings to stories about sexual assault, from school shootings to the removal of same-sex marriage rights.

I wonder, too, whether this is something that is mainly a question for people in social science, environmental or health studies, or arts disciplines, or whether colleagues teaching large first year classes in, say, Engineering or Physics or Math also think about this stuff? In my experience, yes, but it’s not as directly relevant to the topic of the week (as it may well be in my Women’s Studies first-year lecture).

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in STEM Education- Mahmoud A. Allam


As part of the CUT program that I have recently completed, I was required to conduct a research project on university teaching. I decided to do my research on an effective interactive teaching/learning method. The first thought that came to my mind was to reflect on my own learning: what is the most effective way for me to learn something new? Thinking back to my undergraduate studies in Engineering, I recalled that my most enjoyable learning experience was the senior-year capstone project, where we were given a real-world problem, and we had to work in groups to come up with a design that fulfills all the project requirements. It was my first time to realize that authentic projects were not as simple as well-structured problems in textbooks. Although it was a challenging experience with all the practical obstacles that we often encountered, it was the most effective way to get hands-on experience on many concepts that we had to put together to successfully achieve our goal. Even by reflecting on my past MSc and current PhD research works, I came to realize that researchers follow almost the same approach to learn new concepts and skills to complete their research – we face a problem, we self-study and learn until we reach a solution. My conclusion after a brief research was that one of the most effective teaching/learning philosophies, especially in STEM disciplines, was “Learning by Doing”, which encompasses Project-Based Learning. So, here I started asking myself questions: can we, university teachers, embrace similar strategies in teaching most (or all) our subjects instead of limiting it to upper-year subjects? how can we gradually train our students to be independent thinkers rather than lecturing them? what frameworks do exist for this type of teaching, and how to implement them? Finally and most importantly, are these methods really effective, or is it just my personal thought/experience?

I started my research on Project-Based Learning, and surprisingly ended up researching its “sibling”, Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching method that was first introduced in medical education where the students work in groups to solve ill-structured, open-ended, and authentic (i.e., real-world) problems. In this approach, the whole subject is structured as a set of problems that cover different topics of the course. The instructor here acts more like a facilitator than a lecturer. He/she is primarily responsible for guiding the students rather than teaching them, while the students mostly self-teach the material. To better understand the whole process of PBL, let’s have a look at the the following chart.

When introducing a new problem in a session, the facilitator provides the problem statement to a group of learners (5-10 students), and helps them Identify the Problem. Next, the facilitator lets them brainstorm to Generate Hypotheses on the possible causes of the problem and to think about Possible Mechanisms to solve it. The learners from this point can Identify their Learning Issues (i.e., what they need to learn and how to learn it). At this point, the facilitator’s role is to make sure that the learners are on the right track, but not to identify the learning goals for them. As the session ends, the students begin their journey of exploring the available resources (e.g., textbooks, online resources … etc.) to Self Study the subject. The group of learners meet with the tutor again to Re-evaluate and Apply their New Knowledge: have they acquired enough knowledge to solve the problem? were their initial hypotheses correct and/or complete? are there more learning issues they were not aware of? Finally, the students are given a chance to Asses and Reflect on their Learning. They should give each other feedback about their contributions to learning, and evaluate the group work. The cycle is then repeated as the learners generate new hypotheses about the problem with the new acquired knowledge and skills until they finally achieve a solution, or sometimes many possible solutions. As we can see, the process does not include lectures at all; it is a fully student-centered method.

Although the original definition of PBL comprises complete “self-directedness” of learners and “ill-structuredness” of problems, instructors have often adopted different versions of PBL that better suit their subjects and teaching goals. For instance, Project-Based Learning is considered one form of PBL where problems are partially well-structured and learning is partially self-led and partially instructor-led. Other methods such as Case-Based Learning and Anchored Instruction also lie under the big umbrella of PBL. In general, PBL has gone a long way in medical education. It is, however, not often implemented in STEM disciplines even though it has proved effective by those who have applied it. I believe that the challenges associated with such an advanced method, such as the students’ resistance, shortage of resources, and lack of experience with the method, are still a burden against wider application of PBL in STEM schools. However, if we look at the other side, the potential benefits of this method can outweigh its challenges. Who wouldn’t want STEM graduates who possess highly developed communication, teamwork, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills? Who wouldn’t want self-directed students with deep and long-lasting knowledge? Who wouldn’t want learners that have acquired hands-on experience for their years of university education?

After researching the method and considering its various aspects, I went back to  reflect on my very first questions. Can we implement this philosophy in most (if not all) STEM subjects? Yes, we can; instructors have already done that in many courses at different levels. How can we teach our students to be independent learners? Just let them practice self-directed learning, but it takes patience and lots of guidance at the beginning from their instructors. What frameworks to use to attain that? We are lucky that hundreds of people have already developed, experimented, and reported numerous teaching approaches that follow the same philosophy. The PBL approach explained above is just a glimpse of one approach. All we need to do is to merely research and find the most appropriate strategy for our subjects and students. My last question was: are these methods really helpful? Well, the research results have been generally positive and encouraging in that regard. So, I have personally decided to apply some sort of PBL in my next teaching opportunity. It may take more work, but I strongly believe it is worth the extra effort.

Top image provided by Ohio University Libraries under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Debunking the Learning Styles Myth – Crystal Tse

Photo of a person's brain outlined into aidfferent sections
Image provided by William Creswell under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Franz Josef Gall was a neuroscientist in the 1700s who developed phrenology, a field that attributed specific mental functions to different parts of the brain (i.e., that certain bumps on a person’s head would indicate their personality traits). This field has since then been widely discredited as pseudoscience. It is often comforting to be able to categorize things and put people into neat boxes, and phrenology is one example of this tendency. Learning styles is another example.

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning the work best for them. There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report on learning styles state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can certainly have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style. In a recent study, Rogowsky and colleagues conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught – learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

Instead of fixating on learning styles, I recommend we instead focus on engaging our learners in and outside the class (by using active learning strategies where appropriate – there is good evidence that active learning benefits learners in STEM classrooms, for example). As instructors we can also try vary our teaching methods so all students have a way into the material. Lastly, learning doesn’t always have to feel easy – research from growth mindsets shows us that feeling challenged and failure itself is important for students’ learning and growth.