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.

A full roster of 34 research and practice-based sessions and 7 poster presentations engaged with curiosity in teaching and learning. These sessions brought together the work of instructors, graduate students, and staff members from across campus and across disciplines. Thought-provoking questions were explored, such as “How do we ignite students’ curiosity about our fields?,” “How can we teach students to ask meaningful questions that draw on facts, hunches, unusual connections, and imagination?,” and “How can we be curious about our students’ learning, motivations, and goals?”

In his keynote talk, Dr. Peter Felten, Professor of history at Elon University and Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning and Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, kicked off the conference by asking, “Can We Teach Curiosity?” In his interactive talk, Felten asked participants to consider curiosity as a set of practices—as something that can be cultivated—rather than a personality trait. Recognizing curiosity as something instructors can nurture in students, Felten then asked how we know when students are curious. What signs do they give us? Felten gave instructors concrete strategies to cultivate curiosity in students, such as encouraging our students to be curious by acting curious, creating low stakes activities and assignments that invite students to ask questions and explore ideas rather than present the correct answer, capitalizing on concepts in your field that your students can be curious about, and prompting students to reflect on their own curiosity. He gave participants the opportunity to reflect on the teaching strategies and opportunities that we currently use (and could potentially use in the future) that encourage students to ask “why.”

The conference also featured a special “Igniting Our Practice” session. Two inspiring University of Waterloo instructors, Drs Vivian Dayeh (Biology) and Brent Doberstein (Geography and Environmental Management) recreated the learning spaces they design for their students by demonstrating how they ignite their students’ curiosity about their field and course. During the session, Dayeh showed participants that creative analogies can be used in our teaching by asking the audience to act like axons—an activity that she uses to demonstrate to students how neurons in the brain communicate with each. Doberstein demonstrated a model for involving the public in decision-making with the nominal group technique—he asked the audience to vote on different initiatives in the Waterloo region. Both speakers pointed out that their teaching demonstrations involved physical, as well as mental, components of learning, and that certain strategies can make concepts “stick” for students.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who contributed to the conference. We are especially grateful for the vision of the conference and financial support from the Associate Vice-President, Academic, Mario Coniglio. We also want to thank the Teaching Fellows, who were essential in shaping and promoting the conference. Departments across campus were also vital in promoting the conference.

We would like to extend many thanks to staff from Information Systems and Technology, Creative Services, and Community Relations who enabled the day to be documented in a variety of ways. We also thank Catering and Event Services for providing delicious food for participants every year as well as managing the registrations and logistics of the day, and we thank the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo generously sponsoring breakfast for the conference.

Lastly, we thank the presenters who contributed their time and expertise to an exciting program that ignited lively and important discussions around teaching and learning. We hope you continue these discussions with each other.

For further details about this year’s conference, please visit the conference website. We look forward to welcoming you at the University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference in 2018.

Published by

Crystal Tse

As the Instructional Developer, Research and Consulting at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Crystal Tse supports faculty and staff members on conducting research on teaching and learning by providing consultations, facilitating workshops on designing teaching and learning research projects, adjudicating the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement Grants, and chairing University of Waterloo’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference.

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