Courage in Teaching and Learning – by Julie Timmermans

Courage boulder
Photo by David Bruce, available under the Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives License

As events unfold globally and more personally, I have been reflecting a lot lately on the meaning of courage. And I’ve wondered, “How does courage manifest itself in teaching and learning?” I offer here a few reflections on some of the many instances of courage I have observed in learners and teachers.

In the fall, as I was teaching, I was struck by my students’ courage as they tried to adopt the language of a new discipline, and as they worked to make connections among ideas that they were just learning about, knowing they would be evaluated on these.

I was humbled by students’ willingness to admit when they did not understand something.

I was touched by their willingness to share personal struggles, such as loneliness, physical pain, mental distress, (likely) with the hope that these revelations would be met with a human response.

I was grateful for their efforts to analyze deeply their personal experiences and draw relevant connections to the material we were studying.

I was amazed at the student who had been so sick for over a week, but who came to class after a sleepless night because she didn’t want to miss our last day of class.

There are so many ways, too, in which we demonstrate courage as teachers:

  • by infusing our selfhood into our course material – teaching “who we are” and how we think, sometimes to many hundreds of students at a time
  • by trying instructional strategies we have never tried, with the hope that they will help student learning
  • by admitting that we don’t have the answer to a student’s question
  • by opening up the class to discussion, when we’re not quite sure in what direction the discussion will take us
  • by sharing an article or chapter that we’ve written as part of the course readings
  • by gathering with a group of our peers to work on our teaching and course design.

What instances of courage come to mind when you think about teachers and teaching, learners and learning? What do we/can we do individually and collectively to en-courage each other and ourselves in teaching and learning?

Author Parker J. Palmer offers a wonderful perspective on courage in teaching in his book, “The Courage to Teach”.

Learning from Challenge and Failure – Julie Timmermans


This year’s University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference theme, Leaning from Challenge and Failure, is an opportunity to open up discussions with our colleagues, our students, and ourselves around the beliefs we hold about challenges, setbacks, and failure in the context of teaching and learning at the University.

How do these beliefs shape the ways in which we teach, learn, and lead? How do we work to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking, growth through experimentation, and learning from our earnest attempts that lead to failure? What measures can we put in place to ensure that the members of our community have the opportunity to flounder, perhaps fail, and flourish?

During the Conference, we will explore not only challenges and failures, but the work of learning from these challenges and failures. The difficult cognitive and emotional work of learning from these experiences does not happen automatically or autonomously. It takes time and must be guided by people who care deeply about our development.

Airing our experiences of challenge and failure publically may certainly feel vulnerable and risky. But what might be the risks of not sharing these stories? Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) publishes annual ‘Failure Reports’ in which they highlight a dozen or so stories of failure – and learning from failure – in their international development efforts. This is risky in many ways – financially, for an organization that depends on contributions from donors; emotionally, for the people in the field sharing their stories. But EWB has determined that the benefits of disclosing these failures outweigh the costs of hiding them. Because hiding them does not help them, or other organizations, solve the problems which they are hoping to solve – poverty, access to clean water, food security, etc. This approach recognizes that we are involved in a collective endeavour to improve our communities.

As we began to introduce and discuss the Conference theme with others on campus, we discovered that conversations about failure, challenge, and resilience are already going on in residence rooms and in meetings rooms. Often, however, these rooms are behind closed doors. Through the Conference, we hope to bring these conversations out into the public spaces of our University – a learning organization – so that when we share our stories of innovation, experimentation, and publication, they integrate the stories of uncertainty, failed attempts, and rejections. Because the whole story of our successes often include failure. We hope that the Conference will be one space of many in which we can collectively explore our potential to learn and grow from challenge and failure.

For links to resources on learning from challenge and failure, including an excellent blog series from the Faculty of Arts Teaching Fellows and CTE’s Kyle Scholz, please visit the “Resources“section of the Conference website.

Register for the Conference

Exploring Curiosity about Teaching and Learning through LITE Grants

lightbulb_with_tree_220_wide_for_sidebar_0 The intent of The Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) Grants is to promote curiosity, reflection, and exploration in the areas of teaching and learning, with the ultimate purpose of fostering deep student learning. At uWaterloo, we have a vibrant community of faculty and staff members, graduate and undergraduate students involved in this exciting and important work.

Since the inception of the LITE grants just over two years ago, over 30 projects from across all six faculties have been funded. The range of project topics is rather remarkable and includes inquiries into online learning, experiential learning, case-based and community service learning, learning across disciplines, language learning, assessment, written communication, teamwork, and many more. Almost 90 people have been involved in a LITE Grant project. Indeed, most projects are collaborations – some within departments, others across departments or units. Several projects also include graduate or undergraduate students as co-applicants. For most projects, graduate or coop students are hired.

The LITE Grant website features descriptions of the projects and provides a forum for sharing resources generated by the projects, such as reference lists and presentation materials. We invite you to browse through the project descriptions, findings, and resources. You may find answers to a question you’ve had, ideas for a topic you’d like to explore, or the names of colleagues with whom you can connect to talk about shared interests in teaching and learning. We also invite you to consider applying for a grant. The next deadline is October 1, 2014 for the LITE Full Grants and February 1, 2015 for LITE Seed Grants.

Finally, we’re pleased to announce that nine new Seed Grant projects will begin this fall. For more information about the projects, please visit the LITE Grant website.

University of Waterloo’s Annual Teaching and Learning Conference: OND 2014 — Julie Timmermans

brass_compassThis year’s Opportunities and New Directions (OND) 2014 Conference took place on Thursday, May 1st.  We were excited and humbled by the participation of over 200 people, mainly from the University of Waterloo, but also from other local universities.  This made it clear that, as teachers at Waterloo, we are part of a growing, thriving community of people dedicated to teaching and learning.  The day began with an enthusiastic welcome by Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Geoff McBoyle.

The theme of this year’s Conference was “Rethinking and Reframing the Assessment of Learning.” A diverse array of panels, workshops, and presentations explored the many facets of assessment – from assessment practices in different disciplines, such as Math and English, to assessment in online, blended, and face-to-face environments.  Assessment at the course level, program level, and on work-terms was also explored by presenters who included faculty and staff members, as well as graduate and undergraduate students from across the disciplines.

There was an unmistakable and enduring excitement about the ideas presented by Presidents’ Colloquium Keynote Speaker, Dr. John Bean.  During his session, John explored how students’ growth as disciplinary thinkers can be enhanced by integrating problem-based writing assignments into our courses, whether we teach in the humanities, sciences, or social sciences.  John also explored how using writing can  be useful for assessing not only learning outcomes related to writing, but also for assessing skills that are critical in the formation of disciplinary thinkers – skills, such as inquiry, research, critical thinking, and problem-solving.  If you’re intrigued by these ideas, you are welcome to download the handouts from the keynote session, available through the Conference website: .  In her lead article in the CTE Newsletter coming out later in May, Donna Ellis, Director of CTE, also explains and reflects on John’s session.

Another highlight of the day was the “Igniting Our Practice” session.  Kelly Anthony, AHS’s Teaching Fellow, and Hamid Jahed, Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, drew us into the learning spaces they create for their students by teaching us a concept from their own courses.  As Hamid noted when he began his session, both he and Kelly addressed the idea of “structural stability,” but did so from very different perspectives.  Kelly explored the stability – and fragility – of some of our social structures, and took us on an emotional journey of the experience of youth in foster care.  She discussed how collaborating with members of the wider community can be a powerful teaching tool.  Hamid also explored the idea of structural stability, this time from an Engineering perspective. Through engaging demonstrations involving broken rulers and crushed pop cans, Hamid brought to life the concept of how structures behave under load.  Hamid and Kelly’s session was inspiring and moving, generating thoughtful questions from the audience.

The Conference closed with a wine and cheese reception.  It was time to connect with colleagues over a drink and some food.   Associate Vice President, Academic (AVP-A), Mario Coniglio closed the Conference, thanking the many people who had contributed to the Conference, including the participants, the Teaching Fellows, members of CTE, the people who had provided technical support, CTE’s Co-op students, as well as FAUW for generously sponsoring the delectable breakfast following the Presidents’ Colloquium.  At CTE, we’re particularly grateful for the vision and support of the current AVP-A, Mario Coniglio, and Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Geoff McBoyle.

And now, it’s time to pursue the ideas that were sown at the Conference.  We look forward to learning about the ways in which those ideas have developed at OND 2015.

For details about the Conference, please visit the OND 2014 website: .

This post also appears as an article in the May 2014 CTE Newsletter

New LITE Grant Recipients Announced

Photo by Sharon Drummond
Photo by Sharon Drummond; retrieved from Creative Commons; license agreement


In collaboration with the Office of the Associate Vice President, Academic, the Centre for Teaching Excellence is pleased to announce that two LITE Full Grant projects were funded through the October 2013 competition.  Congratulations to the recipients!





Project: A Comparison of Traditional and Experiential Approaches to First-Year Geomatics Instruction
Grant recipients: Peter Johnson, Peter Deadman, and Richard Kelly, Department of Geography and Environmental Management

Project: Enhancing Written Communication in Social Work
Grant recipients: Alice Schmidt Hanbidge, School of Social Work and Judi Jewinski, Provost’s Office

The purpose of the LITE Grants is to provide support for experimenting with and investigating innovative approaches to enhancing teaching that aim to foster deep student learning at the University of Waterloo.  Two kinds of grants are available: LITE Seed Grants for one-year projects up to $5,000, and LITE Full Grants for two-year projects up to $30,000. Both grant formats emphasize the contribution of the project to the University of Waterloo learning community.

For more information about the grants and to browse the descriptions and findings of completed LITE Grant projects, please visit the LITE Grant website.

Posted by: Julie Timmermans






Safely Exploring Unsettling Questions — Julie Timmermans

Photo by Wink, Creative Commons,
Photo by Wink, Creative Commons,

Last month, I attended a conference on the theory and practice of adult development. The conference left me feeling profoundly unsettled and yet, inspired, in a way that no other conference ever has. I see this state of “unsettledness” in a positive way. Organisms need something to disturb their current state of balance in order to grow. For humans, this kind of disturbance of our current ways of knowing and being can lead us to new, more expansive, ways of understanding and being in the world.I’d like to share some of the questions and ideas I found unsettling during conference, as I think they may be of value as we design learning experiences for students and for ourselves – experiences that may be unsettling, but that may ultimately lead to growth.

• What are the big questions in our field?
• Are there deeper levels to the questions we’re asking?
• What does the theory not explain?
• What is the larger stage for the work of our field?
• Is there a deeper purpose behind this work?
• Imagine the best society. What would it look like? What am I doing (through my work) to contribute to this vision?

At the conference, we were invited to explore these questions. To fully engage in exploring them, both individually and collectively, required a certain amount of courage. Yet, rather than leaving each day of the three-day gathering feeling disheartened or disillusioned in the face of these rather unsettling ideas, participants appeared to feel uplifted and hopeful. And this is where the very intentional design of the learning environment seemed to play a crucial role. The conference hosts designed a program that accomplished two goals: it invited people not only to share knowledge, but it also provided a safe environment in which to explore the frontiers of our knowing – that is, our not knowing. This reminded me of the powerful potential of course design to create learning spaces that fill us up, shake us up, lift us up, and ask us to make connections to the world beyond the classroom.

Celebrating Five Years of Opportunities and New Directions in Teaching and Learning at uWaterloo — Julie Timmermans

OND compassThe theme of this year’s  Conference — “Barriers and Breakthroughs: Accounts of Change in Teaching and Learning” – reminded us that one of the most important things we can do to facilitate teaching and learning is to talk to each other, to exchange honest accounts of the teaching strategies that have worked and those that have failed.  Presenters included faculty and staff members, graduate and undergraduate students from across the disciplines who explored obstacles and frustrations faced, but also breakthroughs experienced – pivotal moments when new possibilities for teaching or learning became evident.

During the Presidents’ Colloquium keynote address, David Pace and Leah Shopkow from Indiana University Bloomington led us through the “Decoding the Disciplines” model – a framework for helping to identify and “decode” the “bottlenecks” that students experience in their learning, and to determine how we might motivate learners and assess their understanding of those often tricky conceptual stumbling blocks.  Their ideas left us with a new lens with which to examine the design of our courses.

Another highlight of the day was the “Igniting Our Practice” plenary session during which Jean Andrey, Carey Bissonnette, and Troy Glover – three of uWaterloo’s outstanding faculty members – taught us concepts for their own courses.  We learned about a bit about Chinooks, a bit about Chemistry, a bit about assessing outcomes, rather than outputs, and a lot about how to teach with expertise, panache, and a good measure of humour.   It was evident why these three instructors are beloved by their students.

The Conference closed with a wine and cheese reception and, as befitting an anniversary celebration – a cake.  It was a time to eat, relax, connect with colleagues, and to thank the many people who had contributed to the success of the Conference.  We’re particularly grateful to the current Associate Vice President, Academic, Mario Coniglio, and the past AVP-A, Geoff McBoyle, for lending their vision and financial support to the Conference.  And, once again, FAUW generously sponsored refreshments following the Presidents’ Colloquium.

And now, it’s time to pursue the ideas that were sown at the Conference.  We look forward to learning about the ways in which those ideas have developed at next year’s OND.

For an overview of the Conference, please visit the OND 2013 website.  Presentations and materials from the day will be posted within the next few weeks.