Debunking Brain Myths – Crystal Tse

Image provided by NICHD under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

During the first lecture of introductory psychology, I usually give my students a true/false quiz containing myths about the brain (and other areas of psychology). Invariably students mark down some of these statements as true, and we spend much of the class dispelling these myths.

We use 10% of our brain

We see this myth perpetuated in the movie Lucy where the main character is able to reach her “full” potential by taking a drug that allows her to tap into the remaining 90 percent of her brain. She’s instantly smarter and even gains superpowers like telepathy. We know however, from ample research and basic knowledge about how the brain works, that this is not true.

The human brain only weighs on average 3 pounds (compare that to a sperm whale’s 17 pound brain!), but it takes up 20 percent of our body’s resources (e.g., oxygen, glucose). For such a small organ it’s pretty resource intensive, and for good reason. The brain is made up of tons of networks of neurons (the basic unit of our nervous system) constantly talking to each other, and brain imaging techniques such as fMRI scans have shown that our brains are constantly active over a 24-hour period. Your brain is working even when you’re unconscious—research shows that your memories are consolidated and transferred to long-term memory stores during sleep. Lastly, in studies of trauma to the brain, significant dysfunction can occur even when small areas of the brain are damaged, and that’s because we have evolved specific functions for particular areas of the brain and need all of them working together. Continue reading Debunking Brain Myths – Crystal Tse

Announcing new Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) Seed Grant Recipients

Photo of lightbulb with tree insideThe Office of the Associate Vice President, Academic, the Centre for Teaching Excellence, and the Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education are pleased to announce that 7 LITE Seed Grant projects have recently been funded. We are pleased to note that LITE Grants involve collaborations across departments/units, faculties, and institutions.

Information about the LITE Grants

The LITE Grants provide support for investigating innovative approaches to enhancing teaching with a focus on fostering deep student learning at the University of Waterloo. Two kinds of grants are available: LITE Seed Grants fund projects up to $5,000, and LITE Full Grants fund projects up to $30,000.

The next LITE grant application deadline on October 1 is for the Full grants.

The annual LITE Seed Grant application deadlines are February 1 and June 1.

For more information about the grants, please visit the LITE Grant website. If you are considering applying for a grant and would like to discuss your project, please contact Crystal Tse or Kristin Brown at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Important note: There have been a few changes to the LITE grant application process. Please carefully review the revised application guidelines and contact Crystal or Kristin if you have any questions.

Teaching and Learning Library Research Guide

The Teaching and Learning Library Research Guide (created by the Library, Centre for Teaching Excellence and The Office of Research Ethics) is a step-by-step guide and resource for individuals who are interested in and/or engaged in conducting research on teaching and learning. This guide includes:

    • Refresher on research skills and keywords related to teaching and learning to use in your literature search
    • Resources on getting started on conducting teaching and learning research
    • Relevant journals, organizations, websites, and blogs
    • Learning assessment tools used in the literature
    • Resources on ethical considerations on conducting research with students as participants


Light bulb image provided by Matt Walker under the Creative Commons “Attribution-ShareAlike” license.

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

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.

Course Design Broke my Brain – Crystal Tse

Aaron Silvers Attribution

I took Course Design Fundamentals a few weeks ago, and it broke my brain – in a good way! I have taught before, but this was a great opportunity for me to revisit the course that I’ve been teaching for the past few years from a fresh perspective.

Here are a couple of my take-aways from this workshop that lays out the best practices for course design:

  • Alignment, alignment, alignment – between the intended learning outcomes for your students in the course, the course activities, and the assessment of students’ learning. It was great to have this connection made explicit. However, it was also a jarring experience as some of the concepts I wanted my students to learn were not made explicit in the activities the students engaged in. Time to remedy that!
  • Concept maps for your course are tough to make! I had never created one before for my course and was at a loss at first of how to structure it and what the main concepts I wanted my students to get out of my course. A bit of brainstorming and lots of sticky notes later, I finally fleshed out the main concepts. Two of them were actually not about course content. One was about helping first year students transition to university life (e.g., coping with stress effectively, how to study and take tests). I spend my first lecture telling students about my own experiences as a first year student – that it’s difficult and stressful, but that this stress was temporary and would soon be overcome. I revisit this point by telling stories of my own failures and successes, talking about healthy living, and checking in with students throughout the term. Another way to help with students’ transition is to build community in your classroom so students have support networks they can draw on in times of stress and uncertainty.
  • The other concept was to encourage metacognitive skills (i.e., how to encourage students to reflect and think about their own learning). I do different lecture wrappers (e.g., one minute summaries where students spend a minute writing about the main take-away from the class and what questions they still have that can be addressed in the next class). CTE has a great tipsheet on strategies you can use to encourage self-regulation in students’ learning that can be quick and don’t require a complete overhaul of your course. There are also many evidence-based strategies based on psychological research that can help students study more effectively and engage in more critical thinking.
  • Thinking more about incorporating students’ own experiences into the course in addition to my own perspective. Students come with a wealth of prior knowledge and life experiences that can be drawn on. In the past I have solicited students’ anonymous comments about a topic in the course (especially one that can be particularly controversial or sensitive) prior to class so they are ready for discussion. I’m excited to do this more!


Image provided by Aaron Silvers under the Creative Commons “Attribution” 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.

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)