Better Teaching Through Chemistry — Dylon McChesney

analogyBecause I do research in philosophy, it might be confusing to some people why I talk about the hard sciences so much in relation to teaching. The reason is simple: philosophy is very abstract, and abstract things are not so easy to understand, thus I look to outside disciplines for strategies to concretize ideas. It turns out, of course, that philosophy has no monopoly on abstraction. Dorothy Gale (1999) shows that even elementary chemistry, that is, the kind of material covered in grade school, is abstract and “inexplicable without the use of analogies or models.” It is easy to assume that because a subject has to do with the natural world (for example) that it is de facto concrete, but this assumption is harmful to pedagogy.

Chemistry—like so many other things—is taught through dividing the world into hierarchical levels of abstraction: we establish the relationship between macro level phenomena like a glass of water, and the sub-micro level (H20) of that same phenomena. Simple, right? Well, as Gale notes in the aforementioned article, there are numerous obstacles to strengthening the understanding of each level and how they are interrelated. One obstacle is language choice. Many technical terms have different meanings when used in everyday communication, which can lead to a situation where a “student will be thinking one thing, the instructor another” (ibid.). Surely this situation is a nearly universal academic experience, a kind of growing pain for students and (hopefully) a wakeup call for instructors. Philosophers could be more self-aware that the term “realism” refers to a class of ideas that probably seem anything but realistic, and what counts as a valid argument in formal logic can look like a completely invalid argument from a common sense perspective. So, one thing we can all learn from Chemistry is to anticipate a struggle to “override” intuitive, non-technical definitions and concepts. From the privileged perspective of hindsight bias, these struggles might seem trivial, but they are not.

Perhaps the problem of technical language use is obvious, but what is likely less obvious is how we do—and how we should—use analogies in teaching. If Chemistry (taken here to be paradigmatic) is “inexplicable without the use of analogies or models” then we need to be very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of analogies. A convenient example is the Bohr “solar system” model of the atom. Because atomic particles are unobservable, they are much more difficult to conceptualize than dogs, trees, or even the components of cells which can at least be viewed through microscopes. But since planets are observable, a solar system is relatively easy to conceptualize. Drawing an analogy between a solar system and an atom (where the “star” is the nucleus and “orbiting planets” are electrons) allows for some visualization and a sort of functional template of understanding. This is extremely powerful! Unfortunately, sometimes these templates can cause misunderstandings. The Bohr model of the atom, despite its elegant simplicity, is not the best model. In fact, we now know it is misleading; yet for many the cognitive damage is already done and the inherent virtue of learning through connections will consequently be difficult to reverse.  Thus we have a ubiquitous example of how analogies can help and hurt all at once; although we need them to teach and learn, we also need to learn how to teach with them carefully. While it is unlikely that many of us will be able to anticipate specific paradigm shifts, such as transition from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, we need to at least anticipate that some paradigm shifts are likely on the horizon. Analogies and models are indispensable, but promoting a critical stance and stressing the limitations of our best knowledge-generating tools might be even more so.

Although the objects of analysis differ substantially from discipline to discipline, ultimately we all face the same difficulty: making the leap from unknown to known. For both the arts and sciences this leap is theoretical and requires special attention to methodology. Since our theoretic knowledge of, well, almost everything, is so dependent on analogy, we are impelled to reflect on how it factors into our teaching in order to use it to its full potential.


Gale, D. 1999. Improving Teaching and Learning through Chemistry Education Research: A Look to the Future. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4).

Simulating a National Security Crisis: Learning Security in the Classroom — Zainab Ramahi and Amy Wood

soldiersOn the centennial anniversary of the First World War, high school students from across Waterloo Region gathered at the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s (CIGI) sixth annual Global Youth Forum to commemorate WWI and to place its composite events in historical and global context. Students from the University of Waterloo’s Political Science department led 120 participants through three role-playing simulations to learn about the decision-making processes and major players involved in difficult situations.[1] In this post we explore the potential of simulations to support high school students in understanding complex security themes.

In each of three simulations—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, and the detention of Omar Khadr in 2002—students were faced with the reality of making difficult choices in time-sensitive scenarios in which they had incomplete information. The simulation characters had diverse roles—a soldier, a civilian, a Central Intelligence Agency operative etc.—and each choice a participant made would have consequences for themselves, their community and their country’s security. Students grappled with questions of ethics and national security (who is considered a terrorist? what is the role of civilians turned militants in a conflict? what is an appropriate state response to a security threat?) and became more keenly aware of the inter-play of interests, behaviours and decisions.

By including both historical and contemporary scenarios, the simulation worked to show students the weight, magnitude and complexity of security decisions. The simulation presented challenging ideas to students in a way that they were able to concretize. This bridge between ideas and understanding was empathy. One tool to encourage empathetic reasoning this was the use of profile cards which provided a narrative of each simulation character. This prompted participants to think about their decisions through a particular lens—whether ideological, normative or through their character’s personality traits—particularly when they did not have complete information or intelligence. As the simulation progressed, students became increasingly invested in achieving their character’s objectives and ultimately in their character’s outcome.

There were, however, limitations to students’ ability to conceptualize the scenario. In the case of Omar Khadr, students found it challenging to consider the real or perceived conflict between security and civil liberties. Decisions were often based on consequences for an individual character, rather than on their mandate, an ethical code, or the population they represented.

Through two years of creating and running simulations with high school students, we have learned several lessons. Inclusion of the following elements can increase the relevance and success of the simulation:

  • Multiple facilitators with a strong grasp of the simulation’s characters, decisions and outcomes, and who can guide or challenge students and their decisions when necessary;
  • Commensurate educational materials that give greater historical context for the simulations and a foundational knowledge of key themes that can be taught before or after the simulation;
  • An incentive—such as a participation grade—to encourage students to treat the simulation as realistically as possible, and to invest in their character; and
  • Post-simulation discussion questions with adequate time to allow students to reflect on their experience. This is an opportunity for students to consider their decisions, help develop their own thought processes, and apply the simulation’s learnings to present day socio-political phenomena.

By commemorating the anniversary of WWI using simulation, students realized in more concrete terms the decisions that catalyzed the war. The simulation encouraged students to empathize with their character, make decisions based on the supplied information, and allowed to students to understand challenging concepts perhaps more quickly or fully than in the classroom alone. The simulation was also a valuable recruiting tool as it provided students an opportunity to reason through complex issues with the University of Waterloo students at the facilities of the Balsillie School. A coordinator’s package—based on the Guidelines for Ontario High School Curriculum—is available to high school teachers interested in using these simulation exercises. For more information about security simulations and for additional resources, please contact Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

About the authors: Zainab Ramahi recently graduated with her Bachelor of Knowledge Integration from the University of Waterloo. Amy Wood has a Master of Arts in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Together with Dr. Veronica Kitchen, they developed the security simulations discussed here. A CTE Teaching Story on Dr. Kitchen is available here.

[1] The simulation is also suitable for undergraduate classrooms and it was first conducted in a second year World Politics course taught by Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

The Culture of Sharing in Teaching and Learning — Christine Zaza

group workSocial engagement is front and centre in today’s teaching and learning environment, and the proliferation of technological applications makes it easier than ever for students to connect with one another.

As a Centre, we encourage instructors to engage students.  This often involves some form of peer learning activity where students work together to share ideas, debate, solve problems, provide feedback, reach consensus on test questions, create a project, etc.  Even with introspective reflective activities, we encourage students to share their reflections and provide feedback to one another.  These highly social activities take place in the face-to-face classroom and in online spaces alike, through the learning management system and/or through one of the many social media tools designed to connect large groups of people in a dedicated online space.  I think it’s safe to say that the academy values sharing and collaboration in teaching and learning.  There is much evidence to suggest that students also value sharing and collaboration in learning.

Judging from students’ widespread use of applications such as Facebook, Piazza, Snapchat, Instagram, QQ, Yik Yak, and others, it seems that a great many students are comfortable in a culture of connecting virtually with fellow students to share their opinions, ideas, and knowledge.   I’ve recently learned that for many students, participation in these online forums is driven by prosocial values.   In this day and age where wide-spread sharing is easy and immediate, several issues concerning academic integrity arise.

One issue is that we sometimes see excessive collaboration on assessments and assignments that were meant to be completed individually.  But when we encourage peer learning and even peer evaluation, how do students know when they’ve crossed the line?  Indeed, how do students know where the line is when that line is not explicitly defined in the first place, and shifts from one course to another?  How do we help students determine what “original work” looks like when they’ve discussed their ideas with peers and their peers have provided feedback?  When we promote peer learning, how do we define excessive collaboration?

Another issue is that it has become common to see course assignments, class notes, lecture recordings, lab reports, midterms, and essays can be quickly and easily shared, traded, bought, and/or sold on the internet. In fact, some websites use prosocial language to attract students who are looking for “study resources” to help them “build a better learning community” in order to “excel” (   Awareness of these shared “resources” may be common knowledge among students.  Are they common knowledge among instructors?  Are instructors aware of the backdrop of sharing that happens outside of the course learning management system?  If so, how does this awareness influence their decisions around course design?   Is there anything that instructors can do to prevent their teaching materials from being posted publically?  What do we tell students who worry that their original work will be posted publically (or worse, sold) by a peer with whom they have shared it in a peer evaluation activity?

These are just some of the concerns that affect those of us who teach and learn at university today. Perhaps students, administrators, and instructors can, and should, connect with one another to share their thoughts about how to navigate teaching and learning in this culture of sharing.

Speaking and Visibility: How Google Docs Can Create Co-Presence in Non-Arts Classrooms — Sara Humphreys

Be visibleI work in the Faculty of Math at the University of Waterloo. I was hired as part of a massive project to rethink communications for both native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English. This initiative came about after university administrators learned that scores for the standardized test measuring English competency (the English Language Proficiency Exam or ELPE) were so low that students were unable to do the work required of them in their courses – this, of course, was disastrous for the students, who pay exorbitant tuition as international students.

While some faculties are still using the ELPE, based on this information, the Faculty of Math dumped the ELPE and partnered with both UW’s and St. Jerome’s English departments to shift from simply using a standardized test to measure language skills to actually supplying support for the high percentage of international student that comprise students the Faculty of Math (over 80%).w

I teach a course called ENGL119 Communications in Math & Computer Science, in which approx. 80 -90% of the students I teach are international students, on average, and of that 80%-90%, maybe 20% are female. While I am very glad to see the changes made by the Faculty of Math, I find there is still a gap in the support systems offered non-native-English speakers, namely for specific marginalized populations within the  Faculty of Math.

My focus is on providing supportive, safe environments for female multilingual student: these students face tremendous systemic racism and sexism, even if they do not realize it (and most do not – when we have discussed this issue in class, these women tend to blame themselves – stating, for example, that they need to simply work harder).


Here we need to turn to Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of co-presence. When these female students are silenced or self-silence (for self-protection), the university loses the voices of these talented students. Their co-presence (active, vocal presence) in the contact zone of the university – the space where cultures of different geographies, histories, languages and cultures intersect – is required to imagine news ways of learning and being. Just to give you an example of these student voices, the following excerpts are by female multilingual students, who were working in an online collaborative environment designed by WordPress and Desire 2 Learn – here, students could interact with each others’ personal pages (this is representative student work – I find most math students are community-minded):

From a personal statement on how math should be taught:

“We should be entitled to the freedom to express and share our personal understandings and experiences in certain disciplines. While this is usually inherent in the arts disciplines, personal understandings and experiences also play an indispensable part in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines to reach out to the general public. We feel connected if we share similar emotions or experiences, and the desire to connect motivates us to learn proactively. Last but not least, we should be entitled to the freedom to diminish the barriers between different disciplines and connect them in varying ways. Blurring the borders between different fields helps us to understand them from diverse perspectives. More importantly, connections between different disciplines bring people interested in these areas together and encourage them to explore themselves from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

From a biography statement:

“Coming from a low-income area in Pakistan, I was determined to change the conservative mindset that prevails in my hometown where the women are considered homemakers and denied equal opportunities. Therefore, I taught in Mathematics in a government school in my hometown. I emphasized the importance of education and women empowerment to the few girls attending the school. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to study abroad at a prestigious university like the University of Waterloo, so that I could set an example for the rest of the girls back home and encourage them to strive for the best.  I also want to further develop my knowledge and thrive to achieve academic success so that I could go back home and make a difference.”

Amazing – right? These women deserve support, encouragement and safe spaces free from the threat of stereotypes (or worse), in which they can thrive.

According to a study conducted by Emily Shaffer, when women had no role models or little in the way of support networks, they equated themselves with the stereotype that women have a hard time succeeding in Math, science or tech fields. The hypothesis when Shaffer started her study of female math students was that these women would try to defy the gender stereotypes they faced; however, what Shaffer discovered is that without a strong support system of peers offering examples of counter-stereotypic behaviours, the women conformed to stereotype and their math scores declined.

Annique Smeding found that when women in STEM disciplines are given support and their counter-stereotype behaviour is supported, they redefine what comprises STEM practice. For example, these female math students who resist stereotypes defined emotionality as  a positive aspect of their STEM practice – a direct contrast to the edict of rationality as the ultimate term of STEM disciplines

Social science studies tell us generally that women in STEM need support networks and I argue that multilingual female STEM students need those networks and strong role models because  they are doubly or even triply oppressed under multiple stereotype threats and are often racialized to boot.

This is where social media comes in.

Elizabeth Koh explains that “[u]sing online collaboration applications, two design elements…. affect learning outcomes – sociability and visibility”; the affordances of Google docs (commenting function, choice to add a photo and other identity markers) can increase agency and confidence. Don’t take my word for it, Popov et al showed that  online collaboration encourages “more equal participation for non-native speaking students… than face-to-face discussion.” Online collaboration enhances inter-cultural awareness, including the sharing of experiences, background knowledge, and decision-making strategies.

The above quantitative social science analysis are useful but in order to culturally situate and find solutions, we need cultural critique: social media can offer the third space, as Homi Bhahba calls it, in which identities are fluid because they and the spaces they are in are always in an act of becoming – they are always in a state of being made. Within this space, new ways of interacting and understanding each other can be imagined and embraced. The third or interstitial space invites respectful, non-violent conflict – this is a space of negotiation. I can’t think of a better description of the Google docsspace in which students join with me to comment and interact. Students can remain anonymous or take on their own identities. Female students (actually all students) who normally do not say a word in class are talkative in this space, sharing ideas, and even countering my own interventions.

Watch Your Essentialism

Helen Kennedy, in her essay in that really excellent essay collection edited by Julie Rak and Anna Polette Identity Technologies, explains that we need to take heed of Stuart Hall’s warning concerning “the essentialist model of human subjectivity,” but we also need to understand that “the tropes of identity and community endure.” After all, visibility is not necessarily a good thing: as Foucault tells us, visibility is a trap. The online presence must not be about surveillance and control. And so, as Kennedy explains,  we must not simply understand identity static and quantitative  but fluid cultural performance and  practice that is in continuous formation. Whether online identities are fragmented or not, (keeping in mind Sherry Turkle’s famous analysis of online identity formation) people will continuously try to connect across political, social and cultural barriers and to me, marginalized students, in particular,  can use the intersectional capabilities of social media spaces to empower themselves through visibility and agency.

What Do I Do?

The way it works is that you need to get a Google account, then open a Google doc and create content you and your students can edit or that your students can build. Hit “share” (top right of screen in Drive) and choose “get shareable link” so that your students can use docs without having to open a Google account (most of them have one, though). The idea is to interact with students and encourage them to interact with each other in a safe space online. This space is, in part, made safe by reminding students they need to follow the ethics of the university and also the presence of an encouraging teacher (I try). When I saw how powerfully female multilingual speakers were interacting on Docs, I knew that they saw this as a safe space and told me so in an online survey. Now I will expand my use of Drive and Docs to provide resources for female students while also creating an inclusive environment for all my students.


  • Koh, Elizabeth, and John Lim. “Using online collaboration applications for group assignments: The interplay between design and human characteristics.” Computers & Education 59.2 (2012): 481-496.
  • Popov, Vitaliy et al. “Perceptions and experiences of, and outcomes for, university students in culturally diversified dyads in a computer-supported collaborative learning environment.” Computers in Human Behavior 32 (2014): 186-200.
  • Shaffer, Emily S, David M Marx, and Radmila Prislin. “Mind the gap: Framing of women’s success and representation in STEM affects women’s math performance under threat.” Sex roles 68.7-8 (2013): 454-463.
  • Smeding, Annique. “Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): An investigation of their implicit gender stereotypes and stereotypes’ connectedness to math performance.” Sex roles 67.11-12 (2012): 617-629.

Dr. Sara Humphreys is the editor and project leader of Digital Communitas, where this post was originally published (it has been republished here with her permission). She has been published in anthologies and leading journals in the fields of game studies, rhetorical theory, literary theory, and American literature. Dr. Humphreys hopes this site will evolve into a new form of research dissemination and collaborative thought about connections between and amongst academic publics, digital tools, media and spaces.

Image courtesy of Light Brigading.

Classroom Demonstrations for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: Don’t Let Physicists Have all the Fun! — Dylon McChesney

chemistry demonstrationIf you have a background in science or engineering, there is a good chance that you took part in a classroom demonstration at some point.  Perhaps in high school you helped your chemistry teacher explode or set something on fire (this is the type of teaching that tends to produce audible gasps).  Or, perhaps, in an introductory level university physics course, you did something riskier, like students who volunteer to lay on a bed of nails while their professor smashes a brick on their chest with a sledge hammer as in this example from Harvard). By the way, don’t try anything like this at home, folks!

When you witness somebody survive the force of a brick-smashing sledgehammer while lying on a bed of nails, something abstract like force suddenly becomes concrete.  Nobody will appreciate this more than the volunteers who find themselves indebted to their professors’ lifesaving knowledge of physical laws.  Such demonstrations clearly promote interactivity in the classroom: rather than passively soak in formula after formula, students become active and engaged with the material.  This is good pedagogy because active learning has many benefits, including increased memory retention. For an extensive review of the benefits, see Prince (2004).

Science and engineering make it natural for teachers to incorporate demonstrations because demonstrations are not that different from experiments.  And while an element of risk might ramp up entertainment value, it is fortunately not essential for promoting active learning.  Most demonstrations don’t require students to sign waivers in case they are harmed.  Regardless of risk factors, physicists (as a paradigmatic example) seem to have an advantage with respect to integrating demonstrations into their classrooms that are both inherently interesting and able to concretize otherwise theoretical material in immediately obvious ways.  In the arts, humanities, and some social sciences, the objects of study are typically more abstract.  Rather than looking at the physical world, students in these fields examine ideas and cultural forces—to the chagrin of some, this subject matter can be difficult to connect to the “real world” and, even more disappointingly for others, does not involve burning, smashing, or blowing anything up.  Demonstrations in the arts are perhaps less natural because the elegant but mindless operations of the natural world are not always directly considered.

The above might look like an excuse, but it’s not.  No matter what you teach, there is going to be some way to involve students in demonstrations, as long as some creative interpretation of the word “demonstration” is allowed.  Teaching economics?  Have some of your students volunteer to make trades (with, say, different pieces of fruit) in order to help them understand Pareto efficiency.  Teaching political science?  Split students into two groups that have to accomplish a co-operative task: one in Hobbes’ state of nature, and the other a sovereign state.  Teaching poetry?  Print out poems you have covered and cut them into pieces, then have volunteers race to reconstruct them based on memory.  Teaching game theory?  Have volunteers play a prisoner’s dilemma involving cookies instead of jail time, and see if player strategies veer away from Nash equilibria over time when outcome information is accessible to each successive set of players.

The possibilities for using demonstrations outside of science and engineering might not be endless, but they are plentiful.  It is to our students’ benefit to incorporate demonstrations and promote active learning, so if you are teaching in the arts, remember that you have access to a wide range of pedagogical tools.  After all, a demonstration is just a way of translating a concept into an experience, which is a central aim of teaching.  So don’t let physicists have all the fun!


Other Resources

Dylon McChesney is a Graduate Instructional Developer in the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Image courtesy of Penn State News

Teaching and All The Feels — Aimée Morrison

This post has been reprinted (with permission) from the Hook & Eye blog

feelingsI have that nervous feeling in my stomach again–those butterflies, or that flip-flopping feeling, a vague nausea and discomfort. It’s final paper time, and while I’m not writing any myself, I assign them. And it makes me incredibly nervous, shepherding my grad students through their projects’ various stages. I want so badly for them to succeed; I worry so much about how tired they look, or frustrated, or, worse, how silent they get.

Teaching. It’s very emotional.

Over the past ten years, as I have wrestled with my teaching persona, teaching practices, teaching goals, one thread runs constant–trying to manage my own emotions. I started out perhaps over-attached to results: if a student did poorly on an exam, say, I would take all that on as a personal failure of mine. There was a lot of crying. It was not helpful. I tried to learn to not take it as a personal affront when students were often absent. I had to learn that sometimes it’s not about me when students look bored and tired every single semester once week 7 rolls around. I was very emotional but about the wrong things and it was gruelling and ineffective.

Then, for a while, I tried too hard to swing the other way. Teaching became more contractual and transactional. I would lay out some rules and try to enframe the teaching situation as mutually beneficial but largely impersonal: trying to protect my own feelings and recover from my over investment in outcomes that were beyond my control, I tried to take my feelings out of the classroom. But even as I tried to pull away from my misguided mother hen tendencies, my students still sometimes cried, or got angry, and I was doing them a new disservice by trying to deny them that reality.

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

For me this starts with acknowledging that I care a lot about the material I teach, and I am, actually, really invested in having students learn it. This might be an ethical and respectful methodology for research on the internet, or it might be the history of the www, or it might be the difference between technological determinism and social construction, or it might be the design theory of affordance, or it might be feminist pragmatics, or it might be how to make a daguerrotype. It really matters to me a lot that students understand these things and, crucially, see the value in them.

When I teach, I necessarily make myself incredibly vulnerable to my students, by reaching out to them with ideas and sources and methods and assignments and illustrations, and asking them to hold on. It requires, I find, an incredible outlay of empathy for me to try to find where the students are at already, intellectually and ideologically or whatever, and go to them there to ask them to come with me to where the class is designed to take us. It is rarely the case now that I teach just from what I want to say; I’m always doing this sort of dance where I try to figure out the emotional temperature of the room, poll the interests, prod the knowledge base, and figure out a context-specific approach.

The best way I can find to describe it is this: It feels like being on a first date with 40 people at the same time. Every single time I teach.

To be clear, I’m not in it to be “loved” or even liked. I’m trying to put myself–Aimée Morrison, the situated human being–behind the ideas but of course teaching and learning are human acts so I’m still there. Reaching out, trying to get in 40 heads and hearts at the same time, trying to shift something in someone’s understanding: “even though this was a required course, it was surprisingly useful.”

I begin finally to understand that this is why teaching days are so gruelling. Why if I teach in the morning, I’m not going to be writing in the afternoon. It’s the interpersonal work, the mutual vulnerability, the work of empathy, the work of caring. In my worst moments I want to withdraw–I say things like, “If they won’t do the readings, to hell with them.” But really, I am usually overwhelmed with the sheer importance of the work I’m trying to do, and how much I care and how much I care about having students come to care about what I teach as well. I’m not naturally empathetic and I’m much more inclined to try to structure the world into rule-based interactions we can process cognitively and rationally, so the empathy required of teaching is not something I come to naturally. It’s something over time I’ve come to learn is crucial: learning is transformative, and thus scary and personal. Teaching must be these things too. All the feels.

— Aimée Morrison

Image courtesy of Nic Walker.

Please engage with students after the beep — Josh Neufeld

When teaching a large second-year “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course with 800+ students each fall, connecting with individual students is an important, yet challenging, goal. In addition to in-class student engagement, email helps me make connections with students outside of class, assisting them with particularly difficult course concepts. That said, with hundreds of student emails received every term, typing responses can become time consuming and burdensome. This year, I discovered a simple technique that saved me a lot of time, provided increased student engagement on a personal level, and surprised students pleasantly. The technique? Voice mail.

In September 2014, when a long student email with five different questions arrived one day, I decided to pick up my phone to respond instead of typing. Because the University of Waterloo has a service that allows employees to have voice mails forwarded to our email accounts as a .wav file attachment, I simply dialed my own phone extension and left a message: “Hello Isabel…”. After answering her questions in under three minutes, the time limit of our answering service, an email arrived with my audio file.

I replied to Isabel and attached the file, simply stating “Hello Isabel, Please see attached. Let me know if you have additional questions. JDN”.

By replying to the email verbally through voice mail, I was able to answer all five of her questions with detail beyond what I would have written in an email. Isabel heard me talking to her, using her name, and responding in a friendly and helpful tone. A surprising additional benefit was efficiency for me: this process took approximately five minutes, from reading her questions to sending the voice mail reply.

Isabel’s response to this new form of communication? “It was actually a brilliant idea! At first, I was kind of worried it would be difficult to answer all those questions via an email; just cause you have to type it out and sometimes it makes less sense than in an actual conversation. However, when I received the audio message, it was clear and I think it’s easier to understand.”

From then on, when an email required thoughtful responses, when general student questions were best answered with a suggestion to review a podcast or videocast for more detail (i.e., we covered that topic in class), when questions moved beyond the scope of course material and required more in depth responses, when I needed to decline requests for exam accommodations, when students asked for career advice, voice mails have made my life easier in every case, saved me time, and left the recipient thrilled with the personal touch.

Student feedback on the voicemails has been 100% positive since I first used this technique in September. Feedback was sufficiently enthusiastic that I began using voice mails for responding to emails from colleagues and graduate students when I don’t have time to type a response, or when the tone of the conversation is important to convey correctly.

Drawbacks? One downside is poor email searchability. For me, this has been a minor issue; I’ve not yet needed to search for any of the dozens (hundreds?) of voice emails sent since September. File size is another drawback. A three-minute audio file (e.g., .wav, mp3, m4a) can range between 300 kb and 3 mb, depending on the method used to generate the file. These days though, emails with attachments are common. Voice mails certainly don’t exceed the size of a photo or journal article. It may also worry some to have voice audio files circulating on the internet. That said, sending an email to a student is similar in that ideas are out there for posting or sharing anyway.

And how will I will carry this practice forward in 2015? Now that I am overseas on a sabbatical, calling my University of Waterloo extension is no longer feasible. Instead, I’ve discovered an excellent alternative. Creating audio recordings with Vocaroo is effortless. Vocaroo is a website that can be used instantly, without membership or software installed. An advantage to Vocaroo is that audio files can be downloaded directly or, alternatively, a short url link is provided that can be sent to a recipient instead of an email attachment. It is even possible to upload an audio file to Vocaroo in order to share a link that allows the recipient to listen instantly. In this way, I uploaded an example audio recording sent to one of my 2014 students (“Jennifer”) who sent a six-question email, providing an example of how the approach can be used to respond to students. Additionally, here is a link to a video for educators explaining the features and functionality of Vocaroo in a step-by-step manner.

In summary, voice mails help increase student engagement outside of class and provide a personal touch for instructors wanting students to know that they are more than a number in their class. In the process, leaving a message after the beep saves a lot of time. I hope this simple practice helps you and your students as much as it did me and my Fundamentals of Microbiology class.

Note: to set up your university voice mail so that messages are emailed to you as .wav files, send a request to . 


Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in Waterloo’s Department of Biology, studying the microbiology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated environments. Josh teaches a large second-year introductory microbiology course as well as smaller upper year courses in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology.

Telephone keypad image courtesy of Raindog808