Creativity in a Nutshell – Martin Smith

Often I read Science Daily as a way of keeping up on many different areas of science.   Lately, one topic that keeps popping up is creativity and how we can promote creativity in our lives. For me, the creative process and teaching have a lot of overlap.  As instructors we try to be creative in the ways that we engage our students.  Continue reading Creativity in a Nutshell – Martin Smith

So what’s your personality? – Martin Smith

What really makes your gears turn? Recently, I was thinking about a personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), that might help you figure this out.  The full test itself is an extensive questionnaire that is designed to classify your personality preferences in four areas in order to help you better understand the way you think and react under different circumstances.  I wanted to share it in this blog because I think it can help us to reflect upon and understand our style and preferences as a teacher.  For me, understanding my own personality preferences helped me to relate better with my students. Continue reading So what’s your personality? – Martin Smith

Resiliency in the Classroom – Martin Smith

For some reason the other day I was thinking about an old friend from my undergraduate days who once said to me, “I really don’t think I’m smart enough to do well in school.”  As a result of this memory, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon what it means to be resilient in the classroom.  For The Power of Resilience authors Brooks and Goldstein, resilience is the ability to adapt under different situations with a positive mindset(1).  To simplify their model, they suggest resilience occurs when we can each identify negative mindsets in our life, set goals to change a negative mindset and replace the negative mindset with a positive one in order to meet our goals.  But how does this translate into the classroom?  What does it mean to be a resilient student?
If we apply this to students, they are constantly adapting to new learning environments such as new classes as they progress through their studies towards the end of their degree.  Therefore, to me, a resilient student must be someone who can readily adapt to new unfamiliar topics and set goals to understand them. If, for example, a math student thinks, “I am bad at statistics…” how will this mindset influence their ability to succeed in the classroom when they have to take a new statistics class? If you were to compare this against a similar student that enters the class with a positive outlook I think most people would agree that the math student with the negative mindset is more likely to quit when faced with adversity because they believe they are bad at statistics. On the other hand, the student with a positive outlook will be more likely to succeed.  It makes me wonder exactly how common this type of negative mindset really is.  Hopefully if we are privy to them, situations where negative mindsets have taken hold will become obvious and we can help students find positive mindsets to achieve their goals.
I’m happy to say my friend has gone on to successfully defend her MSc and is now doing well in medical school.  Apparently, she found her resilience!
(1) Brooks, R. and Goldstein, S. The Power of Resilience: achieving balance, confidence and personal strength in your life. (2004) McGraw-Hill, USA.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

A Reflection on a Misconception – Martin Smith

Last week while I was judging at a science fair I had a motivating conversation with a small group of lecturers and fellow graduate students.  We were sharing our experiences in teaching science when I was surprised that the others believed it near impossible to interactively teach a large class of undergraduate students.  It made me ask how many other instructors share this misconception.  Motivated by this conversation, I wanted to share some recent evidence that you can engage large classes and some evidence that it works. 

It was only a coincidence that I came across an article on engaging large classes as I perused the May 14th edition of The Economist.  The article profiled an experiment to increase student learning on a large class of 850 unsuspecting introductory physics students.  In the experiment, the observers broke the students up into two groups.  The first group was taught in the traditional lecturing style, while the second group was broken up into small interactive groups.  In these small experimental groups the students were assigned pre-class readings to familiarize themselves with the material.  Then, rather than lecturing during class these students were given problems and asked to solve them.  This makes the instructor’s main role to facilitate the interaction between students who were busy solving these own problems.  Then after the two groups finished the defined curriculum they were given a test (not for credit) to determine if the non-traditional style had an effect.  The results were overwhelming!  The experimental group had scored significantly better on the test than the control group.   In fact, the claim has been made that the improvement is the largest that has been observed in this type of study.  The investigators argue that focussing teaching time on getting students to analyze problems can increase the effectiveness of the classic chalk-and-talk mentality.  As a disclaimer, the test was given immediately after the new method was tried so the increase may have been larger than one observed during a final exam.  Also, critics often argue that anytime you suddenly change how students learn their performance will increase simply because you are forcing them to adapt (this is an application of the Hawthorne effect).  Personally, I think the results are promising regardless of the mechanism of action.  Whether they are working because students are solving problems or because you are messing with their habits, the result is that students learn better. 

When I think back to my days in undergraduate physics class, it was only when I solved the assigned problem sets did I fully grasp the material.  Hopefully, studies like this one performed by Deslauriers et al. in Science will help dissuade people from the common misconception that you cannot engage large classes (1).

If you are not convinced, that’s OK.  Regardless of your academic background and whether you believe the evidence presented in this study, my hope is that you will take a moment to reflect on your own teaching and how much effort you put into engaging your students.   If we can make the effort to incorporate interactive activities into our lecture I think that you will find that both student and teacher will get much more out of the learning experience!


(1) Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E. and Wieman, C., (2011) Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332, 6031, pp 862-864


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.