Congratulations to Alexander Howse, 2016 CUT Award Recipient – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a way to recognize and celebrate teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students, the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and the Graduate Studies Office (GSO) offer the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. This annual award is given to a graduate student who demonstrates a strong commitment to teaching development and the highest achievement upon the completion of the CUT program. We are pleased to announce that Alexander Howse, PhD candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics and a recent graduate of the CUT program, was selected as the recipient of the 2016 CUT Award.

With a little more than a year left in his PhD program, Alex Howse’s CV already boasts an impressive record of teaching accomplishments: three teaching certificates from two Canadian institutions and a course instructorship in MATH117: Calculus for Engineering. Alex became interested in learning about university teaching while pursuing his master’s degree at Memorial University where he completed a teaching development program for graduate students offered through the teaching and learning centre. The program piqued his interest in learning about university teaching and helped him to successfully manage his teaching responsibilities when he taught his first undergraduate course at Memorial as a master’s student.

Upon starting the PhD program at Waterloo, Alex heard about teaching certificate programs for graduate students offered by CTE and decided to continue learning about university teaching while working on his doctorate. After he successfully completed CTE’s Fundamentals of University Teaching program, he enrolled in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT), a comprehensive teaching development program for PhD students who are interested in academic careers.  Although some of the topics discussed in the program, such as learning-centred teaching approaches, were not new to Alex, he believes that the learning activities that participants are asked to undertake as part of the CUT, such as creating a teaching dossier, are helpful not only for immediate teaching responsibilities at Waterloo but also as a preparation for the academic job market.

When asked to reflect on his recent teaching experience as an instructor, Alex credits the improvements that he made in his teaching to the feedback that he received from two sources: CTE staff members who observed his classroom teaching as part of the CUT program and a faculty member in his department who observed his class as part of a departmental lecturing requirement for math PhD students. The feedback that Alex received from his observers and the discussions that took place after the classroom visits addressed different aspects of his teaching approach and gave him ideas for the upcoming classes, such as ways for effective presentation of material and increasing student participation during lectures in his class with more than 100 students. “Often you think that as an instructor, you are doing what you intend to do but then you get caught up in the flow of the lecture and lose sight of student learning. It’s nice to have someone come in, observe your class and discuss it with you,” says Alex.

Using the feedback from his observers, Alex worked hard to improve his lectures and to help his students do well in the course. He fine-tuned his questioning strategies, resisted the urge to give out answers and experimented with the use of a think-pair-share technique which offered his students opportunities to solve problems on their own before discussing them with pairs and eventually as a large class. He looked for ways to explain the material in a way that would allow him to reach students with different levels of knowledge. When he heard about the muddiest point technique at one of the CUT teaching workshops, he implemented it in his class to identify areas of material that students found difficult. Based on student feedback about the material that was not clear to them, he created summary sheets as a supplementary study tool for his students.

For the CUT research project which is intended to familiarize graduate students with the research on teaching and learning in higher education, Alex decided to examine the higher education literature on math anxiety. He felt that this is an important topic for math instructors and something he encountered frequently when working with undergraduate students who were comfortable with math as high school students but were struggling with the subject at the university level. According to Alex, reading the research on math anxiety helped him to understand the issue more effectively and prepared him for conversations with students on learning strategies and ways to cope with math anxiety.

Looking back at his experience in the CUT, Alex is convinced that the time that he devoted to developing his teaching knowledge and skills by completing the program was well worth it. “I took the program seriously and put a lot of effort into it. It helped me to improve my teaching skills and put me in a good position for future academic job applications. I would strongly recommend the program to PhD students, especially if they plan to teach at the university.”

Congratulations on the CUT Award, Alex!

Congratulations to Marzieh Riahinezhad, 2015 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Every year, CTE recognizes an outstanding graduate student who demonstrates the highest achievement upon the completion of the Certificate in University teaching (CUT) program. This annual award, funded by an anonymous donor, is now in its tenth year. We are delighted to announce that this year’s award goes to Marzieh Riahinezhad, a doctoral student in Chemical Engineering and a recent graduate of the CUT program. Last week, Marzieh shared some of her experiences in the CUT and what she learned from it with the CTE staff.

Can you tell us wMarzieh Riahinezhadhat motivated you to pursue the Certificate in University Teaching?

Prior to coming to Canada to pursue my doctoral degree at Waterloo, I was teaching science for two years at a high school in Iran. I also worked as a teaching assistant at the university in my home country during my master’s degree. So, teaching was certainly of interest to me and something I was hoping to continue at Waterloo. During one of my early meetings with my supervisor, Prof. Alex Penlidis, he asked me about my future career plans and what I was hoping to do after I complete my Ph.D. I mentioned that I was interested in staying in academia and that teaching was important to me. He encouraged me to participate in the CUT program as a way to develop my teaching skills. In addition to the recommendation from my supervisor, I also had a chance to discuss the CUT program with a fellow grad student in my department who had just completed the CUT and found it very useful. After that, I signed for the Fundamentals of University Teaching program which is a pre-requisite for the CUT. I was able to complete the required workshops and microteaching sessions within one term and started the CUT program in January 2014.

Which aspects of the CUT program did you enjoy the most?

I really enjoyed working on the CUT project which asks the participants to select a topic on teaching in higher education and prepare a paper or a workshop. I had heard about the idea of a flipped classroom and decided to do my CUT project on this topic. I enjoyed reading the educational literature on flipped classroom and learning about different ways to implement it in university courses. Although it’s not required for a CUT project, I decided to also talk to instructors who use the flipped classroom model in their courses to hear about their experiences. I learned a great deal about the topic by speaking to three faculty members, two from Waterloo and another one from George Brown college. Once my presentation was ready, I delivered it as a workshop for grad students who are doing the Fundamentals of University Teaching program. I had never facilitated an interactive session on a teaching topic before, so it was a great experience for me and the feedback from participants was very positive.

Did you have an opportunity to try any ideas or techniques that you learned in the CUT in your own teaching?

I learned quite a few useful teaching techniques through workshops and observational feedback. One technique that I found particularly useful is the idea of a mid-term student feedback which, unlike the end-of-term course evaluations, is collected around the mid-semester mark. I think this is very important, particularly for grad students who are new to teaching. When I taught my first course in Winter 2015, I collected mid-term feedback from the students to get their perspective on how the course was going. Like many other new instructors, I was nervous about teaching my first course and wanted to know what the students thought about my teaching. The student feedback was positive and it helped me with feeling more confident about my teaching approach. In addition to the mid-term student feedback, I also had a chance to experiment with another technique that I leaned through the CUT program. During one of the workshops, I learned about the IF-AT cards which refer to the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique using pre-designed cards. I got the cards and used them for group activities throughout the term where students were asked to discuss questions in groups and select a correct answer from several options. Students really enjoyed it and the discussions of their answers helped them to understand important course concepts. We also reviewed the wrong answers collectively and discussed why the answers were incorrect. Both students and I felt that this teaching method helped their learning in the course.  

Congratulations, Marzieh!

CTE Note: The full version of this interview will appear in the Spring 2015 issue of the CTE newsletter, Teaching Matters. More information about the CUT award and the list of past winners are available on the CTE grad student award page  

Accidental, Informal and Formal Learning in Intercultural Education – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As International Education Week on our campus (and many other campuses around the world) draws to a close, I am thinking about my past and current connections to the field of intercultural and international education. In particular, I am thinking about unexpected sites of intercultural learning in our daily life and work. (Coincidentally, this week CTE is hosting four visiting professors from China who joined our PostDoc teaching series to learn more about teaching and learning in the Canadian context).  At the start of the PostDoc series, I asked the participants (28 this time) how many of them got their doctorates outside of Canada.  More than half of their hands went up.  So here we are, a group of almost 30, coming from various cultural backgrounds and bringing our diverse educational (hi)stories gathered in a room in EV1 to spend a week talking about teaching and learning.

The next evening I attended an event organized by a local non-profit that works with immigrant and visible minority women new to KW. There I met a  Laurier student born and raised in Canada who shared with me her experience of volunteering in Panama last summer.  It was challenging, she said, but I also heard a talk by a Chinese Canadian high school student who is in the midst of submitting her university applications. She talked about the change in her reasons for going to university after participating in the Immigrant Women and Voice Youth program. In her inspiring speech, she told us that she is no longer interested in going to university because of familial expectations or peer pressure. Instead, she wants to go in order to hone her leadership and communication skills so that she can overcome her fears and self-doubts and do the work she aspires to do in her community.

These are just some examples of the unplanned intercultural moments/encounters that find their way into my daily life and work. In our daily interactions on campus we experience many moments like this. Both in and outside of the classroom. Both within and outside our departments. In the context of formal and informal curricula.

The history of international education fascinates me. Looking at the current numbers of students who pursue postsecondary education abroad (more than 4.1 million in 2010, according to OECD data), I ponder the question of *when* student sojourners started to venture abroad to pursue higher learning. Thanks to a quiz on the history of international education, I discover that Emo of Friesland was the world’s first recorded international student. Apparently, he traveled from Holland to Oxford in 1190.

I think my CTE colleague Mark, who grew up on a grain farm in Saskatchewan and has been a diligent student of Arabic over the last few years, would find this little factoid fascinating (Mark also shares my passion for Ethiopian food, but that’s an aside). And perhaps Mark has a story about it that will send me to the dictionary to discover new words in English that I haven’t encountered before. As a non-native English speaker who arrived to North America in her twenties  – past the period of achieving native-like competence, according to the proponents of the contested Critical Period Hypothesis for second language acquisition – I can’t think of a better place to work than with English and communication majors and a former English professor. My second (well, actually third) language vocabulary is so much richer for that.

I am also reminded of the fact that my other CTE colleague, Julie, did a teaching presentation to the French department in, well… French. I think it’s really cool that we have a bilingual educational developer at our teaching centre. And while we at CTE have not yet explored our individual and collective frameworks for doing international and intercultural work and have not yet articulated a framework that defines and guides our activities in these areas, we often find ourselves *doing* various kinds of international and intercultural work – accidental, unplanned and planned. I think the same is true for teaching and learning that happens on our and other campuses. Most of the ‘international’ happens accidentally, unexpectedly, informally.

Intercultural exchanges and interactions have the potential to be immensely educational, even transformational. However, a growing body of scholarship on intercultural education reveals that we often fail to take advantage of available opportunities for intercultural and international learning.  Many intercultural/international possibilities are left unexplored, unexamined or simply left up to a chance. Some activities labeled ‘international/intercultural’ lack clear intent. They are not guided by purposeful and intentional framework based on institution-specific goals, academically-driven agenda and mutually beneficial partnerships. Some examples? The notion that bringing more international students on campus will naturally lead to more intercultural learning for home and international students (research and experience have shown otherwise).  Or that students participating in study abroad programs will acquire intercultural and international competencies when left to their own devices (this excellent book available through the  university library provides research-based evidence to the contrary).

So my question, then, is how can we take advantage of accidental and informal types of intercultural and international learning in our work as teachers and/or teaching  developers? How do we connect them into a more intentional and systematic framework grounded in our personal and professional frameworks for internationalism? How can we use them to guide our educational work and shape the formal curriculum/programming?  How can we make connections between the planned and unplanned, informal and formal, accidental and intentional in intercultural education? As I write this, I am reminded of Paul Gorski’s words that when it comes to intercultural education, good intentions are simply not enough.


Gorski, P.(2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19 (6), 515-525.



Reza Ramezan is 2012 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Every spring, CTE has an opportunity to recognize one outstanding graduate student who demonstrates the highest achievement upon completion of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program. It is a tough decision to make: only one student can be selected from a pool of more than 30 students who complete the program each year.

This year, the CUT award was given to Reza Ramezan, a doctoral candidate in Statistics and Actuarial Science. Similar to many other international teaching assistants (TAs) on our campus, Reza’s teaching career began outside of Canada.  As a third year undergraduate student in Iran with no formal teaching experience and keen interest in teaching, he practically begged his professor to hire him as a TA.  His persistence paid off: he got an opportunity to teach and confirmed his interest in university teaching. Continue reading Reza Ramezan is 2012 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Teaching Cafe for New Graduate Instructors – Matt Roth

If my experience is any indication, teaching a course for the first time is a daunting prospect. My previous experience of being at the front of the classroom was limited to a few guest lectures in classes in which I was a Teaching Assistant.  Co-teaching a history course in the fall of 2011 was something completely different. While excited at the opportunity to finally impart knowledge in a classroom setting, I was still uncertain of my teaching ability because of my limited experience. Thankfully, I discovered a program that eased my apprehensions and developed my teaching skills.

In the 2011 fall term, I participated in the Centre for Teaching Excellence’s [CTE] Teaching Café – an informal learning community for graduate students who were teaching for the first time. I found the CTE’s learning community to be immensely helpful in preparing me to co-teach my first course at the University of Waterloo.

There are many reasons why I was glad that I had decided to participate. Foremost among these was that I learned a considerable amount about classroom pedagogy and acquired many invaluable tips which I could bring to the classroom. I was able to develop my teaching skills and to gain knowledge of the latest trends in education.

My involvement in the Teaching Cafe also provided me with the opportunity to benefit from the teaching experiences of my peers. During each meeting we were able to relate our latest experiences in the classroom, which gave us the opportunity to provide advice to one another. We also benefited from the experiences of the group leaders who had taught classes in the past. One example that immediately comes to mind is the advice I received regarding the teaching evaluations that students fill out at the end of a course. Others in the group informed me of the importance of obtaining evaluations for future use as part of a teaching dossier. As a result, the professor I co-taught with accommodated my request to have students write two separate evaluations, so that I had one that was based solely on my teaching abilities. This is just one of the many ways in which I benefited from my experience in the Teaching Cafe.

One of the strengths of the group was that it included individuals from a wide variety of academic disciplines. This allowed members of the group the opportunity to discuss a wide range of teaching practices that were unique to their respective departments. It is rare within academia to have a forum in which one can hear from such a diverse range of perspectives. It is also uncommon to meet with peers who are experiencing similar challenges in teaching. As I was one of only a few who were teaching for the first time in my department in the fall of 2011, there were not many people I could turn to who shared my level of teaching experience. Thus, in many ways, the Teaching Cafe also served as a kind of support group for those of us who were teaching for the first time.

I would strongly encourage other first-time teachers to participate in the CTE’s Teaching Cafe. I am thankful that there was a program available that helped me to learn more about teaching at the university level. The Teaching Cafe provided me with the advice and support I was looking for as a first-time teacher.  Most importantly, I believe that the students I was teaching benefited from the knowledge I gained through my participation in the CTE’s Teaching Cafe.

Matt Roth is a PhD student in the Department of History.

Flow as an Optimal State of Learning – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

A while ago I heard about interesting research in psychology that discusses the state of optimal experience called flow. This fascinating research, pioneered by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-lee), suggests that the state of flow is characterized by complete mental and physical commitment, clarity of focus, mindfulness and loss of sense of time.  Continue reading Flow as an Optimal State of Learning – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Individual Differences that Affect Learning – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Recently, I opened a box containing some of my academic possessions which, years ago, were deemed worthy of being transported across the Atlantic from my native Ukraine.  Among them were two artefacts from my secondary studies captured on the photo – high school diploma with honours and ‘silver medal’ that accompanied it.  In Ukraine, the medal, like the one on this photo, is given to top students in each graduating class, and reads, “In recognition of high academic achievements, community work and excellent classroom behaviour.”

To me, these artefacts from my academic history are reminders of the years of hard work, self-discipline and work ethic that I developed and nurtured at a young age.   At the same time, they remind me of many difficult and frustrating learning moments when, despite effort, hard work and motivation, I struggled to understand basic math concepts and was able to achieve only average performance in math and science.

To explain this learning conundrum, I concluded early on that motivation and effort can take you far as a learner but they are not the only determinants of learning success.  Other factors had to account for my differential performance in social sciences and math classes.  I reasoned that I was not able to get straight A’s because I was simply not good in math. It never came as naturally to me as humanities and social sciences.  Abilities and aptitude had to be the reason for twice the time I needed to spend on my math homework (with parental help to boot) only to achieve average marks.

During my graduate studies, I came across an exciting line of research in educational psychology that looks at individual cognitive and personality differences among learners and might help us explain differential success among learners in our classrooms.  This research showed me that motivation, abilities and intelligence are not the only determinants of learning outcomes. A number of other individual variables shape what and how well students will learn. These include:

  • prior knowledge and experience which refer to the quality and accuracy of relevant prior knowledge;
  • learning strategies and tactics which refer to cognitive and metacognitive strategies used by learners;
  • learning or cognitive styles which refer to preferred ways for processing information and approaching a learning task;
  • learners’ conceptions of learning and themselves as learners;
  • personality (self-esteem, risk-taking, resilience, sensitivity to rejection, tolerance to ambiguity, anxiety, etc.).

In each learning situation, these characteristics of learners interact in complex ways which are not fully understood by researchers.  However,  I found that being aware of these individual differences – along with cultural, generational and demographic characteristics – helped me be more attentive to diversity among learners and differences in their academic performance.  I am encouraged by the central message of this research – most of these characteristics are states not traits and as instructors, we have the ability to influence learning attitudes, conceptions and behaviours of our students and help them become more effective learners.


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.