Change is Good (and archives are also good). A.K.A. Goodbye, CTE Blog!

a pair of glasses and a book with a dark blue back cover and the last page showing the words The End sit atop a brown wood desk.
The End

Many years ago, we began the CTE Blog in order to engage with ideas in a less formal way for our various publics. Over time, we’ve had a small number of loyal followers (thanks!) and a wide readership for certain posts or series of posts. The blog has been a space for CTE staff, including our talented graduate students and undergraduate co-op students, as well as occasional faculty guests, to convey information, advice, and opinions from week to week and month to month since Fall 2008. After careful consideration throughout 2017, though, we have come to the conclusion that our efforts are better placed elsewhere, for now. The blog will continue to exist as an archive.

It’s impossible to do a proper roundup of all 450 posts to date, but some of our more popular posts have been:

Once in a while, we may end up Tweeting or otherwise referring to some of the rich resources that have come out of this ten-year experiment. We continue, of course, to add Teaching Stories and to revise our popular Teaching Tips on our Resources section of the CTE website. These latter receive millions of hits globally, so our attention will be focused on ensuring their quality while also planning new forms of communication as a result of our Self Study and External Review (2017).

Thanks for reading; follow @uwcte on Twitter, and visit our website often!


From crisis to crisis: teaching in challenging times

A stressed out figure with head on desk surrounded by books
Bonhomme Stressed

I don’t know if it’s some kind of confirmation bias as I think about all the people around me, but this past term has seemed much more stressful for many staff, faculty, and students on campus. Including me! Burnout among students and instructors seems more prevalent than in prior terms.

I suspect that it may have something to do with uncertainties and the erosion of rights on every front as we all live through the (very real) simulacrum that is the 45th U.S. President right now, coupled with the ways in which media outlets and social media amplify certain kinds of story.

There are things that happen in the world over which we have no control, but that are part of an increasingly invasive news cycle. Even the weather network seems in constant panic mode with “Alerts” and “Special Statements” that, when opened, say little more than that typical seasonal weather is about to happen.

In the face of events that make the news ticker and get amplified by friends and family, it is often difficult to know what and what not to do in the classroom. Faculty have expressed to me a deep sense of care about how they themselves, and how their students, can best handle daily news of crises. One of the most cited web-based resources out there is a Vanderbilt University guide called Teaching in Times of Crisis. Originally written in 2001, after 9-11, it was updated by Nancy Chick in 2013.

The gist of this well-researched piece is that we should say *something* about a crisis event in class, but we should say it while also referring students (and ourselves I think!) to available resources. I strongly encourage people to spend some time reading this piece; it’s helped a lot of us to address things head-on in classes rather than ignoring the “elephant in the room.” These crises may be local or global — everything from bombings to stories about sexual assault, from school shootings to the removal of same-sex marriage rights.

I wonder, too, whether this is something that is mainly a question for people in social science, environmental or health studies, or arts disciplines, or whether colleagues teaching large first year classes in, say, Engineering or Physics or Math also think about this stuff? In my experience, yes, but it’s not as directly relevant to the topic of the week (as it may well be in my Women’s Studies first-year lecture).

Thank you, Jane Holbrook, and all the best!

Observers of educational development at Waterloo will know that we’ve had a teaching centre onsite for 40 years. Christopher Knapper was the founder of the Teaching Resources and Continuing Education (TRACE) unit in 1976, which kept the same name until the 2006-2007 academic year, at which point a merger with Learning and Teaching Through Technology (LT3) and Learning Resources and Innovation (LRI) led to the formal creation of the Centre for Teaching Excellence pretty much as we know it today.

I think I’m feeling rather wistful and nostalgic at this point because our Senior Instructional Developer for Blended Learning, Jane Holbrook, retires this week. We can hardly believe this to be true, but true it is. I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge Jane’s work with LT3 and CTE. It’s difficult for me to accept that this marks nearly 10 years since CTE’s inception, and the occasion of Jane’s retirement is cause for reflection about where we’ve come and where we’re going. Mainly, though, it’s an opportunity to appreciate Jane’s contributions to scholarship in the areas of blended learning and educational development, as well as her commitment to supporting our Waterloo teaching community over many years.

Jane back in the day

Jane started teaching courses in Biology here around 1989, but in or around 2001, prepared a report for Tom Carey in LT3 about a new model of support for educators in Waterloo’s six Faculties. The result? Our much-praised and oft-copied Faculty Liaison model. Jane took up one such role, for Science, and others followed soon thereafter. I can remember looking at LT3 first from my vantage point at Trent’s Interactive Learning Centre, and later from Guelph’s Teaching Support Services, with a certain amount of envy — in large part because of this model.

I was very happy to join CTE, then, and to work directly with people whose efforts and processes I’d admired from afar. I was not disappointed. In the 9 years I have worked here as a Senior Instructional Developer, I have relied on Jane as a source of wisdom, especially as I learned the ropes of managing other people and managing multiple projects.

Jane Holbrook Winter 2016
Jane in 2016

Jane is a model of honest, astute, intelligent leadership. She never shies away from difficult conversations, always provides incisive input on university-wide and CTE committees or as a personal mentor, and pulls more than her share of administrative weight at one of Canada’s largest teaching centres. I aspire to emulate her level-headed, savvy, and caring approach towards both people and projects.

Jane Holbrook gestures over a copper pot.
Jane blends stuff

Working on blended learning initiatives, Jane has applied her considerable creativity and scholarly approach in ways that have helped many professors to think differently about their practice, and indeed change that practice in ways that increase learning for many generations of students to date, and many more to come.

Thank you, Jane, and all the best in your own next steps. I am thrilled to be working alongside Mary Power, your replacement in the SID role, and will also miss you enormously.

Darth Vader: teaching method in disguise? – Josh Neufeld

Every year, I teach 600-900 students a “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course (Biol240). Three years ago, I wore a skull-print tie to class on October 31st. Afterwards, a student expressed disappointment that I had not worn a costume. The following year, I decided to wear a more… *impressive* Halloween costume to my lectures. I rented a replica Darth Vader costume and gave both of my back-to-back lectures fully suited. The reception for these lectures was nothing short of extraordinary. The university promoted the costume (, students’ photos went viral (even making the front page of reddit;, and I posed for many pictures with thrilled students after both class sections. Last year, I rented another replica costume: The Dark Knight. Again, student photos of the lecture circulated widely through social media and the costume was profiled in the Daily Bulletin ( In a completely unexpected way, these costumes seem to have left their “viral” mark on Biol240.

Josh Neufeld in costume
Josh Neufeld darkens the day on two Hallowe’ens

But why? Many students wear costumes to campus on Halloween. Why is it so worthy of comment when a faculty member dresses up? 

Student appreciation of these Halloween costumes reminds me of other classroom responses that I’ve noticed at seemingly unrelated moments. For example, when I show a picture of my kids and quote them in relation to the course, the room responds warmly and audibly (“awwwwww”). When I told the class how a particular episode of Swiss Family Robinson (involving a creeping white mat spreading over the island and killing its animals) instilled a lifelong phobia of fungus in me, students sat rapt on the edge of their seats. When I recorded a message for students in my basement and as part of a narrated video animation of a class concept, course evaluations tell me that this was very much appreciated. 

It occurs to me that all of these teaching elements are linked. They convey unique messages to the class. These personal moments communicate that “I trust you”, and that trust is strong enough for me to be vulnerable in costume and risk looking silly, enough to show you my kids, enough to share my quirky personal foibles, and enough to let you see what my basement looks like (i.e., not pretty). In addition, I suspect that the simple personal things that we do send another message that is possibly even more important than trust, they communicate that we *like* our students. Our actions reflect that we like them enough to let our guard down in the classroom, just a little more than they would expect. 

In some ways, building rapport with a class is very similar to relationship building. When we trust and like someone, we do extra things for that person, we even act silly at times. And, if all goes well, we end up… learning about microbiology. We enjoy the classroom experience that much more. We want to keep coming back. Could this be the very spoonful of sugar that makes course content go down?

Importantly, this isn’t about parlour tricks for simple entertainment, it is about building trust and relationships as a precondition for effective learning. I am thrilled that students respond positively by cleaving to course content and exploring microbiology with enthusiasm in the classroom. These in-class experiences may also influence future course selections and career choices, steering interests a little closer to micro than they might have done otherwise. It’s a win win. 

Although wearing a costume can help foster trust and mutual appreciation in the classroom, there is an important unanswered question that lingers for me… what to wear for Halloween 2014?!

Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, studying the microbial ecology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated communities. For several years, Josh has taught a large second year course (600-900 students) as well as a small upper year course (18 students). 

Winter 2014 — what’s in store for faculty teaching development?

IMG_3681Welcome to January! This is a pretty special term for us here at CTE in that we have our new workshop spaces fully operational. We hope you’ll come round for our official Open House on January 20th between 10 and 2 to see the space and experience its features. More than that, we hope it will be your teaching development “home away from departmental home” when you want to join one of our many workshops and events this term. Most will take place in EV1 241 or EV1 242; an overview follows.

The Centre for Teaching Excellence offers workshops and events on a range of topics; we invite you to visit our Events page for the full listings of workshops for you, and for instructions on how to sign up (myHRinfo will be unavailable on Friday, January 10 for scheduled maintenance).

  • Getting Started with LEARN?  Check out the January sessions of LEARN for TAs, the quiz feature, the grades tool and timesaving tips in LEARN.
  • CTE642: Course Design Fundamentals (six hours) is offered on Monday, March 3 and repeated on Tuesday, March 4.
  • CTE908: Documenting Your Teaching for Tenure and Promotion Lunch and Learn for pre-tenure faculty being held in Needles Hall on Tuesday, March 25 from 11:45 am to 1:15 pm.
  • CTE601: Instructional Skills Workshop is scheduled over four days in February 2014.  Very limited enrolment for this 24-hours workshop on February 18, 19, 20 and 21.

Teaching Squares is a peer based program well suited to faculty interested in broadening their teaching perspectives by taking part in reciprocal classroom visits. Teaching Squares focus on the valuable take-away(s) made accessible by observing other teachers in action rather than on the potentially harsh critique of peer evaluation. The aim of the Teaching Squares approach is to enhance teaching and learning through a structured process of classroom observation, reflection and discussion (leading to a plan for revitalization of one’s own teaching). A square is formed by four instructors who visit each other’s classes over the course of one term. The visits are preceded by an organizational meeting and followed by a debrief meeting where the participants share their experiences (the positive aspects of what they have learned and how they might improve their own classes). The total time commitment over the term is approximately 6 hours. If you are interested, please send Monica Vesely an email ( indicating the term you would like to participate (this term – Winter 2014 or later in the year) and the course you will be teaching.

The sixth annual University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference: Opportunities and New Directions (OND) will be held Thursday, May 1, 2014 with the theme “Rethinking and Reframing the Assessment of Learning”. We welcome research-based or practice-based submissions related to the theme.  We are excited that Dr. John Bean will be our Keynote Speaker. Proposals are due Friday, January 31, 2014. The call for proposals, as well as the proposal submission form can be found on the Conference website: . Even if you do not submit a proposal, we hope that you and your colleagues will join us for what we hope will be an enriching and exciting day!  For Conference-related questions, contact Julie Timmermans (

Upcoming Deadlines

OND Conference proposals:  Deadline Friday, January 31, 2014

LITE Seed Grants: Application deadline Saturday, February 1, 2014
Distinguished Teacher Award: Nomination deadline Friday, February 7, 2014

Amit and Meena Chakma Awards for Exceptional Teaching by a Student: Nomination deadline Friday, February 14, 2014

Waterloo’s 2014 Loving to Learn Day falls on Friday, February 14. Enter the contest by Tuesday, February 11, and win a book prize! “What makes a teacher a really GREAT teacher?”


As always, contact your CTE Faculty Liaison with any questions you may have about CTE services.

If you have difficulty enrolling using the myHRinfo system (most of us have, at various points), contact Verna Keller.


For confidential consultations about course ratings, classroom observations, or the like, contact Trevor Holmes or Jane Holbrook.

Refining my Twitter “voice” for CTE tweets — Trevor Holmes

I think I was probably born in the wrong era. Sometimes, I feel like a late Victorian. Other times, I feel like a Millennial. I want to talk about the latter feeling in today’s blog post. In a dizzyingly “meta” moment, I’ll probably tweet the link to it as soon as I post.

You see, I’m someone who has been more comfortable texting than phoning someone ever since texting became a thing. This seems to characterize most of the Millennials I know, and few of the Boomers. Perhaps as Generation X, I just tend to sit on the cusp one way or another. Unlike Millennials, I also played around in very rich text-based virtual worlds before there was a visual web… you know, when the internet seemed all fresh and new and had no pictures besides ASCII art. Of course all these generational generalisations are probably false. I suspect I’m just a sci fi geek in educational developer clothing, and therefore an “early adopter” in my tech and teaching life.

So when Twitter came along in 2006, I did the usual exploration* that I do when new things pop up. That is to say, I pretended I was evaluating its possibilities for teaching and learning. In truth, I DO do this with new software, new platforms, new technologies. But it’s also, of course, about my own predilection for fun toys I only imagined as a kid (this may be why I held onto my flip phone far longer than anyone I know — it reminded me of an original Star Trek communicator!).

paper speech bubbles laid on a green background, concept of open discussion and debate
Speech Bubbles

In short, nothing seems more natural to me than musing in 140-character thoughtlets, or sharing interesting links to topics various with hundreds of other people, or recirculating helpful hints by others. This is probably why I jumped at the opportunity to tweet on behalf of CTE when it came round. Our Faculty Liaisons had a Twitter account, run mostly by Zara Rafferty, who has since moved on to teach in Recreation and Leisure Studies. When Zara left, it became clear that we could leverage Twitter for CTE more widely, and so we created @uwcte, and started to gather followers. For the most part, I’ve been handling the daily (except for weekends) tweets, and to be honest, it’s a very different approach to tweet institutionally than to tweet individually.

I’ll start with what I am trying to do, and what we are trying to avoid.

What I tweet on behalf of CTE:

  • links to upcoming events across the range of our practice and audience (TAs, faculty — full-time and adjunct, teaching staff, postdoctoral fellows)
  • mentions of events underway or just finished (sometimes with links to relevant resources)
  • links to resources around the web for teaching practices /theory, including our Tip Sheets and blog posts
  • University of Waterloo or Faculty-specific good news (retweet)
  • material of interest to the mid-career professors who follow us locally
  • tips and sample techniques that suit the time of term we’re in (e.g. mid-course feedback tips at midterm, how to end a course and review for exams near the end of term)
  • publicizing CTE news (hires, retirements, accomplishments)
  • critical engagement with educational controversies where they seem relevant to uWaterloo communities
  • musings on current events, without taking a strong position

Some things I try to avoid:

  • particular endorsements of a one-sided position
  • inflammatory or controversial statements about higher education, particular people, or universities
  • bad press for our own University or any neighbouring ones
  • jokes — they are usually at someone’s expense


Again, this is all very different from my individual Twitter account, which I’ve had for some time and use to post items about more political aspects of higher education, items about my personal interest in food and food culture, and items related to my former discipline, among other things. As @vardalek, I’m very much my uncensored self; I rarely hesitate to post what I’m thinking or feeling, although I am very aware of the dangers of permanent archives and the problem of the fatal error in judgment. I guess I have nothing to hide that is unsavoury, in my view anyway. I have always taken seriously the idea that we ought to build personal histories and narratives using the internet archives of ourselves (some call it branding). Searches through old listservs devoted to higher education topics or to queer theory would likely result in some classic Trevor rants.

Such an apparently wanton approach (actually it’s of course more rhetorically intentional than one might assume) is exactly wrong, though, for an institutional account. As a CTE tweeter, or as @ks101wlu (my course over at WLU), I have a different relationship to official culture. I’m not the same kind of autonomous individual. Certainly, lines blur when we make a constant stream of crossings-over that transcends single or simple identity. Some of the people I follow and those @uwcte follows are the same. @uwcte even follows @vardalek (retweeting one’s own tweets turns out to feel rather self-indulgent, but I’m certainly not doing it for some future day when retweets count like citations do now!).

I draw the line at thinking like a corporate Chief Information Officer (CIO), though. I’ve noticed articles or blog posts lately about social media “compliance” and “return on investment” (ROI). While I can imagine ways in which our tweets can be shown to enhance our work, I’m not in this for the obvious ROI. We are a helping group, teaching developers, and we just, it seems to me, want those with whom we work to have a sense of confidence as they plan, deliver, and assess learning. That is why I tweet for CTE, and why I hope you will follow @uwcte if you join Twitter or are already using it.

*note: I’m more cautious than I let on here. I didn’t begin tweeting seriously until mid-2009. Apparently I have been a user longer than 93.9% of all users though. See Twopcharts’ tool for your own data.

Image Attribution: Creative Commons Creative Commons License

Using “Transit Questions” in place-based pedagogy – Trevor Holmes

I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.

Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).

Photograph of two people in Iceland
Photo of two people in Iceland. Source: Karlbark’s Fotothing stream (shared under CC license)

I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!

If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!

Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.