Turning Information into an Invitation – Trevor Holmes

I’ve been teaching undergrads since 1994 I guess, as a TA at first, and by 2001 as a course instructor. Since 2006 I’ve been the instructor of record on a large first-year cultural studies course (and assisted in 2005 on the same one). This post is in the head-scratching, old dog / new tricks category, and is about office hours.

wordcloud-welcome-heart-1Generally speaking, I hold 1.5 to 2 hours of office time for consultation with students. I’m happy when I see three to six students in a week, which only happens around essay writing time. Some students come for help getting started, others with drafts to go through together, and others afterward to understand feedback. Although I ask students to show up or make an alternate appointment, I probably only see ten percent of my class that way in a good year (I teach 200).

Over the years I’ve read about some ways to use office hours more effectively. Don Woods (McMaster, Chemical Engineering Emeritus and architect of their problem-based learning approach) always talks about using student ombudspeople (1 or 2 per 50 students), with whom the professor meets each week or two to have a dialogue about how the class is going. A former professor at York when I was a graduate student there used to have his undergraduates come in to receive their essays — they’d have to read them aloud to him in order to get them back (this usually led to a deeper understanding on their part of their grades and their own writing). Teaching tips abound — and of course CTE has our own version of advice for the beginning TA or instructor.

This year, though, thinking I was past all such tips — surely these are all for beginners, not for seasoned oldtimers like myself — I once again posted my office hours for the term in the learning management system calendar tool. Week in, week out… can I remove just the one instance over Reading Break this time? Yes! Great. But…

…instead of writing “Trevor’s Office Hour” like I normally would, I wondered what might sound more inviting. I’m so tired of the discourse of “information delivery” as our role in higher education. In lecture, I’m not an information-delivery specialist. My discipline isn’t about transmitting information from me to many. That is a subject for another post, but it’s important to think about the whole endeavour, and how I communicate this belief I have. If I simply post my hours as information, how am I welcoming the discussion and support I feel I can share with my first years? So, I tried instead posting the calendar entry with the words: “Trevor’s Office Time: Come and Visit me in xxxx-xxxx from 4:30 – 5:00” (and the same, but an hour, on the other day).

For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching, two students showed up for my first office hour before the first lecture day. I told them I was happy to meet them, we talked about their interests, majors, futures, and I asked them what made them come see me before the class had even begun. They said “because you invited us to come and visit you.”

I was pretty much gobsmacked, not having expected anyone to pop by until three weeks hence when the paper is due. I hope this signals an increase in the frequency of visits and the diversity of visitors. Pleasant surprises like this, that by the students’ own account were because of the three small words “come visit me,” are the kinds of things that keep my enthusiasm for teaching so high even after eight iterations of the same course.


Opening Classrooms Across Disciplines – Trevor Holmes

One of my favourite jobs as a teaching developer is to visit other people’s classrooms. I get to learn new things while providing a helpful service (observation and report for feedback to individual instructors). There’s another benefit that accrues too, though. I get to bring ideas from a panoply of disciplinary approaches back to my own classroom, reinvigorating my own teaching and ratcheting up my students’ learning.

CC Licensed image "We're Open" sign by dlofink
Open Sign

Rarely is this more apparent than during our Open Classroom series. Open Classroom is Waterloo’s unique way of celebrating our Distinguished Teaching Award winners by asking them to do some work! Each term, if possible, we ask the DTA winner to open his or her doors to other professors, new or more seasoned, it doesn’t matter. The attendees (a few to half a dozen, depending on the room capacity) sit in on the live classroom as observers, and then have an opportunity to ask questions for an hour after the class. This gives a chance not only for the visitors to experience what it’s like to be a learner in the Award-winner’s class, but for the professor to explain his or her thinking behind instructional approaches taken that day.

What is really important here is that one need not be from the professor’s home discipline to benefit from this observation and discussion. I have certainly learned some things from Waterloo professors I’ve observed, and while some of it has gone way over my head, the techniques themselves have found their way directly or indirectly into my own cultural studies lectures (even math and physics approaches!). I would heartily encourage attendance at this term’s Open Classroom (Ted McGee’s English course, the Rebel) and future Open Classrooms, regardless of your own discipline. You will find some relevance in watching and asking about a different approach, I am sure.


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.

“Best Practices” or…? Have your say! – Marlene Griffith Wrubel

Best Practices

I had a brief conversation with a colleague about the words “best practices”. My colleague felt there must be a better phrase to convey tested and successful ways of summarizing new information for learners. I like the phrase and what it means. The term is widely known and is particular to the Training and Development world. I believe it still has application in the field of Education. That’s where you come in. It’s said a picture’s worth a thousand words. Take a look at the picture below. What comes to mind when you think of this phrase? What is your definition? What other terms exist for this sentiment? Send your comment, definition, or ideas to me and I will post it to this blog.

Best Practices filled in


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.

More than Numbers – Donna Ellis

Just last month, I presented on CTE’s annual report at Senate. Having an opportunity to share our accomplishments, challenges, and opportunities is always something that I welcome. And it has been a very busy year at CTE. We provided more than 3,000 consultations to almost 1,000 individuals at Waterloo in the Fall and Winter terms this past year. This is a 43% increase from our total consultation activity the previous year. And in the past three terms, we ran more than 100 workshops for almost 800 different attendees (registrations of almost 2,600). The majority of our consultations are with faculty members (83%) whereas the majority of our workshop registrations come from graduate students (74%). These numbers make sense given that most of our consultations were done by our Faculty Liaisons and most of our workshop activity is for the Fundamentals of University and Certificate in University Teaching programs. It is wonderful to be able to report such impressive data – I give thanks to the efforts of our staff members in tracking their activities the past number of months so that the data could be shared.

But do the numbers tell the whole story? Of course not. Despite being a challenge to collect, numeric contact-focused data often remain easier to track than the longitudinal data that would help to demonstrate a change in practice or attitude regarding teaching and learning. Often you can really only understand the impact of an activity by digging below a simple measure of participation.

One evaluation model that’s causing a fair bit of buzz in educational development (ED) comes from organizational training. Kirkpatrick’s 4-Level Model identifies different areas to assess: reaction, learning, behaviour, and results. Some teaching centres are looking for ways to adapt this model to ED work, but as with any longitudinal data collection methods – qualitative or quantitative – a fair bit of horsepower is needed to collect and then analyze whatever meaningful data are identified. It seems unrealistic to think that all services could be assessed all the time, or even need to be. Perhaps through collaboration, teaching centres can continue to identify and engage in research about assessing the impact of ED work. Some of our upcoming new programming will hopefully have such data built right into it. The more that data collection can be part of our practices, the more achievable it becomes.

For now, we will continue to collect our numbers and the unsolicited feedback that comes our way about the value and impact of our many services. We thank our university community for your participation with us, and we look forward to learning more about how our efforts affect your instructional work.


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.

Maryellen Weimer at 2011 Presidents’ Colloquium – Trevor Holmes

Annually, Waterloo’s two presidents (the President, and the Faculty Association President) host a special guest on campus to talk about teaching and learning. These guests are recognized specialists in some branch or another of higher education. This year we are honoured to hear from Maryellen Weimer, whom I’ve hosted in other settings and with whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend time at teaching conferences. Dr. Weimer is the long-time editor of the Teaching Professor Newsletter, and has also published books about pedagogical scholarship, learner-centered teaching, and techniques for instructional improvement. She manages both to be generously humane and caustically funny (sometimes in the same breath). Last time we spoke, I recall a debate erupting about why she rejected the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (SoTL) label in favour of “pedagogical scholarship”; and yet she has been invited to speak at a SoTL conference about SoTL work. I’ll be very curious to hear how she frames this more defined field of study now that its name and practices have become somewhat more solidified by way of journals, professional organisations, and books.

Can Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Actually Improve my Teaching?
Presidents’ Colloquium: Opening Keynote: Dr. Maryellen Weimer

“Books, journals, and articles on teaching and learning date back to the early 1900s – some even before that. All these materials have one thing in common: few educators read them. What can be learned from this literature? Is research a useful resource faculty need for self-improvement as teachers? Are fellow teachers the ones best suited to research and write about teaching and learning? How is this pedagogical scholarship alike and different from discipline-based research? In this keynote, Maryellen Weimer explores answers to these questions. Whether engaging in a thoughtful reflection of classroom experience or an empirical endeavour that answers a pragmatic question, post-secondary teachers can use the scholarship of colleagues not only to enlarge their understanding of teaching and learning, but also to increase their effectiveness in the classroom. Illustrative examples will offer a range of new ideas, interesting findings, and provocative points to consider.”

Please join us for the Presidents’ Colloquium April 27 2011 in Hagey Hall 1101 (the new wing of Hagey). No registration required for this special keynote event (a free and open part of the longer Opportunities and New Directions Conference, for which registration is required — we can still take a few more people for OND if you are interested!).

Routledge Education Journals Free for April… – – Trevor Holmes

Great news for those who are intrigued by the idea of academic journals on teaching and learning in higher education: for the entire month of April, Taylor and Francis has made available for free all its Routledge holdings related to education.

Although you will of course find journals listed that are aimed at early years, elementary, and secondary education, there are also journals related to higher education on the list. Some journals will be discipline-specific; others, generic.

The text from their email alert::

“EDUCATION FREE FOR ALL… Free online access to 228 education research journals!”

“Routledge is delighted to announce that free online access is available NOW through Education Free for All. Throughout April 2011, Education Free For All gives you free access to all our top quality education research journals. This includes content from the entire archive of each journal, as well as the most recent articles.”

see www.educationarena.com/effa



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.

Wikispaces Goes Free for Higher Ed — Trevor Holmes

I have been using Wikispaces for many years now. It’s been a space to collaborate with peers on research, a space to house an organizational website that needs to be very flexible and easy to use while we seek permanent solutions, and a space for my students to go when other tools go down. By no means have I used Wikispaces to its full potential, but I do administer several wikis there and I’m thrilled that they are extending their ad-free version to higher education, after serving nearly a million K-12 users this way. A couple of examples of how I’ve used it:

  • A backup site for my Cultural Studies 101 course over at WLU
  • A working site for the Council of Ontario Educational Developers

If you’re interested in wiki use, we do have advice for you. And for ease of use plus the newly free adless version, I’d recommend Wikispaces as a strong contender for your time and energy.