Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

Active learning is “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes” (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 2). Examples include team debates, think-pair-share, team-based learning, and using clickers or other technology to provide opportunities for discussion (for more on active learning, see our Active Learning Tip Sheet).

Photo taken at the back of a 200-seat lecture hall looking toward the front white board.
One of Waterloo’s large classrooms

But what happens when there are 300 students in your classroom? Many of these techniques scale to larger settings although they require additional planning. To help with designing and running these activities, I think about four design elements. For each element, I ask myself a set of questions to help plan the activity.

Continue reading Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

Program Outcomes – Join our new learning community – Veronica Brown

Goals. Aims. Objectives. Outcomes. Metrics. Performance Indicators. Ideal Graduate Attributes.

Last week, I spent some time with colleagues debating the meaning of these various terms. They are often used interchangeably but, depending who you ask, they don’t mean the same thing. I tend to lump goals, aims and objectives together because they represent our intentions – what we will work towards during a given learning experience. I see outcomes and attributes as what students are actually able to do by the end of that experience (specific behaviours, knowledge, skills, attitudes they have developed). Finally, I place metrics and performance indicators into a category of measurements of those outcomes. Our discussion last week verified that while we use these terms in the similar ways, it’s worth taking the time to clarify our shared understanding of these key terms.

Now, it’s time to expand that conversation across campus. I’m excited to announce a new learning community at CTE – program outcomes assessment. Many departments across campus are engaged in program assessment through academic program review, accreditation, and curriculum design and renewal. Bob Sproule (a member of the School of Accounting and Finance’s Learning Outcomes Committee) and I will be leading this group as we explore various aspects of program outcomes assessment.

The first session, on May 12, 2016 12:00-1:15pm in EV 241, is a brainstorming session to explore topic ideas for the coming year. Our goal is to meet twice per term, starting in Fall 2016, and we want to ensure the sessions reflect areas of interest for you, our community members. If you are unable to attend the session but are interested in joining the community, please email me, Veronica Brown (, Sr. Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Quality Enhancement, Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Small portion of a curriculum map
A slice of a curriculum map – a great tool in assessing program outcomes

An Invitation to be Still – Veronica Brown

After many years at Waterloo, you would think I would be ready for September. Yet every year, I feel a bit walloped. The end of August, that rare time on campus when things are quiet, is such a contrast to the energy of the first few weeks of September. But by Thanksgiving, I am ready for a rest.

So, rather than sharing some ideas through this week’s blog post, I am inviting you to take five minutes to be still. I realize for some, the idea of sitting quietly for five minutes is unbearable. For others, it is a welcome respite from the busyness of our academic life. Even if you last only a minute or two, don’t discount the value of this quietness.

If it helps, consider listening to this song ( It is by one of my favourite composers, Timothy Corlis, who studied physics at Waterloo as well as music, theology and peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel. The song is performed by the Da Capo Chamber Choir. Another option is to simply reflect on the images at the end of this blog. They are from places where I have enjoyed moments of calm solitude.

Or perhaps, take a few minutes to walk around campus and notice the changing leaves, the crispness of the air. Whatever you do, just take a moment to catch your breath.


Red rock and sand with blue sky and a few clouds at Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Farmer's field of dandelions with a grey sky
Near St. Jacob’s, Ontario
Sunset over water with small islands and pine trees
Georgian Bay, Ontario

New to Waterloo? Four fun tips – Veronica Brown

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a great discussion with some colleagues who, like me, are celebrating five years at their teaching centre this year. We were talking about what had helped us as we transitioned into our new roles. For me, an important factor was my institutional knowledge. Having completed my undergraduate degree at Waterloo, taught here, and worked in both an academic department and a support unit, there were lots of things I had learned over the years that you won’t find in orientation materials. I thought it would  be fun to share some of the things I have discovered along the way. These are in no particular order!

  • Need some inspiration? Check out the co-op students of the year. Each year, six students (one per Faculty) are selected based on their contributions to their employer, academic achievement, volunteer experience and other criteria. Their accomplishments, such as presenting their research at international conferences, raising capital for their start-ups, and developing new tools and processes, are impressive (and humbling)! I am a huge fan of co-operative education and look forward to reading about the award winners.
  • Microsoft Excel is your friend. Most of my career has involved teaching or managing large (e.g., 300 – 1000+) classes. There is tremendous value in being able to efficiently store grade data and analyse it. Even in small classes, tools like PivotTables or some of the basic functions in Excel (or any spreadsheet for that matter), can help you get a clearer sense of your students’ performance. Taking a course at Waterloo through the Skills for the Electronic Workplace program, or getting some help from a colleague, are great options to hone your spreadsheet skills.
  • You might need to find a different place to get your coffee once exams start. Not all Food Services locations are open during exams and those that are open might have reduced hours. The same is true for the student-run coffee shops. Check the hours of your favourite Food Services location on their Hours and Locations page.
  • Read the Daily Bulletin. The Daily Bulletin is an electronic bulletin, published each business day. I try to read it every day because it is a neat mix of news, announcements, celebrations, events and miscellaneous information from across campus. Check out the Daily Bulletin Archive to see posts from the past 20 years!

As we head into spring, I thought it would be nice to have one final look at a snowy campus.



Passion – Veronica Brown

This is Georgian Bay. North of Parry Sound.

Lake and rocky islands

As a long distance swimmer, it is my favourite place in the world to swim. Not only because it is fresh water, has fewer scary creatures than the ocean (no sharks or jelly fish here), is warm (usually a balmy 75F in the summer), and is relatively calm (unlike the English Channel). But it is also where I learned to swim.

But many changes have occurred in the Great Lakes since my Great Uncle and his father bought the island 100 years ago. The ’30s and ’60s were marked by extremely low water levels while the ’80s had some of the highest water on record. The challenge today, among others, is low water. You see, this is where I learned to swim.

Image of rock with pool of water

In the background, you can see a small green bucket. That’s where our dock used to start. It was moored to the rock in the foreground. The one with the chain attached. There was enough water here to park a 14′ aluminum with a 35HP, our canoes, and, depending on the wind that day, a small sailboat.

Where I used to paddle, now there are trees.

Tree growing in rock

And if you look closely at the island below, you can see the high water mark. The line where the rock colour changes from grey to beige.

Feb25blogConsider the size of the Great Lakes and then look at that image. The water is four or five feet lower. What has happened to all the water?

During the past several weeks, I have shared my exploration of the affective domain. Appreciation. Uncertainty. Honesty. Integrity. Ethics. Awareness of Limits. Open-mindedness. Commitment. Compassion. Cooperation. When I work with departments across campus, these themes arise regardless of the discipline or degree-level. These affective elements give our students a shared experience.

Now, why did I share the water story above? Not because I want you to know about dropping Great Lake water levels but because it is an example of an activity (and assessment) that you could try in your own class to encourage expression of ideas in the affective domain. Here are some suggestions.

  • End a class with a picture that relates to key themes in the class. Ask students to find connections between the image and the theme as part of a short assignment that functions as a review of the past few weeks and helps you assess their readiness for the next unit.
  • Create a 3-Minute Thesis contest in your class around a theme that requires a sense of more than just the knowledge and skills components of the course. If I had presented the above water story in class, it could be done in 3 minutes.
  • Encourage creative responses to assignments through flexible formats for submission. If writing is not a specific objective of the assignment, why not encourage video, poster, or presentations. A well-designed rubric could be used to assess all these formats.

And now, the title. Passion. It is yet another element of the affective domain. In all this need for measurement – grades, program evaluation, accountability – I worry that we are squeezing out the affective elements that are, I believe, critical to success, in school, the workplace, and in life.  Several weeks ago I shared that the affective domain is a mystery to me. I think that mystery was tied to a fear of not “measuring it properly”, as if there was a single answer. Ironically, it is not unlike how my students must sometimes feel when faced with a complex problem, one in which there is no one single answer, one that cannot be measured to two significant digits.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me. I do not have a single answer because it does not exist. But I better understand the tools that can be used, it has reaffirmed my idea that we need to provide multiple opportunities to our students to explore these ideas, and that while they might not all fully embrace these affective elements, we can provide the activities, opportunities, and experiences, that can help them move in that direction.





The One Hit Wonder – Veronica Brown

For several years now, all Ontario degree programs have been expected to demonstrate their students’ fulfillment of degree-level expectations as part of their program review process. There are different requirements at the undergraduate (UDLEs) and graduate (GDLEs) levels (more info is available in the Program Review area of the CTE Curriculum site). There are six UDLEs, which institutions could choose to use, adapt, or create their own and demonstrate how their own fulfilled the six required. At Waterloo, we adopted the six required UDLEs.

  1. Depth and breadth of knowledge
  2. Knowledge of methodologies
  3. Application of knowledge
  4. Communication skills
  5. Awareness of limits of knowledge
  6. Autonomy and professional capacity

But wanted to capture other elements that uniquely define Waterloo and added two more.

  1. Experiential learning
  2. Diversity

Consider the UDLE, “Awareness of limits of knowledge”, which is defined as

… an understanding of the limits to their own knowledge and ability, and an appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits to knowledge and how this might influence analyses and interpretations. (Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents in University of Waterloo, n.d.)

How do you measure “an appreciation of uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge”? I don’t think you can, not as it is stated here. You need to better define this UDLE as it relates to the experience your students have had and what you might expect them to experience. I find Eisner’s suggestions for expressive activities that will lead to expressive outcomes (see my February 18 blog) more and more appealing. Every student might have a different limit of their own knowledge but we can provide experiences that help them explore what those limits are. We can expose them to examples where a lack of knowledge has led to serious analysis and interpretation issues. We can give them labs or problem sets or case studies, etc., that have no single, right answer to help them gain comfort or an appreciation of uncertainty. The final outcome for each student might not be the same but we can control and define the activities that lead to that outcome.

The challenge, however, is to ensure that these experiences are scaffolded throughout the degree rather than being a one-hit-wonder. How can a student gain an appreciation of uncertainty if every question they are asked to answer has a single answer? How is that comfort or appreciation demonstrated by questions like “Will that be on the test”? How do we gauge student’s limits of their knowledge if we gather no evidence of the reflective process they use to review (or not) their performance in our class?

Next week, as I conclude this blog, I’ll explain why I posted the images throughout these blogs. Have a look at the images and try to guess where they are from, why I posted them, and what they have to do with the affective domain.



University of Waterloo. (n.d.). The degree level expectations. Retrieved from on March 4, 2014.



Media and the affective domain – Veronica Brown

I am still letting last week’s thoughts about expressive activities leading to expressive outcomes rummage around in my head. For now, I’d like to talk about the value of media in instruction and assessment of the affective domain. I’d like you to take a few minutes to look at the following three examples.

Example 1 – Tacoma Narrows Bridge

First, watch this video. It shows the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940.

The image of that bridge oscillating has stayed with me all these years. We watched that film (yes, this was pre-YouTube and I’m almost positive it was a film) in high school physics. For me, it was life-changing. Sounds a bit dramatic but I could never look at a structure the same way again. Even watching it today, a thousand questions run through my mind. How did that happen? Not just the physics of it but the human side, too. Who reviewed all the specs? How did this possibly happen? Can concrete actually move like that? Why did that car get stuck there? Was anyone hurt?  But as I sit at my computer writing this blog, a different question comes to mind.

Why did my physics teacher show us that film?

Example 2 – Rural and Urban Life in England

Now, I would like you to perform two Google searches for images (just click the links below to see my search’s results).

Search 1: 17th Century rural England

Search 2: 19th Century Tenements

How do you feel when you see those two images? Where would you rather live? Why? This idea of sharing images for comparison was presented by Linda Hunter at the Teaching & Learning Innovations (TLI) Conference at the University of Guelph (2012). She used two images to help students immediately see the difference between two time periods. She also played examples of the music of the eras (the abstract of her presentation, Making Connections Across Disciplines: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Interpreting Art, Music and Film for Sociological Theory Applications,  is available on the TLI web site). While we might understand that it was crowded in London in the late 19th century, how quickly we might be able to appreciate just how different it was from rural life 200 years earlier. These images and the music served as an introduction to a lesson but could also become an assessment tool. By asking students to find images to represent that era then comparing the images through a written component, students are able to demonstrate their knowledge of the era while also reaching into the affective domain. Another option would be to have students create something to represent both eras, such as a piece of art, a photo, a video, or some other piece.

Example 3 – Durham City Baths

Finally, I’d like you to look at the images in this article, Adventures of a Serial Trespasser. In particular, check out Photo 20 then compare it to the photos on Rob Birrell’s photography blog – Durham City Baths. I can imagine asking students to review both photos in any number of disciplines. They could prompt a discussion in any number of disciplines, such as planning, recreation and leisure, sociology, fine arts, engineering, economics, or environment and resource studies. To encourage students to look beyond the simplistic view that it is an old building that’s falling apart, why not ask students to defend the city’s decision to abandon this facility in order to build a new recreation complex. Other questions could encourage students to consider diversity, societal impact, socio-economic factors, historical factors, political implications, etc.. A broad question, such as What factors might influence the city’s decision not to repair the existing facility?, could provide opportunities to assess whether students are even aware of these factors. In this case, media can be used to encourage students to take a broader view of the scenario beyond addressing only the knowledge pieces.