Assessment Philosophy – Veronica Brown, CTE

Bishop's University building with trees and grey sky
Bishop’s University (photo by Ryan Millar, flickr)

A few weeks ago, Julie (Timmermans from CTE) and I visited Bishop’s University to facilitate two workshops. The morning session was on course design, a condensed version of CTE’s Course Design Fundamentals. In the afternoon, the session was titled, “Designing Assessment for Learning”. We had an absolutely wonderful time and met many faculty members from both Bishop’s University and Champlain College, which is also located in Lennoxville.

We struggled for quite some time with the content of the assessment workshop. Whole university courses are dedicated to this topic. We had just three hours. What should we cover? What were the most critical messages? Should we focus on specific tools? What are some of the “best practices” that are happening at Waterloo that we should share? Should we spend an equal amount of time on both formative and summative assessment? Wow! There is so much to cover.

OK. Perhaps we could focus the assessment plan (as our intention was that the take-away from the workshop would be to have an assessment plan) around a few specific assessment tools. But what should we include? Exams? Quizzes? Assignments? Written assignments? Problem sets? Labs? Projects? Research? Essays? Community Service? Design Competitions? Case Studies? Reports? Studio projects? Individual work? Team work? Participation? Reflective Writing? Again, what a lot of content to cover in just three hours!

Our initial thoughts and design focused heavily on content and all the knowledge we wanted to impart. Ironic given the fact that we had just planned a course design workshop. We eventually took our own advice and stepped away from the content. As we continued to wrestle with these ideas, we kept asking ourselves, if there is just one thing we would like participants to know or have when they walked out the door, what would it be? It took a really, really long time to figure this out.

Eventually, we realized that we wanted participants to explore a different element of assessment. While we could impart lots of ideas related to specific tools, we decided to focus instead on how we view and value assessment. We began the workshop with an exploration of the concerns we, as instructors, have about assessment then compared it with our perceptions of students’ concerns about assessment. We then explored elements of a framework for assessment, which includes: observation (obtaining evidence of learning); interpretation (reasoning from the evidence); learning outcomes; and, at the centre of the framework, the purpose (Why am I assessing?) (the framework we presented was adapted from the National Research Council (2001). Knowing What Students Know. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, p. 44.).

Both these pieces led to the final activity of the day, in which we asked participants to articulate their Assessment Philosophy Plan, which might eventually become part of their Teaching Philosophy. The idea was to explore what their goals and philosophy were for the assessment of their students. We asked them to reflect on the following questions.

  • Who is involved with the assessment?
  • What roles does assessment play in learning?
  • What boundaries surround your assessment framework?
  • How can you provide flexibility to support the variety of learners in your class?
  • What pieces are rigid and which ones are flexible?

Having written this philosophy statement, we then asked them to reflect on how the assessments in their course reflect this philosophy. In reality, we cannot always control the contextual factors that impact our assessment choice (e.g., if part of our philosophy relates to developing a reflective practice, how do we provide formative feedback to a class of 1500?). But by reflecting and articulating our own philosophy, it can help guide us when we need to make some of the more difficult decisions tied to our assessment strategy for our course.


The Teaching Excellence Academy – Veronica Brown

I have been staring at the computer screen trying to decide what to tell you about the Teaching Excellence Academy (TEA). The TEA is a four-day course design workshop held each year in April. At first, I thought I would share some interesting facts with you.

  • The TEA has been completed by over 100 participants during the past eight years.
  • Members of all six Faculties and all four affiliated colleges have attended.
  • Each year, there are six facilitators including two TEA alumni (thus far, 10 faculty members have returned as facilitators).
  • Participants include new faculty, mid-career, and senior faculty members.

Then, I thought, perhaps I could talk about what we do at the TEA. The workshop covers key topics in course design focused on creating an “aligned” course. On the first day, we explore the content and concepts of your course as well as the context in which you are teaching (e.g., class size, level, core/elective/service, TA support, other resources, etc.). Based on the content, concepts, and context, you create learning outcomes for the course on Day 2. Finally, in an aligned course, the teaching methods, learning activities, and assessments are related to these outcomes. We explore these areas on Day 3 and finish the workshop with the creation of a new course outline on Day 4, which is shared at the celebration in the afternoon of Day 4. Continue reading The Teaching Excellence Academy – Veronica Brown

CTE’s PD Day – Jane Holbrook and Veronica Brown

Creating a Thank You poster at the end of the dayThis has been a really busy year for CTE. We have moved two offices into one, participated in the launch of LEARN, and continued our usual consulting and programming. Everyone from our Centre came together a couple of weeks ago to spend time with each other and to have some fun getting to know each other better. The theme for our PD day was communication and people found lots of great ways to explore this topic.

We spent our retreat day talking about:

  • what we can do to effectively communicate who we are and what we do;
  • better ways to promote our Centre’s activities;
  • how to develop more effective ways to communicate with each other and inform one another of our activities; and
  • what we do as instructional developers and communicate that to the outside world.

Exchanging Ideas at Morning Coffee

Spending time together helped us find some solutions to shared challenges and better understand each others’ roles. Everyone in the Centre contributed by planning group activities, planning lunch, preparing sessions or working behind the scenes to make this a relaxing and worthwhile day.

Laughing  during the icebreaker


Instructional Skills Workshop — Veronica Brown

Sunset on Georgian Bay, Pointe au Baril, ONWhen I first heard about the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), I didn’t immediately run to sign up. The idea of someone videotaping me teach made me squirm (it still does). What? You want to not only tape my teaching but then someone is going to critique it and I have to watch it that night? Ugh.

[Insert loud sigh here] OK. This is probably good for me. I am sure I wave my hands too much, I have been known to say ’cause instead of because, I wonder if I seem as distracted as I feel…yes, there are some things I can work on. Continue reading Instructional Skills Workshop — Veronica Brown

Ideas on a napkin – Veronica Brown

Notes on three napkins sitting on a tableI teach a course on teamwork. It’s an elective in the WatPD program, which is a suite of courses completed by UW’s undergraduate co-op students. When I tell people I teach a course on teamwork, their reaction usually involves something cringe-like followed by a story about a horrid group work experience they had when they were in school. To say people loathe group work might be an understatement. We usually commiserate briefly on the experience and then I start telling them a bit more about my course. Unlike other courses, which include group or team work as part of their assessment, my entire course is about teamwork, with the focus on teamwork in the workplace.

Students in the course develop their knowledge and skills related to teamwork in three ways: completing independent assignments related to the course content; participating in a team task; and reflecting on their own experiences with teamwork during their work terms, the course, and at school. I should mention, too, that this is an online course and so they must work as a virtual team to complete the task.

Something, however, has been nagging me about my course. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the course and the opportunities it gives students to study teamwork and develop the relevant knowledge and skills. But I wonder if the course goes deep enough. My course focuses on what is needed for team success, such as building on individuals’ strengths, team processes, collaboration, etc. The course, currently, focuses on knowledge and skills. The missing piece is valuing teamwork. Does the course effectively convey the true value of working in a team? Will they recognize the subtleties surrounding personalities and politics that will impact team success just as much as lack of resources or time pressures? Will they understand that just as each individual brings their own strengths to the team, they might also bring their own agenda? How will they lead a team when given the chance? Will they be motivated to work collaboratively the next time the opportunity presents itself or will they, like others before them, cringe at the thought of teamwork?

So I sat down at lunch recently with a friend of mine who works in the private sector and asked him why, in his experience, teams failed. He had a long list, many of which focused on the people on the team, their personalities, leadership, differences in vision, politics, etc. He also spoke about challenges between teams, where one team will develop a new process without even realising how it will infringe on the processes of others. It’s not just the communication within the team, but among teams, that can be problematic.

Eventually, our conversation returned to my course and what might be missing. We talked about adding a simulation where teams would be formed and each student would be given a role to play, such as the leader, the loafer, the team player, etc. Each team would be given a scenario (we talked about using UW clubs as a potential option). Then, we talked about how to throw them a curve ball part way through the process, such as suddenly slashing their budget, having a team member simply disappear, having a couple of them try to take over control of the team, etc. I actually love the idea but, realistically, I’m unsure this would fly in the mediated environment of an online course.  I’m also unsure I’m ready to throw that curve ball.

For now, our conversation, recorded on the napkins shown in the above photo, has given me direction for change in my course. Teamwork is not just about knowledge and skills. For success, there must be an underlying trust, among team members, between the team and the workplace that surrounds it, and, most importantly, that teamwork really can lead to success. It has led me in many directions – problem-based learning, experiential learning, exploring the affective domain. I have enjoyed this journey, motivation to dig deeper into these areas. Now, it is time to put this theory into practice. As I move forward with this change, my next step is to figure out how to take all this theory and make it useful and practical as a teacher. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


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.

Conflict – Veronica Brown


“What was the most significant learning you have experienced or witnessed in your lifetime?”

That was a question posed yesterday by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox and Dale Lackeyram during their presentation at the Teaching & Learning Innovations conference at the University of Guelph. In pairs, we chatted away about some significant learning we had experienced and, as teachers, what we had witnessed. Then, we had a large group discussion about these experiences.

Before I continue, you are probably wondering what that question has to do with conflict. I wondered that, too, as their presentation was entitled, “You’re Stuck with Them: Now What? Managing and Maintaining Conflict in Group Settings”.

After participants shared some of the learning they had experienced or witnessed, Ashlee and Dale drew our attention to the role conflict had played in these experiences. The level had varied; some were intense, emotional events while others’ conflict was intrapersonal as they questioned themselves, their convictions, and their perception. conflict birds image

I really enjoyed their presentation, which then focused on the value of conflict and its role in group work. For me, the most important take-away was a reminder of how conflict can be a powerful catalyst for change. I witnessed its transformative power a few weeks ago at the Teaching Excellence Academy (TEA), a four-day workshop in which participants re-design a single course. At the TEA, participants spent four days wrestling with themselves. What did they really want their students to get from this course? Why were they teaching it a certain way? How would they address external variables over which they had little control? Why had they come to the TEA and what were they trying to accomplish? It is an intense period of reflection.

Conflict, of course, also has as much potential to destroy as to transform. How, then, do we support our students as they deal with the conflict associated with their learning? In our professional lives, how do we support our colleagues as they face new challenges? How do we support ourselves? These are questions that I am wrestling with at the moment.

I was grateful to be reminded that conflict, rather than something to be avoided, can be productive and meaningful.


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.

Green Slime – Veronica Brown

At dinner, we always try to take the time to ask the girls how their day was at school. Today, my eldest daughter (she’s 7) could barely contain her excitement. It was her first day at an after-school science program. It’s an hour long, once per week. Today, they made slime. Continue reading Green Slime – Veronica Brown