On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Bassoon reeds in cupI could write this blog post about all the ways music is beneficial to us as learners and teachers – the positive effects it has on our standardized test performance, memory, motor, communication and analytical skills. I could continue that conversation and provide the dismal array of stats on the decline of public school funding for art programs across multiple countries and how this is a really bad idea.

Or I could talk about the real reason music is important – it is profoundly human, universal and magical and should not be defended solely because it is good for something other than simply. being. music. Continue reading On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Learning to Leap via Experiential Education — Michelle Gordon

michelle gordonI can’t say enough about experiential learning.  By stepping outside of textbook learning and living the experience, you develop personal connections to the theory. In my experience, this personal connection creates a drive to learn more about a topic, similar to how when you meet a person you like, you want to know more about them. Through experiential learning, I have also found that I develop soft skills that are not replicable in classroom learning, and which stay with me long after the experience is over.

This fall I was fortunate to be one of six student delegates selected from the University of Waterloo to attend the 21st Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was held in Paris, France. Also known as COP21 for short, this conference resulted in the Paris Agreement — an agreement to limit climate change to well below 2C of warming — being adopted with the consensus of 195 states. This was a historic moment to be a part of, where climate change was front and center on the world stage and it was finally agreed upon that quick and drastic action needs to be taken on a global level. Climate change is one of the global challenges of our century, and I hope that COP21 will be written in history as the turning point towards a cleaner and brighter future without fossil fuels.

Through this experience I learned much more about climate change than I could have in an entire semester in the classroom, but I think the most important thing I learned is confidence in my ability to leap. I believe to leap, or to jump into something new and unfamiliar when the opportunity presents itself instead of waiting until you feel “good enough,” is an essential skill to succeed in what you want in life.

Theoretical Knowledge

When I first applied to be a student delegate for COP21, I was hesitant as I thought I was less knowledgeable than many of my peers who were applying. Because I am in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability program, I had a working knowledge of climate change but by no means considered myself anywhere close to an expert! I applied anyway, and was thrilled to be selected. I studied climate change negotiations leading up to COP21, and observed them all around me during the experience. From this I gained a deeper knowledge than I had expected, and I am glad to have made the leap to apply and learn as I went, even if I was hesitant about my experience beforehand!

Social Media

Before attending COP21 I used social media such as Facebook, but I was shy about voicing my thoughts about social and environmental causes. Leading up to and during COP21, it was our job as student delegates to involve the wider campus community in awareness of the conference and climate change. It felt very uncomfortable at first, but I began posting on Facebook, joined Twitter, and then decided to make the leap by volunteering to be one of the lead students on the delegation’s communications and social media team. I felt out of my element at first, but through working in a team with two other students we created a successful and engaging campaign.

Networking and Meeting Influential People

At the COP21 conference, you are surrounded by people from all around the world, many of whom are very influential and knowledgeable. At first I felt a bit intimidated and timid in approaching people. However, I gained confidence when professor Ian Rowlands arranged for a few students and me to chat with Marlo Raylonds (the Chief of Staff to Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change) as well as David Miller (the President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada and former mayor of Toronto). Chatting with these intelligent people help me build confidence in knowing that influential people are just like anyone else, and I will now feel more comfortable approaching leaders in the future.

Bringing Experiential Learning into the Classroom

I understand that not many teachers can simply take their students abroad on a whim.  However, experiential learning opportunities are out there — they just need to be found and acted upon!

I think that classroom and lecture studies are important, and can serve their purpose as theoretical foundations for experiences. However, I strongly urge students to be always searching for opportunities to experience their passions outside of the classroom, be it conferences, volunteering, or through work experience.  Remember, Google is your friend!  For example, an afternoon spent searching can uncover field courses you can take for credit abroad or in Canada, bursary programs, and much more. Teachers can support students by sharing opportunities that they become aware of, and urging students to leap: to apply, follow through, and have the confidence to make it happen.

Michelle Gordon is a third year undergraduate student in the Environment and Resource Studies co-op program. Michelle was part of the delegation of students from UW that attended COP21. Michelle’s other interests include outdoor education, ecological restoration, and illustration.

A Prelude to Pedagogy – Ilia Zenkov

LigImage of Neural Pathways in a Brainhts dim. A bright yellow beam illuminates the path to an exquisite 480kg creation: A Steinway & Sons Model D. The instrument’s golden cast-iron plate is striking against its velvet black finish. The silence is deafening. Energy and anticipation emanates from my fellow audience members. Without a semblance of warning enters Denis Matsuev – winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. As if struck by lightning, the piano begins to produce a breathtakingly intricate melody.

A brief pause arrests your attention. Two seconds of profound silence follow, the air all but crackling with emotion surging through the concert hall.

The audience’s inaudible sigh of relief is palpable as the second movement begins. We slide back in our seats, relax our shoulders, and resume breathing.

However, there is more to be examined here than a simple pause. These interludes are not just a component of the spectacular solo put on by Matsuev this past weekend – rather, the very nature of these interruptions has a deep-seated rooting in the neurological wiring of our brains.

Event segmentation: “The process by which people parse a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events” and “A core component of ongoing perception, with consequences for memory and learning.” (Zacks & Swallow, 2007).  The brain naturally separates perceived information into spatial (Biederman, 1987) and temporal parts (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). For example, a lecture hall contains chairs, desks, a podium, and a board. The brain automatically segments your perception of the lecture hall into such components so as to better remember it – to better store it in memory. In much the same way, boundaries in time allow the brain to temporally segment your perception of, for example, a piano concerto. Untitled

A graph of BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent signal) responses in various regions of the brain in a 10 second window surrounding a transition period, whereby the body rapidly increases blood flow to active neuronal tissues. From Sridharan et al (2007).


Perhaps by using these concepts and even combining them in lectures, we can better cater to the brain’s natural information processing circuitry and facilitate a greater degree of learning. According to Zacks & Swallow (2007), ”Those who identify appropriate event boundaries during perception tend to remember more and learn more proficiently.” By creating appropriate temporal and spatial boundaries in lectures – perhaps a minute break between two related notions, a short discussion period, or even carefully planning how to situate problems and solutions on a board – professors may well aid their students’ learning by approaching pedagogy with event segmentation in mind.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the peak of brain activity is at those moments of silence between transitions, when it indeed appears that nothing is happening (Sridharan et al, 2007).

fMRI images taken of subjects’ cognitive activity in the left and right sides of their brain while listening to music show that neurological signaling increases dramatically around the point between two movements. From Sridharan et al (2007). 

Perhaps most notable about this study is that while subjects’ attention to music differed, the anticipation of a transition point between movements was a universal phenomenon. Considering that the way our brains resolve our ongoing perception into discrete events is directly related to how our long-term memory updates from our working “short term” memory (Kurby & Zacks, 2008), this may very well be an effect worth exploring.

To encapsulate this compelling feature of the brain, I will provide a rather simplified analogy. Imagine a resonance effect: When you push a swing at just the right moment, you not only preserve the energy from its descent but add more energy to the system. However, if you push at the wrong moment you will not add energy. In fact, you will be taking it away! Similarly, we must use the brain’s inherent approach to information processing to our advantage, not to our detriment. Instead of longwinded lectures to drain students of motivation, it’s better to push them often and at just the right moments to promote a higher degree of learning. Event segmentation can help educators rethink the structuring and organization of their lessons, which in turn will help students expand on concepts and develop a more complete understanding of the ideas presented to them.

For further reading, this research and supplementary data is available online at these links:

Event segmentation

Segmentation in the perception and memory of events

Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks


Biederman, I. (1987, April). Recognition-by-components: A theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94(2), 115–117

Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008, February). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(2), 72-79.

Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., Chafe, C.H., Berger, J., & Menon, V. (2007, August). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521-532

Zacks, J. M., & Khena, M. S. (2007, April). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 80-84.

Better Teaching Through Chemistry — Dylon McChesney

analogyBecause I do research in philosophy, it might be confusing to some people why I talk about the hard sciences so much in relation to teaching. The reason is simple: philosophy is very abstract, and abstract things are not so easy to understand, thus I look to outside disciplines for strategies to concretize ideas. It turns out, of course, that philosophy has no monopoly on abstraction. Dorothy Gale (1999) shows that even elementary chemistry, that is, the kind of material covered in grade school, is abstract and “inexplicable without the use of analogies or models.” It is easy to assume that because a subject has to do with the natural world (for example) that it is de facto concrete, but this assumption is harmful to pedagogy.

Chemistry—like so many other things—is taught through dividing the world into hierarchical levels of abstraction: we establish the relationship between macro level phenomena like a glass of water, and the sub-micro level (H20) of that same phenomena. Simple, right? Well, as Gale notes in the aforementioned article, there are numerous obstacles to strengthening the understanding of each level and how they are interrelated. One obstacle is language choice. Many technical terms have different meanings when used in everyday communication, which can lead to a situation where a “student will be thinking one thing, the instructor another” (ibid.). Surely this situation is a nearly universal academic experience, a kind of growing pain for students and (hopefully) a wakeup call for instructors. Philosophers could be more self-aware that the term “realism” refers to a class of ideas that probably seem anything but realistic, and what counts as a valid argument in formal logic can look like a completely invalid argument from a common sense perspective. So, one thing we can all learn from Chemistry is to anticipate a struggle to “override” intuitive, non-technical definitions and concepts. From the privileged perspective of hindsight bias, these struggles might seem trivial, but they are not.

Perhaps the problem of technical language use is obvious, but what is likely less obvious is how we do—and how we should—use analogies in teaching. If Chemistry (taken here to be paradigmatic) is “inexplicable without the use of analogies or models” then we need to be very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of analogies. A convenient example is the Bohr “solar system” model of the atom. Because atomic particles are unobservable, they are much more difficult to conceptualize than dogs, trees, or even the components of cells which can at least be viewed through microscopes. But since planets are observable, a solar system is relatively easy to conceptualize. Drawing an analogy between a solar system and an atom (where the “star” is the nucleus and “orbiting planets” are electrons) allows for some visualization and a sort of functional template of understanding. This is extremely powerful! Unfortunately, sometimes these templates can cause misunderstandings. The Bohr model of the atom, despite its elegant simplicity, is not the best model. In fact, we now know it is misleading; yet for many the cognitive damage is already done and the inherent virtue of learning through connections will consequently be difficult to reverse.  Thus we have a ubiquitous example of how analogies can help and hurt all at once; although we need them to teach and learn, we also need to learn how to teach with them carefully. While it is unlikely that many of us will be able to anticipate specific paradigm shifts, such as transition from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, we need to at least anticipate that some paradigm shifts are likely on the horizon. Analogies and models are indispensable, but promoting a critical stance and stressing the limitations of our best knowledge-generating tools might be even more so.

Although the objects of analysis differ substantially from discipline to discipline, ultimately we all face the same difficulty: making the leap from unknown to known. For both the arts and sciences this leap is theoretical and requires special attention to methodology. Since our theoretic knowledge of, well, almost everything, is so dependent on analogy, we are impelled to reflect on how it factors into our teaching in order to use it to its full potential.


Gale, D. 1999. Improving Teaching and Learning through Chemistry Education Research: A Look to the Future. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4).

Notes from the Music Studio — Christine Zaza

playing pianojpgWhen I reflect on teaching and learning in higher education I realize that much of what I learned, I learned when I was a music student. Here are some of the highlights from the music studio that are just as applicable to university teaching and learning:

Practice, practice, practice. Actually, this would more aptly be phrased Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, but the rhythm just isn’t as good. I wouldn’t expect anyone to become a professional violinist without regular lessons with a qualified teacher. Regular feedback is critical to guiding students as they develop new skills. Without regular feedback, bad habits can become engrained and difficult to correct. In university, students learn a number of new skills and new ways of thinking and they need multiple opportunities to practice these skills with regular feedback. To ensure that students focus on the feedback and not just the grade, instructors can give a follow-up assignment students to make revisions highlighting how they have incorporated the feedback that they received on their first submission.

Practice the performance. When preparing for a recital or audition (a summative test), music students are advised to practice performing in front of friends, family –teddy bears if need be – several times, before the actual performance. Preparing for a performance is different from preparing for weekly lessons. Good performance preparation is crucial because in a performance you get one shot at the piece. There are no do-overs on stage. Similarly, when writing music theory or history exams, practicing the exam is an expected part of exam preparation. To facilitate this preparation, the Royal Conservatory of Music sells booklets of past exams. The Conservatory also returns graded exams so that students can see exactly where they earned and lost marks: considering that the Royal Conservatory of Music administers thousands of exams, three times a year, across the globe, this is a huge undertaking. At university, we know that self-testing is an effective study strategy and some instructors do provide several practice exams questions in their course. However, due to academic integrity concerns, the common practice is to deny students access to past exams as well as their own completed exam. I wonder if academic misconduct would be less of an issue if students were allowed to use past exams as practice tools. Amassing a large enough pool of past exam questions should address the concern that students will just memorize answers to questions that they’ve seen in advance.

Explicit instruction is key. It’s not very helpful to just tell a novice piano student to go home and practice. In the name of practicing, a novice student will, more than likely, play his or her piece over a few times, from bar 1 straight to the end, no matter what happens in between, and think that he has “practiced.” I know. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, and if you have a child in music lessons, I’ll bet you’ve heard it too. Explicit instruction means addressing many basic questions that an expert takes for granted: What does practicing look like? How many times a week should you practice? For how long should you practice? How do you know if you have practiced enough? How do you know if you have practiced well? Similarly, not all first students arrive at university knowing how to study. Many students would benefit from explicit instructions about learning and studying (e.g., What does studying look like? How do you know when you’ve studied enough? I’ve gone over my notes a few times – is that studying? Etc.

Know that students can’t learn it all at once. A good violin teacher knows that you can’t correct a student’s bow arm while you’re adjusting the left hand position, improving intonation, working on rhythm, teaching new notes, and refining dynamics. In any given lesson, the violin teacher chooses to let some things go while focusing on one particular aspect of playing otherwise the student will become too overwhelmed to take in any information at all. Suzuki teachers know that you always start by pointing out something positive about the student’s playing and that you can’t focus only on the errors. Students need encouragement. I think this is true at university as well. Becoming a good writer takes years and novice writers will likely continue to make several mistakes while at the same time improving one or two specific aspects of their writing. While giving feedback on written assignments, it’s important to acknowledge the positive aspects – that’s more encouraging that facing a sea of red that highlights only the errors.

Even if you didn’t take piano lessons as a child and even if have registered your 6 year old for hockey rather than violin lessons, I hope you’ll find these lessons from the music studio applicable to the university classroom.

 Photo privided by Samuel Cuenca under a Creative Commons license.

Keys for a TA to Succeed in the Classroom — Aser Gebreselassie

TutorialAs an undergraduate student currently in my third year of ERS at the University of Waterloo, I have had the chance to interact with various types of Teaching Assistants (TAs) over the course of my studies, whether it be in labs, tutorials, in class, via email, or having assignments marked by them. There are plenty of great stories about TAs whom I have had in the past, and unfortunately, a few stories of some questionable TAs as well. Being a successful TA consists of many different aspects, but the three characteristics that I appreciate in a TA is their ability to relate to students, knowledge of the course content, and an ability to communicate effectively and efficiently.

Relating to your students helps build trust between the TA and the student which helps to manage the classroom effectively, as the students will have respect for the TA. Quick but effective activities which I have personally seen in my classes include icebreakers during the first day of meeting your students, as well as having a sense of humour and giving out a positive vibe. A few new things I learnt during the Building Rapport with Students workshop earlier this week was that maintaining positive body language throughout the session gives the students a positive impression about yourself, and learning the student’s names as soon as possible to help develop trust and understanding between the TA and the student.

Knowledge of course content is also key. Most people think that their TAs are those who have taken the course before and have done fairly well in it. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes the TA may never have taken the course, or sometimes they didn’t complete their undergraduate degree in the same faculty as the course they are TAs for. If this is the case, doing the readings and making detailed notes would help a lot. The students understand that a TA is a student as well, and if you as a TA can’t answer a question but are willing to do some research to find the right answer, students find that extremely helpful and are willing to wait to get a right answer, instead of getting a wrong or incomplete answer immediately.

Being able to communicate successfully can make or break the trust and respect that students have for a TA. Setting basic rules on the first day can help a TA significantly. I have had TAs in the past tell us a couple of ground rules: for example, they only will respond to emails during business hours (9 am to 5pm), and that students should not email questions about a majoTutorial 2r assignment the night before it is due as it will be too late to get a response of any value. Prompt responses and setting ground rules can help alleviate pressure from students, and can significantly help boost a TA and student’s relationship. Sometimes TAs respond weeks, even months after receiving an email and it destroys any rapport that they have built with the student.

Lastly, my pet peeve: it is frustrating when students compare grades after an evaluation, and have written two very similar things on their paper, but get two completely different marks. The TA has now lost a lot of the positive feelings that they may have gained over the semester by being inconsistent. Both students are now alienated and concerned, and will go through every little detail of their evaluation to make sure nothing else was missed. Both students will come to the TA with many concerns about their marks. Being consistent, whether it be giving both those students an 85% or a 55%, will save a TA a massive headache.


Making Teaching and Learning Visible at the University of Waterloo’s Teaching and Learning Conference – Julie Timmermans and Crystal Tse


 It is moving and inspiring to see 250 colleagues gathered for a day of thinking and talking about teaching and learning.  This year’s Teaching and Learning Conference took place on Thursday, April 30th, with over 200 people from the University of Waterloo and numerous colleagues from neighbouring universities participating in over forty research-based and practice-based sessions.

Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Ian Orchard, set the tone for the day: he opened the Conference by underscoring the value placed on teaching and developing as teachers at the University of Waterloo:

“The University of Waterloo values excellence in teaching, just as it does in research. […] Investing time in developing teachers is a vital aspect of fostering a culture that values teaching and learning and that develops teaching in a community environment.  This conference helps foster community, and makes the sharing of teaching experiences possible, creating a community of scholars of teaching.”

The theme of this year’s Conference was “Making Teaching and Learning Visible.” There is indeed much about teaching and learning that remains unintentionally hidden and unspoken.  And so, through this theme, we explored what we can do to clarify and communicate the processes underlying teaching and learning so that learners and teachers work towards the same outcomes.  We explored challenging and provocative questions, such as “How do we know what students already know, what they don’t know, and what they have learned?” and “How can we make the thinking underlying our instructional decisions more explicit for ourselves, our students, and our colleagues?”. Each of the day’s panel discussions, workshops, and presentations attempted to reveal and communicate assumptions or practices in some way.

Presidents’ Colloquium Keynote Speaker, Dr. Linda Nilson, pursued this theme in her talk, “Making Your Students’ Learning Visible: How Can We Know What They Know?”. During this session, Linda delved into one of the most common yet challenging questions we have as teachers: How can we gather evidence of and measure student learning? She advocated for setting measurable learning outcomes in our courses, and for ensuring alignment between these outcomes, teaching and learning strategies, and assessment methods. Drawing on examples from across the disciplines, Linda provided concrete strategies for measuring and interpreting gains in student learning.  If you’re intrigued by these ideas, you are welcome to download the slides and handouts from the keynote session, available through the Conference website.

A highlight of the Conference was the “Igniting Our Practice” session.  Two inspiring and award-winning University of Waterloo professors, Gordon Stubley, Associate Dean, Teaching in Engineering, and Jonathan Witt, Teaching Fellow in Biology, each taught us a concept from their courses and, in doing so, drew us into the ways of thinking of their disciplines. Does the impressive display of feathers in the tail of the male peacock serve an evolutionary purpose?  What do pre-tests reveal about fourth-year students’ knowledge of particular concepts in their third fluid dynamics course?   Through vivid examples, Gordon and Jonathan led us to think about designing teaching for student learning, and how we might integrate these ideas into our own teaching.

The Conference closed with a wine and cheese reception where colleagues had the opportunity to connect over a drink and some food.   Associate Vice President, Academic (AVP-A), Mario Coniglio closed the Conference, thanking people for their commitment to enhancing teaching and learning.  He also took time to recognize the many people who had contributed to the Conference, including the participants and presenters, the Teaching Fellows, members of the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE), people who chaired sessions and provided technical support, Creative Services, as well as FAUW.  At CTE, we’re particularly grateful for the vision and financial support AVP-A, Mario Coniglio, and Vice-President, Academic and Provost, Ian Orchard.

And now, it’s time to pursue the ideas that were sown at the Conference. And these actions have meaning and impact.  As Ian Orchard said,

 “All that you do as individuals allows students to be successful, allows teachers to be successful, and, if individuals are successful, the community is successful and therefore the University as a whole can be successful.  Thank you for all you do.”

For details about this year’s Conference, please visit the Conference website.  Planning for next year’s event has already begun!

(Image credit: Sanatanu Sen)