A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Amanda Garcia
Amanda Garcia, PhD Candidate in Systems Design Engineering

Each year, the Centre for Teaching Excellence and the Graduate Studies Office recognize and celebrate the teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students with the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. I sat down with this year’s winner, Amanda Garcia, PhD candidate in Systems Design Engineering and recent graduate of the CUT program, to get her take on teaching and learning. Amanda has taught Problem-Solving for Development, a second-year International Development course (INDEV 212) and Conflict Resolution (SYDE 533), a Systems Design Engineering course; has completed both the Fundamentals of University Teaching (FUT) and CUT programs, and began her teaching career during her undergraduate years, when she was awarded her first Teaching Assistantship.

Continue reading A Q & A with Amanda Garcia, 2017’s CUT Award Recipient

Congratulations to Alexander Howse, 2016 CUT Award Recipient – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a way to recognize and celebrate teaching development efforts of Waterloo graduate students, the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and the Graduate Studies Office (GSO) offer the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Award. This annual award is given to a graduate student who demonstrates a strong commitment to teaching development and the highest achievement upon the completion of the CUT program. We are pleased to announce that Alexander Howse, PhD candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics and a recent graduate of the CUT program, was selected as the recipient of the 2016 CUT Award.

With a little more than a year left in his PhD program, Alex Howse’s CV already boasts an impressive record of teaching accomplishments: three teaching certificates from two Canadian institutions and a course instructorship in MATH117: Calculus for Engineering. Alex became interested in learning about university teaching while pursuing his master’s degree at Memorial University where he completed a teaching development program for graduate students offered through the teaching and learning centre. The program piqued his interest in learning about university teaching and helped him to successfully manage his teaching responsibilities when he taught his first undergraduate course at Memorial as a master’s student.

Upon starting the PhD program at Waterloo, Alex heard about teaching certificate programs for graduate students offered by CTE and decided to continue learning about university teaching while working on his doctorate. After he successfully completed CTE’s Fundamentals of University Teaching program, he enrolled in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT), a comprehensive teaching development program for PhD students who are interested in academic careers.  Although some of the topics discussed in the program, such as learning-centred teaching approaches, were not new to Alex, he believes that the learning activities that participants are asked to undertake as part of the CUT, such as creating a teaching dossier, are helpful not only for immediate teaching responsibilities at Waterloo but also as a preparation for the academic job market.

When asked to reflect on his recent teaching experience as an instructor, Alex credits the improvements that he made in his teaching to the feedback that he received from two sources: CTE staff members who observed his classroom teaching as part of the CUT program and a faculty member in his department who observed his class as part of a departmental lecturing requirement for math PhD students. The feedback that Alex received from his observers and the discussions that took place after the classroom visits addressed different aspects of his teaching approach and gave him ideas for the upcoming classes, such as ways for effective presentation of material and increasing student participation during lectures in his class with more than 100 students. “Often you think that as an instructor, you are doing what you intend to do but then you get caught up in the flow of the lecture and lose sight of student learning. It’s nice to have someone come in, observe your class and discuss it with you,” says Alex.

Using the feedback from his observers, Alex worked hard to improve his lectures and to help his students do well in the course. He fine-tuned his questioning strategies, resisted the urge to give out answers and experimented with the use of a think-pair-share technique which offered his students opportunities to solve problems on their own before discussing them with pairs and eventually as a large class. He looked for ways to explain the material in a way that would allow him to reach students with different levels of knowledge. When he heard about the muddiest point technique at one of the CUT teaching workshops, he implemented it in his class to identify areas of material that students found difficult. Based on student feedback about the material that was not clear to them, he created summary sheets as a supplementary study tool for his students.

For the CUT research project which is intended to familiarize graduate students with the research on teaching and learning in higher education, Alex decided to examine the higher education literature on math anxiety. He felt that this is an important topic for math instructors and something he encountered frequently when working with undergraduate students who were comfortable with math as high school students but were struggling with the subject at the university level. According to Alex, reading the research on math anxiety helped him to understand the issue more effectively and prepared him for conversations with students on learning strategies and ways to cope with math anxiety.

Looking back at his experience in the CUT, Alex is convinced that the time that he devoted to developing his teaching knowledge and skills by completing the program was well worth it. “I took the program seriously and put a lot of effort into it. It helped me to improve my teaching skills and put me in a good position for future academic job applications. I would strongly recommend the program to PhD students, especially if they plan to teach at the university.”

Congratulations on the CUT Award, Alex!

Graduate Student Teaching on Campus

As a Graduate Instructional Developer who works mainly with CTE’s Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program, I have the privilege of observing graduate students teach in classrooms across campus. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to observe over 35 classes taught by graduate students in all six faculties. I have been incredibly impressed by the quality of teaching by graduate students. They have taken concepts from CTE workshops (e.g., active learning, group work, formative assessment) and applied them directly in their teaching. They are using innovative teaching strategies, technologies, and engaging students in their lessons. The University of Waterloo community should be proud of graduate students’ dedication to, and passion for, teaching.

So how can we support graduate students in continuing to develop their teaching skills?

  • I think many of us would agree the best way to improve our teaching is to practice. In some departments, it’s difficult for graduate students to access teaching opportunities, but guest lectures are a great way to gain experience. If you’re teaching, consider asking the graduate students you supervise and/or your Teaching Assistants whether they’re interested in giving a guest lecture in the course.
  • If you know a talented Teaching Assistant or graduate student instructor, please nominate them for an award! Information regarding Graduate Student Teaching Awards can be difficult to find, so I’ve compiled a list here. If you know of any that are missing from this list, please post a comment and we will add them.


Graduate Student Teaching Awards

A) University-wide teaching awards

Amit & Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student (deadline: February)

B) Faculty-wide teaching awards

C) Department teaching awards

  • Biology – “Outstanding Graduate/Undergraduate Teaching Assistantship Award” (no link available)


Teaching Resources for Graduate Students:

Congratulations to Marzieh Riahinezhad, 2015 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Every year, CTE recognizes an outstanding graduate student who demonstrates the highest achievement upon the completion of the Certificate in University teaching (CUT) program. This annual award, funded by an anonymous donor, is now in its tenth year. We are delighted to announce that this year’s award goes to Marzieh Riahinezhad, a doctoral student in Chemical Engineering and a recent graduate of the CUT program. Last week, Marzieh shared some of her experiences in the CUT and what she learned from it with the CTE staff.

Can you tell us wMarzieh Riahinezhadhat motivated you to pursue the Certificate in University Teaching?

Prior to coming to Canada to pursue my doctoral degree at Waterloo, I was teaching science for two years at a high school in Iran. I also worked as a teaching assistant at the university in my home country during my master’s degree. So, teaching was certainly of interest to me and something I was hoping to continue at Waterloo. During one of my early meetings with my supervisor, Prof. Alex Penlidis, he asked me about my future career plans and what I was hoping to do after I complete my Ph.D. I mentioned that I was interested in staying in academia and that teaching was important to me. He encouraged me to participate in the CUT program as a way to develop my teaching skills. In addition to the recommendation from my supervisor, I also had a chance to discuss the CUT program with a fellow grad student in my department who had just completed the CUT and found it very useful. After that, I signed for the Fundamentals of University Teaching program which is a pre-requisite for the CUT. I was able to complete the required workshops and microteaching sessions within one term and started the CUT program in January 2014.

Which aspects of the CUT program did you enjoy the most?

I really enjoyed working on the CUT project which asks the participants to select a topic on teaching in higher education and prepare a paper or a workshop. I had heard about the idea of a flipped classroom and decided to do my CUT project on this topic. I enjoyed reading the educational literature on flipped classroom and learning about different ways to implement it in university courses. Although it’s not required for a CUT project, I decided to also talk to instructors who use the flipped classroom model in their courses to hear about their experiences. I learned a great deal about the topic by speaking to three faculty members, two from Waterloo and another one from George Brown college. Once my presentation was ready, I delivered it as a workshop for grad students who are doing the Fundamentals of University Teaching program. I had never facilitated an interactive session on a teaching topic before, so it was a great experience for me and the feedback from participants was very positive.

Did you have an opportunity to try any ideas or techniques that you learned in the CUT in your own teaching?

I learned quite a few useful teaching techniques through workshops and observational feedback. One technique that I found particularly useful is the idea of a mid-term student feedback which, unlike the end-of-term course evaluations, is collected around the mid-semester mark. I think this is very important, particularly for grad students who are new to teaching. When I taught my first course in Winter 2015, I collected mid-term feedback from the students to get their perspective on how the course was going. Like many other new instructors, I was nervous about teaching my first course and wanted to know what the students thought about my teaching. The student feedback was positive and it helped me with feeling more confident about my teaching approach. In addition to the mid-term student feedback, I also had a chance to experiment with another technique that I leaned through the CUT program. During one of the workshops, I learned about the IF-AT cards which refer to the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique using pre-designed cards. I got the cards and used them for group activities throughout the term where students were asked to discuss questions in groups and select a correct answer from several options. Students really enjoyed it and the discussions of their answers helped them to understand important course concepts. We also reviewed the wrong answers collectively and discussed why the answers were incorrect. Both students and I felt that this teaching method helped their learning in the course.  

Congratulations, Marzieh!

CTE Note: The full version of this interview will appear in the Spring 2015 issue of the CTE newsletter, Teaching Matters. More information about the CUT award and the list of past winners are available on the CTE grad student award page  

Reza Ramezan is 2012 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Every spring, CTE has an opportunity to recognize one outstanding graduate student who demonstrates the highest achievement upon completion of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program. It is a tough decision to make: only one student can be selected from a pool of more than 30 students who complete the program each year.

This year, the CUT award was given to Reza Ramezan, a doctoral candidate in Statistics and Actuarial Science. Similar to many other international teaching assistants (TAs) on our campus, Reza’s teaching career began outside of Canada.  As a third year undergraduate student in Iran with no formal teaching experience and keen interest in teaching, he practically begged his professor to hire him as a TA.  His persistence paid off: he got an opportunity to teach and confirmed his interest in university teaching. Continue reading Reza Ramezan is 2012 CUT Award Winner – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

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.

Alan Morgan on Experiential Learning – Trevor Holmes

In our September 2010 CTE Newsletter, I had the privilege of interviewing 3M Teaching Fellow A.V. Morgan, lately retired from Earth Sciences, about his long career at Waterloo. For reasons of space, one of the questions and answers was not included; it is reproduced below. Alan brings experience into the classroom, and wherever possible, takes students out to the experiences…
TH: Clearly, you have had a rich and deep experience in your discipline and inspiring others to understand Continue reading Alan Morgan on Experiential Learning – Trevor Holmes