Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

How will students demonstrate learning? What types of Assessments will you use? https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/

Last month I attended and presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Conference that was held in McMaster University.  It was a wonderful learning experience that allowed all participants to connect with engineering educators not only from Canada, Continue reading Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

As soon as coffee is in your stomach… Ideas begin to move – Honore de Balzac–By Jason Grove

Coffee-Making_October-8-2014“I believe that I learned more about the machine and how… [it] actually works in more detail from that one activity… than I would ever have done had I just read somewhere about how a coffee maker works in some book.”
Have you ever considered what coffee is and how to brew the perfect cup? We invited over 1200 incoming engineering students to do just that in their first week of classes, in a “pilot” activity launching the Engineering Ideas Clinic. Intended to facilitate learning by exploration, students were first asked as a class to identify the safety hazards associated with using and then dismantling a coffee maker. This proved to be both effective—identifying many hazards that we instructors had missed—as well as “a fun and exciting way… to be introduced to WHMIS”.
Groups of students were then given either an electric drip machine or a Moka pot and asked to brew a “small amount” of coffee (usually interpreted as a full pot). Further instructions were not provided and, since a surprisingly small number of students are coffee drinkers when they arrive on campus, this caused some challenges. Where does the water go in the Moka pot? Which coffee goes in which machine? During brewing, groups were asked to consider the physical processes occurring in the machine and make a list of all the components they expected to find inside. This resulted in a number of points of contention, such as whether a drip machine must include a pump.
If this is coffee bring me tea; and if it is tea, bring coffee.* Perhaps fortuitously, the laboratory venue precluded any tasting of the resulting brews, but the groups moved on to consider what “coffee” is and its desirable characteristics, such as bitterness, acidity and colour. Characterizing coffee can be achieved as a combination of sensory perception—sight, smell and taste—and analytical measurement—we provided thermometers, pH probes and spectrophotometers.
With the coffee brewed and characterized, it was time to discover whether the guesses at the machine’s internal components were correct. While the classes differed in their zeal for disassembly (most of the machines could be re-assembled), some surprises were in store inside, such as the amount of empty space, the absence of a pump, the mystery object in one of the tubes (a one-way valve) and the single heating element serving double-duty as water and hot-plate heater. While the Moka pot was much easier to dismantle, figuring out its operation was usually more challenging. Groups prepared a sketch of the machine they had and used this to explain its operation to a group with the other machine.
Finally, the instructor brought the class back together for a rich discussion, ranging across how the machines work, measurement variability and error, communication with technical drawings, constraints and criteria for design, the concept of design specifications and answering questions such as “what is coffee?” and “how is the filter basket made?”. Led by their own inquiry and exploration, this activity provided students with an opportunity to consider what engineering design is and how it is underpinned by principles of physical science. In keeping with the spirit of the activity, I will leave the last words to the students:
“Learning how a common household object required various engineering concepts to design and construct really opened our eyes to how applicable our engineering education can be.”
“The lab was a great hands-on experience. It was very interesting to see the inner workings of coffee makers and the engineering design behind them. Hopefully we can have more labs like this one”
“The ChE 102 Coffee Lab was one of the best moments of 1A so far. I liked that we students finally got to experience a hands-on introduction to the world of engineering. Taking apart an everyday object and analyzing how different parts help the machine function as a whole was a fun way to apply engineering concepts that we’ve started learning about in class. I hope they do more of these hands-on labs since they’re a nice break from just lectures and theory.”

With thanks to Patricia Duong, Partho Mondal, Gerry Shebib, Inzamam Tahir and Geethan Viswathasan from the Engineering class of 2019 for allowing me to quote their comments on the coffee activity.
*This quote is sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though it appears to have been an old joke even in the mid-nineteenth century.

Peeking Behind the Campus Curtains: Learning Through Leadership — Fahd Munir, CTE Coop Student

blog picImagine a university experience without clubs, teams, or leadership opportunities. While academic achievement is important, many other campus opportunities provide chances to get involved in other aspects of university life. Going to class is usually the number one priority; however, that does not and should not make it the only priority. This idea of getting involved with campus life as a student leader is something I learned in my first year living at the Ron Eydt Village residence at the University of Waterloo.

When September rolls around, the campus is filled with promotions from the various student clubs, teams, and services offering leadership opportunities. So why get involved?  Why take on leadership opportunities at all?

Signing up for clubs and attending meetings sounds a bit overwhelming, especially with midterms, assignments, readings and finals all term long. This being said, once you dip your toe into the extra-curricular pool you see how easy it really can be! There are plenty of opportunities across campus that student leaders can utilize to refine their learning style.

Any first year undergraduate student can tell you about the challenge of making new friends in class. Most students are too focussed on lecture content to care what you have to say, and when you are finally able to strike up a conversation with someone, you don’t see them again in that same spot next class.  University is always a good place to find a common-ground with students who share similar interests. So how do you find these students if not in class?

One of the most comforting things to know as an undergraduate student is that there are students in my class that can be helpful if I miss a lecture due to illness or an interview. Not every student has the luxury in their first year to have a residence floor where making friends is as simple as saying hello every morning. Assembling study groups with the students in your residence is crucial to learning how to learn in a new environment away from home. Every student has a different mode of learning, so understanding what works on an individual basis is the best way to achieve academic success.

If you talk to any successful upper-year university student on campus they will tell you the same thing: they didn’t get to where they are alone – they needed the people around them to help put them in a position where they could succeed and learn more effectively. Study groups that may not have been as effective back in high school become much more constructive and useful around exam times. One of the most satisfying rewards that study groups or extra-curricular involvement provides is the chance to bounce ideas off of other students.

The Federation of Students(FEDS) works with services and clubs on campus that specialize in academics, religion, environment, politics, business, health, and everything in between. Learning is not limited to these types of clubs; it can also become easier by involvement in intramural sports, fitness classes and sports team. With all of these different ways to meet other students it was really up to me to pick what I felt best lined up with my interests.

So now that we have established the presence of opportunities on campus, the question becomes: do the new friends you meet outside of class help or hinder your learning? In other words, is student leadership a hindrance or a supplement to learning? Experiential learning is one of the pillars of the University of Waterloo’s strategic plan, especially with the emphasis on co-operative education for many students. Experiential learning, through club and service experiences, allows students with similar academic and employment aspirations to interact. This is beneficial to learning because it allows both students to gain a new perspective and discuss concepts more openly. See the Centre for Teaching Excellence blog written by Katherine Lithgow called “Providing Authentic Learning Experiences” for more information about experiential learning.

My own involvement with the Campus Response Team (CRT), which is composed of undergraduate students from all of the different faculties, shows how getting involved with other undergraduate students enhances one’s learning.  The bonds that I have made during my previous two terms volunteering have given me an outlet to ask for advice from the older students, as well as the opportunity to make some great friends to spend time with outside of classes. So how does this experience make me a better learner? Not only has the CRT boosted my confidence during a medical response, but it has helped reinforce important soft skills such as communication, teamwork and project management. CRT has also given me an opportunity to discuss academic interests, course content, lab experiments and instructor teaching styles with my fellow undergraduate students.

Clubs, services and teams help you obtain the soft skills necessary to succeed in the workplace and academic environment. The soft skills are transferable to different areas of learning, such as study habits at work or on campus. Learning how to communicate better can lead to setting up a study group which can actually lead to more success in academic work. Joining an intramural team on campus can be the perfect way to alleviate the stress that gets built up from assignments and exams. Without this burden of stress, students can learn freely and absorb knowledge better. Professional schools and graduate student programs in Canada are becoming more competitive, so it is important to be well-rounded through leadership experience.

Being a leader on campus is about more than just résumé building; rather, it’s about applying effective leadership qualities to the academic learning environment such as on a co-operative work term. Leadership opens the door for self-discovery, but it requires that we check behind the scenes of campus life to do so. So the next time the club fair rolls around, use it as an opportunity to sneak a peek behind the campus curtains.  What you notice might actually surprise you!

Providing Authentic Learning Experiences – Katherine Lithgow

ideas start hereThis past May, I had the great pleasure of presenting at Laurier’s Integrated and Engaged Learning Conference with Jill Tomasson Goodwin (Associate Professor -Faculty of Arts teaching in the Digital Arts Communication (DAC) specialization program; Scott O’Neill (Associate Director, Marketing and Communications within the Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment (MUR)department and  Madhulika Saxena (a student in the W2014 DAC 300 course and a recent graduate from uWaterloo’s Arts & Business program).

We wanted to explore how we might bring high quality high impact practices (HQ HIPs) into the classroom.  Our presentation focused on DAC 300’s collaborative project that provided students with an authentic experiential learning opportunity where the students worked in teams to address an on-campus community partner’s real world need.  Our goal was to highlight how a course might embody the characteristics of HQ HIPs and what can be done in terms of course design and course delivery to make a course a high quality high impact practice. Using DAC 300 as an example, throughout the presentation, we provided ‘tips’ which we hope will help others incorporate high quality high impact learning opportunities into their classrooms.  

Experiential education has always been important in education, and it is of particular importance at uWaterloo.   We say it is in our DNA. We’re known for our co-op program; experiential learning is one of our Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations and our strategic plan promises ‘Experiential Education for All’.  We know that when done well, that is, where learning is “as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract,” and emphasizes both judgment and exploration, experiential education helps students better absorb, retain and transfer knowledge (Lombardi, 2007)

So… what are the characteristics of a high quality high impact practice?

  1. Performance expectations set at appropriately high levels
  2. Significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time
  3. Interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  4. Experiences with diversity
  5. Frequent,timely and constructive feedback
  6. Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning
  7. Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications
  8. Public demonstration of competence

(Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S., 2013)

You can view our presentation here to see how these characteristics came to life in DAC 300.

A lot of things came together to make the DAC 300 course a great learning experience.  A couple that I want to highlight centre around 1) collaboration and 2) the impact on the instructor and students.

Experiential learning opportunities often bring students into meaningful contact with future employers, customers, clients, and colleagues. What struck me about the DAC 300 project was the extent to which Jill collaborated with an on-campus ‘community partner’ (Scott O’Neill and the MUR department) to provide her students with this real-world, relevant learning opportunity. In turn, Jill’s students collaborated together to provide MUR with a solution to address their real-world need. If we want to make more of these high impact practices available to our students, we will likely have to collaborate with campus partners -campus partners from writing centres, student affairs, living learning communities, residence life and librarians are just a few examples of who these campus partners might be. More important, the collaboration has to benefit all parties.

The role of the instructor often changes when you provide authentic learning experiences to your students. Prepare to learn along with your students.  Incorporating authentic learning experiences into your course can be disorienting and uncomfortable for you AND your students.  Your role shifts from ‘instructor’ to ‘coach’.  Students will come up with solutions or approaches that you have never thought of.  That can be a good thing, but it also means relinquishing a certain amount of control, being flexible, and adapting to circumstances- just as we do in the real world.

Jill Tomasson Goodwin has kindly created and shared these 6-Tips-and-10-Tricks-to-Facilitate-Classroom-based-Experiential-Learning. Jill encourages you to adapt them to your needs and invites you to email her (jtomasso@uwaterloo.ca)   to chat with her further about how these choices worked in practice.

DAC 300 is a 12-week reflexive theoretically-informed, practice-based course in User Experience Design (the art of understanding, designing, and creating an ‘end-to-end’ experience of technology for users).  The course design choices are based on a very real-world application of knowledge — facilitated inside, and tested outside, the classroom, for an actual client, with a pressing need.

During the W2014 offering, Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin and her third-year Digital Arts Communication class consulted with UWaterloo’s MUR department to design an augmented reality version of a tour brochure. To complete the project, teams of undergraduate students drew upon their knowledge of user experience design, interviewed high school students, and then iteratively prototyped a range of augmented reality experiences, all designed to engage and inform students as they visit and explore the campus. The project and technology have been so successful that UW will use augmented reality to enhance other recruitment publications.


Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are. Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.  Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Excerpt from “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter”. Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm

Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale . Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause learning initiative,1(2007), 1-12. http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/authentic-learning-21st-century-overview

Integrative and Applied Learning Value Rubric (AAC&U) http://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/integrativelearning.cfm

Doing is Believing – Carsen Banister

Kolb's Cycle of Experiential LearningTraditional lectures often consist of an instructor showing students a theory or skill. This habit is a relic of old times, originating in an era void of printing presses. Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, revolutionizing the distribution of information. Since students no longer have to write their own copy of a textbook through dictation, instructors should not merely be providing students with information. Instructors should instead focus on engaging students and involving them in their lessons.

Participatory and experiential learning have been used for quite some time, and many instructors use these teaching methods in their courses. The focus shifts away from the instructor and towards the learners, creating an environment which emphasizes the acquisition of skills and knowledge. In courses centered on problem solving, it is quite practical to allow students to work with their peers and receive guidance from the instructor. This is the shift that I have been making in courses that I serve as a Teaching Assistant (TA).

Over the past few years, Prof. Michael Collins, myself, and other TAs have restructured Tutorials in an Engineering Thermodynamics course by adding interactivity and peer-guided instruction. Rather than solving example problems for the students, the TA guides students through a problem, allowing them time to work independently or with their peers. Solution methods are discussed at various points during the process, with input provided by students. The instructor is able to add details or reinforce key ideas along the way.

It is true that moving away from ‘traditional’ Lectures and Tutorials requires careful planning and does consume more class time. Rather than bombarding students with 2 or 3 examples during a Tutorial, only 1 or 2 examples are presented for experiential learning in the example course discussed above. The remaining examples are offered as a take-home assignment, where students can practice the material in a more independent environment. To supplement the interactivity further, many in-class demonstrations are used in the Tutorials to reinforce key concepts.

In engineering, the focus is often on teaching problem solving strategy. This can lead to students memorizing solution techniques without understanding the key underlying theories and concepts. A teaching methodology that focuses attention on the important theories and concepts and allowing students to develop their own problem solving strategies has the potential to instill a higher level of education.

This is Real Life – Katherine Lithgow

 “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” –Aristotle

We know that students learn best when learning is personally meaningful and when they are able to use knowledge and concepts to solve real-world, complex problems. They retain that knowledge longer when they learn-by-doing. Authentic learning experiences have the following ten design elements (Lombardi, 2007)

  •  Real-world relevance
  • Ill-defined problem
  • Sustained investigation
  • Multiple sources and perspectives
  • Collaboration
  • Reflection (metacognition)
  • Interdisciplinary perspective
  • Integrated assessment
  • Polished products
  • Multiple interpretations and outcomes

Authentic learning experiences are effective because they help learners make connections between new concepts and existing knowledge structures. When learners can see how new knowledge is personally meaningful, they are better able to retain and assimilate that knowledge into their existing knowledge structures. Working with the concepts regularly and repeatedly in different contexts with others helps with retention and understanding. Including a cycle of reflection on action gives students the time and space they need to consider why they acted as they did, consider the group dynamics and begin to develop the habit of questioning their actions and ideas to help inform future action. Finally, authentic learning experiences help students connect the concepts to the ‘big picture’ which includes the richness of the social setting- the people, the environment, and the activity. This helps the learner explore the concepts in different contexts.

Qualtars (2010) contends that “experiential education needs to be viewed as a unique form of pedagogy involving deep reflection, collaboration and assessment” (p.95). There are a number of courses on campus that offer authentic learning experiences; some of these have been presented at the Integrative and Experiential Learning Series. Examples include the following. Students in Knowledge Integration complete an undergraduate senior research project and present their findings at a poster session- (See the abstracts for the 2013 class projects). Mary Louise McAllister (Environment) offers an integrative, blended course which combines lectures with field trips, peer teaching and tutorial–based project work. The students present their qualitative research findings in a multi-media journal format. Troy Glover (Rec & Leisure Studies) offers a course on program management where students work with a community partner to offer a program. During the course, the students work in small groups with the community partner to conduct a needs assessment and design, implement and evaluate a program. The course is designed so that the students have a number of opportunities to reflect on the experience. In addition, the students participate in a weekend retreat which serves as a team building exercise as well as providing them with a program to critique and use to inform their own program planning. Students in Kelly Anthony’s (SPHHS) course can opt to work on a project with a community partner rather than complete traditional forms of assessment. These students enrich the class readings and discussions by sharing their experiences with their classmates throughout the term.

Initially, students may experience frustration as they deal with the ill-defined problems but they are motivated to carry on because the activity connects the course to the ‘big picture’. Participating in an authentic learning experience helps students relate to the concepts and processes on a personal level and better appreciate nuances that cannot be adequately captured by reading or listening to a lecture. They begin to immerse themselves in the practices of the discipline- both the social structures and the culture of the discipline; they begin to envision themselves as members of the discipline’s community.

There are challenges associated with implementing authentic learning experiences. Risk-taking for both the learner and the instructor is involved; as with any real-life ill-defined problem, neither the student nor the instructor can accurately predict how the experience will unfold. Authentic learning is a collaborative effort. Taking the time to develop teams…well it takes time, effort and requires support. But, the advantage of placing such an experience in an early course is that students can use these skills in later courses as well as outside the academic environment. And it helps students get to know people in their class and program.

Qualtars ( 2010) raises a point worth considering- “unless experiences outside the classroom are brought into the classroom and integrated with the goals and objectives of the discipline theory, students will continue to have amazing outside experiences but will not readily connect them to their in-class learning….Without a careful curriculum involving structured, reflective skill building, students may never learn what we hope they will outside the four walls of the classroom” (p. 95-96). This raises a number of questions and challenges – How can we ensure that students have the opportunity to experience authentic learning at least once during their time at university? What kind of support structures have to be in place to support authentic learning experiences?
How can these courses be identified so students can take advantage of the opportunity? [Some university websites provide a list of courses that offer experiential learning components. These can be further categorized according to faculty or department. See for example:
o Elon University , Kent State, DePaul University Catalogue
Simon Fraser University – a place where students can find the curricular and co-curricular EE opportunities

If we agree that authentic learning is beneficial to students, is it worth leaving to chance?


Qualtars, D.M. (2010). Making the most of learning outside the classroom. In D.M. Qualtars, (Ed), Experiential Education: Making the Most of Learning Outside the Classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 124, (pp. 95-99). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 978-0-470-94505-6.


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