Learning from Challenge and Failure – Julie Timmermans


This year’s University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference theme, Leaning from Challenge and Failure, is an opportunity to open up discussions with our colleagues, our students, and ourselves around the beliefs we hold about challenges, setbacks, and failure in the context of teaching and learning at the University.

How do these beliefs shape the ways in which we teach, learn, and lead? How do we work to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking, growth through experimentation, and learning from our earnest attempts that lead to failure? What measures can we put in place to ensure that the members of our community have the opportunity to flounder, perhaps fail, and flourish?

During the Conference, we will explore not only challenges and failures, but the work of learning from these challenges and failures. The difficult cognitive and emotional work of learning from these experiences does not happen automatically or autonomously. It takes time and must be guided by people who care deeply about our development.

Airing our experiences of challenge and failure publically may certainly feel vulnerable and risky. But what might be the risks of not sharing these stories? Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) publishes annual ‘Failure Reports’ in which they highlight a dozen or so stories of failure – and learning from failure – in their international development efforts. This is risky in many ways – financially, for an organization that depends on contributions from donors; emotionally, for the people in the field sharing their stories. But EWB has determined that the benefits of disclosing these failures outweigh the costs of hiding them. Because hiding them does not help them, or other organizations, solve the problems which they are hoping to solve – poverty, access to clean water, food security, etc. This approach recognizes that we are involved in a collective endeavour to improve our communities.

As we began to introduce and discuss the Conference theme with others on campus, we discovered that conversations about failure, challenge, and resilience are already going on in residence rooms and in meetings rooms. Often, however, these rooms are behind closed doors. Through the Conference, we hope to bring these conversations out into the public spaces of our University – a learning organization – so that when we share our stories of innovation, experimentation, and publication, they integrate the stories of uncertainty, failed attempts, and rejections. Because the whole story of our successes often include failure. We hope that the Conference will be one space of many in which we can collectively explore our potential to learn and grow from challenge and failure.

For links to resources on learning from challenge and failure, including an excellent blog series from the Faculty of Arts Teaching Fellows and CTE’s Kyle Scholz, please visit the “Resources“section of the Conference website.

Register for the Conference

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.

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!

Laboratories: enhancing performance and retention – Mary Power

lab image“Active learning”, “authentic learning”, and “experiential learning” are common buzzwords in education, but are also what we try to provide our students as we aim to enable them with the required skills and knowledge for their successful entry into the “real world”. In many scientific disciplines laboratories have been an integral part of teaching and learning that attempt to provide those experiences. The combining of laboratory activities with more theoretical forms of instructions, such as lecture and discussion, has been attributed to an improvement in both attitude toward the subject matter and scientific reasoning skills (White and Frederiksen, 1998).

However, laboratory courses are extremely expensive to operate with respect to infrastructure, material, human, space and time resources and so have often become limited in the curriculum. At universities across Canada and the US, including at the University of Waterloo, many lab courses have become “un-linked” from corresponding undergraduate courses. There are of course very good reasons for doing this as large lecture courses can service a broad population and a subset of majors can occupy the expensive lab courses. From a financial perspective this all makes perfect sense. However, in some instances, including many of the courses in the Faculty of Science here at the University of Waterloo, students requiring both can enroll in the lab and lecture in different semesters. Viscerally, I have always had difficulty with this practice as I see value in the integration of the theoretical with the practical for optimal learning and as a teacher when I teach a course of both lecture and lab I can integrate the two better and interact with the students more – only practical in smaller courses of course.
A recently published large study looking at nearly 10,000 first year General Chemistry students over 5 years at the University of Michigan (Matz et al, 2012) found that concurrent enrollment in the lecture and the corresponding laboratory course positively affected lecture grades when compared to those who took the laboratory in a later term or not at all. This effect was even more pronounced for the group of weakest students, as determined by entering math and chemistry scores on the SAT test, whose grades increased by an average of a third of a letter grade (ie., B- to B). The authors also looked at withdrawal rates from the lecture and again found that the concurrent enrollment was positively linked to retention, with the odds of a concurrent student being retained being 2.2 times higher than those who took the lab separately of not at all. This was so for both the stronger and the weaker students.
The design of laboratory course in this study may have played a role a guided inquiry course where student presumably do authentic experiment and the pre-lab is not designed to “give away” the results. Much of the lab work in this course is also done in teams, which is intended to promote a collaborative, community environment. The authors hypothesize that this community factor also played an important role in their findings.
I hope more studies such as this will be done. I wonder what the data here would show us?


Matz, R., Rothman, E., Krajcik, J., &  Banaszak Holl, M. (2012). Concurrent Enrollment in Lecture and Laboratory Enhances Student Performance and Retention. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 49(5): 659-682.

White, B., &  Fredericken, J. (1998). Inquiry, modeling and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction. 16 (1): 3-118.

Using “Transit Questions” in place-based pedagogy – Trevor Holmes

I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.

Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).

Photograph of two people in Iceland
Photo of two people in Iceland. Source: Karlbark’s Fotothing stream (shared under CC license)

I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!

If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!

Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Turning Information into an Invitation – Trevor Holmes

I’ve been teaching undergrads since 1994 I guess, as a TA at first, and by 2001 as a course instructor. Since 2006 I’ve been the instructor of record on a large first-year cultural studies course (and assisted in 2005 on the same one). This post is in the head-scratching, old dog / new tricks category, and is about office hours.

wordcloud-welcome-heart-1Generally speaking, I hold 1.5 to 2 hours of office time for consultation with students. I’m happy when I see three to six students in a week, which only happens around essay writing time. Some students come for help getting started, others with drafts to go through together, and others afterward to understand feedback. Although I ask students to show up or make an alternate appointment, I probably only see ten percent of my class that way in a good year (I teach 200).

Over the years I’ve read about some ways to use office hours more effectively. Don Woods (McMaster, Chemical Engineering Emeritus and architect of their problem-based learning approach) always talks about using student ombudspeople (1 or 2 per 50 students), with whom the professor meets each week or two to have a dialogue about how the class is going. A former professor at York when I was a graduate student there used to have his undergraduates come in to receive their essays — they’d have to read them aloud to him in order to get them back (this usually led to a deeper understanding on their part of their grades and their own writing). Teaching tips abound — and of course CTE has our own version of advice for the beginning TA or instructor.

This year, though, thinking I was past all such tips — surely these are all for beginners, not for seasoned oldtimers like myself — I once again posted my office hours for the term in the learning management system calendar tool. Week in, week out… can I remove just the one instance over Reading Break this time? Yes! Great. But…

…instead of writing “Trevor’s Office Hour” like I normally would, I wondered what might sound more inviting. I’m so tired of the discourse of “information delivery” as our role in higher education. In lecture, I’m not an information-delivery specialist. My discipline isn’t about transmitting information from me to many. That is a subject for another post, but it’s important to think about the whole endeavour, and how I communicate this belief I have. If I simply post my hours as information, how am I welcoming the discussion and support I feel I can share with my first years? So, I tried instead posting the calendar entry with the words: “Trevor’s Office Time: Come and Visit me in xxxx-xxxx from 4:30 – 5:00” (and the same, but an hour, on the other day).

For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching, two students showed up for my first office hour before the first lecture day. I told them I was happy to meet them, we talked about their interests, majors, futures, and I asked them what made them come see me before the class had even begun. They said “because you invited us to come and visit you.”

I was pretty much gobsmacked, not having expected anyone to pop by until three weeks hence when the paper is due. I hope this signals an increase in the frequency of visits and the diversity of visitors. Pleasant surprises like this, that by the students’ own account were because of the three small words “come visit me,” are the kinds of things that keep my enthusiasm for teaching so high even after eight iterations of the same course.


Visualizations for Assessment and Learning — Mark Morton

Web 3.0, they say, is going to be a “semantic web,” which I take to mean that it’s a web which will allow us to easily explore relationships among large amounts of discrete bits of data. One way of exploring relationships, of course, is visually: humans can literally “see” patterns of relationships more easily than they can otherwise apprehend them. Examples abound, but one that I recently came across is especially interesting from an “assessment” point of view. It’s a visual depiction of comments that a class of students made on one another’s blogs. In the visualization, each student is represented by a small circle (or node) and the the comments that he or she made are represented by arrows leading to the nodes of other students. So, if Matthew commented on Ephraim’s blog once, then the arrow starts from Matthew’s node and points to Ephaim’s node. At a glance, it’s easy to see who has been most active in making comments, who has received most comments, and who hasn’t been active at all — and that information can clearly help an instructor with both formative and summative assessment. You can the visualization, which was made with the platform Many Eyes, here.

Another visualization tool that I recently came across is called DebateGraph, which is intended to help people map out the various ideas, positions, and evidence that make up complex arguments. At first glance, a DebateGraph visualization looks like an ordinary concept map, but as you click the various nodes, you see that each one dynamically changes: it becomes the central node, and new nodes — ones that are connected to it — jump into place. The platform is collaborative, so if you want to contribute to the argument, you just need to log in, navigate to the appropriate node, and then add your point. You can see an example of a visualization in DebateGraph here.

I’m a bit sceptical of DebateGraph’s “practical” implications: in other words, if your family is having argument about where to go for your summer vacation, I don’t think that using DebateGraph would be worth the investment of time it would take to map out the argument. But as a learning tool — that is, as a way of helping students untangle the complexities of, say, a geopolitical conflict or an ethical issue — I think that the very “deliberate” methodology of DebateGraph could be very useful.