Things I wish I had known my first year teaching – Veronica Brown

Last week, while dropping my children off at school, I watched as the junior kindergarten students arrived for their very first day of school. Most of them were ready to march right into school, a few were less excited. As I walked home, I passed the high school with a big sign that said, “Welcome Grade 9s”. At work, it was the first day of classes, a new beginning for thousands of first year students, new grad students, and new faculty. I smiled as I recollected my first impressions of UW as an undergrad and felt so excited for them as I thought of all the great adventures they were about to have.

All this reflection on new beginnings took me back my own first year of teaching and the things I wish I had known that first year. That was eleven years ago this fall and so I wanted to share three things I have changed over the years that have made a difference both to me and my students.

1. Tell me about yourself

As part of the first assignment in my course, I asked students to tell me a bit about themselves: their name; program; whether they were taking the course as a required course or elective; and something about themselves they would like me to know. With only ~150 students in the class, it did not take too long to read their submissions but it helped me to quickly know a bit about them, which helped me make things more relevant.

2. Provide some flexibility

I completed my masters degree at a distance. In addition to working full-time, there were also many life events that happened during that time – we got married,  had two children, and bought a house. Trying to balance all of these things helped me understood how my students felt when it was the middle of midterms and they were trying to study for exams, complete assignments, go to labs, attend lectures, apply for co-op jobs, oh, and have a life outside of school, too. The change I made was to give the students late days. They were allowed three late days during the term and could use all three on one assignment or spread them across multiple assignments. Part of my motivation had been to reduce the amount of paperwork I processed when students requested extensions. In practice, however, it simply took some pressure off the students. They didn’t need to tell me they were using late days; we just tracked how many they used based on the electronic submission date. Very rarely did anyone need more than the three days and I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in terms of administrating my course.

3. Provide some choice

Every term, I created new assignments for the course. There were weekly assignments plus a final project. The creation of new assignments was quite time consuming and, after a couple of years, I was running out of ideas for the project. The change I made was to allow my students to pick their own topic for their project. While my motivation was to save me some time, the result was higher quality projects (not all, but most). For some students, they were able to find real world applications for the project, which meant they would be able to use the work they did at school once the class was over.

Welcome to our new students, staff and faculty. I hope these insights prove helpful to you!


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.

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Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

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