In this issue:

Web update

TRACE tips sheets are now on-line! Check out the TRACE website's teaching tips page to access a wide range of ideas and methods for effective teaching. 

Class preparation time - how much is enough?

"The myth that more class preparation is always better is precisely that - a myth." This statement begins a short article by Wankat and Oreovicz (2000) on classroom preparation time. They indicate this myth is pernicious because it can lead to mediocre teaching, makes us feel guilty if we reduce class preparation time, and may rob new faculty of the time needed to set up research programs while not improving their teaching. 

Too much preparation can result in too much attention to details and "covering content" at the expense of overall student learning. Their guideline for preparation time is two hours for a new lecture and a half an hour for lectures you have given before. The key is starting early and spending a controlled amount of preparation time focused on the most important parts of the class. Prepare the class in small chunks of time. A few days before each lecture take 10 - 15 minutes to develop a title and brief conceptual outline. A day or two later, rework your outline and begin to add content with explanations and examples that explain the key items. If appropriate, introduce an example problem. Then stop working on the lecture after 30 - 45 minutes. Later, fill in the details and prepare audio-visual materials as needed. Just before the lecture review your notes.

They also suggest you arrive at the classroom five minutes early to prepare the classroom and chat with students. As well, try to remain a few minutes after class to take questions. The article appears in an engineering teaching journal but many of their ideas can be used in any discipline.

Starting to prepare a lecture early, with breaks between short working periods, actually may provide more time to prepare the lecture than the authors indicate. During the breaks you may find that, while driving to work or doing some other rather mundane activity, you mull over the lecture design and content. This is a great way to prepare and seems rather effortless. The time commitment they suggest will not work for all instructors. However, their general point is a very good one - try to optimize your preparation time to provide maximum learning opportunities for your students. 

If you have a technique of lecture preparation that really works for you, we would like to hear about it. Please briefly outline it on the feedback sheet. A half-day workshop on course and lecture design will also be offered in April. Check the TRACE web site later in the term for details or contact the TRACE office.

New solutions for math instructors

When Waterloo math student, Richard Hoshino, applied for a co-op term teaching a third-year course in combinatorics and optimization (C&O), he took an important step in what he hopes will be a life-long journey along the path of teaching and learning. 

At first, co-op officials were a little reluctant to let a 3B undergraduate student teach fellow undergrads in C&O 380. However, co-op officials were obviously swayed by Richard's keen initiative and his extensive teaching experience. 

As a math/teaching option student, he's already received a Bachelor of Education Degree from Queen's Univeristy and completed two co-op terms teaching math to high school students. He also coaches some of the top problem-solving students in the country through his work with the Esso National Mathematics Camp and the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Richard's qualifications were solid. Still, he had never taught a university class before, let alone one full of his peers. But Richard was determined to rise to the challenge. "I knew if I got the ball I could run with it," he says.  And run he did, with a class of enthusiastic students in tow.

Richard firmly believes in the power of student-centred pedagogy, and modelled his teaching on a problem-based approach rather than the traditional content-based approach to teaching math. In his C&O 380 class, students would often "begin with a math problem and then develop theories and concepts from that problem, rather than the other way around," he explains. It's a method that requires active critical thinking on the part of students, along with sharp analytical skills and an ability to synthesize ideas. 

One of Richard's favourite quotations, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire," helped fuel his resolve to create a classroom environment where students felt empowered, not overwhelmed, by course material. "I wanted to create a forum where students could discover, create and reinvent the mathematics for themselves," he says. To do this, Richard integrated interactive exercises like daily warm-up questions, collaborative group work, and the jigsaw method of cooperative learning into every class. 

Richard describes himself as "a tour guide," who makes it possible for each of his students to embark on a personal learning pilgrimmage. In fact, he even renamed his lectures tours and transformed the entire course into a journey, where the process of learning was emphasized over a final product or destination. It wasn't long before students were referring to classes as tours as well. Richard recalls that students not only accepted the course philosophy, but helped create and define it. He requested feedback from students whenever possible, and they felt comfortable making suggestions about which teaching methods worked and which ones could work better.

Richard believes it's important for instructors to remain flexible, open to new methods, and willing to change their perceptions about what constitutes effective teaching. "I try to encourage my students to be risk-takers, and in many ways I'm a risk-taker too. Not everything I did worked," he admits. "But ninety percent of the methods I tried were really well-received." In fact, course evaluations suggest that nearly all of his C&O 380 students were extremely satisfied with the course. Instructors interested in moving towards a more interactive, student-centred classroom can start by implementing small changes, suggests Richard. Learning students' names, giving them time to brainstorm solution methods on their own or in groups - these are small but important steps towards creating a learning environment where students feel their contributions are valued. He believes that the thrill of teaching lies in the quest to reach new heights and meet new challenges. "That's what makes teaching so appealing to me," says Richard, who will graduate in May. "I'm twenty-two years old now and when I'm thirty I'll be much, much better than I am today." 

One can only imagine what new heights this math teaching wunderkind will reach by that time. Richard Hoshino can be contacted via email at

Multiple-choice tests

Last August a faculty member who was teaching a very large first-year course contacted TRACE with a question: What does the research literature say about the validity of multiple-choice vs. short-answer exams for evaluating students in a course? Essentially, he was looking for information that might justify the use of multiple-choice exams to students. Given the size of the class, evaluation devices other than objective test procedures would be incredibly labour intensive. 

Well, what does the literature say? We were not able to find any recent research studies. However, there are two studies, both published in the late 1960's, that looked specifically at this issue. Surprisingly, both studies were done in the area of English reading and writing, not areas that you might expect would show very positive results for multiple-choice tests.  These studies compared objective tests with free-response essays written by the same students. Generally, the objective tests predicted overall performance on the essay about as well as the limited reliability of the essay scoring permitted. 

The problem with non-objective tests is the subjectivity that often affects the evaluation. This subjectivity can create fairly large differences in the scores that different raters give to an answer. The subjectivity can be reduced considerably by pre-training the graders to a common set of criteria and having more than one grader. 

One criticism of objective tests is that they require students only to recognize the correct answer rather than to recall or construct it. Some consider recognition a fundamentally lower form of behavior. However, Choppin (1990) indicates that in general, the evidence does not support this. "Students who are good recallers of knowledge are also good recognizers." It is also possible to construct multiple-choice tests that assess higher mental processes like synthesis and evaluation, but this is even more difficult than constructing items that simply require recognition or recall of specific knowledge. However, many books are available to provide guidance. If interested, contact TRACE (Gary Griffin, ext. 2579) and we will assist in locating sources for constructing items that tap into higher-order thinking skills.

Designing multiple-shoice tests

While multiple-choice tests are considered convenient and objective, one major challenge is constructing good multiple-choice items. TRACE ran a workshop this fall on designing multiple-choice tests. The suggestions in this article are from a tip sheet created from that workshop. 

Some general strategies indicated on the tip sheet are: use familiar language, avoid trick questions, and avoid negative wording. A flawed multiple-choice test on Waterloo trivia was created for the workshop and served as a device to illustrate the general strategies. For example:

What is the name of the Waterloo food services outlet at the Math & Computer building?
a) Right Angle Café
b) Brubakers
c) C&D
d) No food services outlet in M&C

This question is misleading - there is a cafeteria in the M&C building, called either the Right Angle Café or C&D.  However, the cafeteria is run by students and not by Waterloo food services. A better questions is:

What is the name of the cafeteria at the Math & Computer building?
a) Right Angle Café
b) Brubakers
c) Pastry Plus
d) Mudie's

Another example from the tip sheet:

What is the main activity of the midnight sun project at Waterloo?
a) developing a solar-powered race car
b) synthesizing new biodegradable plastics
c) studying genetically altered crops
d) increasing the performance of the world wide web

The flaw here is the verbal association in the question and in the correct answer (sun in the question and solar in the answer).  A better question would be:

What is the main activity of the midnight sun project at Waterloo?
a) developing a solar-powered race car
b) researching efficient solar energy cells
c) studying the effects of ultraviolet radiation on the skin
d) measuring solar flare activity

The tip sheet provides many more examples and other advice on constructing multiple-choice items. TRACE has many tip sheets on our web site. The tip sheet on designing multiple-choice questions and others can be found at:

Using the web in teaching at Waterloo

Innovative uses of technology to support teaching are increasing on most campuses, but little information is available about the scope and nature of these activities. In the Summer of 2000, we examined available Waterloo course sites to get a "snap-shot" of web uses. These results can only be considered "point-in-time" data because of the variable presence of course sites. While some are up, others are down for revising; new ones are added while others are discontinued; some are password protected thus only their presence can be noted; one course may have two or more instructors, each with their own section, and several courses may be taught by one instructor; and some are alluded to but too difficult to find.  For these reasons, we make no claim to accuracy. That said, however, we managed to code 681 courses in total - enough to get an idea of the range and scope of course-related web site activity. 

In order to document these activities, we developed a coding scheme designed to capture course web site information in considerable detail, of which only two broad categories are included here. These are course web uses by Faculty and by pedagogical uses of technology by Faculty.

Table 1. Course web presence by faculty

Faculty # Calendar courses # Term courses* # Courses with web presence % Courses with web presence
Applied health science 130 91 52 57
Arts 1533 1073 346 33
Engineering 334 234 104 44
Environmental studies 173 121 19 16
Math 222 155 94 60
Science 331 232 66 29
Total 2724 1907 681 36

*Assuming that 70% of calendar courses (grad and undergrad) are offered in an academic year.

Table 1 indicates that mathematics and Applied health science (AHS) have the largest percentage of courses with a web presence, with environmental studies (ENV) having the smallest percentage.

Table 2. Pedagogical use of the web by faculty - in percentages

Syllabi 90.0  64.5 74.3  66.7  68.1  75.8  69.5 
Web resources 12.0   19.9 44.6  50.0  54.3  47.0  31.3
Student resources  12.0  33.8 63.4  55.6  48.9  53.0  41.2 
Course resources  20.0  28.6 61.4  66.7  83.0  78.8  46.4 
Graded web activities  4.0  4.0 3.0  16.7  3.2  9.1 4.6 
Electronic conferencing  4.0 3.8  1.0  16.7  1.1  4.5  3.4 
On-line course  2.0  1.4 16.7  2.1  1.5  1.8 

The most basic use of the web for courses is to present syllabi, and this is the only use of the web in the majority of cases for courses in AHS and arts. Other faculties make greater use of the web for student, web and course resources. Few courses go beyond this level of pedagogical web use.

The primary technical use is for text (principally syllabi) and asynchronous communication (principally email). A large proportion of the courses examined in most faculties also employed links to other web sites. Few courses went beyond this. We have conducted similar analyses by instructor rank and by gender.

A full report of this study will be available January 30, 2001. Please check for further information at that time.

Article contributed by Vivian Rossner-Merrill, Senior Consultant, Instructional Design and Scholarship, Centre for Learning and Teaching Through Technology (LT3), and Morag Malcolm, Research Assistant, LT3

CUT practicum (GS 903): Frequently asked questions

What is the practicum?

Graduate students enrolled in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) are required to have at least three teaching events observed to fulfill the requirements of the teaching practicum. Objectives of these observations are to provide graduate students with feedback on their teaching that highlights both the strengths and areas for improvement and to get students to reflect on their teaching. 

What are the benefits of the practicum?

The practicum is based on a "continuous improvement model" which encourages students to reflect on their teaching and identify goals and methods for improvement. Graduate students who have completed the practicum have improved significantly in the areas of presentation and lecturing skills, classroom management, and interactive teaching.

Who performs the observations?

Teaching events are typically observed by someone from the TRACE Office; however, in some cases we can connect graduate students with a faculty member in their department or discipline area who will do the observation. 

What does an observation involve?

Each observation is completed over a 2-3 week period and involves a pre-observation meeting with the observer, the observation, a detailed report from the observer, and a post-observation meeting. Graduate students are then required to complete and submit a reflective response paper within 2 weeks of receiving their feedback report. 

Can all 3 observations be done for the same course or in one term?

Yes. Graduate students can have all 3 observations done in a term, but they need to plan early! Observations need to be booked at least 4 weeks apart to allow time for the observation, reflection, and response to an observed teaching event before the subsequent observation. In this way, students have sufficient time to focus on suggested changes and can really make some progress in their teaching. 

How can graduate students arrange to have a teaching event observed?

To book an observation, contact Kelly Pryde (before February 1) or Donna Ellis (after February 1) at Ext. 5713. Please give us 2 weeks' notice prior to the date you would like to have an observation so that we have time to make the necessary arrangements.

For more information on the teaching practicum and the CUT, go to the Certificate in University Teaching link on the TRACE homepage:

Managing online discussions

Online discussion is different from face to face discussions in ways that are not always obvious to students. The lack of voice inflection and other body clues can lead to misinterpretations in posted messages that would not exist with the same word use in face to face discussions. In online discussions, word choice becomes more important and the use of humour and sarcasm can be mistaken. If you are going to use online discussion in your course, you need to prepare students by stating your expectations regarding their involvement, and be specific with regard to "netiquette."  Students also need to learn how to respond to your questions and to classmates' posts. An article by Berge and Muilenburg (2000) provides some suggestions and web site addresses with more suggestions to assist you in teaching learners how to engage in online discussion.

Facilitating discussions online is another important skill. The article provides advice and procedures you can use to promote ongoing discussion. The authors refer to Savage who suggests probing questions to facilitate discussions. These questions include: "What reasons do you have for saying that?" and "What alternatives are there to such a formulation?" There is also advice on involving new-comers, dealing with problems, knowing when to comment, and closing a discussion. 

New Teaching assistant developer

Geneviève Desmarais is a PhD candidate in the behavioural neuroscience program of the psychology department. Recently, she has been a teaching assistant for the course of advanced data analysis offered in the psychology department. Her duties included preparing and leading tutorials, lecturing, marking assignments and exams and providing personal assistance to students.

Geneviève's past experience also includes preparing paper topics and exam questions as well as designing a review package for the course of basic data analysis offered in the psychology department.

Geneviève is looking forward to her involvement in the TRACE office as an opportunity to broaden her teaching experience. She can be reached at extension 3408, or by email at

Don't be a workshop "No-show"

Registering for TRACE workshops is as easy as the click of a mouse. Our new web registration form allows you to sign up for workshops quickly and easily. Please remember that most of our workshops have limited seating capacity and once we reach a certain number of registrants for an event, we close registration. If you are unable to make it to a workshop, we ask that you cancel immediately by contacting TRACE either by phone or email. This courtesy will enable us to keep registration open to other interested teaching members of the Waterloo community.

To withdraw from a registered session, please call Darlene Radicioni at Ext. 3132 or email TRACE at Thank you for your continued interest in and support of TRACE events. 

Adapted from Reflections & Directions 2(1), 2000 - TSS Newsletter, University of Guelph.

Announcing winter 2001 TRACE events

Workshops for the winter 2001 term:

Facilitating effective discussions January 18 12 - 1:30 p.m.
Teaching dossiers, part 2 February 7 3 - 4:30 p.m.
Teaching dossiers, part 2 February 8 3 - 4:30 p.m.
Conflict management for instructors February 13 12 - 1:30 p.m.
The craft of research writing March 14 12 - 1:30 p.m.

Half-Day Workshops:

Understanding the learner January 31 9 - 12:00
Course design April 5 TBA

For more specific details, watch for notices in your department and via the Certificate listserv. If you would like to join the listserv, please email the TRACE Office.