CUT Award recipient helps students develop a conceptual and procedural understanding of math while building their confidence as learners

Thursday, May 27, 2021

jason toth

The Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program provides a comprehensive teacher development experience that is open to PhD students at the University of Waterloo. Completion of the program is recognized by a certificate issued by Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs and listed on the student’s transcript.

Each year, the Centre for Teaching Excellence and Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs award one CUT program participant in recognition and celebration of effort and reflection that go above and beyond the program requirements.

We are excited to announce that the 2021 CUT Award has been awarded to Justin Toth, a PhD student in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization. The award recognizes Justin’s strong commitment to his development as a university instructor.

We spoke to Justin about his experience with the CUT program and his thoughts about teaching in a post-secondary environment.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your graduate research? What drew you to it, what aspect do you find most interesting?

My research is in algorithmic cooperative game theory. Cooperative game theory studies solution concepts for equitably sharing the wealth generated by a group of collaborators, taking into account fairness with respect to each individual’s contribution. The study of cooperative game theory becomes algorithmic when one starts to consider the computational complexity of devising algorithms for computing various solution concepts.

I find the field interesting because it has many meaningful applications, but also the techniques from mathematics and computer science we bring to bear are quite beautiful. It is quite lucky for both of those things to be true at once.

For the CUT program, you “designed and delivered your classes to help students develop a conceptual and procedural understanding of math while building their confidence as learners.” What did that process look like for you?

The key to building student confidence is for them to continuously overcome challenges just outside their comfort zone, and to feel they did so independently. Thus my process always starts with student assessment (no stakes) to get a feel of where the students are. From there, I tailor learning outcomes to represent a meaningful challenge for the students without overwhelming them. I want to be asking them leading questions and to give them opportunities to explore and problem solve. I want them to feel like they came to the result on their own. I find mathematical concepts are retained much better when the students discover them rather than being told them. They really gain a sense of ownership over the material that way.

It sounds like the CUT team was impressed by how thoughtfully you engaged with concepts and teaching principles, and the ways in which you integrated them in ways that were appropriate to your subject domain. Is there any more you can say about that?

The feedback from CUT instructors and teaching observations was immensely valuable to me. I really tried to sit with that feedback and reflect on it. For me, the goal always was for every element of critical feedback to devise an actionable step I could take in my next teaching session to improve upon it.

What did you get out of the CUT program? How do you hope to apply what you’ve learned?

I developed confidence as an instructor, an understanding of pedagogy I never had before, and many practical techniques for designing course material. The biggest thing I got out of CUT was a conscious awareness of the many different facets of high-quality teaching. I applied what I learned in CUT to teaching CO 327 Deterministic OR Models in the Spring of 2019 and 2020. Being the only instructor for the course during those terms I really leaned heavily on the skills I developed in CUT to plan the course lectures and assessments.

Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your experiences at Waterloo or in the CUT program?

My experience in graduate studies, including the CUT program, was overwhelmingly positive. It was challenging at times, but that challenge always led to periods of growth for me, and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by immensely supportive faculty, staff, and peers to assist in overcoming those challenges.