How to get the most out of your teaching experiences at Waterloo

Flower on top of waterGraduate programs at Waterloo provide excellent opportunities for students to develop their research and teaching skills. However, while research training is formally integrated into graduate programs, teaching opportunities are less formalized and vary from one department to another. Yet, both within and outside your department, there are people, resources and tools that can help you to develop your teaching skills. Here are some strategies to help you plan and organize your teaching experiences during your graduate studies at Waterloo.

Learn about the teaching culture of your department.

Each department at Waterloo is unique in terms of the numbers and types of teaching opportunities available to graduate
students. Talk to your academic advisor and other graduate students about the teaching opportunities available in your department. Learn about the scope and nature of the teaching assignments available to graduate students. Ask experienced teaching assistants (TAs) in your department to share their teaching experiences with you and to
give you any advice they might have.

Look for teaching opportunities in your department.

Let professors in your department know that you are interested in teaching opportunities. Check undergraduate courses offered by your department and identify courses in your areas of expertise. Approach relevant course instructors and discuss the possibility of being a TA in the course of interest to you or doing a guest lecture in the course.

Use guest lectures to develop your teaching skills.

Many graduate students are not aware that they can gain valuable teaching experience by delivering guest lectures.
Approach instructors who teach courses in which you would want to give a guest lecture. If you are successful in securing a guest lecture opportunity, do an excellent job of preparing and delivering your guest lecture (practice is key!). Build your reputation as a guest lecturer: many Waterloo students who do a terrific job as guest lecturers receive repeat invitations from professors to deliver their guest lectures again. You might also want to ask a professor in whose course you were a guest lecturer to write a reference letter commenting on your teaching.

Know yourself as a teacher.

Self-awareness and knowledge of your teaching style and teaching perspectives are crucial for your development as a university teacher. If you want to learn more about yourself as a teacher, take the self-assessment questionnaire developed by Pratt and Collins. Known as a teacher perspectives inventory (TPI), this short questionnaire (it takes 10-15 minutes to complete) will provide you with a summary of your views and perspectives on teaching. TPI is available free of charge at:

Seek feedback on your teaching.

Teaching can be greatly improved once we become aware of our strengths and areas to improve. You can collect feedback on your teaching from various sources. Many departments have course evaluations to collect student feedback on teaching done by a TA (check with the administrative staff at your department if these feedback tools are available and if you can receive copies of your evaluations). However, you can also obtain feedback on your teaching by asking for oral student feedback on your teaching after the class or in the middle of the term through a short survey. If you are doing a guest lecture, ask students for their feedback at the end of the guest lecture or ask a course instructor to provide you with feedback on your teaching. You can also ask a fellow graduate student to observe your teaching and to comment on such aspects as interaction with students, clarity of explanations, teaching confidence, organization of the lecture, level of enthusiasm, mannerisms, etc.

Learn about the most important aspects of university teaching.

Several important knowledge areas and skills are crucial for successful university teaching, such as planning courses and classes, designing teaching and learning activities, and assessing student work. To help new instructors in addressing common questions and concerns that come with teaching in a university setting for the first time, Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) has produced a series of short, practical, research-informed teaching tips. You can learn about methods for effective teaching by consulting other CTE tip sheets.

Learn from successful university teachers.

We have all had instructors whose teaching had a profound impact on our learning and motivation. While each of us has a unique teaching style, certain teaching techniques and strategies that successful teachers use could be adopted and adapted by novice university teachers. Observe seasoned instructors or fellow graduate students in your department who are known for their teaching accomplishments. Try to identify the techniques they use to teach effectively. You can also view clips from the annual TVO’s (TV Ontario) Best Lecturer Competition which features some of Ontario’s best university teachers in action.

Consider obtaining formal training in university teaching.

Several options exist for improving your teaching skills through formal training. Consider taking one of the teaching workshops offered by the Centre for Teaching Excellence. CTE workshops provide you with effective teaching strategies, as well as with an interactive forum to discuss various teaching issues. Some departments at Waterloo also offer departmental workshops for TAs that focus on various teaching issues. If you are interested in receiving comprehensive training in university teaching, consider enrolling in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Program, offered through the Centre for Teaching Excellence at Waterloo.

Collect artefacts related to your teaching.

Create a folder called 'my teaching’ and keep all documents related to your teaching – your course materials, copies of student evaluations, guest lecture slides, emails from your students, etc. – in this folder. In addition to collecting documents related to your teaching, you might also want to keep a teaching journal when you TA or teach a course. At the end of each class, write a short entry with your thoughts and reflections and make notes on what worked and what didn’t.

Read some books about university teaching.

Whether you are beginning your graduate studies at Waterloo or starting a job search for faculty positions, you can advance your knowledge of university teaching by reading a few popular books on this topic. Here are three key resources that are popular among faculty for their practical and easy-to-use teaching suggestions and strategies:

  • Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Boston: Harvard University Press. (LB2331 .B34 2004)
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bassey. (LB2331 .D37 2001)
  • McKeachie, W. J. (2002). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (LB1738 .M25 1994)

A good book written specifically for teaching assistants is:

  • Allen, R. & Rueter, T. (1990). Teaching Assistant Strategies: An Introduction to College Teaching. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. (LB2335.4 .A43 1990)

Practice is key.

As the saying goes, ‘Practice makes perfect.’ Don’t despair if your first teaching opportunity doesn’t go as expected. Learn from it, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and move on. Be open to feedback and remember that even the best teachers have bad days.