SE Student Support

Posted by Patrick Lam on Saturday, December 12, 2020

Table Of Contents

I gave a presentation about the Software Engineering undergraduate program at Waterloo.

I got a question which I took offline about student support at Waterloo. I think it’s worthwhile to post this here. I am adding some comments from Derek Rayside, current SE Director. Response follows.

Thanks for your question about study skills and student support etc. That could be a whole other talk!

As came up in the talk, we’re privileged at Waterloo SE to be able to be highly selective with respect to admissions. But, as I mentioned, we still have students, especially in first year, who learn things about themselves that maybe they hadn’t anticipated learning. (“Oh actually I’m much more interested in Psychology than Software Engineering!”) As well as previously-undiscovered mental health issues.

Involuntary departures from the program are overwhelmingly in first year. So most of our efforts are focussed there. I tried to not totally forget about upper-year students.

Study skills

We have a Student Success Office at Waterloo. Some initiatives from that office have been helpful; for instance, they had a 3-minute study skills intervention that was embedded into the students’ courses. (There were a number of 3-minute messages that instructors were given to deliver.) Students were unlikely to listen to some random staff person but are used to listening (to some extent) to instructors.

The SSO also offers drop-in sessions. I’m not sure about the uptake of those.

[Derek Rayside adds:] The SSO (Student Success Office) 3 minute tips that are delivered by course instructors are popular and successful. That is definitely a good approach to emulate. [/DR]

I think everything else we do is mostly standard. Tutors, etc. (We have graduate TAs and then also undergraduate “WEEF TAs” who are doing this as a co-op job; the SSO has a summary). One thing I will point out is that sometimes the tutors go to the residences and tutor from there. Helps when the residences are university-run. I, and others, believe in going to the students where they are at.

Preventing crises

At the University level, there was a President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health in 2017, which made recommendations. I have actually never seen committee recommendations addressed as thoroughly as these and I am extremely impressed. There is a dashboard:

and an ongoing committee to implement the recommendations.

At a program level, we talk about mental health pretty often. I tried to use all of the channels: me as Director when I was in front of classes; emails; and perhaps most importantly having students be on student panels to tell each other about how to take care of themselves. As I recall, there was one student who shared their concussion story with younger students and how it caused them to almost fail first year.

Derek initiated the following: one of the assignments in SE 101 (our first year profession-of-engineering course) was to go to Counselling Services and place a postcard (provided by us) in a box. This gets students actually going to the physical space ahead of time in case they need to go there in the future.

Box by Tina Gao, SE 2022

Crisis management

Once a student actually has a crisis, then what?

The SE advising staff consists of a full-time professional staff member (“Undergraduate Advisor/Coordinator”) and the SE Associate Director as primary academic advisor, who is a member of academic staff. The SE Director also provides occasional advising; I said that if a student felt more comfortable with me, or I happened to be around and the AD wasn’t, they should feel free to talk to me. The UAC handles routine advising and contributes to advising for non-academic issues. Issues requiring academic judgment (e.g. late drops) are decided by the AD and D, perhaps jointly.

[DR] SE has a more integrated model of student advising than some of the larger units on campus. What I mean here is that the three people in the SE Office (Director, Associate Director, and Advisor) are involved in more aspects of a student’s file. In the larger units, the person who does international exchange doesn’t do academic advising and doesn’t do personal advising. For our students in complex situations, we basically assign them to one of us for all issues. For example, usually the AD does exchange, but if it’s a complex student that I know best, then I’ll take that aspect of their advising. I think this integrated/holistic model is better for the students. Maybe harder to scale to larger programs. [/DR]

Me and advising

I always told students that I was not a qualified mental health professional, but that I could listen to them and that often this was helpful. It was also my job to offer academic suggestions and advice about how to succeed in various courses.

As advisors, we were empowered to allow late drops and reduced workloads (because Waterloo Engineering has a prescribed per-term load, now with more flexibility than before) using our professional judgment. We generally preferred to have documentation to support cases but it wasn’t ultimately required.


The University employs a growing number of professional counsellors through Counselling Services for one-on-one sessions with students. The demand exceeds the supply. Students have implemented initiatives to fund extra counsellors from student fees. There are counsellors embedded in Engineering space as well as campus-wide counsellors.

[DR] The university’s goal is 1 psychologist/counsellor per thousand students. My understanding is that we have achieved that, and are a provincial if not national leader here. Of course demand still exceeds supply, but we have relatively good supply.

The Toronto Star newspaper is currently running a large investigative series on student mental health in Ontario. It’s behind a paywall. Patrick is from Montreal, so he won’t pay newspapers in Toronto. But if you wanted to get a larger sense of that issue here, then it might be worth spending some of your library dollars (newspaper subscription is pretty cheap). [/DR]

Counselling Services also would like to encourage workshops and peer counselling but it is the one-to-one counselling that is most popular.

We also have an AccessAbility office for special needs (learning disabilities etc). Institutions must, under provincial law, accommodate special needs.

[DR] Our AccessAbility office that Patrick mentioned is relatively under-resourced compared to our provincial peers. The university is working on it.[/DR]