Tips for Writing Better Reference Letters

Some seasons seem to come around more often than others: many of us are presently writing reference letters—again. It is important to acknowledge the significant impact that this routine exercise has on our students and colleagues.

SWEC, FAUW’s Status of Women and Equity Committee, would like to remind each faculty member how easy it is for unconscious gender bias to slip into our reference letters. They have provided some resources to help us all write professional reference letters that reflect on women’s capacities in an equitable way.

The University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women has a very handy one-pager on “common traps based on unconscious gender bias (PDF) ,” including:

  • Letters for reference for men are more likely to emphasize accomplishments while letters for women are 50% more likely to include adjectives that describe effort. 
  • On average, letters for men are 16% longer than letters for women. 
  • Letters of reference for women are 7x more likely to mention personal life—something that is almost always irrelevant for the application. 

The federal government’s Canada Research Chairs online resources include background research as well as tips for limiting unconscious bias, such as:

  • Use the nominee’s formal title and surname instead of their first name. 
  • Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

    OCUFA’s Ontario Budget Recommendations Released

    OCUFA’s 2017 pre-budget submission, which sets out OCUFA’s priorities for the Ontario Budget (PDF), is now available.

    OCUFA’s recommendations include:

    • Increasing per-student funding for Ontario’s universities to match the average for the rest of Canada;
    • Making a commitment to supporting faculty renewal, including full-time faculty hiring that brings Ontario’s student-faculty ratio in line with the rest of Canada and replacing retiring faculty with tenure-stream positions;
    • Ensuring fairness for contract faculty by strengthening employment and labour laws;
    • Rejecting the use of punitive performance-based funding in the renewed university funding model; and
    • Establishing a new higher education data agency to collect, analyze, and disseminate key information on Ontario’s universities.
    • Providing greater clarity about criteria for solvency exemption to support the success of a multiemployer jointly sponsored pension plan (JSPP) for the university sector.

    OCUFA President Judy Bates presented these recommendations to the Ministry of Finance on January 9 and to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on January 19.

    Source: OCUFA.

    Response to CEPT Draft Report from Psychology Faculty Members

    Update February 9, 2017: The Course Evaluation Project Team is reviewing all of the feedback they’ve received. When that process is complete, they will submit something to Senate to move forward. So the next opportunity for you to engage with this issue is talking to a member of Senate.

    The Course Evaluation Project Team (CEPT) was formed in May 2014 to “explore the potential for a new course evaluation model that is informed by best practices and meets the needs of students, faculty, staff and administrators.”

    The team released a draft report on November 8, 2016, including a proposed course evaluation tool, and requested feedback from the University community. Members of the Department of Psychology have asked us to share their detailed response to the report here.

    The Status of Women & Equity Committee’s response and FAUW’s response are available on the FAUW website.

    This statement of response to the CEPT report comes from various members of the Department of Psychology. We are responding collectively because our discipline offers the technical expertise that is essential for understanding how student questionnaires for course evaluation should be designed and used.

    Our statement takes the form of a summary of points that will be developed and documented further over the next few months when one of us serves on an external panel concerning student questionnaires for course evaluation. This panel was convened by the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) in recognition of the divergence of the increasing weight being placed on student questionnaire ratings at Ontario Universities from the increasing body of evidence indicating that student questionnaires cannot bear this weight because of inherent limitations.

    The present statement addresses the following points.

    1. Extraneous, “biasing” factors render student questionnaires invalid for summative evaluation.
    2. Summative use of student questionnaires harms students’ learning and instructors’ integrity and academic freedom.
    3. The proposed remedies for bias and other sources of inaccuracy (e.g., “halo”) will not be effective and bias will remain.
    4. Student questionnaires nevertheless may be useful for formative evaluation and other purposes.
    5. The widespread use of student questionnaires at other universities for summative evaluation gives no assurance of their appropriateness for that purpose. So-called “best practices” are ineffective.
    6. The alternatives to student questionnaires that have been proposed in the literature can be expected to carry less bias and to do more to promote effective instruction.
    7. Decisions about student questionnaire redesign and use should take full account of the best available internal (University of Waterloo) and external expert analysis and opinion. Thus far, this has not happened.

    “Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education” MOOC

    More than 30 faculty members at Waterloo have already registered to attend UBC’s MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] on “Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education”.

    This MOOC runs for six weeks between January 24 and March 7. One can audit it for free, or take it for a certificate ($50 USD). Registration is open until January 24.

    A group of UW instructors (supported by the Centre for Teaching Excellence) have decided to take the course and to meet a couple of times to discuss ways to apply what they are learning at Waterloo. There is still time to join this group if you are interested in learning more about reconciliation, and in thinking about what UW can do to support reconciliation. If you would like to join the UW cohort, please email Trevor Holmes ( to have your name added to the mailing list.

    Attending this course is a first but significant step to following the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in its “Calls to Action” (#53, 62, 65). Indigenizing postsecondary education is also a burning topic that was extensively discussed at CAUT’s new activists workshop in November.

    More about the course

    Week 1: Indigenous Education Through the Lens of Reconciliation
    Week 2: History of Indigenous Education
    Week 3: Learning from Indigenous Worldviews
    Week 4: Learning from Story
    Week 5: Learning from the Land
    Week 6: Engaging in Respectful Relations

    The learning objectives of this course are to:

    • Explore personal and professional histories and assumptions in relationship to Indigenous peoples histories and worldviews.
    • Deepen understanding and knowledge of colonial histories and current realities of Indigenous people.
    • Engage with Indigenous worldviews and perspectives that contextualize and support your understanding of the theories and practices of Indigenous education.
    • Develop strategies that contribute to the enhancement of Indigenous-settler relations in schools, organizations, and communities.
    • Explore Indigenous worldviews and learning approaches for their application to the classroom or community learning setting.
    • Engage in personal and professional discussions in an online environment with others committed to understanding and advancing reconciliation.

    New Writing Support Programs for Faculty

    – Nadine Fladd, University of Waterloo Writing Centre

    Faculty often recommend that their undergraduate and graduate students visit the Writing Centre for individual consultations or attend our workshops, but all writers – including professors – can benefit from working with someone who will listen as they talk through their ideas, read rough work, and ask questions to clarify the ideas they want to express.

    8c86a-nadineAs the Writing Centre’s new Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist with a focus on Graduate, Postdoctoral and Faculty Support, I can support your writing goals as a faculty member – whether you’re working on a book, journal article, grant proposal, or any other project – through 50-minute consultations. These consultations are open to faculty at any stage of the writing process. I can help you work towards your writing goals by providing a sounding board as you plan and outline, helping you experience your drafts the way a reader might, facilitating goal-setting and offering coaching, and consulting on the structure, organization, or mechanics of a draft.

    Weekly Writing Café

    Have you set big publication goals for yourself for 2017? If so, a regular writing practice can help with productivity and motivation. Based on the success of the Writing Centre’s programming for graduate students, including Dissertation Boot Camp and the weekly Grad Writing Café, the Writing Centre will be hosting a Weekly Writing Café for faculty beginning January 11, 2017. Every Wednesday afternoon we will offer a dedicated writing space (with coffee, tea, and treats!) for faculty to write together. These loosely-structured sessions are designed to help faculty connect to a larger writing community, to stay focused, and to keep making writing progress.

    Clare Bermingham, Writing Centre director, serves coffee and Timbits at a writing session for graduate students.
    Clare Bermingham, Writing Centre director, serves coffee and Timbits at a writing session for graduate students.


    We break these weekly, two-hour meetings into 25-minute writing sprints divided by 5-minute breaks, following the pomodoro technique (PDF). After the writing session, you are welcome to stay to discuss writing goals, challenges and strategies with your colleagues.

    Faculty Writing Café: Wednesdays from 2pm to 4pm in SCH 228F
    Faculty Writing Discussion: Wednesdays from 4pm to 4:30pm in SCH 228F

    How to participate

    Please email Nadine Fladd to set up an individual meeting to discuss your project.

    There’s no need to register if you’d like to join our weekly Faculty Writing Café. Just show up with your laptop and ready to write!