By Natasha Kenny and Carol Berenson, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
Over the past three years, we have had the privilege of reviewing hundreds of nomination packages for the University of Calgary Teaching Awards program. The letters of support provide a key component and piece of evidence in every nomination package; depending on the award, those letters may be written by colleagues or students. The following five tips highlight what makes a strong letter of support stand out.
- Set the Stage
Set the stage by describing who you are and how you know the nominee. If you are a student or are inviting a student to prepare a letter, please note that letters of support must only be written by former students of the nominee (i.e. they are not currently taught or supervised by the nominee), and this should be clearly indicated at the beginning of the letter.
Some typical excerpts* from the first paragraphs of support letters may read:
It is my pleasure to write this letter in support of Dr. White’s nomination for a University of Calgary Teaching Award (Full-Time Academic Staff). I am a former student of Dr. White’s. I was an undergraduate student in her course on addictions in fall 2016, and was also an undergraduate research assistant in her lab during the summer of 2017.
It is with great admiration that I write this letter in support of Dr. White’s nomination for a University of Calgary Teaching Award (Full-Time Academic Staff). I am currently an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and have been a colleague of Dr. White’s for the past 7 years.
- Be explicit
Be explicit when describing what the nominee has done to make her or himself stand out, why this was important to you, and what difference she or he has made to you and others. What are their most important contributions? What makes this nominee memorable? What specific activities, situations, or contexts provide examples of how the nominee has made a difference to student learning? What impact have their contributions had on you? These narratives paint a picture that helps those reading the dossier “see” the nominee in the classroom.
Most award nomination will include statements such as:
Dr. White is a generous/enthusiastic/motivating/inspiring instructor….
Strong support letters are set apart by explicit examples of what makes the nominee enthusiastic, motivating and/or inspiring. For example:
Dr. White is an inspiring instructor, who links theory to practice, and provides relevant real-world examples of how the course material relates to current events. In our second-year psychology course, Dr. White consistently used case-studies to provide us with an opportunity to explore what we were covering in class. I recall a specific case study which had us reflect on how the opioid crisis in Canada was impacting adolescents. She used an in-depth and authentic case to compassionately lead us towards understanding the complexity of the situation. She established a positive classroom climate, and taught us the skills necessary to voice, listen to, and deeply understand each other’s points of view. She consistently encouraged us to consider how our viewpoints and opinions linked back to the evidence and theories presented in our course readings. I continue to carry these skills with me, even at the Thanksgiving table with my family! This particular discussion inspired me not only to think critically about the course subject matter, but was also the beginning of leading me towards a career path in mental health and addictions counselling.
Dr. White is an incredibly dedicated and generous colleague. She has been a mentor to me since I started teaching at the University of Calgary. During my first year as a faculty member, I was assigned to teach a large introductory course, with over 400 students. At the time, I struggled to imagine how I would actively engage students, and Dr. White, who shared an office next to mine, opened her door to what would become our weekly “teaching chats.” At our first chat, she shared in conversation about her use of case-studies in large classes. During the months leading up to this course, she worked with me to develop relevant cases, and strategies for using blended learning approaches to facilitate on-line and in-class dialogue to engage the students. Despite the large class size, students responded positively and engaged fully throughout this course. I never imagined having near perfect attendance in such a large class! Students arrived ready and eager to discuss the cases, and the online discussion forum was alive with students’ insights and ideas. Case studies have now become a foundational component of my teaching practice, and Dr. White and I have gone on to publish papers in our discipline’s educational journals related to using case studies to enhance student learning experiences in large courses. Our “teaching chats” remain scheduled in our calendars, every Thursday afternoon from 3:00-3:30pm. I recently received our faculty’s teaching award, and attribute much of the success in my teaching career to Dr. White’s mentorship.
- Speak Directly to the Award Criteria
If you are asked to provide a letter of support, ask the nominee to forward you a description and/or the call for nomination for the award. Don’t hesitate to inquire about what they would like you to highlight in relation to the award criteria. Are there one or two strengths that they would like you to highlight? After completing the letter, forward it onto the nominee or nominator for additional feedback. Is there anything they would like you to change or highlight further? Intentionally use and incorporate the language used in the award criteria to highlight the nominee’s strengths.
The following excerpt illustrates how a support letter highlights the award criteria (“challenge learners to practice and develop their critical thinking and independent learning abilities”).
I always appreciated how Dr. White’s classes challenged me to think critically and introspectively about the course material. Through the course assignments and discussions, I was consistently inspired to consider how the material related to my life and academic work, especially within the context of my independent undergraduate research honours project. For example, through a learning journal assignment, I deeply explored my fundamental beliefs and assumptions about how addictions and mental health were portrayed in mainstream and social media. This assignment encouraged me to think differently about the influence media has on our perceptions and beliefs about mental health and addictions. This new understanding has carried over into other areas of my academic studies and given me the confidence and language to engage in meaningful conversations with family and friends about this challenging topic. In fact, this assignment helped further focus my undergraduate research project, which centers on the role Twitter and Facebook play on influencing our beliefs and perceptions of anxiety and depression.
- Use Accessible Language
The University of Calgary Teaching Awards adjudication committees are composed of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars. To avoid a potential conflict of interest, these members are often from faculties different from those of the nominees in that particular award category. The best letters of support avoid jargon, and ensure that the contexts and evidence presented are clearly accessible to a broad audience, outside of the discipline. If a discipline-specific term must be used, remember to define it for the reader within the context of the letter. If they include acronyms, they are also clearly spelled out and put in context. If references to particular courses are made, they also include the course title. The best letters are clear, concise and direct in their language and context.
- Be Professional – Presentation Matters
This piece of advice is pretty straightforward, but I am always surprised how many times it is overlooked. Letters of support should include:
- Your organizational/departmental letterhead if possible. If you don’t currently have an organizational letterhead, include your name, title and a return address in the header.
- The address of who you are addressing the letter to (e.g. University of Calgary Teaching Awards Committee, 434 Collegiate Blvd. University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, T2N 4V8)
- A date (month, day, and year the letter was prepared)
- A greeting or salutation. If you do not know how to directly address the letter, a professional salutation such as, “Dear Award Committee Members:” is appropriate.
- A closing (e.g. “Sincerely,” or “Kind Regards,”)
- A signature line including your name and role (e.g. Sasha Cook, BA, Class of 2017, or Dr. Anna Glass, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology)
- A signature. I am surprised how often this is overlooked. A signature helps to communicate the authenticity of the letter.
Writing a letter of support takes careful thought. These letters provide an important opportunity and artefact to recognize the many outstanding (and all too often hidden) contributions that educators across our academic community make to student learning. Know that taking the time to prepare a letter of a support makes a difference – to the nominee, nominators, departments, faculties, and awards adjudication committee members. Your letters help bring the excellence and heart of UCalgary’s teaching and learning community to life! Thank you for your commitment to acknowledging those who expand our thinking, strengthen our teaching and learning community, and touch our lives in so many meaningful and diverse ways.
*These are fictional excerpts