Who Are Your Students?

Teaching at the University of Toronto offers the experience of meeting and working with one of the most diverse groups of students in the country. As the most multicultural city in North America (more than half the population was born outside of Canada), Toronto is culturally and linguistically diverse, but as we know from surveys such as the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE), there are many more factors that influence our students backgrounds. How does this diversity affect their experiences here as students?   CTSI interviewed a group of undergraduate students to learn more about their orientations to campus life.

 1. Commuting affects us all

UofT students are very likely to have long commutes to campus, with 1 in 4 taking 1 hour or more to travel to campus. Senka Zahirovic, a 5th year student in Criminology and Psychology, when she had the option to study at either St. George or UTM campus, chose UTM because it meant an easier commute of one bus trip instead of a transfer to the crowded subway. Even when the commute is only 15 minutes long, as for Ayyaz Aamer, a 4th year student Majoring in Equity Studies and English, it still means thinking about “all the things commuters have to do to plan the day.”

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Media Literacy and Digital Natives

“Digital native” is a term often applied to the so-called “Millennial” generation, those people born in the 1980s and 1990s who grew up and came of age in a time of rapid digital growth. Millennials, particularly the younger half, have been exposed since childhood to computers, the Internet, cell phones, video games, and electronic gadgets, creating the expectation that  they have a natural fluency and ease with digital devices and environments. Indeed, many have taken on expertise that surpasses their parents’, to become the technological advisors of their household. This has led to several assumptions about Millennials: that they can process and sort information easily, can do anything online more easily than previous generations, and that they are always online, creating and consuming content.

Current perspectives on Millennial media use show us a more nuanced picture. Here are three points that can help us approach how we teach the Millennial generation:

  1. First, the way Millennials approach media is not wholly different from previous generations: for entertainment, access to information, consumption and creation of content, and social interaction. What sets apart younger generations is that all these things can now be accomplished online, where previously they might have been found through television, radio, telephone, and previously print-only media. (Kilian, Hennigs and Langer)
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My Life is Average (Part 4): Who Am I Today?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the fourth and final post in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, concluding with why he chose to combine two different majors, and what he has learned from his first two years at UofT.

I have a friend in Winnipeg who’s also in electrical engineering at the University of Manitoba and is an insane connoisseur of music. One thing he told me challenged me and led me to make the decision to take a music minor and it was “taking a music minor is too difficult”. During the summer, I took a look at U of T’s Faculty of Music website and found that the music minor here wasn’t all that difficult to achieve – only four courses? So, at the beginning of the school year, I auditioned for the Vocal Jazz Ensemble full year course and got in! And in the beginning of this semester, I took a history of western music course. It has so far been an interesting ride, that’s for sure to say the least.

The thing is this, many may comment on how artistic I am as a person, but fundamentally they don’t realize that I’m actually a person who adores practicality. As much as I can preach it on the mountaintops as to how wonderful music can be, its spiritually, emotionally and even physiologically healing properties, as well as the fact that it’s a great way to release, relieve and relax, I can’t pursue a career in music. The practicality in pursing such a degree as a major is very low, for if you want to succeed and make it big, you’d have to be that %1 of individuals and I know I’m not one of them.

So, while taking this music minor, the Vocal Jazz Ensemble course is the one where I’ve not only found the most joy, but usefulness. I was able to transfer what I’ve learned to my choir even – Tales of Harmonia, such as conducting techniques, singing styles, and song selections. During the second semester, we sang a lot of Georgian music and for our choir, we performed one called Adiloi! But, the Western Music Survey course I’m currently taking has given me only one thing, a better understanding of the development of music to this day. By taking this course, I can firmly say that it will benefit my compositional and arranging skills, which is something that I worked on for Tales of Harmonia with great dedication.

Some day I think there should be an Audio Engineering minor, or something to that effect. The world of entertainment is incredibly expansive and yet there are many engineers who can’t find a safe haven where they can merge the best of both those worlds of music and engineering. If it’s possible to create a Global Engineering Certificate as advocated by students, why not this?  An observation that many of us have made is there seems to be a huge community of not only music lovers, but proficient players of the craft in engineering. Why not try to provide them a practical platform to realize their talents, knowledge and skills?


As you can probably tell, I’m still more-or-less the man I used to be when I started at UofT, but there are subtle differences. I began university as a lost sheep and hope to come out a shepherd seeking for its lost sheep. Where am I now? Nowhere close, but getting there. My life like yours is a work-in-progress, but it’s one where I’ve still chosen to be diverse. I can’t tell you what ideal I’m going to settle with, but what I can tell you is “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift, therefore we call it the present”. Therefore, what I’ve chosen to do today is to gather all my gifts, as diverse as they may be and attempt to unify them before those hallowed doors of university close behind me. I can never relinquish my love for music and the arts, at the same time appreciate how science has led to such progress and development in today’s ever-changing world. I can never let go all that I am today because as much as sacrifices have to be made; I know I can do it.

Now, who am I today? Well, instead of MLIA, My Life is the following:

  1. Chinese-Canadian
  2. Christian
  3. “Tales of…” RPG Series Lover/Fanatic
  4. Music and the Arts
  5. STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  7. Tales of Harmonia
  8. Balanced
  9. Passionate
  10.  ____

That last one exists because I’ve yet to fill it up with something that I so deem fit. So, as lofty as this may sound, I hope to be one of the first to pioneer something and fill that number 10 with something worthy. I read somewhere that many of us Generation Y folks would have to create jobs instead of find them and hopefully one day I’ll create that dream job that satisfies both the spectrum of my passions. As arrogant as this may sound, I don’t want to just be another number in the crowd, because considering what I was given at birth, it would be too much of a shame.

I’ve already been able to come up with an idea that has both the idealism and realism that could lead me to that ultimate goal. It involves integrating my loves for music and technology by utilizing tablets for the sake of musical innovation and social connectivity. But the thing is, it’s still a faraway land that at least what I can say now is “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and I believe I’ve already taken that single step and inching ever closer.

I look back at these past two years with much regret and sorrow, but I know that tomorrow will be a better day, for I now have something more concrete than yesterday. I can now look at tomorrow with much thanks, hope and optimism. I know everything happens for a reason and 2012 is not the end of the world, but the end of an old world, at least for me and will be the beginning of a brand new one!

My Life is Average (Part 3): How Did I Choose?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the third in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with why he chose his major.

Often times I’ve been asked, “Tian, why did you choose engineering?” and “Why did you choose to go to the University of Toronto”. There are many reasons:

  1. My father had recommended it to me
  2. I was very unsure as to what I wanted to do, but with much deliberation, I heeded his advice since I believed that it embodied both my technical and creative sides of my personality
  3. Economic stability after graduation
  4. I wanted to escape the harsh, cold and bitter winters of “Winnterpeg”, but in actuality, I wanted to escape what truly put the “plain” in the “Plains” of Winnipeg’s sleepiness to the vivacious global city of Toronto
  5. As parents want the best for their children, I want the best for my future, therefore knowing U of T Engineering is ranked number 1 in Canada, I knew I had to be here.

The thing is, I was very foolish, since I hadn’t given my career path much thought, I jumped into electrical/computer engineering without knowing what I was getting myself into. I soon found myself bitter because I hated programming, circuits and anything and everything to do with engineering altogether. I even began asking myself “why did I choose engineering?” I came into university with no plan and that was what bit me in the behind. It wasn’t even the course load that made me hate engineering, it was just material itself. I had no passion for it and that’s what made my first year so very difficult.

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Learning through Current Events: Huge, Immediate and Complicated

In many courses, finding opportunities to incorporate current events into teaching can be a way to engage students by enriching traditional material through application of concepts and approaches to current issues. For example, the “Occupy” phenomenon that began in Fall 2011 provided an opportunity for students to engage with current social, political and economic issues. Some engaged through a call to action: Erin at UpbeaT returned from attending Occupy Wall Street with a desire to keep talking about it, so she sought out a conversation with her Academic Don. She found,

“[i]t was rewarding to hear someone in an academic position at U of T talk candidly about something that feels so huge, so immediate and so complicated.” (Erin Kobayashi, “Occupy Your Academic Don”, October 20, 2011)

A packed crowd at Varsity Stadium.

For those more scientifically- than politically-minded, current events don’t get much more “huge and immediate” than the most recent astronomical event, the Transit of Venus on June 5th. The event was huge in numbers (with some 5,000 people gathered at Varsity Stadium) and collaboration (with the Dunlap Institute, the Department for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Department of Alumni Relations and the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, and the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC) all involved). Immediacy was to be found in the rarity of the event ( the next transit of Venus won’t take place until 2117), and the addition of a live feed broadcast to the Varsity Stadium screen from UofT’s own 8 foot refracting telescope on the 16th floor of the McLennan Physical Labs building. The event was one-of-a-kind and truly a UofT experience.

Yes, that transimission is coming live from space via McLennan Physical Labs

The Transit of Venus provided organizers with a rich opportunity to engage students in the historical, cultural and scientific impact of the event itself, while broadening outreach to the general public. UTSIC, managed by a group of PhD students from the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), worked with the Department of Astronomy to host an exhibit on the scientific instruments used to observe transits in the 18th and 19th centuries.  1830 Bate Gregorian telescope that was available for viewing the transit on June 5. The Dunlap Institute also increased its outreach by distributing pamphlets in multiple language; an Arabic pamphlet increased awareness of the event for a local Islamic school, who hired buses to bring large groups to Varsity Stadium.

Bringing events like these into the conversation with students not only helps bring our teaching material to life, but gives students a memorable experience that serves as a point of reference for their learning that brings their readings and discussion into the present. How many physics instructors will be inspired by the recent discovery of the Higgs boson to strike new conversations with their classes this week about the origins of matter? (It doesn’t get much more “huge” and “complicated” than this one!)  It might seem hard to make room in a packed course syllabus to take time out for the current and unexpected, but when you find excitement in current events, your students will find it too.

My Life is Average (Part 2): Finding Harmony

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the second in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with how co-curricular activities have shaped his experience.

Ever since I started university, I knew I had to get involved in extra-curricular activities, for I wanted to gain an enriching, well-rounded, balanced, wholesome and holistic experience. But, I also wanted to differentiate myself, since I didn’t just want to be defined by my student number, rather my achievements, actions and activities. I’ve always had the philosophy that diversity only makes you stronger, but upon entering university, I made the mistake of being too extreme. I attended too many events, joined too many clubs (or rather, mailing lists) and made friends here and there. I was in a simple phrase – all over the place.

My first year was both full of much excitement and entropy (or chaos). It was both a terrible first year and a terrific one. I did things I never thought I would but at the same time, regretted not focusing too much on my studies. I lived in Chestnut for my first year and you would think living on residence would be a perfect place to make new friends, gain a support network and feel safe right? Well I had made the unfortunate mistake of not taking advantage of that opportunity; instead I ended up becoming quite the bitter person for my first year. I had no idea as to how that happened, but it just did. I even joined a Christian fellowship (UTMCCF) and still, it didn’t work. I soon learned the lesson the hard way and therefore ended up choosing to commit only to AIESEC. (mention of previous article)

Tales of Harmonia is a choir that I started last school year in April when I had concluded my choral experience with the Hart House Chorus. I founded it because I felt a pit of emptiness in my stomach at the end of performing Mozart’s Mass with the Hart House Orchestra and all the wonderful classical, folk, and less-than-contemporary music. It wasn’t that I detested that style of music, but rather, I felt it needed more variety. When I initially joined the Hart House Chorus, I had the expectation from the name, that the music would be quite general, but soon found myself singing many songs I had already sung back in high school and feeling this dread of deadness. As much as I enjoyed songs celebrating the coming spring, a trip to the Hart House Farm, and another trip to the University of Western Ontario to perform at the Intervarsity Choral Festival, I found myself wanting to showcase music in all its splendour, majesty, glory, grandeur and beauty.

Therefore, I ended up establishing Tales of Harmonia, the first ever all-inclusive choir on campus, where you’d find home to both sacred and secular, a cappella and accompanied, Occidental and Oriental music, amongst many others. And ever since its inception way back in April, it has been an upward climb that would eventually lead us from rehearsing at the Quiet Room of the Multifaith Centre (see the irony there?) to holding our world premiere and year end concert with much success at the Knox College Chapel.

The choir has been a huge blessing in my life for I’ve once again, met some of the most amazing people ever, people with an equal passion for music and its many potentials, learned much about my leadership, and gained/improved on skills that I never thought I had and could obtain so directly.

“My Life is Average”: A Student’s Perspective

“My Life is Average”
by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the first in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, beginning with what brought him to study at UofT.

There exists an internet meme called MLIA which stands for My Life is Average, but if you were to have ever met me, you would know that my life is far from average.

I was born in Lanzhou, Gansu, China (People’s Republic of) in the fifth day of the fifth month – 1992, moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada when I was 5 years old with my parents, grew up there for most my life – having a forgettable elementary experience, forsaken junior high experience and an unforgettable high school experience, then arriving in Toronto, Ontario, Canada at the age of 18. Which, by the way, I must point out that I went to the same high school as Marshall McLuhan, a famous alumnus of the University of Toronto – “Boundless Vision: Media Prophet ”. Anyway, I’m currently here at the U of T majoring in electrical/computer engineering and minoring in music history and culture. I have an intense and immense love for the arts, as I started playing piano when I was 8 years old, around the same time; I also took up drawing lessons, wrote a lot of fanfiction (fictional stories based on a fandom or more), sang in many choirs in high school, and performed at talent shows, etc. But, equally, I have a deep appreciation for the sciences and mathematics, as I’ve proven to be quite proficient in both. And finally, at around 8 years old, I converted to Christianity.

I chose to attend the University of Toronto for the following reasons: 1) it’s ranked number 1 for Applied Science and Engineering in all of Canada, 2) it’s within the top 20 for the same subject in all of the world, 3) I’ve grown rather tiresome of living in Winnipeg for 14 years of my life consecutively, which leads me to say 4) Toronto’s an alpha global city, which makes it an extremely dynamic place to explore yourself, 5) I wanted a change of pace, scenery and life, 6) I wanted an adventure, 7) living by myself would have been both a challenge and a thrill, 6) the close proximity of Toronto to other major cities in Canada makes it a very transportation friendly place to be, 9) the University of Toronto has Industrial Engineering, whereas the University of Manitoba doesn’t, and 10) the University of Toronto would have been a great launching pad for me to pursue a career outside of not only Winnipeg but Canada.

Ever since my journey here in Toronto began, I can say with all honesty that I don’t regret this choice at all. The strong emphasis on leadership, hyper international atmosphere, and sheer depth and breadth of what this city and university can offer is in simply… Boundless!

Academic Integrity: Talking About Plagiarism

Saira Mall, Educational Technology Liaison
Martha Harris, Faculty Liaison

It’s that time of year—assignments are submitted, papers are due, exams are being written, and all at the same time! As pressures mount to complete final course work, students find themselves overwhelmed and want to complete assignments the fastest way they can. In this state of mind it’s harder to find time to think about plagiarism and academic integrity.

Despite our efforts to explain the importance of careful citations and prevent plagiarism, academic offences persist.

Plagiarism can be grey, not black and white

Most students do not have difficulty explaining what plagiarism is, but when it comes to seeing it in their own work, they often have a much harder time. Plagiarism can take different forms in a written work, and is not always intentional.  Students who do not see themselves as cheaters (because they do not intend to cheat) may feel naively confident about their writing and research habits and not know they are doing something wrong until they are confronted with a problem. Something as simple as copying notes from an article or web page can lead to a plagiarized paper when a student forgets how much of the words are copied or forgets to quote a passage.

Talking with students about how to write and cite well can help them understand the importance of academic integrity.  Because there are grey areas, it is our responsibility as faculty members to educate students on what is expected for academic work.  There are a few communication strategies faculty can take to start conversations with students about plagiarism.

Strategies for Talking With Students

In the article Confronting Plagiarism, Nicola Koper posits that, “The only way to feel justified in following through with serious consequences is if one is positive that the student knew what kind of behaviour was academically appropriate prior to the plagiarism occurrence” (Koper, 2012).  It is not just the responsibility of the student to be conscious of all plagiarism prevention. Instructors and TAs need to take the time to start the conversation with their students.  As a faculty member, Koper offers valuable strategies she has used to help her students understand academic integrity. One strategy is taking 30 minutes during the first lecture to talk about plagiarism and proper citations.

Should they have learned that before they got to my class? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that they have. If I take that time in my first class, then no student has any excuse to claim that they didn’t know how to write or paraphrase, if plagiarism accusations come up later (2012).

Her second approach is from the departmental level. Her department requires all students to attend information sessions on plagiarism prevention and copyright. Students receive this information both in and out of class. This can also give departments a chance to talk about issues that are common in their subject.

As educators, we should take care to model proper academic integrity to students in our own teaching. For example, one step to take is to ensure that when we use images and borrowed content in PowerPoint presentations, the original source is always cited. We can also give examples of citations to students, which show them how to cite and quote a passage from an article or web site. With good modelling, students will have real-life examples to refer to throughout the course, to prepare them for the crucial moments when they must write their own papers.

Teaching with Apps

Saira Mall–Educational Technology Liaison, CTSI

In early April, UofT launched Mobile Learn, Blackboard’s app through which students can receive course notifications and information about their courses.  With the launch I was wondering what apps are especially useful in supporting teaching.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Jeffery Young (2011) who identified the 6 Top Smartphone Apps to Improve Teaching, Research, and Your Life.  Young based his app suggestions on scenarios people mentioned most often: taking attendance (Attendance ), reading scholarly articles (Dropbox, Evernote and Goodreader), reading notes (JotNot Scanner), using textbook tools (CourseSmart), and mind-mapping for planning lectures (Mindblowing and MindJet).  A few are free some may require a fee to purchase. Young also noted:

Some of the most innovative applications for hand-held devices, however, have come from professors working on their own. They find ways to adapt popular smartphone software to the classroom setting, or even write their own code. (January 2, 2011)

Mobile UofT (mobile.utoronto.ca) has been launched for all faculty, staff and students to submit ideas for developing mobile apps.  If you have an idea for an app contact Mobile UofT and connect with mobile experts who can help you develop it.  You can also showcase your app project on the web site or view current mobile projects at the University.  A range of UofT apps are available for download from the web site that have been created by instructors and students including MyVoice, U of T Map, UTM Mobile, UTSC Campus and UTL Mobile.

If you are searching for ways to incorporate apps that enhance teaching and learning, MERLOT has created the Mobile Learning Apps Collection. Their catalogue consists of open educational resources and commercially-produced apps.

We want to hear your ideas on developing apps that support teaching! Once you’ve assessed your app needs contact Mobile UofT at http://mobile.utoronto.ca/contact.  We’d love to feature your project, find resources and help you with mobile development platforms.

Focus on Faculty: Engaging Students with Extra Credit Projects

For many chemistry students, organic chemistry is a course that forms the basis of the rest of their program, and can be an intimidating and challenging subject. To Lana Mikhaylichenko and Effie Sauer, however, it is a subject filled with creative potential. So for them, finding ways for students to enjoy organic chemistry was about more than just fun: it was about turning around traditional course anxiety into true engagement with the subject.

When choosing the song assignment, some students create an original song, and others take a Pop song and adapt the lyrics. The major criterion to be satisfied is that the song must relate to a course topic: pi-bonding, nucleophilic reactions and resonance are popular topics to translate. There is now a large enough repository of songs produced that Sauer and Mikhaylichenko can play a different song video for each week of lecture. When students see the clips, “they light up”, says Sauer. “When they realize they’re watching their peers, it’s extra delight.” Word of mouth has travelled within the UTSC community and both Lecturers often hear second- and third-hand comments from students and faculty about the videos.

As a result of the improved engagement with the course material and their faculty, more students say that Organic Chemistry is a course they enjoy, which is what Sauer and Mikhaylichenko were hoping for. For them, the payoff has far exceeded expectations, resulting from a very small change in their curriculum. Mikhaylichenko puts it in terms of seeing teaching as a two-way process that should build relationships. “I didn’t change myself, just the way they see the learning.” Having previously worked with CHM B41, Sauer looks forward to teaching CHM B42 this summer because of the different topics to offer students. “I’ve been blown over,” she says. “I’ve learned that our students are awesome.”

Read more about the CHMB41/42 initiatives, and view more videos at CTSI’s Focus on Faculty.