Narratives and teaching

Robin Sutherland-Harris and I were co-facilitators of a TATP workshop today.  The workshop challenged TAs to convey a narrative (or a story) in a lesson for their students.  One of the foundational assumptions of the workshop was that narrative is a part of everyday life, including classroom life.  In the words of Abbott in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), “We are all narrators” (p. xii)

As part of the workshop, we introduced Prezi as a platform for the TAs to build their narratives for classroom use.  According to the Prezi website, Prezi is software which exists in the cloud.  It is something between “whiteboards and slides” and features a “zoomable canvas” where you can “explore ideas and the connections between them.”  TAs, faculty and staff at U of T may be interested to know that they can sign up for educational accounts at Prezi if they are interested in exploring this zooming interface for classroom presentations.

We found a number of great Prezi exemplars online that we showed during the workshop to try to get the creative juices flowing.  To begin, we were very inspired by the big picture timeline provided by the Great Jazz Bassists and their Influence through the Ages Prezi.  We also felt that a presentation on the Physical Geography in Africa was great for demonstrating how you can hone in on concepts (or geographic features) in Prezi by using the zooming features.


A Focus on Faculty

As a part of the Student-Faculty Interaction initiative – highlighting faculty who implement alternative methods to engage with students – we (CTSI) have started a Focus on Faculty section on our website. Our first profiles are of two President’s Teaching Award winners: Barbara Murck, Department of Geography (UTM) and Andy Dicks, Department of Chemistry.

Murck discusses her online office hours – affectionately known as “bunny slipper” meetings – that she holds for her large first year class. She uses the collaboration tool in the UofT Portal and finds that these chats supplement the course material rather than replace it.  It also provides a personal touch and (despite being online) helps students feel comfortable when approaching her with a question or idea.

Dicks provides Research Opportunities (ROP) for chemistry students to, among other things, design experiments for 2nd and 3rd year courses. His goal is to involve students in pedagogical work while ensuring that his course material is always relevant and engaging. These projects have been enormously successful and led to publications in academic journals. Dicks also enjoys informing students an experiment was designed by a fellow undergraduate.

Please visit our Focus on Faculty section to learn more about these initiatives. If you have any stories to share or other initiatives you know of please let us know.


Thinking Visually: Doodling, Concept Maps, and Notetaking

As a student, were you one of those kids who doodled in the margins of your notebooks, or even on your desk (to the bane of janitorial staff everywhere)? Often thought to be something done to stave off boredom, doodling is something that, when channelled in the right direction, can lead to productive notetaking and reflection.

A recent study reported that doodling during meetings, for example, can help you retain more information, because it uses just enough executive brain function to prevent the mind from wandering, and losing focus on the discussion at hand. This especially helps listeners stay on task in a passive environment, when it is easy to start daydreaming.

We especially like this example we learned about from BlogUT , of recreational mathematician Vi Hart creating doodles to help understand mathematical principles like infinite series, using only the tools of a pencil, ruler, and a ruled 8.5×11 sheet:

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UpbeaT: Yes, learning can be fun!

When was the last time you visited a farmer’s market? Or mixed up sugar with salt when you were baking a cake? Or made peanut butter from scratch? For one class at UofT, all these things have already been transformed into learning experiences.

UofT Student Life blogger Erin, with UpbeaT, shows us a fun side of her student learning experience with a twopart story on what it’s like to be a learner in ENG 434HF, or “Cook the Books: Modern Food Literature”. Or as she puts it, it’s “the English class where students cook.”

Combining readings from food-themed fiction with a weekly group cooking activity (like accidentally burning peanut butter) might seem pretty offbeat, but this class is already being tested on their teamwork skills and increasing their awareness about their relationship with food. Erin’s report shows how unexpected learning environments can be surprisingly valuable:

My point is that making an effort to learn outside of the classroom or lab is important. If you’re ever given a chance to go on a field trip, even if you won’t be rewarded with an extra per cent for your efforts (and swear you could hear a rooster crow as you got up), go. While Cook the Books is a particularly special and progressive course because we are literally learning in a kitchen, not strictly in a fluorescent-lit classroom with desks from the 1980s located in a basement (we learn there too), I’m glad I had the opportunity to discover another classroom at the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market. (Upbeat, “The Fruits of our Labour”)

Would you want to take your students to the Farmer’s Market? What creative possibilities do you imagine for your future assignments and field trips?

Collaborative Learning Techniques in Action

Classes are in full swing, tutorials are up and running and we’re hearing reports of great experiences in the classrooms. Sandra Romain, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology and the UTSC TA Trainer for the TATP, is having a great start to her tutorials. This is Sandra’s second year with the TATP (after a number of years working as a TA at UofT) and has been applying teaching techniques learned with her TATP team and TA training. “I have had the confidence to develop tutorial material based on collaborative teaching structures,” Sandra said. She’s had an inspiring response from her students.

From the start of her tutorials, Sandra put collaborative teaching techniques to work. In the first tutorial, she used Think-Pair-Share (an exercise that pairs off the students to discuss a topic then report back to the rest of the group) to look at research paradigms (a rather complex theoretical topic for 2nd year students). In the second tutorial, Sandra took this one step further by using the 3-Step Interview (where students work in groups of three – an interviewer, a responder and a recorder. Students change roles throughout the process as they work through concepts and questions). When she met with a bit of resistance with some students – someone grumbled about having to ‘pair up’ with another student – Sandra “jokingly told her I’d get back to her at the end of the activity.” When asked if the student could answer her own question about why they were doing these activities, the student answered, “Because I just finally understood what Interpretivism was!”

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What to do when you don’t know the answer

Ok, the academic year has finally started and many of you are Teaching Assistants for the very first time of your life! Congratulations, to be a T.A. at UofT is already an achievement. I know that most of you are a bit nervous about this new enterprise, and one of the worries you may have could be: “What if I am asked something in class and I don’t have an answer?” Ok, as usual: don’t panic! This situation is likely to happen even when you are a very experienced Professor, and it’s fine. You just need to be honest (i.e. do not pretend that you know something you don’t know; don’t make up an answer just for the sake of avoiding the admission of ignorance) and learn how to say “I don’t know” in a professional way.

Since in our fields we are all “well informed people” but not “experts” (Boyer, 1990), nobody will have a bad opinion of you if you don’t know something: nobody knows everything! Certainly, when we have no clue about a potential question, we still know very well where to find the answer, and this is precisely what you should tell to your class. A phrase like “I don’t have this answer, but I know where to look for it, so let me take a note and I’ll bring the answer to our next class” is a nice way to put it. Just remember to actually go back to the issue whenever you have completed your research!

If you want to know more, the TATP/CTSI is leading a workshop “What Do I Do If I Don’t Know the Answer?” on October 14th. Or contact the TATP if you would like to speak to someone in person. We can tell you more, if you like.

Naming names

Believe it or not, most students attend courses in which the Professor or Teaching Assistant barely knows their faces, let alone their names. Yet, learning your pupils’ names or nicknames can be a terrific asset in your teaching year. As the Romans used to say: “nomen omen” (“the name is a sign” or, if you prefer, “aptly named people”) which means that knowing your undergrads’ aliases could even help you in understanding at a first glance the personality of some of them. Joking aside, being able to call them by their first name (or last name, if you believe in formality) will spread a sense of belonging in your course – and thus a sense of familiarity – which will likely push them in keeping up with homework and assignments. It might also help to prevent attempts to plagiarize or commit any other academic offense as established by the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters.

Ok, but how can I remember my students’ names if I have, let’s say, 30 or more unknown faces in front of me? First, don’t panic. One easy method is the name tent. You simply ask each of your undergrads to take a sheet of paper, fold it in three equal parts, and write on one of the sides their name or moniker/nickname with a thick marker. Then they’ll have to place the handmade tag on their desk, in front of them, so that you may read it. After a while, you’ll be able to associate names to faces and everything will flow nicely.

My personal hint is to actually buy a set of name tent cards (you can find them for a few dollars in most paper stores) and to assign one card to each student, together with a marker of a different color. At the end of each class, make sure to have all the cards returned to you, so that in the next class the only one who has to remember to bring everybody’s titles will be you. A second method, maybe a bit more creepy, is to ask each student to bring a small photo (i.e. a passport photo) to your second class. Once at home, you’ll have to work with glue and pen to create your personal students’ album, connecting the photos to the names. A third method is to ask your students not to change their seat during the semester, and to reproduce a map of the class seating in your handbook. Personally, I prefer the name tent, but hey, whatever works for you, it works!

Coming Soon – Large Classroom Teaching

The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation will soon launch an online module on Exploring Large Classroom Teaching. The University of Toronto’s faculty and graduate students have a fair bit of experience in this area (as you might imagine) and we have looked to them for insight and advice on this topic. We’ve divided this section into four areas (Planning, Strategies, Assessment and Technology) with videos, resources and tip sheets available.

We hope to launch in a few weeks. Please stay tuned!

Focus on Teaching: The Top 5 Things Your Syllabus Needs

Your syllabus is the roadmap for your course. Designing it carefully can help you to identify your teaching goals, and help your students plan their study schedule.  Check our Top 5 to make sure you’ve got the basics covered.

1.       Course evaluation scheme:  Include a breakdown of the work that your students are required to complete, and the weight of each piece in the final grade. Knowing this information early on helps students plan for the work that they will be required to complete, and understand what areas to prioritize.

2.       How your students can communicate with you: Your students will have questions throughout the term, so it is crucial to tell them how they can get in touch with you. You may also consider working with one of your TAs to manage communication, or look at other in-class or online alternatives. While e-mail and scheduled office hours are the most traditional methods, different approaches like digital office hours using online discussion boards, wikis, chat or instant messaging, social media, in-class question & answer sessions, and group office hours are all strategies that promote positive interaction with your students.

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CTSI Back-to-School Workshop Series

From Tuesday, August 23 – Friday, August 26, 2011, the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation will host a series of “Back-to-School” sessions on a range of teaching topics to help instructors get ready for the new school year.  These sessions are open to all new and returning instructors at the University of Toronto.

Here’s the schedule,

  • Tuesday, August 23
    • Setting the Tone for Success: The First Day and Beyond (9am – 12noon)
    • Supporting Student Learning: What Instructors Can Do and Who Else Can Help (1 – 4pm)
  • Wednesday, August 24
    • Building a Blackboard Course (9am – 12noon)
    • Small Group Instructional Approaches to Engage and Enthuse Learning (9am – 12noon)
  • Thursday, August 25
    • Assignment Design (9am – 12noon)
    • Formative Assessment: How to Keep Teaching and Learning on Track (1 – 4pm)
  • Friday, August 26
    • The Course Life Cycle: Managing Your Course (9am – 12noon)

You can register for these sessions online at: