Visual Oompf!

Post 3: Video Killed the Faculty Star

You remember the feeling from your elementary school days. That all to perfect moment when, the teacher stepped away from the chalk board, rolled out the a/v cart, hit the play button (or, gasp, fed in the film reel to the dusty projector) and retreated to the back of the class for…. a movie.

However, the longer we are in school, those precious opportunities to spend whole periods engrossed in Bill Nye episodes obviously dwindles. In higher education especially the impetus of knowledge transfer, critical thinking and philosophical pondering often takes priority over entertainment. Is there something to be considered when a six-minute Funny or Die “Drunk History” clip   can not only explain the history behind father of western technology, but also make it memorable?

My Visual Ooompf! dribble today aims to reposition our beloved “video” as a useful lecture and learning tool.

Videos have a place in the university classroom

This past winter, I attended an engineering lecture on the titillating topic of pumps. As I sat in Convocation Hall, amongst the 300 + young and occasionally distracted undergrads, I witnessed first hand the power a College Humor video had on re-engaging a group. During the traditional lecture part of the lesson, some students tuned in an out, impressively talking to their friends, playing games on their phones, and eating breakfast, all the while jotting down the odd lecture note. About a quarter into the lecture the lecturer switched gears, clicked on a pre-loaded video link and suddenly things changed.  More students looked to the front of the class and some actually laughed. While many still talked to their friends, I heard a couple people actually talking about the video!

I’m not saying that videos are better than live humans for engaging a group.  I only mean to illustrate that the act of breaking up the lecture with a visual tool, using a wildly different tone, is an awesome way to re energize and draw more of the class’s attention to the topic.

The example I witnessed in the engineering lecture was also a good illustration of general video showing best practices:

  •  the faculty member set up the video asking a question to help guide the viewers while they watch (showing videos does not mean people get a brain break)
  • this is an obvious one, but the video was related to the lesson topic
  • the video was relatively short in length
  • at the end of the clip, the faculty member asked a question and invited student reactions (this could even be done in groups as a collaborative exercise or dare I say, “Think-Pair-Share?)


Moving from thinking about using video clips to actually using them in your class requires a necessary (and, I admit, somewhat cumbersome) discussion on Copyright. If you are going to show a clip in class you are automatically entering the realm of Canadian Copyright Act.

The surest way to navigate this area is to use Media Commons to access your video clips. The Media Commons online record’s details tells you plainly the terms of use for each item. In some cases, you may be required to contact the copyright holder to obtain permission. For clips you find outside of Media Commons (on websites etc.), make sure to read the specific terms and conditions of use.

While it may be tempting to gloss over the question of Copyright, it is important to remember that Canada’s Fair Dealing (or what some dangerously think of as a “get out of jail free” card) is much more strict within the categories of education and teaching than the US’s Fair Use.

If you have questions about Copyright always err on the side of caution and contact the Copyright holder directly or CTSI ( for guidance. Avoid a fight, use it right.

Getting the Goods

One of the major hurdles that can dissuade faculty from using video is the stress of finding quality video for a class. Chris O’Neal, a blogger from, calls YouTube a “giant video flea market,” which gives you the gist of the type of labour  involved in retrieving useful clips with what can seem like

a big mess of junk.

There is no way around it – using videos to add oompf to your lectures does require extra effort. Below are several sites, which may help you in building your “classroom clips” library.

External Sources – scientific research clips – philosophical discussions on “big issues” amazing source for independent movies free to use as an educational tool, on demand! – public lectures by some real visionary people

UofT Libraries

AV Catalogue searching
 Search Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic.

AV Subject Searching
 Connect to Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic, such as gender diversity or visual arts.

Online Video Resources 
A growing number of online video resources is now offered by U of T Libraries, available for classroom and individual streaming.

Resources & Links

New Arrivals

Embracing videos in university classrooms beyond the level of instructional “bells and whistles” does not have to pander to the nostalgic idea of a thoughtless movie period or shift anyone’s core teacher values. Punctuating every lecture with a snappy YouTube clip would (I guess) grow old.  Videos and interactive elements of visual entertainment should always support the timeless and simple goal, furthering student learning. That being said, learning about gravity is so much more fun watching Bill Nye throw stuff off of a roof. .

Office Hours and Talking to Professors

In conjunction with Student Life, CTSI has been working on a series of videos for students visiting instructors during office hours. On the Student Life side, these videos are a part of their Talking to Your Professors campaign that offers tips and strategies for students who feel shy or uncomfortable (or overwhelmed) about approaching faculty. This information is practical and covers a variety of methods of interaction, including before and after class, social media and email etiquette.

For CTSI, these videos figure into our work on Student-Faculty Interaction. Over the past year, we have highlighted instructors who have found innovative ways to engage with their undergraduate students in our Focus on Faculty profiles and provided resources on effective practices and supporting student faculty interaction. We decided to approach our first topic – office hours and talking to profs – from different angles, starting with some humour…

The video was written and directed by Tyler Blacquiere (who also acts as Christopher Strong), a fourth year U of T student who was working in our office on a work study contract.  We decided that a public service announcement spoof was a great approach to the video – and something that we hadn’t seen before – and Tyler ran with it (even demonstrating a great deal of dedication to the project by watching Sally Struthers commercials in search of material).  All of the faculty members who participated (Barbara Murck, Mark Kingwell, Keren Rice, Shafique Varani and Mike Reid, who jumped in at the last minute to help us out) were generous with their time and are on-camera naturals. We’re still considering whether or not we should release a blooper reel. A lot of very funny stuff was left on the ‘cutting room floor’. (That phrase has little meaning in the digital age but it captures what I mean.)

Our next step was to interview undergraduates and explore some real world scenarios regarding visiting instructors during office hours. We wanted to show positive and negative experiences that students have had with instructors and any advice that they might offer to fellow students. We have a number of these videos prepared and ready to launch but here’s just a taste to whet your appetite.



Large Classroom Teaching: a new online resource from CTSI

We’re excited to announce that our new online learning module on Large Classroom Teaching is now available. This has been a collaborative project between CTSI staff, Teaching Academy members (winners of the President’s Teaching Award) and Tyler Blacquiere, our work-study student. One of our goals in producing this module was to bring colleagues together via video clips to share their experience and expertise. Walking into a large classroom – whether that’s 60 or 1600 students – can be a daunting experience for students and instructors alike. Rather than reinventing the wheel (and assuming that there is something called the ‘teaching wheel’), we’ve compiled interviews and resources from instructors, staff and graduate students who offer their knowledge and real life experiences working in the large class setting. The module highlights work already happening on UofT campuses. Instructors describe their  methods to engage with students, and how students can engage with each other, even when there are hundreds gathered in a single room.

Our module, divided into four broad categories (planning, strategies, assessment and technology), is designed to help instructors and teaching assistants as they build and deliver their courses. There is so much more to teaching than simply providing content. There is more to assessment than mid-term tests. Visit our module and explore the almost 100 short clips (yes, 100! I was pretty impressed when I added them all up) and resources available online.   They can be used by individual instructors as they refine their teaching approaches, or can  be used by groups in workshop and seminar settings through CTSI or as department-based discussions.

Please keep in mind that we want to continue building this module, highlighting and exploring initiatives across all three campuses. If you have an experience that you would like to share – or have specific questions regarding this module or large classroom teaching – please feel free to contact CTSI at any time.

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!

Spotlight on Students: Re-thinking Office Hours

Focus on Teaching: Re-thinking Office Hours

In our Back to School workshops this week, we’ve been talking about ways to meet with your students. Office hours are the traditional method: setting aside a dedicated one or two hours at the same time every week for students to ask question in person. However, some faculty find their office hours are not well attended, and are left to wonder why. Do students have no questions to ask? Are they simply not interested in coming?

The truth is there are many reasons, and they may have nothing to do with a lack of questions. Your students have full schedules and hectic commutes to campus, and may simply not be able to attend at the time you have set.  They also may feel shy about approaching you, simply not know how to approach an office hour appointment, or just not know the right questions to ask.

Exploring different options as alternatives to traditional office hours can give you different ways to meet with your students and improve your interaction with your students. Here are three strategies to try:

1.       Online office hours via discussion board.

Move your normal office hours to a virtual setting using the discussion board feature in Blackboard. Allocate a specific time of the day or week when you will be monitoring discussion board activity and answering questions.  This also helps students by serving as a reference they can check back with later. Signing on only during set times will help you maintain boundaries and keep the discussion focused.

2.       Online office hours via chat or instant messenger

Chat or Instant Message (IM) sessions can be useful for “just in time” questions before an assignment deadline.  Use the Collaboration Tools feature on Blackboard or set up a course account on a free client such as MSN Messenger or Meebo, and sign on during scheduled times. This helps students with last-minute questions that may not have emerged in the early stages of their assignment work. As with discussion board interactions, remember to use this environment to mimic the professional interaction you would have with students in office hours.

3.       Group office hours, Q&A or help sessions

Instead of inviting students to your office, use your weekly office hour to meet in a larger, approachable location such as a classroom, a bookable library space, or University common space such as a cafeteria.  In this setting, shy students can still benefit from listening to others’ questions, or work on questions at their own pace, and anyone can drop in as their schedule allows.

A note on boundaries: Remember that as with other online interactions such as email communication, it is important to set limits on availability and appropriate conduct. Do remain approachable without de-professionalizing your interactions with students. By modeling appropriate online interaction, you will create a positive and safe space for you and your class to connect over your interest in the course material.

For more ideas on how to improve student-faculty interaction in your courses, see our current list of effective practices.

Finding Your Place in a Large Classroom

As educators and advocates of higher education, we spend a lot of time discussing how to reach students in large classes (well, any class really) so it’s nice to be reminded what it’s like to be in the seats. A recent post in blogUT captures the life of a student in Convocation Hall (“Convocation Hall: Not Just a Place to Graduate”), providing helpful tips on making it through the year. This post, like many found on blogUT and other student blogs at the university, presents a mentor-like perspective for other students. There is nothing quite like the advice of a peer, especially someone who has already mastered the way.

The blogUT post provides important reminders (e.g. take advantage of your professor’s office hours) but also shines a light on some very practical points. Anyone heading into class at Con Hall should know that it isn’t equipped with desks so the blogger suggests using a binder or book to make note taking easier. She also offers suggestions on getting the better seats in the house and where you’ll find the best sound. For incoming students, this friendly advice must be enormously helpful and it’s equally enlightening to read student comments. There are some really interesting stories shared online and this is something that I would have found helpful in my first year at UofT.

Student voices are strong at UofT and are showcased at several blogs, including:
Hart House

p.s. My advice for first-year students enrolled in a Con Hall class is a warning about the added difficulties of winter classes. Fixed theatre style seating, filled seats, extra large winter coats and large book bags don’t mix very well.