Life @ U of T and CTSI

We are excited to welcome Lori, the newest member of the CTSI family. Lori will be contributing regular posts to the Life @ U of T blog. I will let Lori introduce herself – her first post went up on Thursday and her second post appeared today – but we wanted to add that we’re looking forward to reading her insights and observations of the University of Toronto. The Student Life blog is a great resource for getting to know U of T students and learning what concerns and what drives them. It’s also a great way to find out about events, projects, classes and free stuff around campus. I am perfectly happy to follow the lead of Student Life bloggers – it often ends with cupcakes or an interesting lecture at Hart House.

This is our second year with our Student Life blogger. Last year, we were fortunate to have Erin post about her interactions with faculty and experiences inside and outside of the classroom as she navigated her final year as an undergrad. All of her posts can be found on the Life @ U of T blog.


Munk School and TIFF: a perfect combination

One of the exciting things about fall (and I can think of many nice and/or exciting things, including knee socks and the return of Parks and Recreation) is that U of T lecture series kick into high gear. One of the first to arrive is a co-presentation with Munk School of Global Affairs and the TIFF group for their Contemporary World Speakers series. Janice Gross Stein, Ron Diebert, Michael Ignatieff, Brian Stewart and Ron Levi from the Munk School will introduce the films and participate in a Q&A afterward. This is an opportunity to see international cinema that you might not otherwise come across (although Australia’s Underground, a depiction of Julian Assange in his teenage hacker years will likely get press) and discuss the real-time connections to contemporary events with experts in the field. And this is only September…. imagine what October will bring?!

This is also a reminder that TIFF programs relevant, interesting and entertaining films year-round. As exciting (and often crowded and daunting for ticket buyers) as the Film Festival is, the fun doesn’t stop the second Sunday in September. Check out the TIFF website for their upcoming schedule.

Link U of T News

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.

STLHE 2012 – Montreal

Several members of the CTSI team attended the Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education conference in Montreal last week (June 19-22). It was an eventful and stimulating few days (although that also meant we didn’t have much time to explore the city). Pam Gravestock, Associate Director, presented a research paper, Does Teaching Matter? Assessing Teaching for Tenure at Canadian Universities, on Wednesday. Addressing the pervasive assumption that research activity trumps teaching contributions, Dr. Gravestock reported on her comprehensive review and analysis of tenure policies at 46 Canadian universities and reveals the common practices and differing policies throughout. It was a successful session – with more than 80 in attendance – and there was a lively Q&A period afterward.

Our second presentation was a half-day pre-conference session demonstrating our Exploring Large Classroom Teaching module. The theme of this year’s conference was “Learning without Boundaries?” and our module addressed this topic in a number of ways. First of all, the module is available to anyone with access to the internet. You do not need a University of Toronto login to view or participate. We designed the module so the user can forge their own path, decide what to view next and what resources will be most helpful. Also, we employed a simple platform to make the module accessible and as intuitive as possible (which isn’t an easy task but we’re pleased with the results).  By breaking the topic into four broad topics (Planning, Strategies, Assessment, Technology), we can dig deeper into each area without cluttering the web page with too much information. Our 3-hour workshop led the participants through our process in creating the module (it was a very iterative process) and the many ways we’ve used it since its launch.

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Focus on Faculty: Field Trips

New Toronto condominiums, old New York City tenements and Robarts Library’s recycling bay: these are three things that seem like uncommon places for students to explore, but for Shauna Brail’s Urban Studies students, they are a part of their regular classroom.

INI 437 in New York City, Reading Week 2010 (Photo by S. Brail)

Brail, Director of Experiential Learning and Senior Lecturer at the Urban Studies Program in Innis College, began incorporating field trip events into her courses in 2006, first with INI 437Y, Experiential Learning in Toronto and the GTA, which typically enrols about 20 students.  She wanted to supplement the service component of the course (INI 437Y also includes an internship placement) by bringing her lectures outside the classroom and taking advantage of opportunities both near and far.  Her basic requirements for a field trip opportunity are that it be easily accessible to campus and that it can be completed in the 2 hour window of class time. On every trip, students are given tasks to complete that set up discussion about urban patterns the areas exemplify. Each area is specifically chosen to match one of the four themes in the course.

While it is certainly easier to travel with a small group, Brail firmly believes “you don’t need the 10-person seminar” to make trips work.  In her 100-person course, INI235, Introduction to Urban Studies, she offers a “treasure hunt” in their own backyard. Four-person teams complete tasks on campus to take qualitative and quantitative observations and learn basic research skills. They also learn about campus infrastructure by investigating the recycling processes in Robarts Library, or counting the number of coffee outlets and their locations.

INI 437 2010-2011 at 401 Richmond St, Toronto. (Photo: S. Brail)

Brail’s key piece of advice to fellow faculty wanting to offer field trips is to remain flexible, and establish an open dialogue with students during the course. When she returns to her class next year, she looks forward to the challenges of finding new field sites, because it keeps her thinking: “You have to see yourself as a scholar outside and inside of the class.”

Read more about Brail’s experiences with field trips on CTSI’s Focus on Faculty.

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.


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?

Spotlight on Students: Making Referrals

During Orientation week, students are overwhelmed with information about the different offices, clubs and groups on campus that are here to offer support and resources for every aspect of their student lives.  What makes even more of a difference is if students continue to receive reminders about resources throughout the term.  A timely referral can make a significant difference for a student facing unexpected struggles, or for someone who has questions but isn’t sure how to ask them.

How to prepare for referrals:

  • Learn more about what services are available on campus. Our Resources page and the Student Life website are good places to start.
  • Ask your Department Administrator for printed materials to keep on hand, such as information on Student Life programs or writing resources.
  • Discuss with your Teaching Assistants how to make referrals and highlight resources for them. As a team, discuss how to prepare for common requests that accompany periods of stress, such as extensions and late submissions.
  • Print out, and post in a convenient location, Emergency Contact Numbers in case of an urgent situation or a student in distress.

Tips for instructors on making good referrals during the term:

Spotlight on Students: First in the Family

Did you know that 1 in 5 students at U of T are the First in their Family to attend university? These students are children of parents who did not receive post-secondary education.

Over the past year, programs on all three U of T campuses were created to mentor, advise, and support first-generation students during their first two years at UofT: First in the Family (St. George), GenONE (UTM), and First-year Experience Program (UTSC). Students who self-identify as first-generation can register online and connect over the year with senior first-generation students as mentors, and learn about the resources available on campus.

Unique transition

The transition to University life can be especially challenging for first-generation students. As Rahul Bhat, Program Coordinator for First in the Family at St. George, has seen with his group, they are less likely to ask for help or feel they should ask for help because they have less intuition about where to find help when they need it.  Attending office hours or asking a teaching assistant for advice is particularly intimidating. Roz Spafford, Learning Skills Counsellor with the Academic Success Centre, finds that “things that are like oxygen to people who’ve been around are mysterious to new people”.

Since these students are also more likely to live with family and support their household (by assisting with care of a relative or working part time to bring in income) the pressure from home can be intense. Parents are also often very supportive but uninformed about University life themselves, and so do not have an intuitive sense of how difficult it may be for their children to keep classes, studying, work and family life in balance.

Building community

What is most important about the program is it promotes the value of community-building through interaction with mentors, other students, and workshops on academic skills such as writing, studying, and time management, and learn about campus resources. The supports go a long way to transform an experience of feeling lost, confused, and anxious, into feeling of belonging, says Bhat.

Faculty advice

How can faculty get involved? Make referrals, either in person or by mentioning the program during lecture. Bhat reports that last year, enrolment grew steadily as a few large courses learned about the program. “Mentees have great respect for their profs”, he says, and respond especially well to their professors who also identify as first-generation, seeing them as models of who they might become one day. First in the Family also invites faculty to attend panel discussions during the year, for student mentees to learn from their experiences.

Do you think your students would like to learn more about the programs available? Find more information online:

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.