Upcoming at CTSI

We are working on a new project with Student Life that will be launched at the end of January. We don’t want to give too much away – there’s something to be said about the element of surprise – but we thought we would offer a few hints.

The first clue (if it isn’t already obvious by these photos) is that the project involves a video starring faculty members and directed by CTSI work study student Tyler Blacquiere (if you don’t know Tyler yet, don’t worry. You will):

Please note that Tyler takes his role as a director very seriously, keeping the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock alive (or taking inspiration from Sam Raimi. I didn’t ask which he preferred) by wearing a suit and tie on set.

Props will be used.

And just in case you missed the props in question….

We are halfway through our shooting schedule (we’re off to UTM on Monday) and pretty pleased with the results so far. Our faculty have been  generous with their time and willing to act a little silly (not that I’m suggesting finger puppets could be interpreted as silly) in front of the camera for a good cause. We are all excited to see what comes next.

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.


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?

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:

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!

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.

Time management: it’s not just for students

We often encourage our students to focus on good time management, but finding ways to keep our lives in balance is a challenge that doesn’t stop after our undergrad years, or even after classes end.  Even the Chronicle’s Profhacker look back at summer showed gratitude for all the gadgets and tricks that help make life easier and more enjoyable. Don’t we always get excited about discovering those little time savers?

Whether it’s coaching students to meet deadlines or scheduling our own lives, here are a few basic principles to creating good time management:

1. Know Your Habits. It’s impossible to accurately estimate time without a realistic sense of the time you need to complete a task.

  • To get to know your habits better, take a week and track them. Divide your entire day into half-hour time units and write down everything that you do during the day. This means that if you lecture until 2:00pm, but you spend an extra 15 minutes answering questions from students, your lecture actually ends at 2:15pm.
  • Are you an early riser? Are you most focused in the evenings, or before lunch? Know your most productive times of day.

2. Conquer lateness.  Whether it’s in a professional or social setting, being punctual is always important.

  • Lateness usually arises from an expectation that everything in your day will go according to ideal conditions. The key is to be honest with yourself. If your TTC trip to campus should take 25 minutes but actually takes 35 because of streetcar delays, assume it will always take 35.
  • Remember that it takes anywhere from 3-6 weeks for a regular activity to become a habit. Take this time and challenge yourself to not be on time, but be early for your meetings and appointments. This will set ahead your natural scheduling more effectively than only setting your watch forward.

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Spotlight on Students: Study Now, Succeed Later

With August underway, you might think your students are focusing on enjoying those last precious days of summer vacation, but not everyone is waiting until September to think about studying – the folks at the Academic Success Centre  are only just getting started.

Hosted in the Koffler Building at 214 College St. (just next to the Career Centre and down the hall from the Bookstore), the Academic Success Centre offers counselling and advice to U of T students on study skills, test-taking and time management. Learning skills counsellors meet with students one-on-one in appointments and in drop-in sessions, and lead free workshops on topics like notetaking, making presentations, and improving concentration.

Students looking ahead to the fall term can get a jump on their schedule by signing up for one of the ASC summer mini courses  from August 23-25, on Time Management, Reading and Notetaking, Memory and Concentration, and Succeeding at U of T. There’s even a session just for parents of first-year students, to ask all those anxious questions of their own.

Faculty and students alike might find some helpful advice on their links pages.   I can already see some good reminders for myself about making a time plan. Hmm, I wonder if it’s too early in the year to learn how to stop procrastinating?