Thank Your Teacher Today

Do you have a favourite teacher? The one (or maybe more than one) who made the difference in your education? Perhaps it was a different approach to teaching (my grade six teacher, Mr. Zettle, helped me see that learning could be an adventure. He was enthusiastic about every subject and taught us integers by turning the lesson into a murder-mystery. Eight did it, by the way), or opening the door to new materials and ideas (a high school English teacher, Mr. Jonker, asked us to bring in a song and analyze it. Now, I’m not saying that listening to someone’s  analysis of  a Bob Seger song-Night Moves, I believe-was illuminating but we did learn to critically defend our choices. I can’t remember what song I brought in, although a safe bet would be Bruce Springsteen, probably Thunder Road. I would like to blame it on the 80s and living in a small town but that would be wrong. Also, it was the first time that I heard Robyn Hitchcock and that changed my life in a different way). Or a teacher or professor who gave you a wake up call (as Dr. Blanchard did in my 2nd year by reminding us of the importance of coming prepared for tutorials-that we were all in this together).

Carol Rolheiser, Director, CTSI, remembers a high school biology teacher who encouraged her to study science in university. They reconnected years later when she received a surprise fax after her name appeared the Faculty of Education Alumni Magazine.

Yes, it was my high school biology teacher – whom I had not been in touch with for 36 years! I eagerly called him and shared with him the influence he had been in my becoming a teacher. I let him know that the model he had set for me many years ago had helped shape my career. Even though it took 36 years for Dr. Nichol to get feedback from this student, I know it meant the world to him because he told me so.  We continue to maintain our correspondence and share our respective love of learning.

The THANK YOUR TEACHER campaign is an initiative started by the 2011 3M National Teaching Fellows, in conjunction with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Throughout this week, ads will appear in Canadian newspapers of 3M winners (please see Nick Mount‘s entry below) thanking teachers who have encouraged, challenged and inspired them. The goal of the campaign is not to simply highlight stories from award winning teachers but to hear from YOU. Much of the media of late has focused on the negative when discussing teaching, whether K-12 or higher ed, and this is an opportunity to remind, and remember, all those times and all those people who have had a positive influence on our lives.

Submit your story to THANK YOUR TEACHER

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!

TA Day 2011

TA Day 2011 was held on Sept. 1st. It was the perfect way to kickoff the month of September and the back to school season at U of T.

As a trainer with the TATP, I find that TA day is an interesting opportunity to meet returning and new TAs. While TAs are often very excited about the upcoming semester, they always have a lot on the go in the month of September. Many TA day attendees are new to the U of T and they can be settling into a new department, new city, or even be new to Canada. Luckily, TA day is a good place to gather teaching tips and also to find out informally about important stuff like the student housing service or TIFF.

This year the programming for TA day featured an array of presentations and workshops for both first-time and experienced TAs. A keynote address was provided by Prof. Mark Kingwell, from Philosophy on the topic of How To Be A Great TA Without Losing Your Mind, Your Soul, or Your Lunch. Presentations were also made by award winning TAs from U of T, and Dr. Tanya Lewis, Director of Academic Success and Accessibility Services, CUPE 3902 and CTSI staff. Throughout the day, new TAs discussed issues like ‘the first class’ and ‘grading.’ Returning and experienced TAs had the opportunity consider new challenges like designing their own courses.

If you attended (or wish you attended) TA day, we hope to see you out at the fall workshop series.

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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Spotlight on Students: Supporting Student-Faculty Interaction at CTSI

Over the coming academic year, you’ll see a new “Spotlight on Students” feature in our CTSI: Focus blog, as well as in our online resources and faculty programming.  This feature is part of our efforts to enhance student-faculty interaction at the UofT. But what is this, and why is it important?

In looking at student-faculty interaction, we mean exploring the ways students can interact with their instructors both within and outside the classroom. Through positive interactions, instructors can influence students’ orientation to and investment in their university experience, as well as shape their future learning. Such interactions can positively affect course design, student satisfaction and engagement with course content, while also creating collaborative opportunities between faculty and 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:


Welcome to CTSI FOCUS

First of all, we realize that starting a blog is not exactly cutting edge. If we claimed that we were breaking new ground by launching our blog then it would be fair to ask what year we think this is. Blogs have been a mainstay of the Internet for more than a decade now. Universities and teaching & learning offices have made good use of them as a way to distill information, share ideas and encourage communication between educators, bloggers and readers. In starting CTSI Focus, we are not here to reinvent what is already done well—why fix something that isn’t broken?—but to join in on the conversation.

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