Academic Technology & Classroom Response Systems

There has been a lot of talk lately about the use of classroom response systems (at UofT, we use iClickers) and the role they should play in higher education. They are useful tools for engagement, especially in large classes, but are some instructors relying too heavily on them? And, perhaps more importantly, are some students taking advantage of the technology and committing academic offences whether they realize it or not. Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article – “With Cheating Only a Click Away, Professors Reduce the Incentive” – that renewed this conversation around the CTSI office. With clickers being used more and more, and class sizes on the increase, we asked ourselves when and how clickers should be used and when should they be left behind.

First of all, we need to remember that academic integrity is not only about plagiarism. As the Chronicle article points out, a major abuse of the clicker system happens when students bring in more than one device to ‘represent’ absent classmates. Students can still meet the attendance marks, or answer quiz questions, without stepping foot in the classroom thanks to helpful friends. While these students might understand that ‘helping’ each other in this way is cheating the system, they might not recognize that it’s an academic offence. This is a good reminder that 1) using clickers to check attendance is not a fail-safe method and 2) if we use engagement technology (like clickers) in the classroom we should be sure to explain the procedures and implications to our students.

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TED talks and teaching

My Favorite TED Talk

Image of Bonnie Bassler’s TED Talk by jurvetson at Creative Commons License

Today, the Toronto TEDx event is happening in Toronto.

What are TED Talks you ask? According to the TED talks website:

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design

As a TA and course instructor, I am very grateful these events happen. TED Talks and the associated, local community organized talks (called TEDx Talks), provide an archive of inspiring video materials that may be appropriate for classroom use. Personally, I’ve seen videos with subject matter ranging from nanotechnology to global politics!

In a 4th year course I’ve taught called Integrative Design Project, in the The Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology (ICCIT) at the Mississauga campus, I have frequently paired a reading by Hans Rosling with his TED talk video which “shows the best stats you’ve ever seen”. It is an interesting entry point for students to think about statistics and data visualization in their design practice.

You can tune into TEDx Toronto

And now I must ask, does anyone else use TED talks in their teaching? Please let me know in the comments.

Open Doors on Teaching

Most of us are well aware that learning doesn’t end with a degree or when we have acquired a teaching position. We can learn from our students, our research and we can also learn from each other. Open Doors on Teaching is a University of Toronto initiative to get instructors back in the classroom – this time as an observer. Members of the Teaching Academy, winners of the President’s Teaching Award, are opening their classroom doors to colleagues. By booking an appointment through CTSI, you can visit a classroom, watch a colleague in action then engage in a post-class discussion.

Visit Open Doors on Teaching for more information about this initiative, including participating Teaching Academy members and the available lectures. If you have any questions or to schedule a visit to one of the lectures, please contact Thuy Huynh, Programs Coordinator, CTSI.


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:

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!

PhD comics and TA training

Piled Higher and Deeper, a grad school comic strip, created by Jorge Cham, has long been a source of inspiration for the TATP trainers in delivering initial TA training sessions across the University of Toronto campuses. Cham’s comic strip provides many humourous takes on the challenges facing TAs.

Here are some of my favourite lessons about grading that Piled Higher and Deeper illustrates:

Check out for further comic strips.

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!

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.

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: