Course Design

This guide is not an exhaustive anthology of everything that you need to know about teaching. Rather, it takes you on a holistic tour of how to plan and run a class from start to finish complemented by helpful teaching resources. These resources include best teaching practices, handy charts of essential information, linked resources for further reading, and videos. The first section guides you through the logistics of setting up a new course and offers resources and advice geared specifically toward graduate student teachers at the University of Toronto. The rest offers general best practices concerning syllabus, lesson, and assessment design; content delivery and classroom culture; effective feedback; and further resources for teaching that should be helpful at any post-secondary institution. To reflect the interconnectivity of course design, some concepts and resources are deliberately repeated in this guide.

Thinking About Your Teaching

Student-centred course planning requires thoughtful reflection. Before starting to plan course outcomes or readings, it is a powerful and worthwhile exercise to take a moment to reflect on your teaching values and goals. For example, consider:

  • What do you want your classroom to be like for students?
  • What kind of teaching values and strategies will help you to cultivate that classroom environment?

Be mindful that teaching is a craft, not an innate state of being. If you want to improve, you will need to reflect on your values as well as past teaching experiences and then leverage those toward your new teaching contexts. This will include a bit of experimenting. A good place to start is to review feedback you have received from previous teaching; then consider what you value as a teacher alongside what others have seen in your teaching.

If all this sounds like a messy process, that’s because it can be! And that is what makes teaching equally as rewarding as it is challenging. But when things get difficult, there are many options for teaching support at the University of Toronto.

Teaching Resources and Supports

As a graduate student Course Instructor, you have access to a wide array of teaching resources and experienced teachers. It may be useful to think about teaching resources in terms of spheres: 1) personal, 2) departmental/divisional, and 3) institutional.

Talk to seasoned faculty members and experienced graduate student course instructors. They are an excellent source of teaching norms in your department and discipline. Ask questions such as:

  • What do you wish you knew before you started teaching your own courses?
  • What was most challenging or surprising?
  • What are some department-specific teaching requirements?
  • Are there department pedagogy courses I can take?

Your division or faculty may have a handbook for instructors. If there is a handbook, it will be invaluable to acculturate you to the expectations of policies, pedagogy, and protocol for contingencies. Some individual faculties and departments also offer in-house teaching supports, so be sure to chat to teaching mentors in your field to see what supports are available that are already tailored to your discipline.

The University of Toronto has a few hubs for institution-wide teaching resources, including the TATP.

Essential Lessons

Five essential lessons to keep in mind.

Your course will probably change a bit with each incarnation and you as an instructor will also change each time you teach it. This kind of change is valuable, but it requires thinking and rethinking, planning and revising, and making an action plan for future improvement. We hope this guide will be useful for your first or tenth course.

Setting these goals early on will help to keep you aligned with what you think is most essential for your course.

Feedback comes from students, peers, mentors, faculty, and from your own reflection on your teaching practice.

Students are your main audience and their learning is the most important goal of the course. In all aspects of course design and implementation, we must be thinking about our students.

This means adopting a way to reflect on and record your teaching practices, ideas and challenges. Along with saving emails and documents related to teaching work, you could keep a journal of teaching notes or record your teaching ideas on your phone.

As we transition into new roles and realms of teaching responsibility, some of us naturally creep into that feeling of being an imposter. We at the TATP acknowledge that imposter syndrome exists and that this feeling is especially pronounced and common among graduate students. But we want to remind you that even though you may sometimes feel like an imposter, you have been explicitly chosen to be a sole course instructor. So, welcome to your new teaching role! You are ready and the TATP is here to help.

TATP Talks: Imposter Syndrome

Set Up Your Course

There are many administrative responsibilities to consider before your course begins. The very outset of the course is the ideal time 1) to identify your course administrative elements, 2) to build your teaching team, 3) to familiarize yourself with essential institutional policies, and 4) to get acquainted with academic integrity policies.

Before the term begins, there are six key administrative considerations.

Important dates and deadlines

  • Accustom yourself to important dates and deadlines for your course, the department, and the University.
  • At the University of Toronto, each faculty and division has their own schedule of important dates. Links to most of them can be found on the important dates page on the Current Students website.
  • Carefully read departmental memos of essential dates (such as term start and end dates, add/drop deadlines, final exam period) or access this information through your institutional website.
  • Be aware that some of the elements of the course will be due far in advance. For example, final exam scripts are usually due before the last day of classes.

Course readings and materials

  • As soon as possible before the start of the term, select your course readings and course materials.
  • You can adopt books and create course packs through the University of Toronto bookstore. Although you can order books for students from outside the university, we recommend that you use the campus bookstore at least for your first class until you have ample time to investigate other options.
  • As a course instructor, you can request desk copies of textbooks for yourself and your TAs. Sometimes the campus bookstore can facilitate this process. Desk copies may be in available in hard copy, digital, or both. When time is an issue, it may be worthwhile to have a digital copy as soon as possible.
  • Liaison librarians can support your teaching and research; post directly to your course Quercus page; support student learning in your class through library research guides, in-class instruction, and drop-in or office hours; and provide a range of services around course readings and copyright. Contact a liaison librarian as soon as possible.
  • You can also put books on course reserve through the Course Reserve and Syllabus Service. Check this page for submission deadlines.
  • The University of Toronto expects you to be familiar with their Copyright Fair Dealing Guidelines. You will need to be especially attentive to copyright issues when ordering course packs outside of the University.
  • Here’s a brief TATP guide of Library Time-Saving Tips for Graduate Student Course Instructors.

Classroom space

  • If possible, visit your teaching space to review lighting, acoustics, and available teaching technology.
  • You can look at the individual specs of your classroom in advance, including the room capacity, type of seating, and what sort of teaching station is available.

Paperwork

  • Keep on top of administrative paperwork. Most paperwork is due at the beginning of the term, for example: course syllabi, marking schemes, and description of duties and allocation of hours (DDAH) forms for teaching assistants. Some will also be due at the end of the term.
  • Be sure to document everything related to the course. For example, save all correspondence, including email, for at least one year in case the department asks for these materials later.

Department access

  • Find out how to access administrative resources before your class begins.
  • Where is your office? Is there a department phone number for students to reach you? Where is the printer and/or copier? Do you need a code to use it? Do you need keys after hours? Where is the department drop box?

Quercus

  • Set up your Quercus course shell and ideally make it available to students before the class begins.
  • If you need guidance, visit the Quercus Quick Guide or consult Quercus Support for contacts within your academic unit. 
  • Visit CTSI’s Educational Technology to learn more about Quercus support resources and U of T’s Academic Toolbox, including tool guides, a tool finder and teaching with technology resources.

Building a Teaching Team

Working toward shared teaching goals and objectives requires thoughtful communication. Once you get your Course Instructor contract, you should inquire whether or not you will have TAs and contact them as soon as possible. Knowing how much, if any, TA resources you have for the course may influence how you set up the course, so the earlier you know about your TAs the better.

TA distribution happens differently in each department. They may automatically be assigned to certain courses or you may need to request them. If TAs are assigned to your course, you may or may not have say over which TAs are chosen. Ask the department chair or TA coordinator about policies related to getting TA support, TA assignments, and TA policies for your course.

As a graduate student Course Instructor, it can sometimes be tricky to navigate your work with teaching assistants because it is likely that they will also be your departmental peers. The TATP’s Course Instructor-Teaching Assistant Relationship provides support developing and managing an effective teaching team.

Understanding University Policies

The University has developed a variety of policies intended to protect both you and your students. This page highlights some of the key policies that relate to the work of TAs.  These come under four broad areas of responsibility for TAs:

  • How to respect confidentiality
  • How to avoid conflict of interest
  • How to safeguard equity and safety
  • How to uphold academic integrity

Respecting confidentiality

What are my responsibilities as a TA with regard to students’ personal information?  How can I ensure a reasonable expectation of privacy while still collecting the information I need to do my job?

The University of Toronto is covered by Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA). FIPPA carries implications for many aspects of TAs’ interactions with students, including taking attendance, handling assignments, posting grades, organizing group work, and sending emails. Students’ names, ID numbers, email addresses, and grades are all considered personal information that should be kept confidential as much as possible.

Taking attendance: Students’ attendance or non-attendance is their own business. Don’t pass around a sign-up sheet asking students to fill out their full names and student numbers.

Do ask them to sign in with the last four digits of the ID numbers.

  • Don’t write grades on the front page of an assignment, where they are easily visible. Instead, write them on the inside cover. Don’t leave assignments in a pile at the front of the room or in the hall outside your office for students to retrieve.
  • Do return them to students individually.
  • Do use Quercus to enter grades.
  • Don’t reveal a student’s grade to anyone else without the student’s written consent.
  • Where possible, use Quercus to assign groups, and encourage students to communicate with each other through Quercus.
  • Don’t “reply all”
  • Use BCC instead. Alternatively, email students through Quercus.
  • Protect your email and Quercus passwords.

The University has a Policy on Official Correspondence with Students, which stipulates that students are expected to check their University of Toronto email address on a regular basis. It is good practice to reinforce this expectation by asking students to use their University of Toronto account when emailing you. Likewise, you should always use your University of Toronto email account when communicating with students.

If you are a TA for a small tutorial, where students are expected to know one another or collaborate on group projects, some of these best practices might not be necessary or practicable. Use your best judgement and err on the side of protecting privacy.

Avoiding conflict of interest

I’ve hit it off with one of my students. There are still two months to go in the term. Is it OK to start a relationship?
When I was given the student lists for my tutorial sections, I realized my cousin is in one of my sections. Is this a conflict of interest?

The University’s policy on Conflicts of Interest addresses situations like these. Any close personal relationship with a student whose work you’re responsible for assessing – whether they’re a family member, a friend, or a romantic or sexual partner – creates a conflict of interest. As a TA, you’re bound to immediately disclose such conflicts of interest to the Course Instructor. Further, you can’t be responsible for any part of the student’s grade: all grading of this individual’s work must be transferred to another TA or to the instructor. The policy states that employees of the University are prohibited from engaging in a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest.

Safeguarding the learning environment: equity and diversity

A student in my tutorial got angry and threatened to punch another student.  How do I handle this?
One of my students keeps emailing me with unwanted advances. How can I make this stop?

In its Statement of Institutional Purpose, the University affirms its commitment “to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principle of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”

The University of Toronto is bound by the Ontario Human Rights Code, which specifies that “Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.” The University has also put in place several policies to protect its institutional purpose.  These include:

While you should be aware that these policies exist, also know that they’re not practical guidelines for crisis situations. Should you or one of your students feel threatened, discriminated against, or harassed, here are some places you can turn.

  • In case of emergency, call Campus Police at (416) 978-2222.
  • In your capacity as a TA, you can also contact Student Crisis Response at (416) 946-7111 for advice in urgent situations, such as when one of your students threatens harm to self or others.
  • In non-emergencies, your first step is normally to report the situation to the Course Instructor.

There are several equity offices on campus that can provide additional support and guidance to you and your students.

The main thing to keep in mind is that your responsibility as a TA is to report problems and to refer students to appropriate resources, not to resolve these problems on your own.

Equity and diversity

Upholding academic integrity

I think a student might have plagiarized his/her assignment.  What do I do?

Matters of academic integrity are covered by the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters.  As a TA, you are bound by the Code and by your employment with the University to report all offenses to academic integrity to the Course Instructor.

You should also consult the University of Toronto’s Academic Integrity site.

Health and Wellness

  • Health Services  (416-978-8030) provides family physician care, health education and counseling, travel immunizations and education, referrals for specialized treatment, and diagnostic lab facilities. 

Academic Integrity

Please note that any written work submitted to the TATP office in pursuit of the AUTP Certificate is subject to the same rigorous standards as written work submitted in academic programs. Any work associated with the office is governed by the University of Toronto’s code of conduct, and as University of Toronto students, you are bound by the rules and regulations surrounding the submission of individual written work at this institution.

PLAGIARISM OF TEACHING PHILOSOPHY STATEMENTS, WRITTEN REFLECTIONS, OR ANY PUBLISHED WORK CONSTITUTES ACADEMIC MISCONDUCT. The following documents will be checked to ensure that no content has been downloaded off the Internet or copied from other print or online resources:

  • teaching dossiers, including teaching philosophy statements
  • written reflections
  • scholarly papers
  • teaching materials used in Microteaching

If a student copies any portion of a teaching philosophy statement or teaching dossier, or copies any text from any source without proper citation when preparing a written reflection or a scholarly paper, the student will be considered to be misrepresenting herself or himself. The student will not receive a TATP Certificate, and further action may be taken, meaning the incident may be brought to the attention of the student’s home department. This can have serious consequences as the department may choose to include a citation in the student’s file.

Students who are found to have committed plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct will be removed from the certificate program.

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