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Convocation Hall is not a classroom

Mandatory first-year seminar courses will improve experience and performance

Convocation Hall is not a classroom

In response to concern over increased enrolment, the Faculty of Arts & Science has made a proposal to require all incoming first-year students to take a foundational seminar course. This proposal is long overdue and should be implemented. Large class sizes are an unfortunate hallmark of the undergraduate U of T experience.

I recall my first day at U of T, when I walked into Convocation Hall for an introductory sociology class with 1,500 fellow classmates — a crowd over three times as large as my entire high school. I later reviewed ACORN and realized that over half of my classes would be be at Convocation Hall — a ‘classroom’ that can hold over 1,000 students without any tables to put your notebook on.

Not a single one of my first-year classes had less than 400 students. I felt completely lost, but this is normal at U of T. A 2012 study of the faculty’s first-year class sizes from 2006–2011 found that over half had over 200 students.

Stronger community

These enormous first-year classes limit opportunities to interact with the professor and ask questions, especially since first years may not feel comfortable taking advantage of office hours. It should come as no surprise, with professors who cannot learn your name or recognize you, that many U of T students complain of feeling like ‘just a number’ in their first year — a crucial time to form an identity on campus. 

Huge class sizes also complicate the ability to make connections with peers, as these limited opportunities for in-class discussions and activities. It is also unlikely that you will sit next to or even see the same person twice over the course of a semester.

Smaller class sizes provide face-to-face opportunities to build relationships with professors and peers to reduce the intimidation factor and help smoothly transition to a university education. It allows you to feel as though there is a community that has your back, or at the very least, is going through this with you.

While U of T currently offers first-year seminars through the First Year Foundation and College One programs, these programs are highly competitive and often unrelated to a student’s program of study. This can deter students from voluntarily enrolling.

Victoria College is the only college that requires students to take a first-year seminar course. According to its website, participation allows students “to get to know fellow classmates and professors, engage in interactive academic discussions, and develop strong written, oral and teamwork skills.” All colleges should follow Victoria’s lead, since these experiences are essential for a meaningful and successful academic career. The university should also design a mandatory requirement that helps students complete their programs of study.

Better academic performance

My first-year experience almost caused me to leave U of T. It seemed unreasonable to pay one of the country’s highest tuition fees, only to sit down with 1,000 others and furiously copy down lecture slides, without any in-class engagement to help understand the material.

I was told by many that it gets better after first year. So I stayed, and while it did get better, my average class size was still around 100–200 students in second year. It was not until my third year that I was in a class small enough that actual discussion was possible. It was refreshing: I had been trained since that first day to sit quietly and absorb every word my professor said, rather than actively participate in my own learning.

Indeed, large classes inhibit students from engaging in meaningful participation and engagement with the material through debate and discussion. But this is a vital way for students to practice their critical thinking skills and learn to consider new ideas. Large classes instead encourage a passive learning style by which students are not required to critically engage with the material, which is contrary to what is expected from them in their assignments and tests.

In smaller classes, I was able to better absorb the material and recall  discussions I had in class during tests and assignments because I could ask questions when they popped up and flesh out ideas. This drastically improved my grades and enjoyment of the class.

The right step forward

Third year is very late to finally experience a meaningful learning environment. This is especially true if you are a student who is thinking about going to graduate school and hopes that there is a professor out there who remembers you well enough to write you a reference letter.

I understand that large class sizes are inevitable at the largest university in Canada. However, other universities with large student populations, such as the University of British Columbia, are able to ensure that almost half of first-year and second-year classes have less than 100 students.

The faculty’s initiative in taking this much needed step toward mandatory first-year seminar courses is uplifting. It will invest in a more supportive learning environment and undoubtedly improve the quality of education that U of T undergraduates receive.

Yasaman Mohaddes is a fourth-year Political Science and Sociology student at St. Michael’s College.

Faculty of Arts & Science looking to implement mandatory small class requirement

Faculty in beginnings of proposal process, hopes to expand small class offerings

Faculty of Arts & Science looking to implement mandatory small class requirement

The Faculty of Arts & Science is proposing to implement a mandatory small class requirement for incoming first-year students, which would not take effect in the coming academic year but would encourage the faculty to build its small class offerings. The proposal comes amid increasing enrolment and the need for diverse course offerings throughout each department.

Students would be required to enrol in a half or full-year seminar in their first year of study. “We are considering making it a requirement that a small foundational seminar be taken by all students in their first year because we believe the small class experience is an ideal environment to help students transition to university studies, make early connections with peers and professors and start to develop the technical research and communication skills to support them through their degree and beyond,” said Sean Bettam, Communications & Media Relations Specialist for the faculty, in an email to The Varsity.

The faculty currently has several small-class offerings limited to first-year students, including the First-Year Foundation (FYF) One programs, which require external applications, and FYF Seminars capped at 30 students.

Both academically rigorous and competitive, the College One programs offer a variety of curated courses to arts and science students.

First-year seminars focus on timely topics, but do not count toward program requirements.

While these offerings are highly encouraged, students are not required to enrol in a small class.

However, other programs without existing small classes are restructuring in order to meet the demands of the requirement.

Charlie Keil, Principal at Innis College, spoke to The Varsity about the effects that the proposed changes would bring to Innis’ current offerings, commenting on the current challenges faced by these courses and the demands they would bring to the small sizes overall.

“The problem [with the 199 courses] was that because [students] didn’t have to take them, what would often happen is that students would end up dropping them not because they didn’t like them, but because they either wouldn’t fit in their schedule or the courses that they needed to take to get into a POSt would conflict,” said Keil.

New College’s One program will drop the external application in order to encourage engagement and overall make the experience much easier for students.

When asked about such a change, Keil said that “the idea… in eliminating application processes… was just to make [the Ones] that much easier when students make their choices in terms of the different kinds of small-class learning experiences, to try to just make it as streamlined as possible for students to try to reduce as many impediments.”

Other colleges share the same sentiments as Keil, both drawing on the advantages of smaller class sizes for incoming students and reflecting on the challenges of fitting in as many undergraduate students while offering a small class experience.

“Victoria College has long believed that small-class experiences bring tangible benefits. Together with the FYF initiative, we are working to expand the disciplinary diversity of Vic One Hundred offerings,” reads a statement to The Varsity from Victoria College’s Office of the Principal.

First-year students at Victoria College are already required to take a small class as part of their degree component. The application for the Vic One programs remains unchanged.

New College, on the other hand, is focusing on restructuring its courses in order to meet the larger incoming undergraduate population.

“At New One, we have updated all our courses — changing titles, updating their descriptions to better match content — and we will offer more courses next year. We stay committed to limiting our class sizes to 25 students and to offering interdisciplinary courses,” said Alexandra Guerson, Coordinator of the New One program.

“Since New College is the largest undergraduate college at the university, it would be challenging to accommodate every first-year New College student with the existing One programs across campus. We currently have over 1,000 first-year students and we are actively researching models for expanding our offerings without compromising the quality of the program.”

If approved, updated course offerings will be uploaded to the 2019–2020 academic calendar at the end of April. The policy is still in the consultation stages, but, if the faculty chooses to move forward with it, the new framework would eventually have to be approved by the Arts & Science Council.

Editor’s Note (February 25, 10:30 am): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the changes would be implemented in the upcoming academic year. In fact, the faculty will be beginning to build its small course offerings next school year. The Varsity regrets the error. 

The Breakdown: Incidental fees for full-time undergraduate Arts & Science students

Looking into what your money goes to, where you can opt out

The Breakdown: Incidental fees for full-time undergraduate Arts & Science students

Among the issues that university students both love and hate to discuss, tuition often tops the list. But in paying for university, students are not just paying for the ability to go to class and receive a degree. Bundled up within the tuition fees are hundreds of dollars of non-academic incidental fees that all students pay, which give access to various services on campus, including health care, athletic facilities, and campus publications.

Some of these incidental fees are mandatory, but others include an opt-out option. The Varsity has put together a roundup of all the incidental fees that undergraduate Arts & Science students have to pay, including the ones that aren’t compulsory.

This article is based on numbers from the 2017–2018 school year, and it only refers to fees paid for the fall and winter sessions by full-time students. Some fees, including The Varsity’s, may have changed for the 2018–2019 school year. Visit thevarsity.ca for a more in-depth look.

Universal fees

Almost all students at U of T have four fees in common, though they may have varying amounts. These fees go toward U of T Community Radio, The Varsity, Hart House, and Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) Co-Curricular Programs, Services, and Facilities. None of these fees have an opt-out option.

UTM Arts & Science

All undergraduate UTM students in the arts and science divisions pay 14 incidental fees, totalling $772.46 in the fall and winter sessions each.

UTM students pay six fees to access university-operated services. These include KPE Co-Curricular Programs, Services, and Facilities, as well as Physical Education & Athletics, Hart House, Health Service, Student Services, and Summer Shuttle Services.

Besides these universal fees, there are six fees for student societies: the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), The Medium, the U of T at Mississauga Athletics Council, Vibe Radio, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS).

UTM students belong to both the UTSU and the UTMSU — though the agreement is currently under negotiation — and thus have to pay fees to both. The largest of these fees goes toward the UTSU, at $196.32 in the fall and winter sessions each. The largest portion of the UTSU fee — $162.28 — pays for a health and dental plan, which students can opt out of.

Of the remaining amount, $5.57 is refundable.

UTSU Mississauga
Society $18.76
Radio $0.00
Blue SKy Solar Racing Car Team* $0.13
Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) & CFS-Ontario $7.93
Day Care Subsidy* $0.50
Downtown Legal Services* $1.06
Foster Children Program $0.05
Health Initiatives in Developing Countries* $0.25
Orientation * $0.50
Radical Roots* $0.15
Student Refugee Program $0.71
UTM Sexual Education Centre* $1.00
UTM Women’s Centre* $1.00
Wheelchair Accessibility Projects $1.00
Women’s Centre* $0.50
UofT Environmental Resource Network* $0.50
Accident & Prescription Drug Insurance Plan** $88.39
Dental Plan** $73.89
Total $196.32

 

* indicates the fee is refundable.

** indicates the fee is refundable, with proof of comparable coverage.

The second highest student society fee is for the UTMSU, at $143.26 in the fall and winter sessions each. Of that amount, $108.28 pays for the U-Pass, and the rest of it goes toward various smaller groups, such as a food bank and the student refugee program.

The only refundable UTMSU fee is its $3.25 per session Blind Duck Pub fee.

UTMSU
Society $14.64
Student Centre Levy $12.50
On-Campus First Aid Emergency Response $0.55
Blind Duck Pub*** $3.25
Club Funding and Resources $1.26
Mississauga Transit Upass $108.28
Academic Societies $1.06
Food Bank $0.58
Student Refugee Program $1.14
Total $143.86

 

*** indicates the fee is refundable, on a per session basis.

UTSC Arts & Science

All undergraduate UTSC students in the arts and science divisions pay 12 incidental fees, totalling $839.22 in the fall and winter sessions each.

UTSC students pay five fees to access university-operated services. These include Hart House, Health Service, Student Services, the Scarborough College Athletic Fee, and KPE Co-Curricular Programs, Services, and Facilities.

Besides these universal fees, there are five fees for student societies: Scarborough Campus Students’ Council (SCSU), Scarborough College Athletic Association, Scarborough Campus Community Radio, and APUS, as well as Scarborough Campus Students’ Press, which publishes The Underground.

The largest of these fees goes toward the SCSU, at $410.24 in the fall and winter sessions each. Of that amount, $172.97 pays for a health and dental plan, which students can opt out of.

The second-highest amount pays for the UTSC Sports & Recreation Complex Levy, at $157.48 in the fall and winter sessions each. Of the remaining amount, $4.13 is refundable.

Parts of the SCSU fee goes toward various smaller groups and initiatives, such as a Wheelchair Accessibility Projects fund and a Foster Children Program fund.

SCSU
Society $26.38
Refugee Student Program $0.75
Student Centre $39.31
College Co-ed Fitness Centre $0.00
Women’s Centre* $1.50
Downtown Legal Services* $0.50
Orientation* $0.50
Blue Sky Solar Car Team* $0.13
Day Care Subsidy* $0.50
Wheelchair Accessibility Projects $1.00
Refugee Student Fund $0.30
Health Initiatives in Developing Countries* $0.25
Foster Children Program $0.05
UofT Enviornmental Resource Network* $0.25
Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) & CFS-Ontatio $7.87
Frontier College Students for Literacy – UTSC $0.50
UTSC Sports and Recreation Levy $157.48
Accident & Prescription Drug Insurance Plan** $78.40
Dental Plan** $94.57
Total $410.24

 

* indicates the fee is refundable.

** indicates the fee is refundable, with proof of comparable coverage.

UTSG Arts & Science by college

Undergraduate students in arts and science programs at UTSG pay eight identical fees, plus one college specific fee.

The eight fees are for the UTSU, APUS, Arts & Science Students’ Union, U of T Community Radio, The Varsity, Hart House, Student Life Programs & Services, and KPE Co-Curricular Programs, Services, and Facilities. These fees total $652.18.

The largest of these fees goes toward the UTSU, at $410.24 for the fall and winter sessions. The largest portion of the UTSU fee — $172.97 — pays for a health and dental plan, which students can opt out of.

Of the remaining amount, $12.24 is refundable.

The UTSU fee pays for organizations and initiatives such as the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, the Sexual Education & Peer Counselling Centre, and the University of Toronto Aerospace Team.

UTSG Arts & Sciences
Society $26.38
Refugee Student Program $0.75
Student Centre $39.31
College Coed Fitness Centre $0
Women’s Centre* $1.50
Downtown Legal Services* $0.50
Orientation* $0.50
Blue SKy Solar Car Team* $0.13
Day Care Subsidy* $0.50
Wheelchair Accessibility Projects* $1.00
Refugee Student Fund $0.30
Health Initiatives in Developing Countries* $0.25
Foster Children Program $0.05
UofT Enviornmental Resource Network* $0.25
Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) & CFS-Ontario $7.87
Frontier College Students for Literacy – UTSC $0.50
UTSC Sports & Recreation Complex Levy $157.48
Accident & Prescription Drug Insurance Plan** $78.40
Dental Plan** $94.57
Total $410.24

 

* indicates the fee is refundable.

** indicates the fee is refundable, with proof of comparable coverage.

Innis students pay $41.53 for the Innis College Student Society and the Innis College Student Services Fee.

New College students pay $30.00 for the New College Student Council.

University College students pay $30.03 for the University College Literary & Athletic Society.

Woodsworth students pay $7.50 for the Woodsworth College Students’ Association.

St. Michael’s College students pay $132.02 for the St. Michael’s College Student Union, The Mike, a College Fee, and a Campaign Fee.

Trinity students pay $216.13 for the Trinity College Meeting and a College Fee.

Victoria students pay $243.76 for the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, the Victoria University Student Services Fee, Goldring Student Centre, and the Victoria Commuter Package.

Stay tuned for more breakdowns of graduate student and professional faculty student fees.

The Weeknd donates $50,000 to Ethiopian Studies initiative

Classes for the program to start in 2017

The Weeknd donates $50,000 to Ethiopian Studies initiative

Grammy-winning R&B artist Abel Tesfaye, known as The Weeknd, has made a large contribution to the University of Toronto to help create an Ethiopian Studies program.

Last year, this initiative began with a campaign started by Professor Michael Gervers, who teaches in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies. Gervers pledged to donate $50,000 of his own money, if community donations could match that amount.

The Bikila Award organization is rooted in developing “academic, professional and business excellence and promote volunteerism among Ethiopian-Canadians.” Tesfaye accepted Bikila Award’s invitation to contribute to the program — in 2014, Tesfaye received Bikila Award’s Professional Excellence award.

Tesfaye tweeted the confirmation of his donation to the program: “sharing our brilliant and ancient history of Ethiopia. proud to support the studies in our homie town through @UofT and @bikilaaward.”

The donations were presented on August 6 at Varsity Stadium, during the Bikila Barefoot Challenge event, jointly run by U of T and Bikila Award. In total, the money that was raised came close to U of T’s goal of $200,000 for the program.

Ethiopian Studies will be offered in 2017 by the Department of Near Middle Eastern Studies; one class will focus on the liturgical language Ge’ez. The Department of Near Middle Eastern Studies is currently building a curriculum for the program.

Professor Tim Harrison, head at the Department of Near Middle Eastern Studies, told U of T News, “Ethiopian studies is a great way to enrich our curriculum in African studies because it is one of the great civilizational cultures of Africa and the world.”

Four days after his donation to U of T, Tesfaye also donated $250,000 to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Staggered enrolment start times for Arts & Science after priority controls are lifted

New policy marks end of 6:00 am battle for courses

Staggered enrolment start times for Arts & Science after priority controls are lifted

The Faculty of Arts & Science is changing the process of course enrolment for when priority enrolment controls are lifted.

After the priorities drop, the August 5 enrolment start time will no longer be the same for all students; it will instead be staggered by year of study. Fourth years and up will start course selection at 9:00 am, followed by third years at 10:00 am, second years at 11:00 am, and first years at 12:00 pm.

During the priority enrolment period, some courses have controlled status for students, determined by factors such as subject POSts or year of study. These courses are made available to other students — provided that there is space in the course — during the general course enrolment period.

In previous years, priorities would drop for every student at 6:00 am, and ACORN and ROSI were susceptible to crashing due to excessive website traffic.

U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans identified two reasons for this change: to avoid overloading the website and causing difficulties with selection; and to provide upper-years with first access to courses, addressing previous student feedback and consultations with staff at the colleges.

Blackburn-Evans also identified the benefit of immediate access to assistance should difficulties arise, now that the 9:00 am start time aligns with the start of the business day.

By the end of the summer, the Faculty of Arts & Science will collect feedback from students regarding this change and assess whether their goals of improvement were achieved.

The Portal to the future

Faculty gathering student input for new learning interface

The Portal to the future

The Faculty of Arts & Science is reviewing U of T’s learning management engine (LME), which is currently provided by Blackboard. There are plans to develop a new LME: the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative. In anticipation of this new system, the faculty hosted a townhall on Portal, where students came to air their grievances and give feedback about the interface. 

A little over a year ago, The Varsity reported on the persistent outages and maintenance hours that Blackboard faced, and many students believe that they feel a disconnect with their instructors.

Professors and students have expressed frustrations with the current LME. One student who attended the town hall criticized its user unfriendliness, mentioning that one of her peers pasted her assignment in a comment box rather than the assignment submission box, which could have affected her grade. In addition, professors are not required to use Blackboard to submit grades, which leaves some students frustrated with the inaccessibility.

Learning tools such as gamification modules, marking interfaces, publishing capabilities, and many more are on the long list of suggestions for the new framework. The faculty discussed features such as a calendar for assignments and exams, and many of the technologies were scheduled for renewal last year. Out of the three stages of the LME development, the initiative is in its second phase. 

Abdullah Shihipar, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union, also criticized the lack of “user-friendliness” of the current Portal system. 

“No one knows how it works,” Shihipar said. The lack of a search option, the inability to edit the types of tools needed for each course, and nothing “more than just a text option” for the current organization function, were a few of the grievances he aired on behalf of himself and other students who reached out to him over social media.   

The university is currently accepting comments for the new LME online. Shihipar encouraged students to have their voice heard saying, “before this process is over, get [your feedback] in.”