Creating an engaging learning environment through understanding student behavior, needs, & educational shortfalls.


Employer School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University

Role Sessional Lecturer & Studio Lab Instructor

Responsibilities Preparing and updating curriculum, material, resources. Leading a class of up to 48 students in introduction to theory and technique of film, camera, light, sound & effects.

Timeline 11 Terms between 2016-2020

Tools SLR Camera Operation, Cinematography & Lighting, Set Sound Recording & Foley, Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Audition

IAT202: New Media Images is a media course at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology. The course is an introduction to film production, often the first time a student has shot a video on a DSLR and edited the footage in Premiere. The course is broken into two projects, the first being an individual project that builds the foundations of film vocabulary and technical skill, the second being a group project that allows students to creatively apply the skills.

As a student for the majority of my life, I’ve experienced classes and labs of a variety of quality. Throughout I’ve been observing how instructors teach and the student feedback. After taking IAT 202 as a student in Spring of 2015 and subsequently being hired to teach it in Spring of 2016, I used my experience in previous coursework to inform my lab content to ensure my students have a positive and educational experience as my student. I was the studio lab instructor under the guidance of Dr. Gabriela Aceves-Sepulveda and subsequently Susan Clements-Vivian for a total of 5 terms.

Making the class more engaging.

One of the challenges many labs and tutorials face is lack of engagement and loss of attentiveness. I’ve observed that the courses and tutorials in which instructors have been successful in creating engagement have been ones where the instructor can relate with better with student and student behavior. Instead of setting up rules and interactions that are convenient to the instructor, the instructors lowered the barriers of interaction with both them and their course content. I aimed to do the same by doing the following.

1. Present. Engage. Entertain

The enemy of an engaging class is a monotone instructor who sits behind the lecture computer and reads off an overcrowded and messy slide. I personally find a class where I’m entertain and engaged allows me to retain more of the content. I think of each class as a show, what would I have to say to keep the class entertained and engaged, how would I have to present the information and demos visually to ensure comprehension. A few of the methods utilized include clean visual design of slide decks, stage presence, and using contemporary examples and fun stories to make and emphasize a point.

Slide decks have a unified visual design and uses the minimal amount of text to communicate the message. This allows for low cognitive overhead and focus on the content being delivered verbally and in demos. With the simplified slide decks as prompts, I can then move away from the lecture computer and use the entire space to engage physically with the students. Likewise, in physical and digital demos I circulate around the room and try to give all students one on one attention.

Making the slides easier to quickly grasp and focus on the demonstrated lecture instead of copying down notes.
Slide design guidelines for all my slides.

2. Consistent Lab Format

By creating a consistent structure for a class allows students to easily anticipate how the content of class is presented. Thus, I stick to two formats in my class, the standard lab, and a feedback/critique lab. Feedback and critique labs are always a full lab of feedback with only a basic review of upcoming assignments. Standard labs are structured to engage students with the work and learning.

In a standard lab, instead of launching into course content immediately, I play a video clip of online content that is relevant to this week’s content and facilitate a discussion for the first ten minutes. This not only allows for the stragglers to arrive without missing important content but also provides opportunity for us to discuss the course content using contemporary pop culture examples. After the opening discussion, attendance is taken, and the lab content begins. There is always an introduction of the days content followed by a discussion of upcoming assignments in the context of the course schedule. This is to help students understand the context of the work and learning they’re doing within the structure of the course, allowing them to understand the purpose of the assignment. This makes both the work and the learning more meaningful. Only once the context is established do we go into the lecture or demo.

3. Inspire THEN Explain

Instead of teaching the technique basics first and showing examples later, I like to explain and show how skills are applied first. This is to inspire students and provides context to the students into why they need should pay attention the content that is to come. An example would be at the beginning of the class, knowing the students come from different backgrounds, I spend a moment to explain how in their fields knowledge from the class can be applied. Another example application of this is during the lighting workshop where I do a demo of how lighting can affect the perception on set before going into the technical lighting setup.

Lighting demonstration in Spring 2018.
Photo from the Spring 2018 lighting workshop, where we do interactive and hands on demonstrations of key film equipment.

4. Casual & Approachable Environment

On the first day of the course, I attempt to remove the seniority gap between students and lab instructor. I establish that the classroom would be a casual learning environment to ask questions whenever one arises, and to challenge what I’m teaching. Not only does this allow students to learn at their own pace but at times improves the content as it challenges my knowledge of the field and provides learning opportunities. I do not want students to ever be afraid of asking questions.

5. Accessible Communication Channels

Each term, I create an Facebook group or Discord Channel and encourage my students to utilize that as the primary question and answer channel. While our university’s online course software, Canvas, facilitates private messaging, discussion, and mail functions students do not utilize it to its full capabilities. In student feedback, many students state that Canvas is more formal and imposing to use when compared to social networks. Facebook or Discord are common social network already used by a majority of the student population and one that is checked with frequency. It allows more casual interactions thus encouraging questions and faster responses as other students may be able to answer questions before the teaching staff gets to them. However, any official course requests such as grading concerns and deadline extensions must still be communicated through email.

Mid Semester Feedback

Feedback is normally done only once at the end of the term. However, that feedback does not affect the class that provided it. Thus, I started doing mid-term feedback implemented through an anonymous Google Forms. This feedback not only gives the teaching team an idea of how to improve the class in the current term but also what subjects require review and the interests of the students to generate content that’s relevant to the students for the end of the semester.

Course reorganization to align learning objectives.

One of the challenges with IAT 202 when I was a student in 2015 was how the assignments and lab content was organized. They lecture, lab, and assignment content did not line up to enforce each other and thus there was gaps in the knowledge progression. I proposed at end of Fall 2016 term to re-organize the schedule and structure of the course for the class to feel more cohesive and allow the teaching assistants to prepare practical labs content that directly enforced the lecture theory. Also proposed was grouping the individual skill building exercises that was originally spread across the semester into a more intensive mini project. This works to give the students all the fundamental skills create their first films and get an idea of how the final project will be graded before being put into teams to tackle the larger group film. This proposed structure was tested out in Spring 2017 and was adopted on the subsequent semesters with modifications to the likings of the individual instructors.

The reorganized and re-aligned course layout.
A screenshot from my course re-organization proposal.

Using student's in built competitiveness and desire for recognition to foster stronger projects.

I firmly believe hard work should be recognized. While the course always had a final screening with all the films, starting in Fall 2016, having your film be played in the final screening became a competitive endeavor with prizes. This promotes healthy competition among teams and encourages teams to strive for to make the final screening. In Spring 2017, I built to compile and celebrate the work of all the students. The students of the proceeding terms have found the site to be a source of inspiration and showcase of the quality we seek in the class.

The payoff, the result, the conclusion.

The results of the lab material design decisions cannot be easily quantified however together they have contributed to an improved course experience based on the semester end evaluations. My average rating from semester end evalutations over the past 4 tearms is 9.1/10 for the tutorial overall rating and 9.2/10 for teaching ability. Regarding improvements to the students performance, while many factors affect the students projects, once the changes were implemented an improvement in quality of the final project was noticed by the teaching staff and can be seen on the projects found on the IAT202: New Media Image website.