Preparation – Learn You Way Around[back]
Starting out as a TA can be very frightening. Not only do TAs have to learn how to get around campus: they also struggle to understand what they are supposed to be doing as TAs and as graduate students and trying to learn to be an effective teacher at the same time. There’s a lot to learn rapidly.
Take advantage of introductory programs
The Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning, CTAL offers a TA orientation in the summer and then provides two courses and a number of ongoing workshop sessions on college teaching throughout the year. Many departments offer specialized orientations for graduate students and for teaching assistants.You may also contact CTAL for individualized help throughout the year.
Develop a network
Your Department TA Coordinator, graduate director, supervising faculty member secretaries, and other graduate students can help answer questions like: Where is my mailbox? How do I get lab space? What’s the procedure if I need to make overheads or copy something? What are the departmental expectations for TAs?
Develop a Good Relationship with Faculty
While most faculty/TA relationships are cordial, sometimes difficulties arise. A TA who does not develop an effective relationship with his or her supervising faculty member can allow tension and frustration to build on both sides. Let’s look at some specific things graduate students can do to foster a healthy faculty/TA relationship.
- Discuss all the faculty member’s expectations very clearly at the beginning of the semester. Some of the questions to ask are:
- Will I be lecturing?
- On a regular basis?
- When the instructor is absent?
- Will I be leading discussions?
- On a regular basis?
- When the instructor is absent? If yes, should I:
- Stay close to the textbook or reading materials?
- Stay close to the lectures?
- Encourage all students to talk?
- Do most of the talking?
- Deal only with students’ questions from the lecture?
- Will I be tutoring and/or giving individual assistance?
- How much is too much?
- What kind of assistance shouldn’t I give?
- Should I organize group help/review sessions?
- Will I be conducting or supervising laboratories?
- Obtaining supplies and materials?
- Keeping track of supplies and materials?
- Designing or revising experiments?
- Giving demonstrations
- In case of emergency or accident, what do I do?
- Will I be using AV material, or computer equipment?
- What equipment?
- Am I responsible for getting and returning it?
- Whom do I call to schedule equipment?
- What equipment can the classroom accommodate/support
- Will I be evaluating or grading papers, projects, reports, quizzes, examinations, student participation?
- Are the criteria for assigning grades clear?
- Is the process for determining the final course grade clear?
- What portion of the grade will I be responsible for?
- Will the instructor review disputed grades?
- Will I review disputed grades given by the instructor?
- How much time will I need to set aside for grading?
- Should I make two copies of all grades?
- How do I keep records of students’ grades?
- How much autonomy will I have?
- To try different teaching practices?
- To present parts of my research?
- To present perspectives different from the instructor’s?
- What about my office hours?
- How many hours per week?
- When should they be offered?
- Should they be coordinated with the instructor’s?
- If my TA work is taking more than the required 20 hours per week, what is the best way to tell tell the supervising faculty member so as not to create conflict?
- Who will supervise me?
- How often?
- How will my TA performance be assessed?
- What should I do, whom should I contact, if I can’t come to a lab, will I receive feedback on my teaching, discussion section, problem-solving section, office hour?
- What other responsibilities will I have?
- Will I be lecturing?
- Get tension out in the open and deal with it
Tensions generally escalate when you ignore problems in faculty/TA relationships. Try to confront these problems early on; although difficult, it is often necessary.
One way to get a problem into the open is to “call the process.” That means you make an observation (e.g., You’ve sounded angry at our last few meetings…) and then ask what’s going on (e.g., Are you upset with what I’m doing?) or simply ask, “How are things going? Am I meeting your expectations?” If your professor simply starts attacking you, it is appropriate to ask for more specific feedback.
- Talk about problems in faculty behavior
When a faculty member behaves in a way that interferes with a TA’s ability to do the job or perform as a graduate student, those issues should be tactfully discussed with the faculty.
It is extremely important that the TA not be perceived as attacking the faculty member’s competence. This means avoiding loaded words. Be specific: (e.g., “… when all of our meetings for the last three weeks have been canceled due to changes in your schedule”). Make a case for change: (e.g., “I can’t get feedback on some major questions the students raised that may create problems on the midterm and it makes me look less credible”). Tell the faculty what you want to happen: (e.g., “I’d like for us to set up a regular meeting once a week that I can count on for questions”).
- Communicate frequently with supervising faculty
Be clear about your schedule and give early notice about conflicting needs.
When you have a special need such as a major project due or illness in the family, let the faculty member know what’s going on and ask for their support. It is especially important to ask openly rather than fail to fulfill expectations and set yourself up for more severe problems.
One of the most difficult skills faculty and TAs must develop is the ability to guide students through class discussion. A learning activity that encourages students to voice their opinions and to ask questions of their classmates and teachers, discussion can be a highly effective learning tool. Both focused discussion and open discussion provide a forum in which students can vocalize their concerns about issues raised in reading material, films, lectures, demonstrations, and other academic situations. Most importantly, discussion encourages students to internalize concepts–to find their own ways to explain principles–and to listen critically to the views of others. By allowing students to help plan class discussions, teachers emphasize their commitment to interactive rather than passive learning. To ensure that everyone will participate in discussions, teachers can require students to bring to class journal entries, a series of questions, or short responses to the material on which the discussion will focus. Students who are nervous about responding spontaneously during a discussion will be more likely to talk when they can refer to their written comments. Assigning activities to prepare students for discussion can make teachers feel more comfortable about calling on a wide variety of students rather than waiting for volunteers.
Recent theories of learning place less emphasis on cognitive development at the individual level than on socially shared cognition since, claimed by the theories of socially situated cognition, normal social interaction plays a substantial role in cognitive development.
One way of facilitating socially shared recognition is through cooperative learning which is based on the belief that knowledge is constructed by the community. Substantially, participants in a collaborative learning environment are more active as learners and more interactive and humane as individuals.
In the active learning environment of social interaction, knowledge is not passed on by transfusion from teacher to student or from student to student; knowledge is constructed by the learner as s/he integrates new information into existing conceptual frameworks in his/her cognitive structure. Group discussions, in particular, bring to the forefront the essentially social nature of learning.
Practical Benefits of Group Discussion
- Discussion participants are actively involved in the learning process.
- Class discussions provide opportunity for immediate feedback.
- Students can encouraged to examine different points of view, to evaluate the evidence supporting them, and to make judgements using various criteria in each academic field.
- Students can learn important social and collaborative working skills; listening carefully to others, making a clear statement of personal opinions, and working toward consensus.
- Discussions help students develop new interests when they get to know other student’s points of view.
The success of your discussion sessions will largely depend on how carefully you prepare yourself, your students, and the classroom setting. General preparation questions should begin as early in the term as possible. Each discussion will require additional, specific preparation. The following list includes some aspects to take into account for you discussion preparation, both general and specific:
- General Preparation: Setting the Mood for and Establishing Expectations
If you are planning to have discussions, you should create the appropriate conditions from the beginning of the semester:
- Learn your students’ names and have the students learn one another’s name. On the first day, use an ice breaker that both introduces students to each other and relates to the discipline.
- Have an individual conference with each student during the first two weeks of the semester. This will help you know every student better and find out something about their backgrounds and interests. Showing your students that you value them as individuals will contribute to the development of a climate of trust and cooperation.
- Specific Preparation: Getting Ready for Each Discussion
- Plan the Discussion Together
- Define learning goals concretely and clearly. Decide what students should know by the end of the course or a given class meeting. Frequently communicate these goals to students.
- Elicit students’ interests and difficulties at the start of the course and/or sessions and work out a joint agenda. You might have your students complete a questionnaire in which they communicate their expectations for the course. Ask them to identify stereotypes or myths that exist about the course (e.g., “Some students call Geology for non-science majors ‘rocks for jocks’.”,”They say in finite math you have to attend class only on test days.”).
- Focused Discussion
- Set very specific learning goals and organize them in a clear sequence or agenda. When possible, express your goals in terms of student behavior (e.g., in an education class, the behavioral objective might be: Students will identify the reasons why active learning motivates students).
- Suggest appropriate time schedules. Sometimes it is necessary to limit discussion to a certain time frame. You can ask one of your students to remind people of the time remaining in the class period (e.g., “Let’s try to conclude here because we have 10 minutes left.”).
- Provide background information and resources. Before a discussion begins, students might have questions that involve factual information. For example, students who are reading Look Homeward Angel might have questions about Thomas Wolfe’s life. You can reserve discussion for the most crucial issues if you anticipate the types of questions students might ask and address questions involving background information before the actual discussion begins. You might spend 5 to 10 minutes providing resource material (a bibliography of critical essays about Wolfe, a list of primary works by Wolfe, etc.) and allot 40 to 45 minutes for discussion of issues such as his use of metaphor, his treatment of women in the novel, and his influence on other writers.
- Ask plenty of questions that focus on the day’s topic. Avoid open-ended questions which may lead the discussion in other areas. If your students become interested in a particular digression, try to respond to that interest in the next class meeting. Write such topics on the board under the heading “For future discussion” to show you are serious about dealing with them.
- Emphasize key points in the material frequently. Remind your students that you want them to pay special attention to certain aspects of the material you are covering.
- Restate student comments to focus their contributions. (e.g., “I take you to be saying you disagree with the interpretation in the text?” or “Am I right that your claim supports the remark Jane made earlier?”). Ask for further clarification if students seem uncomfortable with your rephrasing of their views.
- If a comment or question is somewhat off the track, respond selectively to that aspect of it which most fulfills the goals of the discussion. For example, you might say, “This part of your comment really addresses today’s topic.”
- Give students time to think. After you ask a question, allow students time to reflect on the question and formulate an answer. Don’t be afraid of the few seconds of silence that may follow a question. Giving students a few moments to develop an observation on their own demonstrates to them that you care about their opinion, and you expect them to voice it. You might consider silently counting to 10 after you have asked a question, so that you can allow students enough time to think.
- Summarize both your own points and the themes of the discussion periodically–especially at the end of a meeting. Keep track of student ideas by writing their claims briefly on the board. This will help you to connect and summarize them as well as allow you to return to overlooked points. At regular intervals, ask your students to reiterate the points people have made so far (e.g., “Can someone state what issues we have discussed today?”). Emphasize the continuity of topics with your initial class goal (e.g., “This discussion on how to assess your audience will prepare us for next week’s topic, how to choose a tone that suits your audience.”).
- Give students feedback. Feedback is an important element of communication in the classroom. If your student has made a good point, then praise her, if he has misunderstood the concept then you need to let him know, gently. Avoid responding with only “U-huh” or “OK” all of the time because such vague signals prevent students from judging whether their answers were wrong or right. Without proper cues student don’t know whether they are performing well, poorly, or if they need to improve.
- Hold one-to-one exchanges with students in class. Avoid letting more than two or three students speak in a row without your commenting. This heightens your visibility as a model for how the discussion should proceed (e.g., “When John said this, I saw you shaking your head in disagreement, Mary. Can you tell us why you disagree with John’s assessment of the situation?”). You can model for your students how to make a network between comments.
- Have students formally respond to comments classmates make during discussion. Place your students in pairs and ask them to write a 1 to 2 page response to their partners’ comments during class discussion. During the next class meeting, have them share their responses as a way to reiterate the previous discussion.
- Assign roles for students according to their interests. For example, you might appoint a moderator, a discussion leader, a recorder, and a time-keeper.
- Open Discussion: ask many divergent questions, with many valid answers that can take the discussion in several directions, depending on how students react. Be sure to have students support their answers with reasons (e.g., “What counseling theory would you use to treat this client? Why?”). Ask students to make guesses or estimates in answering some questions (This technique, suggested by a math professor, applies even to “right/wrong” disciplines.). This encourages discussions aimed at validating the answers given and backing them up with reasoning.
- Ask questions you expect will stimulate differences of opinion among students. Have students defend their views to their opponents.
- Define a broad theme around which to organize the discussion, a “ball-park” in which students can roam fairly freely (e.g., “How do you think artistic vision has shaped our everyday lives?”).
- Use the board, flip chart, overhead projector, etc. to record student discussion. Your students can glance at the notes you make and get a sense of where the discussion is leading. Visual learners in particular will appreciate your notes.
- Use the brainstorming method in which you elicit a number of answers or ideas while suspending evaluative comments (either your own or your students’) until a later point in order to encourage the free flow of input.
- Relate student remarks to the discipline. Where possible, connect their contributions to the terms, concepts, and key figures of the field of study (e.g., “Piaget calls what you describe equilibration.” or “Plato had view similar to yours. I’ll be interested to hear what you think when we read the Republic.”).
- Take notes on student discussions. During the next class meeting, remind students of what issues you raised (e.g., “Yesterday we seemed to have reached a consensus about this aspect, but we were unable to agree on that aspect.”). Quoting directly from students will tell them that you value their comments.
- Arrange the seating appropriately. Make sure students can see you and each other. Do not allow students to disappear in the back of the room. Circles or Semicircles are the best seating arrangements for discussion. Try to vary where you sit or stand in discussions, since students sitting closest to you are apt to feel the most involved in the class.
- Proposed Ground Rules for Discussion
In order to create an atmosphere in which we all feel free to participate, we should determine ground rules for our discussion. We can adapt the following guidelines to fit this group.
- We will create a safe atmosphere for open discussion. Thus, members of the group may wish to make comments that they do not want repeated outside the room. If so, the person will preface his or her remarks with a request and the group will agree not to repeat the remarks.
- We will assume that people (both the groups we discuss and the members of this group) always do the best they can.
- Acknowledge that oppression (i.e., racism, classism, sexism, etc.) exists.
- Acknowledge that one of the mechanisms of oppression (i.e., racism, classism, sexism, etc.) is that we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of devalued groups (this is true for both dominant and other group members).
- We cannot be blamed for the misinformation we have learned, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
- Targeted groups are not to be blamed for their oppression.
- We will actively pursue information about our own groups and those of others.
- We will share information about our groups with other members of this group and we will never demean, devalue, or in any way “put down” people for their experiences.
- We each have an obligation to actively combat the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls which prohibit group cooperation
- Integrating Writing into the Discussion Section
A discussion should not rely solely on oral interaction. Writing can be used as an effective tool at any time during the session. Writing helps everybody get engaged. It offers quiet or shy students the opportunity to actively participate, and it helps to keep excessive talkers under control. Besides, writing often allows for deeper, more elaborate reflection. The following are some activities involving writing that can be incorporated in to the discussion section itself:
- Notetaking and Class Secretaries. Taking notes during the discussion can provide a means of focusing on and organizing key concepts, data and opinions. However, some students feel that notetaking may interfere with their concentration on the discussion. A good idea then is to select a class secretary, who will record the discussion and provide a summary to the rest of the class. Two or three secretaries may be used instead of one; at the end of the session they will compare their notes and produce a single version. You can have every student serve as class secretary on a rotation basis.
- Free Writing. Have students write for a few minutes to gather their thoughts together, or to come up with new ideas. They might examine a passage in a text, reflect on a given question, or articulate an opinion. Free writing is especially useful right before starting discussion on a new topic; when a new idea is introduced that requires particular consideration.
- The One-Minute Paper. If the discussion seems to be declining or the students look confused on a particular topic, pause and give them one minute to write down their comments, reorganize their ideas or respond to a specific question. This strategy can also be used if the discussion is becoming too intense, or if too many ideas are being brought up at the same time. The one-minute paper will provide a sort of “time-out” ; it will relax the pace of the discussion and will help to ease the pressure on the students.
- Reflection Papers. Have students write brief summaries and commentaries of the session that has taken place. Ask them to evaluate their own role in the discussion, or to write down one thing they have learned from it. These comments should then be shared with the class.
- Student Questions. At any time during the discussion, pause and have the class write down one or two questions for you or anybody else. Many students might have been willing to ask something for a while, but perhaps they were too busy trying to catch up with the flow of the discussion; by giving them a couple of minutes to write, you will allow them to define and articulate their questions.
- Plan the Discussion Together
“The labs were terrible. I thought I was going to make things come together by doing something practical, but the TA never knew if the experiment was going to work or not, and usually he just sat in the corner waiting for lab to be over. My roommate was lucky. Her TA walked from group to group and helped them figure out what was happening. Like me, she’s not a science major, but she plans to take more courses and I wouldn’t be caught dead in another science course.” — Anonymous Freshman Student
Although labs are run differently by different departments and TA responsibilities vary, there are some general guidelines to follow.
Laboratory Sessions Preparation Checklist
- Be Prepared! Read the experiment before going to the lab, and make arrangements to actually conduct it. Students lose respect for the course, the TA, and themselves when their uncertainties aren’t alleviated by a capable, confident TA.
- Perform the entire experiment in advance – there is no guarantee it’s going to work as advertised in the lab manual. Remember how frustrating and disappointing a flopped experiment is?
- Read and study the theory on which the experiment is based. Otherwise, some student may ask you a question that you can’t handle.
- Check the Equipment and materials before class, if a demonstration will be conducted (See section on Demonstrations).
- Know where the supply storeroom is and where the first aid kits are located.
- Observe all safety precautions. Know where safety showers, fire extinguishers are located (See section on Safety Consideration).
- Clarify Objectives. It is usually appropriate to go over homework questions or provide some background before students work on their own. Many students are frustrated by unclear objectives during labs, your job is to clarify objectives and assist students in attaining these goals.
- Return graded lab reports as soon as possible. Establish criteria for grading and explain them before students complete the lab exercise. Often, your primary instructor will establish guidelines for grading so that a large class with many lab sections has consistency.
Tips on Running Laboratory Sessions
- What can I do to manage students during a lab?
As you are well aware, a lab is different from a lecture class: teaching a lab often involves several one-on-one situations, a highly interactive format. Experienced TAs recommend that you learn the names of all your students: it is easier to guide the class and facilitates learning when students realize you respect them. Above all, don’t sit in a corner and grade papers!! A good TA moves around the classroom, identifying problems before they occur, and helps students step back and evaluate what they’re doing.
- What is the point of these lab sections?
Lab exercises and formal experiments are “hands-on” formats that provide students a chance to link together the theory and other experiments of the course. Experienced TAs remind you that some labs are not explained during the lecture or they may not be discussed coincidentally to the lab. As a lab TA, you are expected to give a brief “lab talk” in which you: (1) outline the lab objectives and (2) cite the ways these learning objectives mesh with the course theory.
- Is it important for students to produce the expected results?
The goal of all scientific experimenters is to Explain whatever results occur. It’s difficult for students who are accustomed to receiving grades for being “right” to accept this, even when they’re assured that perfect replication of results is just not possible. As a lab TA, you can alleviate some of the major errors as you move from station to station during the lab.
- What should I look for when I evaluate lab reports?
First, check with the supervising faculty for overall depth and critical content; in large lectures with many small lab sections, grading is often standardized. Next, read through a random selection of the reports to get a feel for the level of comprehension: students are novices and often use inexact language and roundabout discussions to explain their results. Finally, consider the value of a well-explained “wrong” result: what are the scientific skills we hope to foster during labs?
- How should I prepare for lab?
Experienced TAs suggest you read the experiment and do the exercise once before lab so you can anticipate areas in theory and procedure where students might have problems. Being familiar with all equipment, chemicals, or specimens used during a lab will enable you to handle any situation that arises.
- What else should I know before I run a lab?
- Know who your resources are when equipment malfunctions, reagents are used up, or a specimen crawls under the cabinets!
- Talk to TAs who have taught that lab.
- Realize that you are qualified to teach undergraduates effectively; none of your students has your background, preparation or scientific ability.
- One of the best ways to find out what you need to know before lab is to teach a lab, recognize what areas gave you problems, and prepare for the next lab.
- What about safety issues?
TAs should know the safety regulations in their department as well as the University and State policies. Students should be made aware of these regulations at the beginning of the semester and reminded of them as necessary. Experienced TAs find that most safety issues involve students mishandling laboratory equipment, chemicals, and specimens. Again, many problems can be alleviated by an alert TA making rounds during the lab (See section on Safety Consideration).
- How can I get my students to prepare for lab?
There’s always that old stand-by, the “pop quiz.” Alternate methods are: to require students to outline the exercise or procedure in a notebook before coming to lab, to encourage group discussion of expectations before each lab (or of results at the conclusion of each lab), or to collect written predictions from each student about the day’s lab before class begins. At a more esoteric level, students will innately prepare for labs that they find challenging but do-able, informative but not confusing, and relevant to either the course goals or their future goals. Some students prepare simply because the TA is enthusiastic and supportive. Hence, a lot of learning gets done during labs!
The TA’s office is an important extension of the classroom. Every TA must have office hours but students may not be required to come in during those times. Office hours are often scheduled before the semester begins and announced to the students during the first week, but it may be preferable to check with the students about convenient times before scheduling your office hours.
How do you get students to come in? Let them know frequently that they are welcome. Invite them individually. A comment on a paper (e.g., “Please see me about this.”) brings about a 75% response. Stress the importance and value of office visits both to you and to them. Some TAs find that posting answers to quiz or homework problems inside the door is an effective means of attracting students to office hours.
Getting students to come to your office hours is not always a problem. You may find that many students will come in, for many different reasons. You should be aware of ways to facilitate a helpful tutorial session:
- Be approachable. The best thing to do when students come in to your office during hours is to make them feel welcome. It takes only a little bit of care to create a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere where communication is natural and easy.
- Be Professional. After you have scheduled your office hours, keep them. Show up on time, and remain for the full office hour period. If you must make a cancellation, notify your students that you will not be in ahead of time.
- Let the student tell you the purpose of their visit. You may suspect some hidden problem, but you should not press the student to disclose. You can help the students if they actively request it, but your responsibility need not extend further than responding to their requests.
- Listen to your students. Give them your undivided attention. The best way to show that you are listening is to reflect their concerns in your own words. This also shows students that you find their concerns important. Students often fear that they are wasting your time. By listening attentively and responding thoughtfully, you can help allay their anxiety.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.” You should realize that you won’t always be able to provide all the answers students may ask.
- Be non-judgmental and try to see situations from the student’s perspective. Work with students to achieve positive solutions.
- Be aware of your own limitations. Refer serious problems beyond your expertise to the relevant professionals on campus. Refer students to appropriate Campus Resources.