Voice of Community UD

Voice of UD Community

Quick Catch-up for Being an Effective Graduate TA
Student Voices for Learning and Teaching at UD
Voice of Senior TA’s: Tips and Advice

Quick Catch-up for Being an Effective Graduate TA[1][back]

“Unless you plan to become a faculty member, being a TA is the chance of a life time to interact with students and work with them in your discipline.” — Anonymous Graduate Teaching Assistant

General Principle

  • Take your TA responsibilities seriously.  Initially, you may underestimate the amount of time it takes you to get everything accomplished.  Take the time necessary to prepare and fulfill your role.  Seek other TAs’ advice on how they handle the workload.
  • Try to balance your time between your teaching life, your course work, and your personal life. Teaching is not a hundred percent of your life, remember that you are a student too, and that you should pay attention to your personal life.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.

Working with Course Instructor

  • Clarify your instructional roles and responsibilities so that you know what you are accountable for.  Many times the course policies are designed by the faculty and you need to reinforce those policies not defend them.  Talk with your supervising faculty on a regular basis about the course so that students receive the same, consistent message.  Students get concerned when they perceive that the faculty and the TA do not communicate with each other.
  • Get faculty advice when you are having difficulties with students or when you are observing problematic student behavior.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for faculty advice.  Check with faculty to make sure you are consistent and fair in your grading.

Working with Students

  • Practice presenting course content to the students.  Prior practice will increase your confidence.
  • When you are responsible for designing course policies, try to be as clear as possible to avoid student misinterpretation.  Phrase the policies such that they are straightforward and unambiguous.  Explain course policies clearly to students.
  • Recognize that you will make some mistakes.  Be the first person to laugh at yourself when you make a mistake and then try to correct it as soon as possible, in the next class period at the latest.
  • When you encounter your students socially, be friendly, personable and professional.  Keep in mind that you are their TA.  Maintain some professional distance in your relationships with students.
  • Take time to listen to the students.  Take their concerns seriously; students appreciate it when you care about them.  Get faculty advice when students come to you with serious personal problems.  Familiarize yourself with various support services on campus that you can refer those students to for help.
  • Keep in mind that not all students may be really interested in the course content and care about the course.  Try to make the course interesting by engaging students actively and relating the content to their daily lives, but also remember:  You cannot please everyone.

Student Voices for Learning and Teaching at UD[back]

What makes Instruction Effective for Students

In the Fall of 2007, 170 undergraduate students who served as University of Delaware Blue Hen Ambassadors and Resident Hall Assistants were asked for their thoughts on what makes learning environments most effective for them  The summary of students’ responses is based on the following two questions:

  • What do instructors do that helps your learning?
  • What do instructors do that hinders your learning?

The students’ suggestions have been grouped into categories for each question based in order of frequency of response.[2]

  • What do instructors do that helps your learning?
    1. Using variety of teaching approaches in lecture (98)
      • Variety in the style of teaching (not doing the same thing everyday): Switching around the learning style in the class is helpful because it is not boring. Using other techniques rather than just lecturing. More than just reading slides. Presenting material in an organized manner. Having a variety of activities for each topic that keep the material interesting and fun.
      • Using technology and media: Using a variety of media for presenting information helps to reinforce material. Power point is very helpful. Providing class notes and other resources online, in WebCT (so students can take notes only to clarify main ideas). Selecting textbooks with online help websites.
      • Engaging students: Professors keep us involved, make us share our ideas with the class. Engaging the class with thoughtful questions, and discussions. Interaction helps a lot. Stimulating critical thinking. Asking questions to keep attention. Interacting by asking questions in class to students, debating with students, challenging students’ answers in order to help develop them. Active and open forum discussions. Making class more interactive.
    2. Providing relevant examples/explanations (40)
      Instructors give examples that enhance the material. Giving an in depth explanation with a real world application rather than abstract ideas. Real life, current examples are helpful. Giving useful examples that relate to us and our generation. Explaining thoroughly until students understand. Willingness to slow down on difficult topics.
    3. Being available for help (31)
      Providing office hours and spending time with students. Meeting you individually for help. Availability and willingness for help. Offering students many methods of contact – e.g. email, office-hours, phone, etc. Offering extra help. Listening to the needs of students. Sincere and personal effort at talking to you and helping you out of class.
    4. Providing reviews (22)
      Reviewing previously covered material. Broad review is helpful. Holding review sessions. Providing sample tests, practice exams, past exams, class notes, and study guides help us a lot to study. Homework to keep up with work and check understanding. Giving test reviews before exams to increase confidence in success.
    5. Caring about students (22)
      When instructors form a trusting relationship and seem to care about you as a student by transcending the student/professor relationship, it truly helps my learning. Being personable; a teacher who is friendly and approachable is much easier to learn from because you notice them as a real person. An instructor may be informed, but his/her opinion may overshadow it, and it makes a difference when he/she remains humble. Friendliness of professors helps us learn. Having good student-teacher relationships help aid my learning. Understanding that students are taking other classes, and involved in various social activities. Making jokes and using humor and anecdotes keep students engaged.
    6. Communicating interest and enthusiasm about subject (21)
      When instructors are passionate and engaged about what they are doing it makes you want to be a better student. Enjoying in, and being excited and enthusiastic about what they teach keeps students interested. Being passionate about the topic.
    7. Treating students with respect (17)
      Respecting what I have to say. Instructors do not make you feel stupid. There is no “dumb” question. They treat us like adults, like people with informed opinions; they give us time to say what we think. They are on the same level, not arrogant.
    8. Communicating expectations (9)
      Providing a detailed, clear and organized syllabus. Clarity of instructions for assignments and material to be tested. Remaining consistent in expectations.
  • What do instructors do that hinders your learning?
    1. Lacking variety and engagement in lecture (113)
      Teaching verbatim from power point slides, no enthusiasm, act like they do not want to be there, no connection with the class. Teaching straight out of the textbook. Lecturing the entire time. Just lecturing and not asking for any student involvement. Not caring about material. No illustrations, ways to visualize information. Do not work through problems, case studies, etc. Using the same format all the time (just PowerPoint, lecturing, etc) – some people learn by hearing, others by seeing; teach both types. Talking too fast. Going through material too fast. Rushing through material. Not taking time to make sure that everything is clear. Asking questions but give no opportunity to answer. Not referring enough to text. Lessons should be more explanatory rather than exactly what the text says especially in science/math courses. Instructors who are disorganized and unsure of exactly what they are doing.
    2. Testing and grading (38)
      Tests that are not reflective of what was taught in the class. Testing on material not being covered or thoroughly explained. Assignments for the sake of giving assignments, not reinforcing material.
    3. Not being accessible and open to students’ concerns (27)
      Learning is hindered by professors who do not care. Not helping, being aloof. Being unwilling to listen. Not making extra effort when students need it. When instructors are not approachable it hinders my learning because if I feel a teacher is not willing to help, it sets a bad tone for the class. Office hours not coinciding with students’ schedule. Thinking we are just in their class. Some professors are not understanding of any outside circumstances, don’t understand we have other courses and work.
    4. Treating students with little respect (24)
      Lack of respect for students. Discouraging students and speaking negatively. Making jokes about students when they volunteer and say a different answer.
    5. Not-communicating expectations (12)
      Ambiguous expectations. Not making expectations clear. When my instructors are unclear about their expectations of myself and the class through a lack of structure and/or communication, it hinders my learning. Giving syllabus on the first day but not going through all aspects of class thoroughly. Not communicating what material is actually tested and imperative to know. Not following the syllabus.
    6. Speaking with a heavy accent (6)
      A heavy accent makes understanding very difficult. Please make any effort to speak slowly and use handouts and examples to help us understand. Rephrase statements.
    7. Providing little feedback (5)
      Lack of criticism of incorrect answers. Instructors don’t let us know our progress in the class. Not answering emails promptly. Graded papers aren’t returned in a timely manner.

A Student’s Perspective on the Role of Graduate TAs[3]

I think students have certain expectations about what makes a TA helpful to them. First, TAs should come to lecture (just like the students have to) and look like they are interested in what the professor is talking about. It helps when a student goes to a TA and the TA knows exactly what the professor talked about because the TA took notes from the lecture. When TAs don’t attend the lecture and the student has a question regarding the lecture content, the TAs don’t know what the professor talked about and thus cannot effectively help the student. They, then, have to make an educated guess as to what the meaning of a certain concept was. Second, TAs should hold offices hours and stick to them. Several times I went to TAs’ office hours and they never showed. Accessibility is an important factor in effectively helping students. Third, TAs should be enthusiastic about their teaching and their subject matter. When TAs seem to enjoy what they are doing, the students find it easier to approach them for help.

In short, I think the main things that make TAs successful and integral contributors to the education of students is their friendliness, their willingness to help, their availability, their organization skills, and their motivation. All these things count in the eyes of students. So often professors are too busy to answer each student’s questions and large class size inhibits students from asking questions in class. Students often feel intimidated in those situations and rely on the TAs to help clarify any misconceptions from the lecture or other class material. The TAs give the students the tools and support to help them understand the course content.

I had several TAs in my science classes, science labs, history, and foreign language classes. For example, my TA in French made herself available to the students by holding regular office hours and also giving students her home telephone. We could call her at specific times before exams to help clarify last minute questions. She always attended the professor’s lectures and knew what the professor wanted us to learn. I felt comfortable going to her for any help I needed, and I appreciated her caring.

The Voice of Senior TA’s: Tips and Advice[back]

Swaleha Hudaa Neetoo
Department of Animal and Food Sciences (Spring 2005)
[back]

Being an international student and a recipient of a British education, the concept of “Teaching Assistant” was totally foreign to me until I started my studies at UD. At first, I thought that “TA-ing” meant being a substitute for a professor and the idea terrified me wholly. However, I realized that the duties of a TA are department-specific, i.e., what is expected of a TA from one department may be different for someone from another.

The class for which I was a TA was relatively small. However that did not mean that the duties were in any way less. My duties with respect to undergraduates involved coaching them with their homeworks and lab reports and also sometimes doing mini-tutorials on weekends. The professor also expected me to set up the lab prior to a practical session. Sometimes I was also asked to perform trial experiments beforehand to make sure that the session went smoothly without any disruption.

On the whole, I found the experience very enriching and definitely something to put on my resumé. I also found that going to the TA Rap sessions, offered by CTAL, particularly useful because one gets to meet TAs outside of one’s department. It also helps to listen to other TAs’ anecdotes of certain unfortunate classroom situations that occasionally arise and to find out how they effectively coped with such situations.

Some tips that I would give new TAs are:

  • Know your students’ strengths and weaknesses. During review sessions, it usually helps to know which topics the students are more apt to do and start from there. By discussing those questions which they are more comfortable at, you can help build their confidence.
  • Know to say “I don’t know.” If a student asks you a question about a topic and you are unable to provide a satisfactory answer, the best response in my opinion is “I don’t know but I will definitely look it up and get back to you.”
  • Be prepared when you plan the review session or office hour to give a student some practice questions. It is better if you can ask him/her in advance the topics in which he/she is facing difficulty and needs help. By doing the questions beforehand, you are more prepared and confident to help him/her.
  • Last but not least: Be disciplined. Be punctual when you have to meet a student. In this way, this also fosters a mutual sense of discipline and respect in the student.

James DiDomenico
Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition (Summer 2008)
[back]

Succeeding as a TA for a large enrollment course at UD

Being a TA in a large enrollment course can be intimidating to a new TA. A large class setting poses different challenges than a small seminar might have. What’s probably the biggest concern is that some students don’t respond well to the impersonal nature of large lecture classes. Students do tend to be more motivated in class, however, if you seem genuinely interested in their learning. Here are some strategies to help you succeed in overcoming the particular challenges of large classes:

  • Make sure the students know who you are
    Introduce yourself to the class on the first day. If you are perceived as friendly and approachable, your students will be more likely to seek out your help. Tell them the best way to contact you (I prefer email because it leaves a written record), and remind them of the time and location of your office hours. It also helps to let them know what your role in the class will be, whether it be lecturing, grading, holding office hours, or providing extra help for students who need it. It saves a lot of frustration if the students know whether to ask their questions to you or to the professor.
  • Get to know the students
    Before the class begins, look to see who is in the class: are they freshmen or upperclassmen?, are they majors or non-majors?, is this the first class they’ve taken in the field, or do they know a little already?
  • Respond to students’ questions within 48 hours
    Few things are more harmful to the students’ learning process than seeking out help and being ignored. When students feel they are being ignored, their motivation to learn and do well in the class drops. And if you can’t give them a definitive answer immediately, explain why and point them in the right direction to where to go for more help.
  • Email the class list when you need to make an announcement
    When you have to cancel your office hours for the week, or when you change the date an assignment is due, you want to make sure you reach everyone in the class and have a written record of this course modification. The best way to do that is to use the University’s class email lists (http://www.udel.edu/pobox), even if you make an announcement in class as well.
  • There’s a lot more TA work in a large class—budget your time wisely
    In a large class, there are more assignments to grade, more questions to respond to, and more students who need help. You must be able to manage your time well, if you want to succeed as a large-class TA. I’ve found it very helpful to plan ahead chunks of time when I’ll only be doing TA work, and not looking at my own work for research and courses. I’ll have another block of time when I’m only working on my research, and another block when I’m only working on assignments for my own courses, and not on TA work.

Lisa Gurski
Department of Biological Sciences (Summer 2010)[back]

Tips and Tricks for Laboratory Teaching Assistants

Too many graduate students in the sciences accept their teaching assistant (TA) position with ambivalence or even a sense of dread. Your position as a TA is an invaluable, hands-on professional development experience and you should make the most of it! By approaching your TA position with optimism and adequate preparation even the most novice teachers can have an enjoyable, successful semester. I will outline some tips for keeping a lab section running smoothly and making the most of your teaching experience for your future career preparation.

  • Establish your TA role as somewhere between a professor and a peer
    On your first day of lab, in addition to covering course expectations and safety training, you will be establishing your role as a TA for your students. This can, and should, be accomplished indirectly through the way you present yourself and cover information on that first day. Many graduate TAs worry about the closeness of age between their students and themselves. In most cases, this fear is unfounded as long as you establish yourself as a well-prepared instructor and earn respect early on. By doing this, you are presenting yourself as an authority figure, not a peer. On the other hand, being closer in age and education to your students can make it easier for them to seek your advice on career preparation, undergraduate research, and course work. From the start, tell your students your background and encourage them to use you as a resource throughout the semester and beyond. This type of informal mentoring is helpful to the students, and very rewarding for the TA.
  • Set high expectations from the start
    For most laboratory TAs, the majority of student work you will be grading is lab reports. To best help your students to become excellent scientific writers, it is imperative that you set high expectations from the first report. Don’t be discouraged if the initial grades are lower than you expected, they will provide an incentive for most students to improve their reports. On a related topic, try to keep your grading standards as consistent as possible across the semester. Avoid the temptation to grade your students easily early in the semester. This will only serve to lower the incentive for improvement and create conflict if students compare the grading of their early and late reports.
  • Be willing to help students improve
    The flip side of setting high expectations is that it is imperative that you help your students improve their lab reports. This can be accomplished by working with students both in lab as a group and individually outside of the classroom. In lab, let common student errors guide your discussion of the proper construction of lab reports. Give students the opportunity in class to practice preparing graphs and give them immediate feedback on the graphs they create. Pending course instructor consent, provide examples of well constructed graphs and/or reports. Outside of lab, make yourself very available to your students. Hold office hours and go through reports with students one-on-one to help them identify and correct their mistakes. Also, make it clear that you are available by appointment as well for students who cannot attend office hours.
  • Use the course instructor for whom you TA as a resource
    If you have any questions or doubts about laboratory instruction, grading, or student interaction, the instructor for whom you TA is a great person to contact. The instructor can give you tips about teaching and grading or can act as a mediator in the event of a conflict with a student. As a rule, it’s a good idea to notify your course instructor if you are having problems with a student, or if you notice that a student is missing lab or not turning in assignments on a regular basis. For the most part, course instructors are happy to help you in your teaching and can provide a great resource as you develop your teaching skills over the semester.
  • Make the most of teaching development opportunities at UD
    Finally, I would encourage you to seek out additional teaching development opportunities during your graduate studies at UD, particularly if you are interested in a teaching career in the future. Because most science graduate students have limited teaching experience, additional experiences could greatly strengthen your application for future careers. The Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning (CTAL) is a great resource for developing your teaching while the Higher Education Teaching Certificate (HETC) program and participation in the yearly TA conference, among other opportunities on campus, provide you with practice in improving your teaching and experiences to list on your curriculum vitae. Keep your eyes and your ears open during your graduate years for teaching and mentoring opportunities, and take advantage of as many of these as you can.

Cathy Stragar
Department of Biological Sciences (Spring 2005)
[back]

I came to the University of Delaware with some teaching experience at the elementary school level but no experience with teaching adult learners. I taught lab sections in biology for non-majors. I think the most important thing to keep in mind when you are teaching college students is that people come to this course with a wide variety of skills and experience. Teaching lab was a great learning experience for both my students (I hope) and me. Here are some suggestions and things to keep in mind as you begin your semester.

  • Respect your students
    That means, not only should you try to learn their names, but that you should be very clear about what you expect from them, including course policy. Read the syllabus to them and be explicit about things like tardiness or absences. You can be very clear without being harsh. It’s important on that first day to let the students get to know you. Talk about yourself, especially things outside of school. Give them time to talk about themselves and ask them to share something about themselves.
  • Return work as soon as possible and be organized
    This really lets the students know if they understand the concepts that you are teaching. They will have time to ask questions before exams. And you will get an idea of how everyone is doing. Being organized and having a system of how you prepare for class, how you make assignments and grade student work will save you lots of time. Set a time limit for yourself to complete these tasks. Understand exactly how you will grade a quiz or assignment before you begin. Be able to explain why and how you gave the grade that you did. List the criteria that students’ work will be graded on.
  • Provide opportunities for students with different learning styles
    Some students do well in solo endeavors. Some need to talk or work with a group. I would put people in groups for the first few sessions, just so everyone would get a chance to work together.
  • Respect yourself
    Everyone has limits to their knowledge, experience and time. Know this and accept it because it will make your first semester a bit easier. Use the great resources around you, especially senior TAs who have taught the lab before. Ask questions about course content, concepts and procedures. Attend all the meetings that you can. When it comes to making assignments and quizzes, don’t try to reinvent the wheel, look at previous quizzes to model yours after. Always make sure to budget the time you need for your own classes and research.
  • Be yourself
    If you are, then the excitement you have for the subject is evident. Modeling an honest enthusiasm may be the best teaching tool you have. This may be especially effective for students who are in your class only because it is required for their studies.

Jascha Fields
Department of Communication (Summer 2002)
[back]

Being an effective TA involves knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, and using your strengths to your full advantage. For example, one of my strengths is to initiate class discussions and acting as a moderator in a class debate. I often ask my class questions and try to stimulate discussion.  At 8AM, this can really help keep the students’ attention! One of my weaknesses, on the other hand, is lecturing. I do not consider myself someone who is most effective at standing in front of the class and speaking for fifty minutes. I feed off of discussion and debate, and I would rather learn from my students and hear what they have to say, and share with my class anything that I may want to add. Lecturing the entire class period, to me, is the perfect recipe for bored and unmotivated students who will not participate when asked to do so. If you show interest in your students, your students in turn will show interest in you.

I also learned is that I have a lot to learn. Being a TA is an ongoing learning process and a test in adaptation. You learn to manage your own schoolwork and your TA work; you learn how to adapt your teaching style to different classroom environments; and you learn that there is no one right way to make a class interesting. Remember that, regardless of how hard you try you cannot make all your students happy. Be firm yet remember to be open minded and to listen to your students before interjecting your opinion. Being open minded, constructive and fair to all parties is the best thing you can do for yourself and your students.

Wilkey Wong
School of Education (Summer 2007)
[back]

Coming from the School of Education , I feel especially privileged to have had explicit training in educational psychology and pedagogy. One deep realization that I’ve come to appreciate is that knowledge of content is necessary but not sufficient for one to achieve a high degree of teaching effectiveness as evidenced by student learning. That said, in this document, I seek to provide some practical tips as well as some deeper insights into being a teaching assistant.

  • Pillars of TA-ship
    1. Exercise charity and compassion. Remember that your students are not simply brain-based learning machines. They are individuals that each bring a unique background and experiences to the classroom. These particularities as well as ongoing personal situations can affect how ready or motivated a student is to learn. A charitable mindset means that you recognize that if a student is struggling it is not automatically because she is lazy or immature. Indeed these are attributions that can close you off from the student and diminish your motivation to do your best to help her learn. A compassionate heart tempers us to the genuine struggles a student may be facing both inside and outside of the classroom. It gives us the fortitude to be patient and to try alternate and multiple approaches to teaching.
    2. Practice honesty and humility. Students respect honesty and humility and this respect is essential if you are to be maximally effective as their teaching assistant. When you don’t know something, say so but do it in a manner that is positive and models for them that not knowing is not something of which to be ashamed or afraid but the first step toward learning. Humility is the antithesis of arrogance. Coupled with content and instructional competence, humility helps to foster respect and the power bases of expertise and legitimate authority that you will need to teach.
    3. Model integrity. Be forthright in your dealings. When you make a meeting commitment, keep it. When you promise to provide a resource by a certain time, do so. If you agree to bring an issue to the attention of the supervising instructor, do it and report back. When your students come to learn that your word when given is a priority and a commitment, then they will understand that this is something you value and that you will value in them.

    If these three pillars of TA-ship sound like positive character traits, it is because they are. Together, these values and the behaviors they foster will help to establish a classroom environment and TA-student relationships that support high expectations and high performance. In turn, these conditions will enhance student learning and your effectiveness as a teaching assistant.

  • Practice-based tips
    1. Always be prepared. Know the material and know where the faculty member is as far as progression through the course materials. When conducting reviews or discussions, have all the materials, worksheets, readings, and texts with you for ready and efficient access. The Absent Minded Professor might have been a funny Disney movie, but is makes for a poor TA and student experience.
    2. Be a resource for resources. If a student needs help, whether it is academic or otherwise, be well acquainted with departmental and university level resources. Also, become familiar with some particularly useful online resources or references in your content area. You need not be concerned with knowing everything but it is helpful to know where to go to find out the things that need knowing.
    3. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your students. TAs are students as well as teachers. When you are comfortable and in control of your own learning and coursework, then you are better prepared to help your students in their learning. You need not sacrifice your own academic and scholarly success for the sake of your students. If you find yourself in a pinch, do not hesitate to talk to the course instructor.
    4. Strive to be personable. Help your students feel comfortable coming to you to ask questions or to get help. Be as friendly as you feel appropriate and are comfortable with. Exercise your own particular personal charms. If you’re not bubbly, as I am not, then subtle and topical humor may be an approach you choose. Be real, be yourself and it’ll be easier to connect with your students.
    5. Get to know your students. When students feel you know them as individuals and not just as a seat assignment, then they are more likely to view you as an interested individual as well. The point, of course, is to become more instructionally effective, but if your students can feel less anonymous, your objectives become easier to achieve.
    6. Be organized. Whether the instructor uses course management software or not, you may be responsible for keeping track of grades, papers, or other artifacts or assessments. Students’ confidence in you is going to be due in part to how well you have a handle on their products and production. Always be accurate and current with their grades.
    7. Share your experiences. Your students will likely have their fill of theory, prefabricated examples, and casework in the class. But nothing brings a point home quite as effectively as a well-told, related personal experience with the topic at hand. If you have experiences or anecdotes to share then do so as an educative device or as method of making connections and personalizing the content. Either approach has merit.
    8. Remember that the first half of the role “teaching assistant” is, in fact, teaching. Begin to see yourself as a teacher, instructor, professor-in-training and you will feel more professional, more empowered to actively participate in your students’ learning. This will also give you some perspective as to what mentoring you may eventually want to provide your TAs in the years to come.

Adam Jabbur
Department of English (Summer 2009)[back]

Some thoughts on responsibility from a too-long TA

Being a TA should cause you no anxiety. You can begin your duties in the fall with the comfortable feeling that you already know what’s most important: be prepared, punctual, mature; do what you say you’ll do; and exemplify the kind of temperament and tone that one expects from a professional, even if your students—or the other TAs—do not.  In short, don’t disgrace yourself.  The rest you’ll have to figure out as you go along, just like everyone else.  So if there’s one bit of advice that might supersede all else, it’s this: be patient with yourself.  It’s almost that simple.

Almost.  The problem is that all of us—students, TAs, and professors—have that one human flaw of being human, which can cause us to do all kinds of things that we’d rather not do. We make mistakes. The challenge for TAs, especially new ones, is to give our students what they deserve, while also giving ourselves a chance to learn (Something that we deserve!).

Perhaps ironically, we can accomplish that not by placing an excess of responsibility on ourselves, but rather by placing a lot of responsibility on our students.  After all, haven’t we always learned the most from the professors who asked for the most?  Here’s a good starting point: remember that a course syllabus functions like a contract.  So long as you hold up your end of the deal, you have every right to expect the same from your students.  There can be no place for a sense of personal entitlement in the classroom, and the words “I tried really hard” can never transform “C” work into “A” work.  It’s your responsibility to ensure that students know what’s expected of them; it’s their responsibility to ensure that they fulfill those expectations.  Put simply, placing too much responsibility on yourself, and not enough on your students, helps neither you nor them.  I’ve had many students remark—both in person and in course evaluations—that I never let them “get away with anything.”  What that tells me is that, by and large, my students have been reasonable people, entirely capable of taking care of their business, should they choose to do so.  Your students will be the same way.  Give them a chance to prove it to you.  Make them prove it to you.  It’s their job to learn.  You’ll prove yourself merely by allowing that to happen.

Far trickier than the matter of “professional” responsibility is the matter of “personal” responsibility.  As a TA—usually younger and seemingly more approachable than a professor—you might well find yourself being made, even against your will, into the confidant of a troubled student.  At the very least, be prepared for it. Know your obligations. Know what services the university offers to students in need. Offer to walk with a troubled student to the building that houses those services. Be compassionate. I once had a professor advise me to stay out of students’ personal problems; and to an extent, that’s probably good advice. Yet sometimes these things come to you, forcing you once again to confront your humanity. I don’t know if that professor ever had a student mutilate herself just seconds before walking into his class: in essence, asking him for help. But I did. What would you do?  Think about it before it happens.

I’ll close with this reminder.  You’ve already got lots of classroom experience.  You already know what makes for a good class and a good teacher.  While you’re learning what it’s like to stand in front, don’t forget what it’s like to sit in one of the chairs.  Make it about the students, and you’ll make it just fine.

Keith Corbitt
2002 University of Delaware Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient
Department of Foreign Languages & Literature (Summer 2002)
[back]

When I was invited to share my thoughts about the position and my own teaching experiences as a TA I was simultaneously thrilled and scared.  I thought to myself, “What an honor this is, yet who am I to write on such an important issue?  What have I done?  After team teaching for two semesters and teaching my own course during winter session, am I supposed to know the secret to being an effective TA?”  The answer to that question is a profound NO. “Then, what do I write?  What is it that I can share with you, my fellow TAs?”  After pondering the issue for quite a while, it hit me.  I can share with you that even though we may not know the secret to being an effective TA, once we acknowledge that, it can make all our lives as TAs easier.  So I begin…

Obviously, as TAs we don’t automatically know everything about teaching.  If you are like me, you came into your TA position new to the entire concept of teaching.  Trust in knowing that your department realizes this as well.  Don’t feel as if you need to be an expert TA at this point; relax!  We are all on a learning curve, some faster and some slower than others.  This is a golden opportunity to take advantage of your departmental faculty and staff, advisor, and of course, your fellow TAs.  Their knowledge is priceless and most of them were in your shoes at one time or another.  They will not only sympathize with you, but can empathize with your situation.  If your department is anything like mine, and I expect it is, you’ll find an incredibly efficient and kind group of people who are more than willing to point you in the direction where you need to go.  So, my advice is to keep the lines of communication open.  Chat frequently with your “chain of command” (e.g., faculty supervisor, faculty advisor) and take advantage of the training programs that are offered periodically by your department and the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning (CTAL).

You are not expected to be everything to everyone all the time.  Your department realizes this, and believe it or not, so will your students; however, the problem is that we do not always realize it ourselves.  Set boundaries and limitations for yourself.  Try to keep to the schedule you set for yourself.  Where pertinent, make sure all those who need to know specific parts of your schedule (i.e. your students with respect to your office hours) are informed.  Most importantly, make time for yourself.  Don’t forget that you are a student with a personal life.

My teaching does not come before my studies.  As a TA I walk a fine line.  Many people wonder what comes first, the chicken or the egg.  Although, “each to his own”, I personally believe it is the egg.  For myself, I cannot be an effective teacher if I am not an effective student.  As a student of foreign language pedagogy, I study the different methodologies of teaching.  If I haven’t mastered my own studies I find it next to impossible to implement what I have learned in my own class.  At times, the class that I teach is the one I learn from the most.  Throughout the semester you will find times when you will need to wear the “teacher’s hat” and times when it will be more conducive to wear the “student’s hat.”  The trick is knowing when and where those times will pop up.  Know your syllabus and class schedule.  Plan ahead and structure your tasks accordingly.  For example, identify busy times in the semester when you may be grading students’ work and needing to complete your own assignments as well.

In conclusion, there is no magical secret to being a TA.  But there are certain steps each one of us can take to help guide our way to success.  The first step begins with knowing our limitations, and with the help of others turning our deficiencies into strengths.  As I said before, it is an outstanding honor to have been selected as a TA even though the task can seem quite daunting at times; however, it shouldn’t be.  It is an outstanding opportunity and a “no lose” situation.  We are students in the disciplines that we enjoy, teaching other students.  Even though it may seem incredibly basic, I am certain when I say, “Go with the flow and have fun with it.  It is an opportunity of a lifetime, so take advantage of it and get to know your students and your teachers.”  With that, I bid you good luck!

Adebanjo Oriade
2003 UD Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient
Department of Physics & Astronomy (Spring 2003)
[back]

The environment at UD is rich in opportunities to develop yourself as a graduate student, researcher and teacher. The following tips are based on my experiences as a graduate TA at UD and they are intended to help you become an effective TA.

  • Reflect on what works well for you in class and what doesn’t work well and find ways to further develop your teaching skills 
  • Utilize resources both in your department and on campus
    I learned a lot from attending programs that were offered by my department and by the university. Before the semester started our laboratory coordinator gave an enlightening talk and during the following fall semester I participated in a course focused on teaching Physics and Astronomy. I remember in that course I learned things that still serve me.
    Before ever meeting the students, I contact the professor in charge of the course and others involved in the course to learn as much as possible about my particular responsibilities and how the course would be organized and taught. Most professors have meetings with their TAs before classes start.
    The first time I meet my students we agree on how the key things should work within the constraints we are under. I come with a draft that has a number of degrees of freedom. I begin to learn of them as they fix the free degrees in the draft and a final MO emerges. I make them part of the rules and what goes on to encourage team spirit. I talk to my colleagues and friends to learn from them as we share teaching experiences.
  • Develop effective communication skills
    Offer as many opportunities for communication as you are comfortable with. For example, my students can reach me by calling, sending an email message, dropping work or notes in my departmental mailbox and by coming to my office hours. They know when and where they can find me. I can reach my students via email or by calling them depending on the need. Online course management systems, provide further means of communication.
    Try to communicate in a variety of ways based on your audience’s needs. Different people speak different “languages”. Some of us like to listen to information, others rather read the information, others prefer to have it demonstrated or acted out and others may prefer to discuss things.
    Occasionally projecting an air of drama has worked for me in communicating with most of my students. Today dull and boring things are as good as invisible in my view to the average UD student.

    1. Presentations: Keep your presentation simple, exciting and challenging and adjusted to your audience’s background, knowledge level and interests. Know your audience and consider the needs of the different groups in your audience to help them learn. Create opportunities for them to participate.
    2. Feedback: Students love to get feedback; it needs to be prompt. Grade student work in a consistent fashion and return it promptly. I allow my students to reclaim some of their points if they can present a convincing argument or prove that the error they made is realized and that they now know how to do it right.
  • Smile and Be affable
    Try to make others feel comfortable around you. I am enjoying myself while doing most of my TA duties, and I don’t keep my enjoyment to myself. It turns out that it can be infectious – I see signs that some students are having fun too or maybe they are just entertained by those of us having fun. I feel more learning takes place when students enjoy being in class. One can still enforce rules and standards without looking like a mean guy.

I hope my thoughts stimulate ideas that work for you.

Styliani Kafka
1999 University of Delaware Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient
Department of Physics & Astronomy (Summer 1999)
[back]

When I was invited to write about my teaching experience with American students at the University of Delaware, I was happy to do so because I’m going to share with you lessons that I learned from my students.  Both semesters, Fall and Spring 1998-99, I was a lab and discussion session TA for Physics 202, a course for science majors (not including Physics or Engineering). I will share some tips with you that made my students’ learning easier and my job interesting and enjoyable.

  • First Day
    For most of us, the first day in class is difficult, even for faculty. It is the first time you will meet your students, it is the first impression which determines your relationship with them. But this is also a time to talk about yourself and for the students to get to know you.
    Introduce yourself. If you are an international TA, talk a little bit about your country. Talk about your interests, your plans for the future, your research interests. Mention to your students what made you pursue graduate study, what you find exciting in your field. I am not afraid to show my excitement. It is a part of my personality, and I can share it with my students. For example, I would say, ”Hello, my name is Stella, and I am from Athens, Greece. I am a first-year graduate student at the University of Delaware, actually, this is my first year in the US, and I want to get a Ph.D. in Astronomy. I am interested in stars, especially the last stages of stellar evolution.”
  • Guidelines
    Set guidelines. You will work with your class for a semester, which means that you will meet these students two, three or even four times a week. Make things clear from the very beginning. Let them know what your expectations are, what they have to do in order to get a good grade, what you are going to do during the semester and how you want things to be done.  The most important thing is to write everything down. Although the professor distributes a detailed course syllabus at the beginning of the course, make a supplementary syllabus for your students and hand it out on the first day of class. Include your name and e-mail address, your office hours, your grading policy (confirm with the professor first), how you want students to write the homework assignments, how you want them to write their lab reports, how you will grade each part of the homework and the lab report. I also include the point that there will be unannounced quizzes and bonus questions and that the students will be expected to work in groups. I also make transparencies and discuss these guidelines on the first day. The guidelines help avoid misunderstandings and complaints.
  • English Language Skills
    I also talk about my language skills. I admit that I have a strong accent, and I tell the students that I try hard to improve my English. I admit that I find it difficult sometimes to understand their slang, and I ask them to let me know if they don’t understand me. During both semesters, there were moments when I felt that I had to repeat myself two or three times, because the students could not understand the way I was explaining the content. It turned out OK, they understood at the end and my English improved dramatically after each semester.
  • Get to Know Your Students
    I take five minutes before the end of class to learn some things about my students. I distribute blank index cards and I ask them to write down some things about themselves, such as name, e-mail address, major, one thing they like and one thing they dislike in physics. Since I will work with them, I feel that I need to get to know them and their thoughts about physics. The first time I did that activity, I was disappointed when I read their responses. The most positive response was that physics is interesting. I had to respect the fact that my students had their own majors and preferences in science. Since they didn’t expect me to like biology or chemistry, why should I expect from them to like physics? On the other hand, I appreciated their honesty and learned later that one reason why they disliked physics was because they didn’t understand its math. This was a good start for me to be able to help them.
  • Leading Discussion Sessions
    I used different ways to help the students, but most importantly I helped them help themselves. I appreciated every effort they made to understand the material. The students worked in groups. In the discussion sessions, I asked them to prepare their homework problems in advance, and I assigned every group a problem that they needed to solve and present in front of the class. A different person from the group was at the board every time to present. Students had to answer any questions that the rest of the class had, or any questions that I would have. I let their classmates point out errors in the problem’s solution and correct them. I intervened only when it was needed. My students knew how to explain a problem and even debate whether the solution was right or wrong. Sometimes I had two students with two different solutions to the same problem, and the same answer. Not only is that acceptable in physics it also happens all the time.  Sometimes, when I recognized a difficult problem, I solved it at the board and asked students for their help. We ended up solving the problem together. I only needed to explain some new or difficult concepts that confused the students. I paid attention to their expressions. I was never tired to explain a problem again and again, if needed. I’d rather spend the whole hour solving one or two problems and making sure that the students understand them than solving ten problems and not knowing if they understand anything.
    There were some times when the weather was so nice, that no one wanted to go in the classroom to do the discussion session. I was lucky enough to have small white boards and erasable markers, and we did the discussion session in the Mall, outside of Sharp Lab. You can’t imagine how much we all enjoyed it! The discussion was so relaxing and pleasant that the students forgot all about hating physics. You never look at your watch when you are having fun, right?
  • Leading Lab Sessions
    I enjoyed teaching lab more than leading discussions. Since physics is a science based on experiments, the lab was the perfect place to discuss physics problems. At the beginning of each lab, I explained the lab exercise briefly, and told the students what kinds of tables, plots, and results I wanted them to get. In the sciences it is easy to misunderstand something. I always went from group to group, explained the problem they were facing, helped them understand why they had to take measurements and tried to leave them with a challenging, even tricky question. I usually gave them ten minutes to think about and discuss the problem. Then, I would go to the same group, and discuss their answer with them, explain why they were wrong–if they were wrong–and give them another solution if I had a different one. I made it clear from the very beginning that there were no stupid answers. I wanted the students to get into the logic of physics, and every answer they gave was a clue to their thinking. Sometimes, when the experiment was not too long and the equipment not too dangerous, I let them do their own experiments, always following what they were doing. If they found the particular lab setting interesting and they wanted to work with it a little more, why not let them to do so? That is how students learn!
  • Bonus Problems
    From time to time I gave the students individual bonus problems. These problems were not very difficult, but they were more complicated than the ones that they had for their homework, and they could get a bonus point if they made a serious effort to solve these problems. Surprisingly, the students started to ask for more bonus problems themselves!
  • Making Mistakes
    If, during a discussion session or a lab session, you are asked a question and you don’t remember the answer, admit it: “I am sorry, but I don’t remember the answer right now; please let me look at it, and I’ll answer next time we will meet.” You do have the right to not remember something, as long as you will give the students an answer the next time you meet with them. You may also convert the particular question into a bonus question.
  • Discussion with Faculty
    What I found helpful during both semesters were the discussions that I had with the instructors of the course. I discussed any problems that I had in the classroom with them, asked for their opinion or their advice. When they made some changes to the course, I asked them to e-mail me those changes that they wanted to make. This way, I could go back and see whether I forgot to announce something. I have collaborated on a professional basis with the course instructors, and I have learned a lot from their experience in the classroom.
  • Office Hours
    Try to be available to your students at least two hours a week. Discuss with them what are good times for you and them to meet. I ended up having office hours twice a week–one hour each time–in order to be able to meet with my students. In addition, I had extra office hours the day before midterms. These office hours were quite popular, and they helped my students a lot. I also encouraged student questions by e-mail. I encouraged them to send me e-mail if they had any difficulties with the course, and some of them did so. There is an advantage to being a TA: you are closer to your students in age, you are more likely to understand their problems, and you do have the knowledge to help them with the course. Students will listen to your advice, and they will follow your guidance.  My students knew that they had my support, and that they could have my help any time they needed it. Our relationship was based on mutual respect.
    I am proud to say that I believe that at the end of each semester I managed to make my students realize that physics is not something alien and difficult. It is a science that deals with our everyday world. I emphasized applications of the physical laws to their disciplines.

You may wonder why you should bother with these suggestions. You came to this university to study towards your degree. Many of you may never teach in your professional career, and you all care about are your own research and courses. That is very true, but, for me, being a TA was another way of getting away from my courses and my problems, and focusing on something pleasant. And, since I had to teach, why not enjoy it? However, the bigger motivation for me was the example of my own professors. I never had TAs as an undergraduate student, and I appreciated any moment I spent with my professors, asking them questions about physics, getting help on complicated issues, getting advice for my studies. I wanted to give back a part of the help that I got. As a TA, I had a chance to do so, and I enjoyed it a lot. The students can be fun and they work hard when they realize that you do care about their progress. They also have their own unique way of showing their appreciation.

Many thanks to all my students, in Physics 202, Fall 1998 and Spring 1999

Jarret Brachman
Department of Political Science & International Relations (Summer 2002)
[back]

Being a TA is hard work and often emotionally draining, but it’s well worth the effort.  As a third year TA in the social sciences, I have seen my role as that of a bridge between faculty and students.  I’ve found the fun of being a TA lies in the awkward situation within which we find ourselves — both students and teachers at the same time.  Students will probably see you as being able to relate better to them than the professor and therefore feel more comfortable approaching you with requests, complaints and the like.  While as a TA it’s important to establish relationships of trust with students, the temptation to be a buddy should be avoided.  I’ve found that not making a clear distinction between student and TA compromises your effectiveness when it does come time to be the authority figure in the classroom.  Certainly TAs can go the opposite route and see themselves as only a more draconian extension of the professor.  Doing this often limits one’s ability to develop the relationships with students that makes the TA-ship such a unique opportunity.

Juggling the TA responsibilities with your own grad student demands is no easy task, especially in your first semester of being both.  While I never used a date book before grad school, I now can’t live without one.  Organization is the key to success here.  You will have to keep track of your own classes, the TA class which you’ll have to attend the lectures (and keep notes), office hours which you’ll hold as well as additional appointments for those students who can’t make your office hours, meetings with your TA faculty advisor and all of life’s other demands.  In addition, you’ll want to know when the grading will hit so you can block out some time for it; grading is a time-consuming activity.

There are many resources on campus to assist you.  The TA conference provides invaluable insight and the CTAL offers ongoing sessions that are both relevant and useful.  Don’t hesitate to ask senior TAs in your department for advice when you run into troubles.  Most importantly, I’ve found that the best TA experiences emerge when I have an open line of communication with my TA professor.  I try to be honest and up-front about when I have the most time for different tasks.  Remember, your own classes are the most important and professors, for the most part, will understand that.  Since teaching is a skill I personally want to develop further, I have made a point of asking my TA professors for additional responsibilities like helping to write exams as well as getting to lecture during the semester.

From my personal experience, if a TA cares (or at least seems to care) about the material being taught, is readily accessible to the students and seen as dependable by the professor, the experience will be quite rewarding and useful to you.  Good luck and most importantly, have fun doing it!

Jamie Longazel
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice (Summer 2010)[back]

The Importance of Mindset for Students and Teachers[4]

“I’m not a math person,” a student who we’ll call David told me when I was a first-year teaching assistant in a research methods and statistics course, “I’m definitely going to fail.” “Well you’ll have to get a C or else you’ll need to retake the course,” I responded, “so be sure to get help if you need it.” At the time I thought it was good advice – good enough, at least, to provide David with enough motivation to pass the class (which he did) and to make me feel as though I already had the markings of a competent teacher.

I recently attended the Lilly Conference on College & University Teaching and Learning and realized retrospectively that the advice I had given David that day was downright poor – not just for David, but also for myself. Each year, hundreds of passionate college and university teachers gather to discuss the most effective methods for student learning at the Lilly Conference – a must-attend event for anyone who is serious about improving their pedagogy skills, TAs and faculty alike. The theme was “evidence-based teaching and learning” and many attendees brought cutting-edge work in psychology, neuroscience, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to bear on their presentations.

One of the most compelling ideas for improving student learning was based on the psychological research of Carol S. Dweck.  According to Dweck, learning boils down not to how smart you actually are and not to how smart you think you are, but rather the extent to which you imagine your intelligence to be malleable. That is to say, those who possess a more flexible vision of learning – what Dweck calls a “growth mindset” – tend to perform best, cope with failure effectively, and gravitate toward new challenges rather than being satisfied with petty accomplishments. On the other hand, those whose mindsets are “fixed” tend to do well until they hit a road block and they favor tasks which they have excelled at in the past thus avoiding new challenges at all cost. Dweck’s work is ground breaking in that it questions our assumptions about multiple intelligences, talent, and right/left brain orientations and it casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that certain people naturally perform certain tasks well. Her research is nuanced in that it views success as the result of practice and practice as something that happens when one is inspired to learn.

What I found most promising about this perspective and its implications for teaching and learning is that mindsets, like growth-oriented minds, are malleable. This implies that we as teachers and teaching assistants can foster growth mindsets in our students. We do this by keeping standards for students high (but not too high), focusing on product and process, familiarizing students with this perspective thereby questioning their taken-for-granted assumptions about their own limitations, and by flaunting our own growth mindset in front of students so as to encourage imitation.

When I told David about the importance of his grade and encouraged him to “get help” what I was effectively doing, then, was wrongly acknowledging, along with him, that his potential was indeed limited. What I should have done is told David (and the class, for that matter) about the importance of mindset and that not being a “math person” was nonsense. Not being good at math merely suggests that one has had little experience actually doing math. Those with a strong desire to learn and a knack for challenge can figure out even the most difficult statistics with a little practice.

As TA it is important to be attentive to your students’ mindsets and to work toward fostering strong growth mindsets in all students. You’ll come across many students like David who are convinced that they are not capable of succeeding and it will be your obligation not to join them in selling themselves short, but rather to convince them that they are indeed capable.

Seeing David’s troubles in a new light was eye-opening for me. What really caught my attention when I reflected back on that day with this new perspective in mind, however, was the realization that David was not the only character in my story whose mindset was fixed. I had a fixed mindset, too. In hindsight, as a TA I spent very little time thinking about how I could become a better teacher. Instead, I opted to focus a disproportionate amount of my attention on my studies, the one area where I knew I could succeed. Teaching was initially, in my mind, a task that diverted me away from my work rather than a fresh challenge. I already thought I was a competent teacher and I assumed that any teaching ability I had at that point (or would ever have) was already predetermined. Either you teach well or you don’t, I thought. And since I was a pretty personable guy who had made his way through the good part of a year without a catastrophe, I figured I was probably on the path to being a “good” teacher. Little did I realize, however, that just as David wrongly attributed his unwillingness to learn statistics to not being a “math person” so too did I fail to recognize that I was giving poor advice because I assumed that I was a “good teacher.” I suspect I may not be alone in this regard.

One of Dweck’s most insightful lessons is a warning against telling students that they are smart. Doing so, she cautions, will lead them to believe that their intelligence is indeed fixed, not malleable. It will also make them less equipped to cope with failure and more likely to prefer tasks that guarantee success. If you’ve made it to graduate school, chances are you’ve had people telling you that you are smart for many years now. This advice, albeit flattering, may have held you back, Dweck would argue. Sure, you have had continued academic success in your field of study, but could this be a result of your tendency to prefer tasks which you have excelled at in the past? The point I am trying to make is that as TAs we need to fully appreciate that one doesn’t become a good teacher overnight and we need to be cognizant of the fact that we can become good teachers if we put forth the necessary effort.

I’ve overheard too many conversations among TAs that misattribute problems they have had in the classroom to “those darn undergrads” with the assumption being that graduate students are smart, undergrads are not. I’m sure by now you’ve heard such conversations as well. My advice to you is this: Don’t fall for this trap. The amount of skill we have in a particular area is relative to the amount of practice we have in that area. Undergraduates, obviously, don’t have the same competency in your field of study that you do (just as you may not have the same level of competency as your professors), but their competency is not lesser because they lack intelligence; it is lesser because they haven’t spent as much time studying as you have. Realize this. And work toward inspiring your students to passionately explore your field. In this same way, you may not yet be a wonderful teacher. Accept this. And with zeal, tenacity, and a strong growth mindset make becoming a great teacher a new and exciting challenge.

David Lane
Sociology & Criminal Justice (Summer 2009)[back]

A guide for graduate TA professional development

Welcome to the University of Delaware! The tips and advice that I have to offer for being an effective TA are issues that most of us will face throughout are careers in academia. These ‘tips’ are derived from the experiences and situations that other TAs and myself have encountered throughout our studies.

  • Setting appropriate boundaries is something that even experienced teaching assistants and lecturers face each new semester. For many of us we are only a year or less removed from the positions that our students occupy at the university. With this change comes a different set of expectations and demands from students and faculty alike. It is often tricky to understand these changes. There are several different demands that will be placed upon you as a graduate student from both faculty and students.
  • First, there are expectations from faculty members that you help them in a manner that they consider to be conducive to their teaching style. In order to do this, be clear with your professor about your experiences and qualifications as a TA. If you need assistance with grading, grading procedures (these vary from professor to professor), a particular method or subject, or have concerns about your ability to comprehend or convey the course material speak with the professor. Also discuss with your faculty supervisor what subjects you are interested in and what types of activities you would consider conducting in the classroom. Some of us may not have the skills (or are uncomfortable) to be adept at stepping into a 200-person lecture hall and give a lecture as one of our first tasks. Be clear and upfront with your mentors in order to have an effective working relationship.
  • As a graduate student you are still a student, but the line between student and professor becomes blurry. In other words, your position is one of a student and often involves personal ties to one or more professors. This can often make the working environment a bit awkward especially if expectations are not met or certain boundaries are breached or become tenuous. Through effective communication with your professors manage your relationships to ensure that all are satisfied. While it is completely acceptable to be friends with your professor, remember that you are also still a student and they will be most likely grade your work some time in the future. Remember that each student and faculty member has their own comfort level in regards to personal issues and these should be respected.
  • Talk with and listen to your students. As far as talking to your students, you do not need to know all of them personally. With many students in each class there will be a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences that affect the classroom environment. By talking to your students you can gauge what materials they do or do not understand. What is important about talking to your students is that you must also listen to what your students have to say. They often can teach you more about the topic at hand than you can read out of a book. By listening to their questions you can develop yourself as an academic and understand their struggles. Because of their varied experiences students have differing needs from an instructor when it comes to their own personal learning style. By listening to your students you can be more aware of these demands. It is also easy to become jaded and “blow off” students concerns after hearing innumerable excuses (and there will be days when you feel this way), but take students seriously and treat them with respect.
  • I’ve found it helpful to show up early and stay after lecture. One of the easiest ways to build rapport with students is to demonstrate that you care about them as a student in your course. Arrive at lecture several minutes early, chat with students, answer questions for them, and help those that are in need. These simple gestures demonstrate to students that you are passionate about the material and willing to help them learn. When you are in the presence of your students act as a model, be attentive, and show them how a college student should act.
  • Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Working as a teaching assistant is just a different form of a learning experience. Ask your faculty members for opportunities that will develop your skills as a professional. These could be a simple as creating a test, grading essays, or as complex as teaching several lectures. Use these experiences as places to make mistakes in an atmosphere where faculty can give you feedback to improve your own skills. This is also a time for you to experiment with different teaching techniques and receive feedback from both students and faculty. By having a good relationship with your mentor you will receive the feedback that will help you develop as an academic and begin your career.
  • Write down and save tentative ideas. This suggestion has less to do with the actual tasks you need to perform and more with your academic development.  A database these tentative ideas will help you to reflect on problems that you encounter and issues about how to teach subject matter to students. This type of record will allow to you change lectures and may lead to new ways of teaching the same material. This reflection and evaluation of past successes, failures, and possible ideas enables you to teach yourself how to become a better lecturer and academic.
  • Be yourself, have fun, and remember to be humble in your interactions with those around you.

Chanele Moore
Sociology & Criminal Justice (Summer 2007)
[back]

Things I wish I knew my first year at University of Delaware

  • When there are professional development seminars, workshops, or networking opportunities (either in your department or campus wide) that you can accommodate in your schedule, attend them. These are opportunities to learn more about UD specifically and academia in general, how to be a successful graduate student, how to get a job, etc.
  • Don’t make the TA conference your first and last interface with CTAL. When they offer a seminar or a TA rap session, go. You may think it periphery in the moment, but activities like this help socialize you into your graduate training and postgraduate career. Plus you’re talking with graduate students outside your department and get different perspectives on your experiences.
  • Especially for Masters students: Don’t take your first summer off. Catch up on your journal reading. Do some writing. Work with a faculty member on research. Start working on your thesis. Just don’t do nothing!
  • Listen to senior graduate students’ opinions about faculty members, courses, and research opportunities, but keep an open mind and form your own opinions.
  • Depending on department culture and to the best of your ability, try to engage in a working relationship with your colleagues (other graduate students). Be kind, make friends. Try not to alienate people. These are the people who can be a huge support system to you – and you to them in turn (giving practice research talks, reading and revising papers, preparing for comprehensive exams, talking about your thesis).
  • If your advisor gives you an opportunity to teach, take it and make the most of the opportunity. If a teaching opportunity is not formally made available, approach your advisor or department chairperson about your interest in teaching and suggest a course that you’d be interested in offering.
  • No matter what you hear other people say, the health center is not such a bad place. If you are ill, go and get the medical attention you need.
  • If you are having problems, get the help you need. Ask questions, get feedback from individuals you’re comfortable with and who will keep things confidential, as appropriate. Find mentor(s) within and/or outside your discipline. Don’t suffer in silence.
  • Work hard and play hard. Get your rest, eat balanced meals and exercise. Make sure you have fun!

Yuning (Bonnie) Wu
Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice (Summer 2006)
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Who says, “Interest is the best instructor?” Simple, but true. As a TA or a course instructor, I keep reminding myself that delivering knowledge is not my only purpose—arising students’ interest and motivating them to learn by themselves is more important. It is analogous to giving them the key to an unknown building, and it depends on them to explore this new building. Following, Ill share with you a few thoughts about how to make a class engaging for both the students and yourself.

  • Class discussions
    If you are an instructor in the social sciences and you have a small to mid-size class, it is helpful to engage the students in discussion about the content. Sometimes discussions may evolve into debates, which is excellent, as long as the students respect each others’ idea s and talk with each other in a respectful manner. I use class discussions to provoke the students to think. For example, when the students agree with one theory or policy, I would tell them the opponents’ argument, thus lead them to think about the other side of story. As we know, in the social sciences we do not find absolute right or wrong answers to questions as the social world is fascinatingly complex and so are the players. Take the concept of justice for example. Is there justice for all? Does justice mean the outcome of a case? Does it mean the process? Should justice be focused on the defendant’s side? Should it be focused on the victim’s side? You will be amazed how quickly students learn to think critically about the content.
  • Active learning
    Besides discussion, I found active learning activities helpful. For example, I may give the students a case and ask them to engage in mock jury deliberations. Using role playing, they get a better understanding of what a jury deliberation is like and what being a juror entails. In addition, showing documentaries or movies works well as visual images can be more powerful than words. After watching the movie, I will ask students to relate what they saw to what they learned in class.
  • Sense of humor in presentation
    It is helpful when the instructor includes humor in her or his presentations. This is easier said than done though, especially for someone whose native language is not English. I consider myself quite a boring person when speaking in English. I try to memorize some fun details related to class topics, such as what physical test you need to pass to become a police officer, or what a Chinese courtroom looks like, or how the Supreme Court Justices are seated when the Supreme Court is in session. Such stories allow for fun breaks in the middle of a lecture and help make the materials more interesting and memorable for the students.
  • On a final note, be passionate about teaching and show your interest to your students. Passion and interest definitely help you connect with your students and tend to be contagious.

[1]: Based on 1998 TA Panel Discussion with John Bayalis, Communication; Karen Gaffney, English; Miao-Jung Ou, Mathematical Sciences; Steve Wrenn, 1998 Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient, Chemical Engineering

[2]: For students’ unedited responses to the survey questions contact the CTAL for a copy of Students’ Voices on Learning and Teaching

[3]: Composed by Pamela McGillivray, Department of English

[4]: Reference: Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.

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