The Lecture

The most traditional form of college teaching, and still the most common, is the formal lecture. Nearly all university courses, even those which are dominated by discussions or lab work, require the instructor at one point or another to deliver a lecture. Contemplating their first lecture frightens many new TAs and causes much unnecessary anxiety. Thoughts of abject failure—losing one's train of thought, omitting vital material, boring the class—plague many TAs. As with so many other aspects of teaching, careful preparation can at least lessen the problems that lecturers may encounter.

Before beginning to compile material for a lecture, it is useful to pose a few questions: What is the purpose of the lecture? Is it meant to introduce entirely new material, or is it intended to summarize material already covered? Is the lecture an expansion of materials covered by the text, or is it a review? How is the substance of the lecture related to the text or the lab materials? The answers to such questions will help to determine the focus of your lecture, and then you may begin to shape your lecture.

One of the toughest problems faced by new teachers is in judging the abilities of their class. The material presented must be challenging enough so that students are not bored, yet not so difficult that they are lost, overwhelmed, or discouraged. Striking a reasonable balance between these two points may take practice—and even experienced teachers sometimes misjudge—but you will soon hit your stride.

Many new instructors tend to overprepare because they think they must know everything written about a topic before they can teach it, or they are afraid that the students will ask difficult questions. TAs should realize that it is always possible to say to students, "I don't know, but I'll find out." In addition, remember that students are probably not as interested as you in the current scholarly debates and controversies. Later on, when they have a fuller understanding of the field, they may be interested, but first give them the basic information. On the other hand, you do not wish to insult your students by presenting a lecture so elementary that the students barely need to listen (and certainly won't as the semester progresses). You should assume that your audience is composed of intelligent, interested adults who, while they may not have deep knowledge of the field, are capable and desirous of learning.

Once you have decided upon the depth of material to be covered, you can begin to prepare your notes. Perhaps the worst way to give a lecture is by writing out the entire "script" beforehand and reading it to the class. Unless you are an exceptionally gifted speaker, this will alienate and bore your students. Beginning instructors may feel more confident with a typed text in front of them, but this confidence is gained at the loss of some excitement and much spontaneity.

Instead, prepare a good outline for yourself, including all the main topics, sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, illustrations, examples, and anecdotes, detailed enough so that you will not unintentionally omit anything of importance. For some teachers, four to five pages are more than enough for an eighty minute class while others may need more or fewer. Using an outline rather than a prepared text allows you to pace your lectures. If a point at the beginning produces a flood of questions, time can be made up later in the lecture by eliminating some of the less important points. This is almost impossible to do if you are reading a tightly organized essay/lecture.

Do not try to cover too much in one lecture. Thoroughly explaining two or three points may be considered a real achievement. During the second half of the semester, when instructors begin to feel the pressures of time, they may try to cram two lectures into one. This usually does not save time in the end because the students rarely absorb it all, and you will probably end up spending time in the following weeks answering questions and clearing up the confusion caused by the double lecture.

Although instructors are discouraged from presenting an essay as a lecture, a lecture should be modeled on the basic elements of a good essay, with a clearly identified beginning, middle, and end. Students need to understand very specifically what you propose to talk about and how it relates to other course materials. One piece of advice, found in almost every text on teaching, offers three steps to preparing a successful lecture: Tell them what you are going to say. Say it. Tell them what you said.

Many teachers like to begin class with an amusing story, an anecdote, or a news item that is related to materials already covered or about to be covered in the class. This works as an effective transitional device for the students, easing them gently from whatever they have just left—their previous class, their job, their friends—to the work at hand in your class. Beginning the class in this way helps students to relax and makes them more receptive to the work that follows.

In editing your lecture so that it fits into the allocated time, avoid cutting out illustrations, examples, and anecdotes. A successful lecture is one that helps the student to comprehend the point, and often an apt illustration or example can make the difference between merely covering the material and actually teaching it. Students remember well-chosen examples and vivid illustrations.

It is a good idea when planning a lecture class to reserve some time for students' questions and responses. If you plan to cover two main topics, pause midway to give the students a chance to ask questions or make comments. Reserve time at the beginning of each class for questions. Remember that the purpose of a good lecture is to make students think, to raise questions, and to provoke responses. Allow time for this to happen. A successful lecture does not remain a monologue but develops into a dialogue.

What do students want from a lecture? First and foremost, they want to understand the material presented, to feel that the time spent in a classroom has been worthwhile. To insure this, the materials must be presented in a clear and organized way. Although you should strive to make your lectures seem natural, almost conversational, they should never be sloppy. Give your students an outline of each lecture. Either write the outline on the board or provide the students with a photocopied handout. This outline can be a distillation of your own outline, perhaps listing only the main ideas. The benefits of this handout outweigh the small amount of time that it will take you to prepare it. The students can follow your lecture more easily and identify the major and minor points without difficulty. In addition, just having a piece of paper in hand gives many students a feeling of confidence in the instructor's organization of the lecture and of the entire course.

A lecture that is coherent and organized further benefits from a lively presentation. Enthusiasm is always appreciated. Teachers, like any other public performer, must work on their delivery and movements. If your speech is difficult to understand or if your delivery unanimated, you may soon lose the interest of the class. At least at first, check and evaluate yourself regularly. Below are some of the things you should be aware of when you begin to lecture:

  1. Concentrate on your audience, not your own fears. Think about what they are experiencing rather than your own anxiety.

  2. Don't be static. A lecturer who stands or sits almost motionless for the entire class is a lecturer who had better have some pretty exciting material to keep the class interested. Use natural hand gestures as you speak and move around the class a bit, at least from the desk to the blackboard.

  3. Make eye contact with the students. Avoid keeping your eyes glued to your notes or fixed on some invisible point on the back wall or ceiling of the room. Making eye contact with the students will help you gauge how the lecture is being received by the students.

  4. Listen to your voice. Do you speak loudly enough and enunciate distinctly? Does your tone of voice change when emphasis is needed, or do you speak in a monotone? If you sound bored and uninterested, your students are apt to lose interest. Do not speak too quickly when trying to cover a large amount of material. If the students cannot understand you, they will not understand the material.

  5. Avoid filler words and phrases like "er," "uh," "oh," "hum," "you know." It is far better to pause than to fall into these annoying patterns of speech. Beware of repeating the same words over and over again—"really," "certainly," "actually," "whatever"—so that they become naggingly repetitious.

  6. Do you use the blackboard/whiteboard or other audio-visual aids to break up the monotony of one voice speaking? Even the most exciting public speaker knows that visuals are a sure way to regain an audience whose attention is fading.

  7. Always remember: you are talking to real human beings. Treat them as you would like to be treated.

Table of Contents

The Discussion Class

Discussion classes may at first seem a godsend to the new and nervous TA; however, running an effective discussion group often requires more skill, preparation, and perceptiveness than lecturing. Relying upon the students' participation and, to some extent, their good will, the discussion class will sink or swim at the level of student involvement. It is up to the teacher, therefore, to insure as full participation in the class as is possible, something which can be fostered through careful planning, unflagging enthusiasm, and a little bit of luck. Although it may seem contradictory to suggest that planning is needed for a kind of learning that seems based on a spontaneous exchange of ideas, there is always the prospect that the class may degenerate into a listless and undirected conversation that fails to achieve the educational goals you have set.

The shape of any discussion class is determined in large part, of course, by the kind of class you are teaching. In some courses—many humanities courses, for example—lively exchange of ideas is the very heart of the class, with most of the class time devoted to class discussion based on assigned readings. The students are assigned material to read, and they then come into class prepared to talk, to question, analyze, or offer opinions. In other courses, discussion forms a less central but no less important function. Many times the discussion class is an adjunct to a larger lecture class, allowing students to investigate crucial points in more depth than is possible in the lecture hall. In between these two types of classes are a whole range of classes which use discussion to a greater or lesser degree. Not all subject matter lends itself to a discussion. A teacher interested in conveying specific information and facts would do well to give the students the information in a lecture or a handout and then, perhaps, use that material as the basis for a future discussion.

All instructors who make use of the discussion format—and, at one time or another, that is almost every instructor—must begin with a few basic questions. These questions will simplify and define the aims of your class and help you to begin to plan your class.

The pivotal question is: what is the purpose of the discussion? Is it meant to reinforce ideas introduced during a lecture or from the reading or to explain them in more detail? Is the purpose to allow students to make connections between the abstractions presented in the text and their own lives, or are discussions meant to introduce new material, to start the students thinking in a new direction? How are the topics under discussion related to the overall aims of the course? In some cases, these questions will be answered by the course supervisor, so it is necessary for the TA to consult with him or her before the semester begins and to maintain regular contact over the semester (see TA/Faculty Relations). Having begun to formulate answers to these questions, the TA is ready to start planning a discussion class.

Before conducting a discussion class, instructors should make an outline of what they hope to cover in the class. This outline need not be written in stone; the TA should be flexible in moving from topic to topic and in allowing the students some latitude in the range of their discussion. With as much thoroughness as is required in preparing a lecture, an instructor should go through the details of the discussion, deciding which points are absolutely necessary, which are less important, and which can be omitted entirely. Once these priorities have been established, the instructor should formulate thought-provoking questions that may lead the students toward the decided-upon topics without dictating responses. One of the keys to a good discussion group is recognition of the fact that it is not a lecture. Do not panic if your first question fails to produce the desired response. Give the students time to think, to formulate an answer. If students seem lost, recap a bit so that they may better see what you are proposing with the question. Like a good conversation, a good discussion must evolve naturally.

In spite of all your preparations, a discussion class will only limp along unless the students are motivated to participate. Occasionally, a teacher will encounter a class that for one reason or another never catches fire, but most classes with a little encouragement and planning profit from discussions.

It is important for a teacher to establish a classroom climate conducive to the free exchange of ideas. Students should feel able to give wrong answers without being humiliated, to explore ideas without being censored. If the class seems reluctant to join in the discussion, try placing the desks in a circle. Having the students face each other forces them into making eye contact, into involvement with the rest of the group, rather than leaving them feeling isolated and disconnected. The other benefit of placing the desks in a circle is that the importance and the authority of the instructor seems temporarily minimized; the teacher becomes less threatening because he or she is no longer a dominating presence in the front of the class. By sitting down with your students, you broaden the burden of authority—you are still the teacher, but you seem more approachable and the students feel, if not an equal responsibility, at least an increased sense of complicity in the class.

Be encouraging to your students. Show them that you are paying attention to what they are saying. Make eye contact. Offer an appropriate comment when they finish speaking. Do not just allow them to speak and then go on to another topic without acknowledging their contribution. Make positive comments about their responses if possible. Use discretion, however; do not say 'very good' if the answer was not very good. Students dislike this type of dishonesty and will begin to distrust and devalue all that the teacher says.

The enthusiasm of the teacher for the topic will almost always spark student interest. Enthusiasm does not mean effusiveness or exuberance but a keen interest in and excitement about the subject matter. If a teacher's manner is uninterested and uninteresting, even the most exciting topic will fall flat. A quiet, reserved teacher is as capable of projecting intensity for and involvement with a subject as a volatile and outspoken one. Do not try to cover your genuine interest in your discipline with a facade of detachment or with sarcastic comments. Express your ideas and feelings honestly, and your students will soon follow your example.

Table of Contents

The Recitation Class

Another form of discussion class is the recitation class, a small sub-group of a larger lecture class, which meets regularly as a supplement to the weekly lectures. Found primarily in the sciences, social sciences, and mathematics departments, the lecture sections are usually taught by faculty who supervise the TAs responsible for their recitation classes. The faculty member will generally determine the purpose of the recitation class, although the TA will shape the class in an individual way.

In these classes, as in all other discussion classes, the ends dictate the means. What is the class meant to do? Is the class period a review session meant to further explain material already covered by the lecture? Is the TA meant to introduce new material or to broaden the students' ideas of specific aspects of the lecture material?

Running an efficient recitation requires the TA to have a firm grasp of the course material and to keep up with the course readings, labs, and lectures. Most departments require TAs to attend all lectures for the course, an extremely useful practice. Some TAs may grumble at having to spend time sitting through introductory lectures, but there are sound reasons for doing so. First, although the syllabus may give TAs a general idea of what is being covered in class, only attendance at the lectures will show the depth and quality of the coverage, allowing the TA to estimate the materials to be covered in the next recitation. By attending lectures the TA is assured knowledge of any potentially confusing event in the lecture (a misinterpreted word or phrase, a weakly presented blackboard demonstration). Only a shared witness can penetrate students' often inadequate recall of events.

The TA is also in a position to analyze whether the lecture was a good one. Were all points clearly and comprehensively explained? If so, the next recitation class may include a quick review of some of the main issues, followed by an application or extension of the idea. If it was not a good lecture—muddy explanations, confusing organization, too many irrelevant digressions—then the TA may need to spend the next recitation clarifying and developing this material. A TA will soon begin to recognize those points in the lecture that will most likely present problems to the students, but the TA should be prepared in the recitation to answer all questions, not just those he or she thinks will present problems. As one Physics Department TA pointed out, "Be prepared for the worst. If you go to class having prepared 95% of the problems, you can be sure that a student will have a question about the problem you didn't do. And that problem will be a tricky one."

Many TAs are surprised at first to discover that the advanced problems which they find fascinating are not really of interest to an undergraduate in an introductory course; remembering how basic the introductory course is will help you to avoid presenting materials too advanced or esoteric for your students. Finally, attending lectures gives you an opportunity to observe a more experienced teacher, one you may (or may not) choose to use as a model in the future.

No matter how well prepared you are, students will not respond if they perceive the class as a waste of time. Let the students know at the beginning of the semester that the recitation class is not just a rehash of the lecture but an opportunity for the students to grapple with problems they may not thoroughly understand, to broaden their knowledge of concepts, and to give them some practice in applying the things they have learned. Demonstrate that you are sensitive to their concerns and that they will have some control over the materials and topics covered in the class.

Some instructors find that a good way to involve everyone in the class is to ask the students to be ready at the beginning of the class with a question that they would like to have answered. You might start the class by writing all of these questions on the board (in your own shorthand). This takes only a few minutes and will give you an idea of the areas where students are having problems and give them a sense of participating in the shaping of the class. As you write the questions down, group them according to subject matter. Quite frequently, you will find that several students have questions about the same material.

An alternate way of involving students is by outlining on the board the topics that you think need to be covered and having the students rank them, deciding which they find the most urgent. This method has the advantage of giving you more control over the contents of the class while still allowing the students some voice.

Table of Contents

The Laboratory Section

Teaching a laboratory section demands all of the skills necessary for teaching a lecture or discussion session and more. A lab instructor must first know the materials of the class, which means working closely with the lecturer, attending lectures, and keeping up with the course readings. Lab instructors who also teach recitation classes will have a good idea of how much the students know. If you are not teaching a recitation, however, speak to some TAs who are; they will be able to give you a realistic idea of what the students understand and where their weaknesses lie. It is essential that before you send your students to work on a lab demonstration they understand its objectives, its relationship to matters that have been introduced in the lectures, and the methods they are to use in the lab. Your opening lecture should also point the student to the kinds of analysis and evaluation he or she are expected to make in the lab; the point, after all, is not the lab itself, but the results, correct or incorrect, which lead to various interpretations.

Careful planning is essential in teaching a successful lab section. Preparing a brief lecture to begin the lab, one that helps to focus the students on the problem at hand and covers all of the points that need to be articulated without overwhelming the students, is a difficult task. So that students understand the end goal of the lab and do not feel that they are merely repeating a meaningless exercise, prepare handouts or use the blackboard to provide them with a clear overview of the demonstration. Many instructors like to use a few minutes at the beginning of the section to review the lab from the previous week and establish some connections between that lab and the current one. (It is rarely worthwhile to review a lab at the end of a period; by then, many students have gone off, some are still working, others cleaning up—in other words, to return to the order of the beginning of the period is almost impossible.)

Most lab courses have a supervisor who is responsible for the labs, holds weekly lab preparation meetings, and is available to help with problems. You, however, are ultimately responsible for the success and safety of your own lab. A lab instructor should always go through all of the steps of the demonstration at least once before conducting each lab class. This alerts the instructor to possible problems the students may encounter. If you teach a lab later in the week, you may wish to ask other lab instructors where their students encountered difficulties. (You can be sure that every lab presents its own difficulties.) For labs that necessitate the use of unfamiliar equipment, the TA is required to take time to demonstrate its use, thoroughly and carefully. In some labs, students may be reluctant to handle the required materials because of squeamishness or fear; in others, they are just so confused by the topic that they are unable to interpret the results in any meaningful way. Knowing beforehand where trouble can be expected saves valuable time.

Lab instructors should arrive early for their labs to make sure that all of the equipment is in working order and the needed supplies are available. Although instructors should make their students clean up after the lab, you will want to double-check before your class begins to make sure that all equipment is intact. Do not depend on someone else to do this for you. When something goes wrong, as it invariably will, it is you who must salvage the lab for the students.

Before the students begin work, it is often necessary to organize them into groups. Do not leave this to chance. Take charge. Demonstrations that require the students to move from table to table should also be planned carefully; otherwise, chaos will almost certainly reign as all the students rush to the first table.

While the students are working, your presence should be felt in the room. Do not just sit in the front of the class, waiting for students to come to you with problems. Circulate around the room, making sure that all of the students are making progress. Ask them how they are doing and what they are doing. Take an active role, offering suggestions and assistance when needed.

Lab safety must always be a major concern. All TAs need to be informed about the necessary safety precautions, since the lab instructor is responsible for the safety of the students. Although vigilance is necessary in all labs, extra caution must be exercised in introductory courses.

Anyone who teaches a course faces the problem of students with different levels of interest in, and commitment to, the class. In a lab course, however, inattentive students pose a real danger to themselves and the entire class. Clowning around in the lab can cause serious trouble, and it is up to you to see that order is maintained. Warn students at the beginning of class about any potentially hazardous materials they will be handling. Write warnings on the blackboard and repeat them often throughout the class. Make sure that students wear safety goggles and other equipment as necessary. If you are not sure about the possible dangers of a material, ask the professor in charge of the course. You cannot be too careful. Students who refuse to comply with safety regulations should not be allowed to continue with the lab.

Teaching a lab is not all worry and work; it has its rewards too. Perhaps more so than in any other class, a lab teacher will witness the excitement of active learning. Students, glad to be participating rather than just taking notes, become involved in the work. Also, the more informal atmosphere of the lab, with students often working in pairs or teams, makes it easier for students and instructors to get to know each other.

Table of Contents

The Foreign Language Class

Most foreign language departments in the university have already established ongoing training and support programs for their TAs. As language courses, especially introductory ones, require the mastery of certain lessons in a set sequence, the course outline is often determined beforehand and is common to all instructors teaching that course. Within these limits, however, the TA will certainly find room for individual creativity.

New TAs would do well to recall their first foreign language class and the feelings they had at that time. Try to remember that sinking feeling in your stomach as you were suddenly faced with the prospect of learning a whole new grammar and vocabulary. Perhaps more than in any other cAurse in the university, the students in introductory language classes feel vulnerable and insecure. In a culture where communication has increasingly come to mean verbal communication, a situation where a person is suddenly unable to communicate coherently can be profoundly disturbing. The task of the instructor is to enable the students to get beyond their fears to a state where language acquisition is possible.

One way to make language classes less threatening and reduce some of the tensions inherent in this kind of course is to use audio-visual materials and props. Try to be creative in choosing materials. Besides the standard audio-visual materials (e.g., slides, films, videos, and CDs), TAs should consider including cartoons, posters, food products, advertisements, toys, games, and whatever else they can bring to a classroom to enliven it.

Language classes are usually divided into discrete segments and most teachers agree that, as a rule, these separate parts of the class are a necessity. Although the teacher may certainly vary the class occasionally, the many demands of learning a language are best served by maintaining these divisions: introduction, drill, and conversation.

Language classes, like all others, should begin informally, giving the students a chance to settle in and make the mental transition to the material at hand. The instructor may wish to begin with an anecdote, a joke, or an observation—in the target language, of course. This first part of the class can also be used for taking attendance, making or returning assignments, going over homework, or clearing up unfinished business from the previous class. It is pedagogically sound to conduct the entire class in the foreign language, so that students do not view language acquisition as an empty classroom exercise, divorced from the matters of everyday life. Language teachers have a very real advantage in getting to know their students through informal conversation in the language at the beginning of a class.

Drills, which are an essential part of every introductory language class, offer perhaps the greatest challenge to the teacher. Nothing is duller than a rote drill. The TA who can make this part of the class interesting and lively has accomplished much. Be imaginative. If possible, use visuals and props during the drills. Try to personalize the drills, using students' names and relating the drills to their individual interests. This evidence of your interest in them as individuals will make your students feel more comfortable, and you will be rewarded by more intense student involvement in the class. This section of the class is the place to introduce new material, which should always be as closely related to the drills as possible.

Conversation is, of course, at the heart of every language course. Engaging your students in conversation may be difficult at the beginning, but with a little encouragement and playfulness on your part, they will usually respond. Be sure that you converse; questions and answers are not a conversation. Praise your students when you can. If they perform well, let them know it. Breaking the class up into small groups, or even pairs, for conversation sometimes helps overcome inhibitions; if the students make mistakes, they are only failing in front of a small group, not the whole class.

It is often useful to have students talk about their lives outside the classroom or to role-play in order to practice conversation in various everyday situations. In addressing "personal" questions to students or assigning roles for conversation practice, instructors should take care to avoid embarrassing the students. Avoid overly personal questions. Be careful about gender stereotyping and sensitive to matters of sexual orientation. For example, it should not be assumed that all students date members of the opposite sex. Such assumptions might embarrass, offend, or anger students and may serve to distract these students from their efforts to learn the language (see Our Common Purposes).

To a large extent, the climate that the TA establishes determines the success of the class. The TA must be sensitive to the inhibitions and embarrassments experienced by someone first learning a language, yet he or she must still be able to facilitate conversation. Give the students time to answer your questions and to respond to your statements. Do not help them before they need it; let them make mistakes and then gently correct them. Never lose your temper or answer sarcastically. Avoid monopolizing the class conversations, showing off your own fluency. Listen carefully to student comments and give a thoughtful response.

Beginning to learn a language must be seen as a series of small steps and minor victories. Language teachers should cheer these victories and make an extra effort to give encouragement, confidence, and support to their students.

Table of Contents

In The Field

In a number of disciplines, work in the laboratory or classroom is enriched by trips into the field to explore the subject matter of the class in a hands-on way. Amy Clifton, a former TA who received her Ph.D. from the Geology Department, offers the following guidelines to consider when planning to take students into the field:

  • Students should be properly prepared before going out into the field...know where they are going and what they will see before they get there. They should have been previously introduced to whatever skills or techniques they will be using to gather data (if that is the goal of the trip);

  • Provide the students with a handout that describes the purpose and goals of the trip, the route, the stops that will be made, and includes a map;

  • Field trips should be "hands-on" rather than "show and tell." Students should have to perform some task while out in the field, whether it be gathering real data, making written descriptions or illustrations, or taking notes in order to write a field trip report. A finished product that is to be graded can be a good incentive for a student to be more attentive and serious in the field.

Some logistical issues to consider:

  • Make sure you know your own responsibilities and liability on a field trip;

  • Make sure the vehicle you are given to use is safe and gassed up and that you are comfortable driving it. Check that there is a spare tire and a jack and any safety equipment you might need in case of a vehicle breakdown;

  • Make sure you know what to do in case of emergency or accident, and bring a cell phone with you;

  • Make sure you know where you are going, or have good directions (including maps);

  • It is always preferable to have more than one TA or a faculty member with you on a field outing. It is not a good idea to take large numbers of students to the field unless there are enough TAs;

  • Make sure you have decided long before trip day what you will do in case of bad weather (i.e., postpone to a "rain date" or go "rain or shine").

Table of Contents

How Students Learn

Teaching cannot be merely a matter of imparting a quantity of facts, but must provide students with a way of understanding and integrating the materials into their own experience. Teachers who are alert to the ways students learn can endeavor to structure their courses to meet these needs.

Teachers can help increase student learning in most cases by employing a few simple strategies. Two techniques that influence student learning are frequent tests and the use of study groups.

First, students perform best in classes where they are frequently checked on their knowledge. This means that courses which have only a midterm and a final do not provide the students with as effective a learning environment as courses where tests are more frequent. The use of weekly quizzes and writing assignments helps the students to focus on the material and to quickly discover in which areas their understanding is weak. Of importance here is quick turn-around time. Whenever you give a quiz, make sure that you return it to the students by the next class. There is no need for lengthy comments or analysis on your part—a sentence or two noting the good and bad points is all that is needed. If you procrastinate and give back quizzes or other minor assignments only after you have gone on to another topic, the results do not help the students in any meaningful way; at that point most students will only care about the grade.

Another way of regularly checking up on student progress is by asking students to come up with a question about the assigned readings to be handed in before each class, or to have them answer a single question about the material at the end of class. Again, in order for the students to gain maximum benefit from these assignments, it is essential that these small exercises be returned as quickly as possible. You don't have to write long comments on these quickie quizzes. If students do not do well, they know the areas where they are weak and will have time to seek help before a major exam or paper (see Testing).

Second, students learn better when they work and study in groups. Students who work in groups are more inclined to go through every question or problem they need to know; it is more likely that they, as a group, have a range of knowledge that covers all of the necessary problems. Students studying alone may have gaps in their knowledge, causing them to skip over complicated problems, or they may get stuck and spend far too much time struggling with a single difficult problem. Teachers cannot force students to study together, but they can use certain strategies to encourage students to adopt this effective study habit (see Students in Groups).

Table of Contents

Active Learning

Twentieth century educational theory has almost universally emphasized the fact that education is not a passive process. According to Dewey, Piaget, and many others, learning takes place most effectively when the learner enacts the process of acquiring information rather than merely receiving that information. When active learning occurs, the student is able to assimilate the subject matter into his or her overall way of perceiving the world, rather than having it remain isolated from other ideas and concepts. This makes the learning more meaningful and enhances retention.

In many academic fields, active learning is the norm. One would not think of teaching most sciences without a lab section or mathematics without problems to solve. Similarly, even historically-oriented musicologists would be expected to have gained some degree of competence in performance.

Instead of merely regurgitating the current literature on an historical problem, students might work directly with primary sources—perhaps relating to an aspect of local history—to understand the historical process. It is not to be expected that students will make a real contribution to the field, but the students will gain a new understanding of the overall processes of investigation of the fields. They will achieve an awareness of the difficulties that are involved in the production of knowledge and learn to be more critical of the opinions of experts. Student historians, for example, will come to realize that the historical narratives they read are constructed from interpreted documents and recognize the limitations of such interpretations.

This is not to say that your work should ignore the function of conveying information. A student should not graduate from college without knowing the details of the French Revolution or the basic outline of Plato's metaphysics, nor should he or she leave school unaware of Vermeer or Shakespeare. College is merely the first stage in a habit of learning, so a major function of a teacher's work must be helping students acquire the tools of learning, an area in which the techniques of active learning can play a major role.

Asking Questions

Whether designing an exam, leading a discussion class, directing a lab, or even lecturing a large section, the quality of the questions that you ask your students determines the quality of the response and, ultimately, the kind of learning that takes place. Asking the right questions forces students to take a more active part in the class, leading them to formulate their own opinions based on the materials presented.

Avoid closed-ended questions that require a yes, no, or any other single word answer. As soon as the student responds, it is once again up to the teacher to carry the burden of the discussion. If the teacher wishes complete control over the direction of the class, these kinds of questions are fine, but they do little or nothing to raise the interest level of the class or encourage student engagement.

Some teachers pepper their lectures with rhetorical questions to which they expect no answer or a collective one. Since no real thought is required to respond, students know that they can remain on the borders of consciousness and still 'contribute.' Better to pause in a lecture occasionally to ask real questions, questions with answers that indicate that the students are following the arguments presented, that advance the arguments, and invite the students to expand upon them. This not only provides a welcome break from the monotony of a long lecture, but also tells the students that they are expected to listen, think, and participate.

Table of Contents

Students in Groups

Effectively transforming the conventional teacher-centered class into a student-centered one entails, for most teachers, a radical alteration of the classroom situation, with both a revision of pedagogical strategies and a reformation of classroom dynamics. To begin, teachers must deliberately work to alter the traditional model of classroom activity, that is, be willing to change the patterns of teacher/student interaction. In doing so, the burden of responsibility for student achievement shifts from the teacher alone to both teacher and students, as learning becomes a collaborative enterprise.

Begin by analyzing your role in the class and the goals you have set. For groups to work successfully, the teacher must be willing to give up some control. In group situations, the teacher's role is one of unobtrusive guide: determining the final destination, mapping out the way, and then signaling to the students when they are getting off the trail or stopping them when they are pursuing a false one. Try not to lead students by the hand, but don't abandon them either. You are the person with the special knowledge, and you have to make sure that the students begin to acquire an understanding of this knowledge. With careful preparation, a teacher can meet both of these goals—giving strong support while allowing students the freedom to make discoveries—when working with groups. For example, at the beginning of class, the teacher can provide each group with an outline of the materials that need to be covered. This outline should reflect the same degree of preparation that a lecture on the topic would demand. The job of the students then is to work together to fill in the blanks in the information, to go through the process that leads to the conclusion you are suggesting.

Establish groups with care. The easy way to divide up the class would be to separate the students according to where they are sitting; this is not, however, the best way. These groups too often will contain students who are friends and have very similar backgrounds, or students with the same level (high or low) of motivation and commitment. Usually it is more effective to organize them according to interests, ability, and academic background, insuring that each group has the skills necessary to perform well on the tasks you will set out for them. By using the information you gather from your students on index cards on the first day of class (see The First Class)—majors, minors, special interests, related courses, etc.—you have the ability to organize effective groups. Try to be creative in matching students and in your efforts to suit the tasks to the talents of the group. For out-of-class assignments, consider, too, where students live; make it easy for them to meet.

Work to overcome students' natural reluctance to participate in group activities. Students often resist working in groups. Over the years, they have been conditioned to look to the teacher alone for all the answers and so perceive group work as a waste of time. Teachers often find it difficult, even in class discussions, to persuade students to talk to each other—more often than not they look at and speak to the teacher, even when they are directly responding to a statement by a fellow student. Work to have the students listen and speak to each other. In class discussion, ask them to relate their answers to other students' answers, thus guiding them to attend to the responses of others. Use your knowledge of the strengths of the students to show them ways to work through a problem together, rather than just giving them the answer.

Be patient. Students cannot unlearn old behavior overnight. Trusting their own ideas or the ideas of their fellow students may be a new experience for them, but it can, in the end, be a rewarding one.

Table of Contents


Most teachers agree that the object of testing is not merely to rank students; tests are valuable diagnostic tools, ways of assessing student performance in order to facilitate learning. Well-designed tests give teachers an opportunity to review and, if necessary, revise their methods. Good exams are fair, a challenge to the students, a reflection of the goals and materials covered in the course, and an accurate index of the ability of each student in the class. They do not just happen but are the result of careful planning. TAs would do well to consult with their advisor or course coordinator on this topic early in the semester (see TA/Faculty Relations).

Tests act as a kind of broad mirror of the work done over the semester; exams should present no major surprises for the student who has attended class and kept up with the readings. It should be clear to the students from the lectures and homework which materials to focus most strongly on in their study. Consider providing students with a written proportional breakdown of areas to be tested—that is, a pre-test handout indicating how many points of the test correspond to a particular area of focus. Even if you do not do this for students, such an exercise may help you prepare tests. Test yourself: do your questions foci faithfully mirror your class time foci? If not, plan your class better so that your tests are not surprises for students. If tests seem totally divorced from classwork, students may have little inclination to attend classes from that first test onward.

TAs can help students do well on exams by offering extra review sessions—either in person or online, for students who are interested, giving them a chance to go over materials about which they feel unsure. Another way to assist students is by providing them with study questions and/or sample problems that show them what they can expect from the exam.

Although each exam will be different—its final form determined by subject matter and course goals—some common issues confront all instructors when making up an exam. Three crucial issues that influence the composition of any test are raised below.

  1. First and foremost, the teacher should be clear about what he or she wishes to test. Is the test meant to measure knowledge of specific facts? Is it meant to demonstrate the students? ability to deal with certain facts or theories in an original and comprehensive way, or to make connections among a group of texts or ideas? The answer to these questions will usually determine the type of test, objective or essay (or possibly a combination of the two). Test questions should reflect the kinds of assignments the students have been doing all semester and should never be something entirely new. The teacher should also try to determine beforehand the value of each answer and the range of acceptable responses to each question.

  2. How important should each exam be, and how much weight should each carry in the course grade (see How Students Learn)? A midterm exam will seem most threatening to students for whom this exam and the final exam will largely determine their grade for the class. Many educators feel that it is more beneficial to students to give several tests over the course of the semester, making each test equally important, thus eliminating the "do or die" element of only one or two significant grades. Tests given on a regular basis are also aids to the teacher who wishes to know if the majority of students are keeping up with the class. Another advantage is that when a student's entire grade does not rest on one or two major exams, there is less likelihood that the student will feel pressured to cheat on the exam. In addition, the instructor will have to consider the relative difficulty or ease of questions on the test. A too-easy exam will turn off the smarter students, just as one which is unrealistically difficult will turn off the average ones. A range of questions may be the best solution. Some teachers suggest that every test should contain some questions which all of the students in the class will be able to answer. These questions will act as positive reinforcement to the less advanced students in the class and give them some needed encouragement to persevere.

  3. How can the teacher make sure that the exam will be beneficial to the student? Tests can be an effective way of providing feedback to the students on the work they are doing in your classroom, but, in order for this to happen, the student must be motivated to look beyond the letter grade assigned for the work. A student who just looks at the grade and then files away the exam gains nothing. Arrange for students to come speak to you in your office about the exam. Use class time to go over those questions that a large number of students answered incorrectly. Be aware of the fact, however, that this may be less an indication that the students do not know the material than that your question was ambiguous or misleading.

Some teachers suggest letting the students participate in creating the exams. The ability to form a good exam question is an indication that the students have a full understanding of the course material and of the goals of the course, and their input gives them a greater investment in the exam. You may not wish to do this on the midterm, but certainly by the time the final exam comes around, your students should be prepared to help write the exam. Essay exams lend themselves to this kind of pre-test exercise. Some teachers even use this as part of the exam itself, asking the students to formulate what they consider a good exam question and then answer it.

After composing an exam, put it aside for a day or two and then reconsider your work. Is the wording of all the questions clear and unambiguous? Is it realistic to think that students can complete the exam in the time allotted? Have you covered all of the material you need to cover? If after re-examining the test you still feel that the exam is sound, then carefully consider and write out your 'ideal' responses to all questions. This exercise is doubly useful. First, by checking your answers with the questions, you can see if they truly elicit all the information you desire. If your responses added more information than the question demanded, you may wish to rewrite the question to be more inclusive. Second, this exercise will help you when grading the exams if you use your own responses as a model for student answers. Evaluate the exam again after the students have taken it. Was it too difficult or simple? Did students misunderstand any of the questions? Do you see areas where the class as a whole missed some vital piece of information? No matter how satisfied you are with the exam, there is a good chance that not all the students will feel the same way. Listen to what your students have to say?. Although you are not obligated to agree with them, you will discover where your expectations and theirs did not coincide, information that you can use to your own and your students' advantage in future semesters.

Table of Contents


"What did I get?" or, even worse, "What did you give me" are questions which can reduce teachers to despair. After spending long hours carefully reading and commenting upon a student's essay or exam, teachers are discouraged when the student's sole interest is in the grade. Handing back the first graded assignment to a class should not be a traumatic occasion for teachers or students. Unfortunately, it sometimes is. Teachers feel discouraged because their students did not meet their expectations; students are angry because their grades are lower than they expected. Ideally, however, students will be thinking in terms of "What grade did I earn?" As Dr. Jeff Smith of the University of Otago points out, if your class time is well-planned and your students are aware of the material for which they are responsible, unpleasant disappointment or resentment can be avoided (see Testing).

Like it or not, testing and grading are integral parts of the educational process and central elements of most courses to many students. Decisions about grading should be made with care since your grading policy, more than anything else, will be scrutinized, discussed, and, sometimes, contested by your students. Many TAs worry at the beginning about whether they should be a 'hard' grader or a 'soft' one, but, in fact, this is not the question. Rather, TAs should worry (if they must worry about something) about whether or not they grade fairly and consistently. Do not be surprised to find out that fairness is foremost in the students' minds, too.

How can a teacher insure fairness in grading? This begins by establishing a clear standard of grading at the beginning of the semester. Students should be told what quantity and quality of work is necessary to get an A, B, C, etc. If the grade will be determined strictly by numerical grades awarded on a series of tests, the student should know how each one will be weighed in the final grade and what material the student must master to achieve the highest grade. The weight of class participation, labwork, the effect of attendance, and the possibility of make-up work and exams should be laid out. If a class is to be graded on a curve, the method should be explained to the students at the beginning. This is all part of the contract that a good teacher makes with a class at the very beginning of the semester. Remember too that first year students may need more detailed explanations of grading practices and standards than more advanced students. All students, however, will be less anxious about grades if they feel from the first day that the system their teacher uses is fair and sensible.

Remind students that there are certain acceptable standards of written English to which they must comply. Students might argue that it is not fair to penalize them for their writing style in classes other than English, since all that really matters are the facts (i.e., what they say, not how they say it). By emphasizing high standards for written English early in the semester, those students with writing problems will be encouraged to seek help. Consequently, reading and grading exams will be a less difficult task for the teacher.

A TA who is grading for another professor must discuss all of these issues with the professor at the beginning of the semester so that there will be no later misunderstandings. The faculty member and the TA (or TAs) must agree on the grading criterion for that class (see TA/Faculty Relations).

Many teachers tell students at the beginning of the semester that they should feel free to come to them during office hours to discuss grades. If a student does come to you with questions about a grade on an essay or exam, listen carefully to the student's inquiry. Although you may decline to change the grade, you might discover that exam questions were more ambiguous or essay assignments less clearly defined than you thought.

If students feel that they merited a higher grade on an essay or term paper, you should always offer to reread it. The possibility exists that you did not read as carefully as you should have the first time. Do not be intractable: you are, after all, human and can make mistakes. But do not allow yourself to be manipulated or bullied into giving another grade. Some students try to coerce teachers into giving them a better grade—telling them that they will not get into medical school (or law school, or graduate school, etc.) or that their parents will kill them if the grade is not raised. These considerations should not sway you. Fairness to all your students demands objectivity and equal standards. If you cannot resolve a grade problem with a student, do not allow yourself to get into an argument. Offer to have the appropriate person in the department read the paper, perhaps the course supervisor or the department chair. Know ahead of time the name of the person in your department to whom you can refer these kinds of problems.

A TA should, of course, consult with members of the department to discover that department's special policies on grades. For example, in some departments, grades are assigned on a strict bell curve. TAs must be clear on the department's policy and develop a system in conformity with it.

Instructors should post grades (only using a secure system like SAS Gradebook or the gradebook feature in Sakai) as soon as possible after final grades are completed. So that students may have time to discuss their final grade with you, all instructors should schedule at least one final office hour after the semester ends.

Occasionally students will come in to challenge their final grades. If large numbers of students complain, you will need to review your own performance. Did you make clear to students at the beginning of the semester how grades were to be calculated? Did you send out warning notices or speak in person to students in danger of failing? Listen carefully to each student's complaint and then show the student how you arrived at the grade. Remind students what would have been necessary for a higher grade. Students are often very emotional at this time of year, so take care not to get into shouting matches with them. If you cannot reconcile a student to his or her grade, he or she must register the concern in writing to the department chair or other appropriate person and to the office of the dean of the faculty offering the course.

The bottom line is that students must be protected from arbitrary or capricious treatment. The answer, then, is to be clear on what is expected, fair in evaluation, and articulate in pointing out the pros and cons of any piece of graded work.

Table of Contents

Students' Rights to Privacy

All students in the university have a basic right to privacy, and it is the responsibility of the TA to respect and safeguard that privacy. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, commonly known as FERPA or the Buckley Amendment, dictates that information about students cannot be released without their express permission. Although this ruling most directly concerns staff members working in offices that deal with academic transcripts, disciplinary records, psychological files, and placement office credential files that contain letters of recommendation, TAs too must take care that student grades, records, and identifiable information are handled in a confidential manner.

NEVER discuss one student's grades with another student or with any other person. Of course, you may discuss students with those who have a professional 'need to know,' such as other faculty members involved with that student.

When returning exams or papers, do not allow other students to pick up papers for their absent friends. Return written work only to the student concerned—not even email is a secure way to report grades to students. Be very careful when posting grades. Posting grades by student identification numbers or by student names constitutes a violation of students' right to privacy. Remind students that the university is prompt in releasing grades. Students may visit the online SAS Gradebook to find their grades a week or two after the instructor is required to submit them if you-or the faculty member-decided not to post grades via SAS Gradebook or Sakai.

The Chalkboard/Whiteboard

The chalkboard and whiteboard, used with care and forethought, can be valuable classroom aides: to illustrate an argument or demonstration, to outline or organize material, or to work out complicated problems. Instructors should consider how to use the board to its best advantage and try to incorporate boardwork into their lesson plans as often as possible.

  1. Start with a clean slate. At the beginning of every class, erase all material from the previous class even if you do not plan to use the board. Erase everything. Leaving the odd word, equation, or phrase on the board may distract some students. Those students who invariably arrive late to class may assume that you wrote those cryptic words and phrases on the board and so will faithfully copy all into their notebooks. One TA related how totally perplexed she was at the assignment a student handed in until she spoke to the student and found out that the student had arrived late and mistakenly copied and dutifully completed the assignment for an earlier class.

  2. Organize the material you put on the board. Do not write everything on the board, only the essentials. Clearly label all diagrams, problems, and sections of an outline.

  3. If your handwriting is difficult to decipher, print slowly and carefully. Come to class a few minutes early if you must, to write out long outlines or assignments. Write firmly and legibly enough so that students in the last rows can read without a problem. You may want to check this out beforehand. Write something on the board, then sit in the last row and try to read it. If there are any problems, adjust your handwriting accordingly.

  4. Do not stand in front of the board, blocking the students' view. Give them a chance to copy what they need before going on with the lecture. Step aside, allowing the students adequate time. Especially when writing complicated equations or charts on the board, take care not to explain the problem as you write. You will either write unclearly or speak unclearly. After writing the entire equation on the board, turn fully to the class and point out the steps as you describe them.

  5. Do not erase anything before the end of the class if you can avoid it. If you must erase, erase details rather than main ideas or concepts. Before erasing, ask the students if they have copied everything. Of course, as you move from one section of the lecture to another, you can erase the board, but, again, make sure that the students have a last chance to copy.

  6. Although some instructors like to use colored chalks, avoid them unless you are sure that the chalks are visible from the back of the classroom. Especially in larger lecture halls, these chalks may add to the difficulty of reading the board. If you feel impelled to use colored chalk, make frequent trips to the back of the classroom to check on visibility.

Table of Contents