Graduate Program

TA Training Program

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An Overview of Classroom Climate Issues

The purpose of this handout is to encourage you to conduct your recitations and labs in a nurturing and supportive style. A manual for foreign TA's teaching in American classrooms is available and may have already been distributed to you. In a similar spirit, this handout is intended to address some of the main issues that arise when TA's conduct recitations and labs to students with diverse backgrounds and training.

A good teacher gears his or her presentation to the level, interests and special needs of the students in the classroom. This means fulfilling the recitation session's primary purpose, which is to help students. It also means that TA's, as they become better teachers, learn to overcome cultural bias and preconceived notions about how students "should" behave. For example, to an American TA, Japanese students may appear to be less outgoing than other students. This could be due to the respect accorded teachers in Japanese culture, and does not mean that Japanese students are less knowledgeable. Another example is the case of non-science/engineering majors, who may require a different teaching style than majors in order to stimulate their interest. It is important for TA's not to look disparagingly on non- majors, but rather to gear the class so as to motivate students to appreciate science and engineering concepts and methods. In addition, in a mixed class the more aggressive students may end up monopolizing classroom discussions. It is the responsibility of teaching assistants to improve the classroom climate for all students. If there is competition among students, it should be reserved for exams.

Every culture fosters particular stereotypes, of men, women, and foreigners. Here we are concerned with stereotyping behavior, which occurs when an instructor unconsciously assumes that a student has particular skills, motives or potential, based on the student's classification in a certain group. As mentioned earlier, the group may be premeds, ethnic minorities, older students, handicapped persons, women, or other group. In the material which follows, we will be focusing primarily on the issues and stereotypes affecting women, but most of the points are applicable to all cases of stereotyping.

Students tend to perform better if they are expected to perform better. The impression which all students should get from their TA is that the TA believes that the students can learn and do well. If, on the other hand, the TA believes that a certain "type" of student will not perform well, that predisposition also tends to be self-fulfilling. This is one of the main problems with stereotypes: stereotypes tend to be limiting. One good way to convey your positive expectations is to EXPRESS CONFIDENCE IN YOUR STUDENTS! This may take different forms. In another university, the mathematics department found that over the years, the 10 students who passed exams for the honors classes were always men. One year, that department approached the women in the other classes and requested that they take the tests for the honors classes. Most of the women said that they did not take the exam because they did not expect to do well. Nevertheless, when women were encouraged to take the exam, it was found that 5 men and 5 women had the highest test scores. This example represents a self-limiting stereotype of women which was not challenged socially for many years.

Women represent 50% of the population, but they are highly underrepresented in science, especially physics, and engineering. This fraction has changed little over the years in spite of affirmative action policies in universities and departments. Most departments indicate that they would like to have more women. However, the stereotyping of women is subtle, largely unconscious by both men and women, and even accepted socially, despite the limiting expectations it tends to impose on women.

There are many reasons why women tend not to end up in science and engineering careers. We will not address all of these reasons here, but instead focus on those which instructors, including TA's, can influence. Since TA's in science and engineering are typically male, some of the difficulties that women undergraduates encounter in science and engineering classes may be due to cultural differences between men and women. Women typically compose a significant fraction of introductory undergraduate classes, but are much less represented in upper level classes. Some studies have indicated that women show interest in science when they enter college, and that part of their loss of interest and self-confidence comes from stereotyping behavior by instructors, advisors and peers, which collectively generate a "chilly classroom climate" for women. This means that colleges and universities must re-examine the way that science and engineering are being taught.

In addition to the important matter of correcting inequities, increasing the number of women in science and engineering has benefits to all concerned. Women in science and engineering benefit by having other women to interact with; men benefit by having a more balanced professional community, fostering creativity and communication; society benefits by having equal representation of all its segments in science; and the fields benefit by tapping the intellectual potential and new ideas of half the population. The pool of women students is the largest pool from which the U.S. can increase the number of scientists and engineers in future years, a matter of growing concern in the nation.


Recommendations for Teaching Assistants and Faculty


Woman-First-Professional-Second: emphasizing a person's gender or race, for examples, over that person's identity as a professional. - commenting to a woman, "What is an attractive girl like you doing in physics?" - expecting the woman on a man-and-woman lab team to always be the partner who writes down the data while the man performs the experiment.

Fishbowl Treatment: putting a person under surveillance by staring or making him/her feel out of place. - staring at a person who happens to be the only foreign/woman/handicapped student in the class or seminar room.

Elitism: representing your field as too difficult, too specialized, etc., for the person whom you are dealing with to undertake. - going rapidly through an explanation that is over the head of your listener; using terms which are unfamiliar to your listener; trivializing your listener's difficulties.

Marginalization: treating a person as nominally in the field, department, class, etc., but actually excluding that person from important professional responsibilities, discussions, meetings, functions, conferences. - "forgetting" to invite an RA to lunch with the colloquium speaker, who happens to work in his/her area of research.

It-Was-Just-A-Joke: trivializing a person's complaints about micro- inequities, whether those listed above or others that come up specifically in a given environment.

(*) The term "micro-inequities" may be attributed to Jody Asbury, Associate Dean for Policies and Programs, Office of the Dean of Students, College of Arts and Science, University of Rochester. A descriptive list of micro- inequities was first generated by Ms. Asbury in 1989 and has undergone several modifications by Priscilla Auchincloss, corresponding to the evolution of the Climate Workshop. This condensed version was made in September, 1992.


Alternatives for Improving Classroom Climate

Equality: giving everyone the same responsibilities.

Respect: assuming competence in students, while being available to help; expressing confidence in students. - when a student asks a technical question on a laboratory assignment, helping the student think through the steps to the answer.

Encouraging participation: being alert to participation levels of students in a classroom, and drawing out those who are more quiet while preventing talkative students from dominating. - "lowering the stakes" of participation, by saying "What would you guess?"

Professionalism: dropping preconceptions and expectations about persons because of their gender, race, age, disability, or other attributes; assuming that a student is serious about working in this area.

Nurturing: remembering how it felt to struggle to learn something difficult.