Notes and Suggestions for Teaching Assistants
This document includes:
- Preparation for Recitations and Lab Sessions
- Conducting a Lab or Recitation
- Advice to TAs Regarding Students Working Together
- Advice Regarding Communication Difficulties
- Some Important Items that Even Experienced Teachers Forget
- Outside the Classroom
- Checklist of Classroom Techniques
The University and the Department place great emphasis on excellence in teaching. We believe, and hope you will agree, that it is to your advantage, as well as to that of your students, that you learn good teaching methods. During the course of your education you will be required to take oral exams and will probably present papers at professional conferences. Oral communication skills form an essential part of almost any research or academic position. Therefore, it is in your interest to be able to explain things clearly and to learn to think on your feet. It should also be pointed out that, as part of a desire to encourage teaching excellence, the University awards an annual prize for teaching, and some departments also award (or are planning to institute) their own yearly teaching prizes.
This handout describes teaching guidelines and procedures which will help you teach more effectively. These guidelines have been found to work in the past. Some may seem obvious, but they are all important parts of good teaching. Note that many of the guidelines work not only in class situations, but also in one-on-one interactions during office hours.
Preparation for Recitations and Lab Sessions
At the beginning of the semester you should make up a handout sheet giving your name, office number, telephone number (if any), office hours and any other pertinent information about the recitation or lab that you are teaching.
You should prepare for each recitation and lab section in advance. Nothing is worse than an instructor who leafs through the textbook or stands at the board saying,"Um...um." This is obviously an embarrassing situation because you look like you don't know what you are doing and you are definitely wasting the students' time. It is also undesirable for you to solve problems or present material using any techniques or theory with which the students are unfamiliar. It is important for you to use concepts and mathematics that the students are familiar with. You should prepare for each recitation by working out all of the problems in advance. This should be done regardless of how good you are at the subject because you must plan and organize a coherent presentation. It also clues you in to what the students are working on and where they might have problems.
You should prepare for each lab by doing the lab (including analysis and write-up), and prepare a brief review of the principles and procedures of the experiment. Your report can be used as an "answer key" when you grade the students' papers. Because you have done the lab you can warn the students of some of the problems you have encountered or of any inconsistencies in the lab manual. For example: "Be careful that the treadly doesn't go out on the spriget", or "Don't short out the $1000 power supply."
Lab instructors should make a sample lab report available to the students for inspection. This is particularly important because the grading of lab reports is very subjective, and the students have a right to know what is expected of them.
Conducting a Lab or Recitation
You should come to the recitation or lab room a few minutes early to check that everything is in order: the blackboard is erased, all the lights are on, the lab equipment is set up, etc.
There are certain obvious do's and don't's which we sometimes forget. Speak slowly and clearly. As is true for all public speaking, you should always speak more slowly than you think you need to. Look at the students when you speak, not at the blackboard. Do not be afraid to stop and think; you don't have to vocalize to fill up silences. Write legibly, even if it means writing slower. Be sure to write large enough so that everyone in the room can see what you are writing, and keep your blackboard organized. If you have to draw diagrams, it might be a good idea to bring a ruler to class. Never make partial erasures to manipulate equations; students like to be able to see every step. Stand aside from your board work while you explain, so that students can see what you are doing.
Recitation is not lecture. The purpose of recitation is to help the students learn how to apply the information they have learned in lecture. You can help by giving insights into the reasoning that you have used to arrive at the solution. The students must be more than just spectators, that is, it is important to get them involved. While one hopes that this will happen naturally, sometimes students will sit in their seats comatose. This is a signal that things are not well and that the students are either bored or confused or both. You may not be at fault, but you can help combat this by asking questions. Be patient in waiting for answers and give hints if necessary. If a student gets stumped in giving an answer, try to help him or her get to the answer. However, if the student is really stumped, don't persist. Acknowledge individual students for their correct contributions, but never embarrass a student who cannot get the answer. You may also ask students to come up to the board to work out a problem.
In lab, it is important to circulate among the groups to make sure that all equipment is functioning properly, and to correct minor errors before they turn into disasters. If you notice any problems or misunderstandings, offer assistance.
Advice to TAs Regarding Students Working Together
Students should be told that some cooperation in work and study with other students is important in the learning process. In today's research world, we rarely find individually authored papers. People working together can learn faster and can check on each others mistakes. Talking about homework problems with other people is fun and makes learning more efficient.
Even when people work and study together, however, they should write up their own homework. It is better if people of similar levels in the course work together. The situation where one student just copies from another is not helpful to learning. TA's should understand, and make it clear to the students, the difference between copying and working together.
Not all studying should be done in a group. The basics are probably best learned alone. Also, homework should be attempted alone at first. After a student has already spent some time trying to understand the problem and finding difficulties, seeking advice from other students can be helpful. The more difficult problems, which provide more challenge and require many steps, are sometimes more fun to work on with other people. In such cases, the chances are lower that misconceptions will be propagated along the many steps.
In a laboratory, students work with partners. Again, it is best if the students are at a similar level. Having a team in which one partner is far ahead of the other is usually not helpful, but fortunately it doesn't occur too often. Of course, you as the TA don't know much about the students at first, and they may not know much about each other. This guideline is something to keep in mind if you notice an unbalanced team.
Advice Regarding Communication Difficulties
Some TA's find it difficult to speak to a class. Some speak very softly or feel nervous, and foreign-born TA's may find that the students have difficulty understanding their accents, pronunciation or notation. In general, many TA's find that it is best to acknowledge the problem to the class and ask for their help. For example, you might tell the class "I tend to speak too softly, so please remind me to speak louder." Or, "Please stop me if you do not understand my accent and ask me to repeat."
Some Important Items that Even Experienced Teachers Forget
The following list summarizes several general techniques in interacting with students both during classroom periods as well as during office hours.
- When solving a problem on the board, start with "STEP 0": Ask yourself, How did I know what kind of problem it was? Categorization of problems is a cognitive process that separates experts (like you) from novices (like your students). Ask the students to figure out with you what type or class of problem it is. Is it an energy problem? Is it a momentum problem? Is it an "F=MA" problem? ... etc. This is probably the most important step in problem solving, and the step that many teachers skip in their explanations.
- It is very important that the students get practice in figuring out the solutions by themselves, with the TA's help. You might start by asking the students questions, like "How should we begin this problem?" Give the students a long time - up to a minute or more - to respond. This long "WAIT TIME" is more likely to bring forth a response from the students, even though it may feel very awkward for you. It can also give you time to consider calling on someone other than the one or two students who are quickest to respond. Another strategy in this context is to "lower the stakes" of responding, by saying "What would you guess?" or "What's your hunch?" When you ask use words like "guess" students are encouraged to speak and often discover that they know more than they thought.
- Concepts are REMEMBERED better if they are explained in several different ways or are related to DIFFERENT types of explanation. For example, visual learners like diagrams and graphs. But to other, more word-oriented students, graphs can be confusing, while a verbal explanation makes sense to them. Sometimes illustrating the concept through a context that is familiar to your students works well, which is why many skillful teachers use inexpensive toys and household objects in their demonstrations.
- Remember that people can hold only one or two NEW things in mind at the same time, while following an explanation. (So we hope you'll refer to this manual again in the future!) This means that it will generally be effective to write out each step when deriving or solving an equation, to speak slowly, to repeat your statements, and to use techniques which present NEW information in small amounts.
- Do not show off how smart you are in class. It will make the students feel like they would never be able to do as well. You have the benefit of many years of study in Physics (i.e. you are an expert, and the students are at the novice stage of learning Physics). All new material is hard. Tell the students that it was hard for you to learn the undergraduate material the first time, just like it is hard for you to learn new graduate material that you are seeing for the first time in the present.
Outside the Classroom
Be certain to stay in frequent contact with the professor in charge of the course so that you stay informed about what is being covered in the lecture and what the students are expected to know.
Keep your office hours! It is your responsibility to be in your office when you promise to be there. You should be willing to add extra office hours before exams, and perhaps even a review session.
Get to know your students so that you can serve them better. You can so this by taking attendance, or by handing homework back individually.
If you follow these tips and use your common sense, your teaching experience should be both enjoyable and beneficial. Good Luck!
Foreign students should also request a special manual for foreign TA's (Manual for Foreign Teaching Assistants, second edition, by Gary Althen, University of Iowa, 1988). This short and concise manual is available either from the University of Rochester Physics Department office or the Office of Foreign Student Affairs, or by prepaid order ($2.50 check to the University of Iowa) from OIES, 120 International Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, 52242. A much longer and very comprehensive publication is The Foreign Teaching Assistants Manual, by Patricia Byrd, Janet C. Constantinides, and Martha C. Pennington (Collier Macmillan, New York).
Additional information on teaching techniques and examples applicable in specific subfields of physics (e.g., mechanics, electricity and magnetism) may be found in A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching, by Arnold B. Arons (John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1990); and in How to Solve Problems, by Donald Scarl (Dosoris Press, Glen Cove, 1993).
Checklist of Classroom Techniques
A. General Classroom Environment
- Make sure the room is well lit.
- Shut the door if the hallway is noisy.
- Look at the students when you talk to them, not at the blackboard.
- Speak clearly and with sufficient volume.
- Speak more slowly than you think you need to.
- Don't be afraid to stop and think; there is no need to vocalize to fill up silences (no need for "um....uh").
- Try to avoid phrases such as "you know" and "like".
- Show enthusiasm and interest in the material.
C. The Blackboard
- Erase the blackboard completely before starting.
- Make sure your writing is large enough for everyone to see.
- Write legibly, even if it takes longer.
- Draw all diagrams clearly.
- Use a ruler for straight lines and colored chalk if the diagram is complicated.
- Do not stand in front of your writing; make sure all students can see what you have written.
- Never make partial erasures to manipulate equations.
- Allow students time to copy what you have written.
- Make sure that the symbols that you use are consistent with the text.
- Present solutions to problems in an organized and coherent manner. However, first start with STEP 0 - how you figured out what kind of problem it is.
- Give references in the book for specific techniques.
- Do not quote the book verbatim.
- Students like to hear DIFFERENT approaches to the same problem.
- Try to give insights to different problem solving techniques.
- Clearly explain all steps in the solution.
E. Student Interaction
- Ask the class questions. Allow sufficient time for answers (this is called "WAIT TIME", and is sometimes longer than feels comfortable). Call on specific students if the class seems inattentive. Reduce the risk by asking the students what they GUESS the answer is, so they do not feel bad if they are wrong.
- Never ridicule a student for giving a wrong answer; be supportive!
- Praise students for correct answers or correct parts of answers. Always try to find something positive to say. Express confidence in the students' ability to learn.
- Be careful in your use of language. Avoid phrases that are profane, vulgar, or suggestive. Remember that your behavior and language sets the tone for the whole class and reflects on the field as a whole. Instead, speak encouragingly and positively. Be yourself at your best!
- Treat students with respect and caring, and promote students' interest.
- Do not try to show off how smart you are in class.