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Tips for First-Time TAs

image Throughout Your Teaching Career
Before the Semester Begins
Before Each Class, Office Hour, or Help Session
During Each Class Session
After Each Class Session
Recommended Reading

imageThroughout Your Teaching Career

Seek out opportunities to learn about and discuss teaching.

Throughout your graduate studies at Washington University, you should attend teaching workshops sponsored by The Teaching Center and your department. Make an appointment for a consultation with Beth Fisher, director of The Teaching Center; she can help you develop strategies for effective teaching. You should also talk to faculty mentors and peers about teaching. Consider joining with fellow graduate students to start an informal teaching group in which you discuss your own teaching and learn about scholarship on teaching and learning.

Seek out assistance when you need it.

If you have questions and concerns, speak with the faculty member who is in charge of the course you are teaching. If you have concerns about a student’s health or academic progress, or if you suspect the student has committed a violation of academic integrity, whenever possible you should speak with the course instructor or supervisor first. Consult the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences TA Handbook for specific information on University policies and procedures. You may also find helpful The Teaching Center’s Resources page, which includes links to University offices such as Student Health Services and The Writing Center.

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image Before the Semester Begins

Learn your roles and responsibilities.

If you are assisting a professor who is the course instructor or course supervisor, communicate with this professor before the semester begins to make sure that you understand your roles and responsibilities.

Learn or establish the course policies.

Whether you are assisting in a course taught by a professor or teaching your own course, it is essential that you learn or establish all course policies, including those pertaining to grading and attendance, before the class begins. If your responsibilities include grading, ask the professor to explain grading guidelines, criteria, and policies, including the procedure for responding to students’ concerns about grades (see Grading and Communicating about Grades: Suggestions for TAs). All policies should be included in the course syllabus (see Preparing a Syllabus).

Do your research.

Ask faculty members and experienced TAs to share with you their impressions of Washington University students. The professors you work with are often excellent sources of information and ideas on teaching in your field, and experienced TAs can help you learn what to expect of assisting in particular courses and of working with specific faculty members.

Check out your classroom and any available multimedia.

You can see information about, and photos of, your classroom by using the searchable Classroom Directory on the Teaching Center Web site. However, it is always best to visit the classroom yourself, so that you can familiarize yourself with the layout and any available multimedia. If you are teaching in a University-managed classroom and would like to schedule a multimedia training session, call The Teaching Center at (314) 935-6810.

Take time to prepare for the first day.

If you are assisting in a lecture class, ask the faculty member who is teaching to introduce you to students at the first lecture. Make it a point to talk informally with students before and after class so that you can get to know them and they can see that you are approachable. Prepare to teach, rather than just to introduce yourself and the course, the first time you meet with students (see Tips for Teaching on the First Day of Class). Practice your first class session, preferably in the classroom where you will teach. Rehearse how you will use the chalkboard, how you will manage the time, when you will pause to ask questions, how you will present yourself, etc.

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imageBefore Each Class, Office Hour, or Help Session

Prepare.

Preparation is the best cure for nervousness and uncertainty. Ensure that you have a grasp on the course content as well as access to all necessary materials, including textbooks, lab equipment, course Web site, and other resources.

As you prepare for each class, help session, or office hour, do not merely go over the same content that the students are learning. Take a broader view, considering the ideas and assumptions behind the content and anticipating questions that students, who may be seeing this material for the first time, will ask you.

Having a “Plan B” ready to go if your “Plan A” does not go as anticipated will help you maintain confidence and control. For example, sometimes a discussion that you expected to last 15 minutes is over in 5, but still achieves the goals you had in mind. Rather than letting the class go early because you have run out of ideas, you can devote the remaining time to another activity that will help the students learn the material (e.g., summarizing the key ideas of the day, asking the students to list what they see as the key ideas, or presenting a problem or mystery that you will solve during the next class).

Use a variety of teaching methods.

Expect that your students will bring into the course different learning preferences. While some may be active learners who prefer to solve problems in order to learn concepts, for example, others may be reflective learners who prefer to master concepts through uninterrupted reflection. Recognize your own learning preferences and make efforts to extend your approach beyond those preferences. In other words, do not assume that you can teach something in the same way that you learned it and get the same results with all of your students. You can be most effective if you combine teaching methods to reach as many students as possible: for example, combine verbal and visual explanations, explain concepts using both a “big-picture” and a detail-oriented approach, and give students opportunities for active learning and reflection. (For more information about the learning preferences referenced here, see Professor Richard Felder's Web site.)

Get organized.

No matter what teaching methods you are using, you can enhance your students’ learning and gain their appreciation if your classes are well organized. Each class period should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Try not to “cover” too much material in a single class period; include time to summarize important points and make connections to material that you covered during the last session.

You can present more information and ideas in a lecture, for example, if you do not summarize and make connections. However, you may reduce the likelihood that the students will learn and retain all of the material. Because they are not experts in the field, your students will have a difficult time, without your guidance, in identifying the most important points and seeing how these points are connected to the broader themes of the course.

Develop and integrate opportunities for active learning.

Students will learn more and be more engaged if you routinely integrate active learning activities such as questions, problem-solving, discussions, and demonstrations (see Teaching with Lectures and Teaching with Discussions).

Get emotionally ready for class.

Set aside time right before you teach to focus your mind on your goals for that day and to look forward to teaching—to interacting with students, helping them learn the day’s material, and responding to the questions and ideas that they bring to class.

Make sure you are presenting a professional appearance.

Wear something in which you feel confident and comfortable. While there is no “dress code” for faculty or TAs, some instructors prefer to dress more formally than the students do in order to feel more confident in their roles of authority. Others make it a point to look in a mirror to check their appearance before they go into the classroom in order to ease their nervousness and give them a chance to make sure that their clothing looks neat and professional.

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imageDuring Each Class Session

Be flexible.

Be prepared to have good days and bad days in the classroom. If you are not getting good results teaching in a particular way, try something new. For example, if the students in your discussion or recitation section are extremely quiet, break them up into smaller groups to solve a problem or answer a set of questions.

Remember your position of authority.

You are in a role of authority over the students in your class. You should demonstrate that you care about your students and their learning. However, you should not try to be a friend (or more) with your students, which can create the appearance of partiality or favoritism. University policy forbids romantic relationships between faculty (including TAs) and the students in their courses (see Washington University Policies and Procedures.) More broadly, keep in mind your responsibility to show fairness to all students. Whether or not you intend to, you will be perceived by the students as a role model.

Arrive early, start on time, and end on time.

Showing your respect for everyone’s time will encourage your students to do the same. Arriving at the classroom early will allow you not only to set up for class but also to talk with students informally. This informal interaction will help you establish a rapport with your students, which will in turn help them feel confident to participate in class and to ask for help when they need to.

Show passion for the subject and for your students’ learning.

One of the best ways to inspire your students to learn is to show that you are passionate about the course and their learning.

If students appear bored, do not get discouraged.

Instead, develop strategies to get students actively involved: ask them to compose and answer questions, provide examples, or solve problems. Do not assume that students look bored because they know the material and then decide to speed up your pace; it may be instead that they are having trouble understanding what you are presenting to them. It may also be that they are sleep-deprived, as college students often are.

Do not be afraid to say you do not know the answer to a question.

Tell the students that you will find out an answer, and then get back to them. Present the answer to the entire group during the next class; do not let the matter drop. You do not need to be all-knowing to maintain your credibility. One way to lose it, in fact, is to bluff by giving an answer of which you are unsure and that students later find out to be untrue. Model intellectual curiosity and honesty. Your enthusiasm to learn something new will inspire your students to follow your example. If you find that you frequently do not know the answers to your students’ questions, you may need to spend more time preparing for each class session.

When asking questions, do not be afraid of silence.

Often, silence means that students are thinking—an activity you want to encourage in the classroom. Do not give in to the temptation to answer your own questions, which will only convince students that if they wait long enough, they will not have to think because you will supply the answers for them. Wait 5-10 seconds for an answer. If, at that point, you are getting blank stares and quizzical expressions, rephrase your question. (For additional questioning strategies, see Asking Questions to Improve Learning.)

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imageAfter Each Class Session

Jot down brief notes on how it went.

Take five minutes to note what worked and what didn’t, as well as any new ideas that occurred to you while teaching. Keep these notes with your lecture notes or lesson plans so that they are accessible as you prepare for the next session and the next time you teach the same course. If you wait until the end of the semester to reflect on how the entire course went, you will have forgotten the specific details that will be helpful to you later.

Make any necessary adjustments to your plan for the next class session.

For example, will you need to clarify or review any material from the session that just ended? Will you need to start at a different point than that which you had anticipated? Do you need to make changes in the way that you present material? Is there anything you can do to improve student participation?

Anticipate questions that students may ask in office hours, review sessions, or subsequent classes.

Prepare answers, as well. Do not stick to the material itself. Take a step back to consider why this material is important, what difficulties a novice learner might have with it, and how you might explain it in ways that appeal to different learning preferences (e.g. visual vs. verbal methods).

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imageRecommended Reading

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

McKeachie, Wilbert, et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

© 2009, The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis


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