A guide to being a lecture TA

A new role for TAs

In the flipped classrooms of reformed large enrolment first-year physics courses, as instantiated in Physics 100 and other courses at UBC, much of the typical monologue has been replaced with clicker questions and worksheets, making room for students to think and work with peers and the instructor and rendering the term ‘lecture’ a bit of a misnomer. This set-up moves the hard work of sense-making into the lecture time, leaving the comparatively easy work of learning new terms and definitions to the pre-reading and homework.

In this context, a new role for the teaching assistant (TA) has emerged. Instead of facilitating lab or recitation sections, a TA can be employed for dedicated in-lecture hours (a lecture TA). Being a relatively new position at UBC, formal guidelines do not yet exist for this role. (Indeed, my position specific training last semester consisted of a three-minute conversation with the instructor immediately prior to the first lecture I was in.)

After being in the lecture in Physics 100 for one semester, here I record the basic duties of the position and reflect on strategies and techniques that I feel make for an effective lecture TA.

The basic duties of the lecture TA

The minimum a lecture TA can do and still get by is easily described. The main duty of the lecture TA is to exist as another expert in the room that supports the students during the episodes of peer interaction and peer instruction. While the instructor is lecturing (usually this is only in brief spurts of at maximum ten minutes), the TA lies dormant. When the class moves into peer discussion mode, the TA is activated and should move through the classroom, interacting with and helping students and groups of students. This involves similar efforts to being a lab or recitation TA, in which one responds to student questions and is expected to use effective techniques, such as socratic questions, to help students with their problems.

Good practices of effective lecture TAs

For the TA that may want to do more than just be present in the lecture, here are a set of suggestions for making themselves more useful, broken down into three (not entirely distinct) categories:

  1. Things to help class run smoother and relieve some pressure on the instructor.
  2. Things to help engage more students in the class.
  3. Things to be an effective TA and have a positive effect on students.

1. Things to help class run smoother and relieve some pressure on the instructor

  • Be ready and available for questions before, during and after class.
  • Make sure the instructor’s microphone is loud enough (if applicable) and that the correct content is displayed on the screen (for classes with projectors and a variety of presentation tools).
  • Correct the instructor’s mistakes (if the students don’t catch it).
  • Participate in the instructor’s general questions to the class (for example, if they are looking for a hand raise or general participation).
  • Know some administrative things about the course so that you can answer course information questions. (This is not so necessary, in my opinion.)
  • Do not talk to students while the instructor is speaking. (If the instructor cuts off a good conversation you’re having with a student, either wave your hands wildly to let the instructor know you might want more time or keep in mind that it’s likely the student’s question will be answered by the instructor as he explains the solution to the current problem.)

2. Things to help engage more students in the class

3. Things to be an effective TA and to have a positive effect on students

  • Talk to students before class. (As mentioned above.)
  • Know you don’t have to completely answer student questions. You just need to have a discussion, probe their thinking and help them prepare for the instructor’s explanation.
  • Be friendly to every student; smile a lot.
  • Be careful about being too friendly to one student or group of students. (Last semester, I don’t think I did a good enough job of spreading myself out across the class. It’s natural to keep interacting with the same people, and it’s good if a student becomes more willing to share with you through repeated interactions, but I’m worried that it seemed like I had ‘favourites’.)
  • Advocate on students’ behalf! Make sure they argue the instructor for marks on tests, that the class is well paced for them, and help them get what they need from the course and instructor.
  • Read the lecture slides before class – be prepared so you can spend time thinking about helping students, not figuring out the answers.
  • Start conversations with open ended questions such as, “What are you thinking about?” (This is mentioned, for example, in this Chandra Turpen paper as a concrete practice that can promote sense-making and faculty-student collaboration.)
  • Encourage student thinking and effort and acknowledge what they’ve done well, rather than just getting the right answer. (Encourage sense-making over answer-making.)

Summary

This post is a record of my current view of a set of lecture TA responsibilities and suggestions for good practice. After being a lecture TA for a second semester and soliciting feedback from students, other lecture TAs, instructors and the online community, I hope to iterate on this guide and ultimately end up with a useful and vetted resource.

Questions for the readers

  • What is the most important or novel item or suggestion here?
  • What would you modify or add to the list?

Please contribute in the comments!

Advertisements

9 comments

  1. Hi Jared. This is a great list. I would be curious what some of your fellow lecture TAs would add to the list. I especially like two points that you made.

    “Participate in the instructor’s general questions to the class (for example, if they are looking for a hand raise or general participation).” One of the other PHYS101 instructors mentioned to me how important he thought it was that the we, as those that are running the show, model how we want them to interact with each other and with us. Having a lecture TA participate like this is a great way to model those interactions.

    “Advocate on students’ behalf!” Fully agreed. Many students are too intimidated to advocate on their own behalf so having that person in class that advocate on their behalf is extremely powerful.

    1. Thanks for the additions, Joss.

      Even though I had mostly written this before the term, I found myself a little self-conscious in the first lecture, at the first opportunity to “Participate in the instructor’s general questions to the class”. This was during the activity in which you got the class to think about how they became good at the thing they decided they were good at, before yelling out their answers all at once (with “practice” being the overwhelming response). So, I hesitated and didn’t join in the yelling, as I should have according to my guide above.

      Through the semester and beyond, I will try to keep in mind the example I intend to set for the classroom and to let that dictate my behaviours (at the relevant times).

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist · · Reply

    I love the notion of TA’s lying dormant. I could just imagine a spoof nature video describing the scene.

    Very cool lists. A few things seemed odd at first glance: “correct the instructor’s mistakes” How does that go over. I was imagining that happening to me if I were the instructor. I think I’d appreciate it, but it’s possible I’d just get mad at the class for not catching it, and then they’d be mad that the TA noticed first. Have you talked with the instructor(s) about that at all?

    “Advocate on the students behalf” I think I agree with Joss that students need to be encouraged to advocate for themselves, but that’s different than doing it for their behalf, isn’t it?

    1. @Andy – I’m the lucky instructor that gets to have Jared as my lecture TA. I’m happy to have him correct my mistakes, but as you say, I would ultimately prefer if the students were the ones that feel comfortable doing this. We have an extremely diverse student population and a lot of people that come from cultures where pointing out a professor’s mistake appears to be something which is rarely done. This is part of why I really liked it when Jared was talking about advocating on their behalf because I think they need to see that it is not just professor law that is being laid down.

      1. Thanks for the comment Andy.

        I’m happy to report that there have only been two instances of “correcting the instructor’s mistakes” so far. In the first lecture, I spoke up to point out a minor error on the overhead. At this point, Joss took a moment to encourage the class to keep him honest and, in the future, let him know if something was wrong. Then, in the second lecture, another minor error was made (2×2 != 2, Joss!) on the overhead. I heard a buzz in the class develop as the error was written, and waited to see what would happen. Sure enough, a student spoke up to point out the mistake.

        Perhaps “correct the instructor’s mistakes” should be filed under “model how we want them to interact”. Then, the lecture TA might need to worry about this for the first couple classes, but hopefully, with explicit encouragement from the instructor (and appropriate kind words when feedback is given) the students will take over this duty, as desired.

        For “advocate on students’ behalf”, I had a specific example in mind from the previous semester, which happened a few times. This happened when students came to me with questions about their midterm marking. Since I didn’t have the power to change their marks, I encouraged them to speak to the instructor about it (when they had a legitimate point). I believe that if I hadn’t been so encouraging, at least some of them wouldn’t have pursued it with the instructor and would not have received the mark they deserved.

        In that example, I suppose I was more encouraging them to advocate for themselves. However, I could imagine situations where a group of students might have serious reservations about bringing something up with the instructor, in which case the TA could be an important middle-man. (Something like this could also fall under “model how we want them to interact”.)

  3. Hey Jared,

    You’ve asked for my feedback and here it is!

    First of all, the situation is obviously very important – a lecture TA in a flipped classroom setting is going to be capable of interacting with the students a tremendous amount more than in a traditional “lecture-only” classroom. My lecture TA position this semester will be mostly in the latter environment with an increased emphasis on demos / group work than in previous years. It’s hard to know at this point the extent I’ll be able to achieve some of your bullets, but for now I digress.

    Your list of key practices is spot-on, although the importance of helping the professor would depend on how comfortable they are with the class (e.g., how many times they’ve taught it before, if it’s a structure they’re comfortable with, etc.). In the 2nd point, I really like the idea of focusing on the back of the classroom. After two classes of my lecture TA role this semester, I tend to sit at the front and by the time class ends and students are rushing to their next lecture, it’s tough to engage with the ones that may have come in late and are seated in the back. . . which leads me to your thoughts on the 3rd point. I absolutely agree with “not showing favorites” — I’ve already identified three or four students in my class that I know from TA’ing previously, and three or four students that are really outgoing and will have no issue raising problems with the material, but it’s the other 80% of the class that I need to focus on including. Couldn’t agree more on that one. I also really like the idea of advocating on the students behalf – it’d be easy to fall into the trap of “well, this TA gig is just a responsibility for me, it doesn’t matter how well the students do”. In my opinion, that mindset needs to be left at the door because the lecture TA role actually puts you on the same battle field as they are, which is a different challenge than just having a “job” ; embracing that fact should result in a more fulfilling outcome — for TA and student alike.

  4. Chad, thank you for your comments!

    Until now, I didn’t appreciate that your lecture TA role seems like it will be quite different than mine. Perhaps by the end of the semester you’ll have some good suggestions of maximizing your impact within the constraints you have?

    I like your description that we are “on the same battlefield” as the students. I like to think that lecture TAs fall somewhere in between the instructor and the students; as TAs we’re kind of on both teams. However, when push comes to shove, we should use our experience (from years of university, as students and instructors) to know how students should be treated, and to advocate on their behalf or model how they should stand up for themselves. (Of course, depending on who the instructor in the course is, this may or may not come up.)

  5. […] checking out my friend and colleague Jared Stang’s blog for other good TA ideas, especially this one and this […]

  6. […] lecture TA should support students in the classroom (and to follow up on my previous post about the duties of a lecture TA), at the end of the semester I sought index card feedback from the students in my section of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: