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:
- Things to help class run smoother and relieve some pressure on the instructor.
- Things to help engage more students in the class.
- 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
- Approach groups; be proactive and don’t wait for them to raise their hand. In addition, ask entire sections how they’re doing. This often prompts someone to admit they have a question and leads to a discussion. (I have studied this in the context of a physics lab.)
- Talk to students before and after class. Use this time to motivate them, to advertise resources, or to get to know them and make them feel comfortable. (As thought about in a previous post.)
- Focus specifically on the back of the room. (As discussed in the CWSEI resource ‘Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged’.)
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.)
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!