Understanding the role of the lecture TA
This past semester, I was a lecture TA in Physics 101 (in Joss Ives‘s section), a large-scale first-year calculus based physics course. Briefly, the lecture TA is another instructor-type body in the ~250 student lecture, put there to support student learning. Depending on your experience, you might be wondering what the heck a TA is doing in a lecture. The short answer: this isn’t your grandma’s physics lecture. (Or even my undergraduate physics lectures five-eight years ago.) Notwithstanding the fact that in your grandma’s time there probably weren’t any women in the physics classroom, the ‘sage on the stage’ style of lecturing that has dominated university physics for hundreds of years has now been replaced (in some courses, like Physics 101) by a more active-engagement style of teaching, dominated by peer discussion, clicker questions, and worksheets. In such a classroom, the TA moves through the classroom during these episodes of student activity and peer instruction, providing support, guidance, and prodding as needed.
In order to better understand how the 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 Physics 101. I asked two simple questions:
- What did Jared do well to support your learning in the lecture?
- What else could he have done?
I received 133 index cards with comments on them. I coded these results by grouping together statements which I interpreted as having similar meanings. Here, I report and interpret the results of this feedback, focusing on constructive feedback about some of the tasks and actions most relevant to being a lecture TA.
The student perspective
1. What did Jared do well to support your learning in the lecture?
In the student answers to this first question, four main codes emerged. These were:
- Explaining physics. This code was for comments about how I helped students understand the concepts in class, such as, “He was very clear when he explained the concepts” and “Answer questions”. This is the typical role of a TA in any class (labs, tutorials, lectures), and includes mostly reactive behaviours of the TA.
- Proactively engaging students. This code was for statements which explicitly mentioned proactive TA behaviour, such as, “Always asking to provide help” and “I liked how Jared went around the class to check on everyone”.
- Moving around lecture. During worksheet and clicker questions, I would circulate the classroom. This code was for statements that mentioned this specific behaviour, such as, “Walk around during worksheet times” and “Went around and asked students if they needed any clarifications”. (The latter statement would also be coded as ‘Proactively engaging students’. Approximately half the students who made a statement about ‘Moving around lecture’ also mentioned ‘Proactively engaging students’.)
- Correcting Joss. A rare few times during the semester, Joss inadvertently made a minor error in his public calculations or slipped slightly off the screen while using the document camera. Most of these times, I spoke up to nudge Joss back in the right direction. This code is for when students mentioned that behaviour.
The fraction of students that made statements falling into each of the above codes is plotted here:
It is a positive result for me that such a large fraction of students made a statement here that fell into the ‘Explaining physics’ code. However, this is not something that is specific to being a lecture TA, as in almost all contexts, TAs should be useful in helping students understand the course material. Therefore, this code does not help to understand which lecture TA-specific behaviours students see as beneficial.
The code ‘Proactively engaging students’ is, in my opinion, more specific and relevant to the lecture TA position. During the semester, I consciously tried to connect with as many students as possible during the lecture, if only with a brief “How is everyone in this area doing?” As discussed in my preprint Interactions between teaching assistants and students boost engagement in physics labs (and touched on in a previous post), proactive TA interactions do have an effect on student engagement (at least in the physics lab). It is heartening to see that students recognized and appreciated these efforts on my part.
In a similar vein, the next largest mentioned code was ‘Moving around lecture’. One could interpret positive comments on this behaviour as indicating that the students appreciated that I was available for help and present and visible in the room.
Finally, a small fraction of the students noticed my practical contributions in ensuring that the material being presented was accurate and visible to them. This was one of the most visible things I did as a lecture TA, so it is not a surprise that it is mentioned in the feedback.
2. What else could he have done?
There were fewer instances of constructive criticisms than of useful and specific responses to the first question. However, a few statements came up repeatedly:
- Reach more people. These were statements that lamented that I did not spread myself out enough, such as the quite specific “Look at the people in the front part of the back part of the hall.”
- More thorough explanations. This code was for statements which criticized my performance in discussing physics concepts or helping them out with questions.
- Write more pencasts. During the semester, I occasionally wrote pencast solutions (live pdfs) to worksheet problems. Some students requested that I do more of these.
The biggest result arising from this second question, in terms of the role of the lecture TA, is the request to ‘Reach more people’. Despite my efforts to circulate through the classroom and be available, some students felt that I could have done a better job of this. During the semester, I spent the vast majority of my time in the back half of the classroom, as Joss spent the majority of his time in the front half. So, it is very likely that some students in the front of the room may have felt neglected by me. (Although, with no way of tracking these index cards, I can’t be sure if it was students from the front of the room that asked for more attention here.) That this was the most frequently mentioned criticism provides further evidence that students do value interactions with the TA.
The other criticisms provide more personal information about my performance as a TA. Each of the codes ‘More thorough explanations’ and ‘Write more pencasts’ were only mentioned by 8 of the 133 students, and so may or may not be so significant. Still, I certainly appreciate that some students found my pencasts useful in their studying.
Quotables (or Jared’s self-esteem boost section)
One of the best parts of reading through student feedback (especially informal feedback, such as this) is simply seeing what students say. Some of these are very flattering and can be banked for motivation, others are clever, and still others are just funny.
Two comments that stood out for me as summarizing some of the qualities I strive to bring to the classroom are: “He made a very positive learning environment,” and; “Super optimistic and believes in the students.” It is extremely pleasant to receive feedback that resonates with the goals you have as an instructor.
Two comments I appreciated for their tone are: “It’s early so maybe not always so chipper/happy,” and; “His presence gave us hope when we most needed it.” The first refers to the class being at 8am; perhaps I smiled too much in the morning? The latter comment makes the situation in the physics class sound quite dire, and makes me sound like a bit of a saviour.
Finally, I enjoyed a bit of advice from one student: “Don’t take shit from Joss.” I’ll make sure to keep this in mind if I’m lucky enough to team up with Joss again.
Updates to the guide
The most important result to come out of this feedback was that students recognized and appreciated proactive attention from the TA. This type of TA behaviour was something I advocated in my previous lecture TA guide and strived to implement in the classroom. Based on the results presented here, I would update the guide to bring to the forefront the point about being proactive during the lecture time.
More generally, I interpret the results of this feedback as saying that, in this section, the students found interactions with the TA to be generally useful. This could be for a variety of reasons: the interactions could provide the guidance the students need to understand the physics, or they could be motivating for the students, or they could provide “hope.” Alternatively, the public availability of the TA might provide the appearance of a safety net in case students get stuck, giving them confidence to work on their own.
Of course, these reasons are speculations on my part. What does seem to be clear is that, whatever the needs of the students, the TA is unable to satisfy them if they do not make contact with the students. With ~250 students in this classroom, not all of whom are willing to speak up for themselves, and only two instructor-type bodies, proactive TA-initiated interactions are essential as they enable the TA to reach as wide an audience as possible, thereby providing useful support to and making connections with as many students as they can.
Questions for the reader
- Would you interpret these results differently?
- What are possible issues with the way I coded the comments?
- What are reasons why a TA might not want to be proactive?
- (For an instructor:) Does this change how you might prepare a lecture TA for your course? Why or why not?
- (For a TA:) Does this alter your approach to being a lecture TA? Why or why not?