TAPD mini-modules week 3: “Does F=ma in real life or only in physics?”

This semester, we’ve carved out time from the Teaching Assistants’ normal duties—a half-hour per week—to use for professional development activities. This post series tracks our weekly goals and activities.

“Does F=ma in real life or only in physics?”

Students say the darnedest things. Over my years as a TA and instructor, I’ve had many interactions with many students. When I walk into a classroom, I can never be quite sure which direction the discussions will go (though experience does give a good first-order prediction). But, through it all, we are there to help students learn. So, when they’re coming from every angle, how do you give them the motivation and feedback they need to boost their learning?

This week, we want to use the experience in the TA group to discuss general strategies and principles for creating productive interactions with students in the tutorials. Through a quick survey last week, we crowd-sourced real-life scenarios from our TAs, which we will use with some role-playing to get TAs sharing strategies. The goals here are to have people exchange interaction techniques and to continue building community among the TA group.

Mini-module outline:

  1. (1 min) Brief intro to activity. Describe goals. Set groups.
  2. (20 min) Role-play scenario-card activity. In a group of five (with experience mixed around the room), one TA starts as the “student,” drawing a scenario card. They read the card (e.g., “Does F=ma in real life or only in physics?”), directing it to a TA in the group. That TA responds to the statement. Then, the “student” begins a new interaction, reading the same scenario to the next TA in the group; the next TA responds differently than the first did. This goes around the circle until all TAs have responded to this situation. The group can then discuss the different possible responses, or they can move on to another scenario.
  3. (5 min) Group discussion about highlights of this activity, and what general principles TAs can take into their sessions this week.
  4. (5 min) Instructor and Head TA responses to some of the stickier student scenarios that came up in the survey.

Post-meeting update:

  • TAs engaged well in the activity, and both similarities and differences in the approaches came out during the discussion.
  • There wasn’t so much role playing as TAs describing how they would respond to the different situations. This worked fine for the goals of this session.
  • The group discussion afterward was lively, and went a bit over time. Common difficulties were made explicit, and some strategies for dealing with them shared.
  • I believe that crowd-sourcing the prompts was very important for the success here, and generated buy-in for the activity.

Next time: I might encourage TAs to try harder to give different possible responses to the prompts (even if they had to give what they thought were bad responses). This could create comparisons to help people articulate what is a good strategy.


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