Advice for first-time TA?
October 8, 2005 6:31 PM   Subscribe

Advice for first-time TA?

I'm in my third year of a PhD program and have just started teaching my own section of an introductory film course. I thought teaching would some a lot more naturally to me than it has. I find I have trouble coming up with questions that are neither too vague nor so specific that students feel I'm fishing for answers. Ideally, I'd like them to engage with each other, but it turns out that this kind of interaction is a lot harder to foster than it looks.

So, anyway, give me your tips! I know there's no magic bullet, but I'd love to hear what has and has not worked for you.
posted by miriam to Education (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Speak up, don't be a chicken, remember that at least one of your students (though she may lack your education) is smarter than you.

Teach, but don't be a pedant.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:34 PM on October 8, 2005

Where nice clothes and use a dry cleaner. They may be smarter than you but they shouldn't be better dressed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:41 PM on October 8, 2005

Make 'em do presentations, and have the presentations be aimed towards starting a discussion, and tell them to bring in a question that they want to ask-- something open ended is obviously best. Let the students do the work. I teach literature, and I've found that in poetry classes nominating the more reserved students to read poems out loud can do wonders in terms of helping them get used to hearing their own voices in the classroom, but that obviously wouldn't apply so much for film... Being in charge of the room, you can do things like just point to somebody and ask them to comment. This might inspire some passing irritation on the part of those you ask who don't feel prepared, but it will wake everyone else up, and once they are attentive they will be far more inclined to jump in and add to discussions. Also, when you ask questions of the class, give them a decent amount of time to answer. Try counting to ten, or fifteen, or thirty. Silence of that length will feel like an eternity, but let it linger as long as you can-- somebody will crack and start talking. I've found that each classroom is different-- they all have a differing chemistry, but that chemistry can be stirred and mixed. Though sometimes you just get a group that leans towards a majority of quiet non-talkers-- at that point you just have to work with what you have. This is again where presentations work really well-- for ten percent of the grade, most students will make the effort to bring something forward in class.

If all else fails in establishing a mood that encourages discussion, get them to start talking about themselves, or something that they are bound to have opinions on. I used to use gangster rap-- everyone in the class, especially the kid in the back who appeared to be sleeping through the hour would have something to say-- or movies they've seen recently, or even their favourite commercials. It's often not that difficult to move from there to talking about the material at hand-- one of the best moments I ever had in class was asking the students, in a Chaucer tutorial, what was the most widespread form of oral poetry-- the look on one guy's face when he answered, hesitatingly, Rap? and I said, Yeah, of course, is a memory I will hold dear for a long time.

Also, chocolate does wonders. I have been known to pass around chocolate-covered espresso beans in early morning classes. My evaluations that semester were fun reading.
posted by jokeefe at 6:58 PM on October 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, by "oral poetry", above, I probably should have written "oral culture" or something similar.

Also, you might be advised to break the students into small groups for discussion. I never did this in class because I loathed it myself when I was doing my undergraduate degree, but many people find it works well for them and for their students.
posted by jokeefe at 7:07 PM on October 8, 2005

Kwantsar and StickyCarpet's two posts might best generalized TA advice I've ever heard, but more to your situation: if you do break your students into groups, shuffle the groups around every week, or every few weeks. At least, if you plan on keeping the same groups, try and determine if they're balanced well or not after a few class periods. One group always ends up comprising the five kids who never do the reading, and that combination just drags everyone down.
posted by hototogisu at 7:29 PM on October 8, 2005

Lots of good advice here. I'd add this: don't set the bar too low. College kids spend time where they have to. If your class doesn't require work (pop quizes--and lots of them--are your friend) they won't bother. They have other classes to worry about (and lives outside of class as well).
posted by wheat at 7:40 PM on October 8, 2005

Be enthusiastic -- it doesn't hurt to even go over the top sometimes. Learn all of their names. Tell stories that teach some of the points you're trying to teach. Tell a story here and there that is a bit of a tangent, but then quickly get back on point. Bonus points if you can later show how the tangent was really much more central. Learn names and use them. If you can bear it, connect some of the points to movies that are a lot worse than you're watching, but popular. Occasionally remind them why studying film is so important.

Break the ice a little in the beginning of every class. For instance, express dismay and warn them not to go see Snakes on a Plane when it supposedly comes out next year.

Recent data suggests attention spans in today's students (if you're not in the ivy league or something) are roughly 10-20 minutes. Thus, I hear a lot of people recommending that one should change tasks (lecture to discussion, to activity, etc) once every 10-20 minutes. I think this is a bit much, but it's not bad to have at least two types of activities for most of your sessions.

You won't be able to make them talk to each other unless you specifically call on people and ask them to respond to each other's comments. But if they feel comfortable enough with you, they usually start doing it on their own. Stick up for the students who might get criticized by the smarter students, it will help both people out.

Dress nicely, unless you're more comfortable when you're not dressed nicely, in which case dressing nicely won't give you any advantages. Don't be afraid of unpopular or ideological views, just insist they be evaluated like any other view. Learn names and some idiosynchrasies of each student that they don't mind being associated with in the class (like a major or a liking for Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Use this when you can to make a point or keep a discussion going.

Grade quickly and make lots of comments for the first half of the semester. Take grade privacy very seriously and try to engage students who aren't doing so well as much as those who are. Hold Instant Messaging Office Hours and be as accessible as you otherwise can without losing your mind.

Don't be mean and tough on the first day unless you know you're going to do it throughout the semester. If you're a nice, fun loving person, skip the "scare the shit out of them" stuff because it won't come off well.

That's all I can think of for now... I've been going now for 7+ years and I'm still learning and a little nervous before most classes. But students seem to like my classes. And when they go well, savor it. Write in your journal about it and figure out how to do more of whatever you did that time.
posted by ontic at 8:04 PM on October 8, 2005

When listening to this advice, you should probably try to place it in the context of your own experience as a student. When was the last time you said to yourself "boy, that Professor Roberts was a bad teacher. So poorly dressed!" So far, I would say that my best two teachers have been jeans-and-tshirt types. And not necessarily clean ones, at that.

On the other hand, scaring the shit out of your students is certainly something that I didn't appreciate when I was a student. I can tell if something is hard, I don't need a teacher to intimidate me; so I certainly agree with that point.

One of the things that I've noticed now that I'm lecturing is that it can be hard to remember (or even figure out!) how to present things to people who don't already essentially know what they're about. That's the major difference between lecturing to students and lecturing, say, at your group's/department's weekly seminar - in the latter case, everyone is basically on the same level to start. Once you've gotten used to that setting it can be hard to remember to explain the basics. Insofar as you're actually lecturing, go slowly! When students understand what you're talking about, they tend to give some positive nonverbal feedback, from the way they sit to nodding their heads, etc. It used to discourage me when I would say "is that clear" and no one would respond; turns out that unless you have an unusual class, no one will respond whether or not they understand. On the other hand, with a careful eye you should be able to see if you start to lose people. One of my biggest mistakes when I first started was to look to see if the most clever people in the room understand, rather than trying to make sure that I'm keeping everyone (or at least as many as possible) on board. I think I still do this more than I would like.

In terms of attention span: I don't buy that there's a big difference between Ivy league schools and other schools. The best that you might be able to say is that Ivy league people are more willing to pay careful attention to material that bores them for the sake of academic achievement. On the other hand, everyone will pay attention to you if you make it interesting, and interesting doesn't have to mean that you change the subject every ten minutes. If your students are constantly losing focus, you need to change the style and delivery of your lectures, but I would be wary of going to a TV-inspired, channel-surfing approach.

I don't think of myself as a great teacher, but I do pay careful attention to how the best teachers I know conduct themselves in front of the class. The two most important take-home messages I think I've gleaned are the following. 1. If the class is going to be a teacher-based lecture, it should be very well thought out, down to where you write things on the board and how much (if you use a board - but that level of precision in whatever medium you use. If it's Powerpoint, spend a lot of time thinking about how to get the important messages across). 2. The days when you want a very participation-based class, make sure you really know what you want to talk about. Think of a radio interview: it's the guest that's talking, but it's the host that provides the questions. If there's a silence, the host should never be at a loss for something that will spur on interesting conversation or dialogue.

Finally: don't try to do too much. "Teach them one thing", my prof told me. If it's interesting, they'll remember it. On the other hand, if you overload them then it doesn't matter how interesting the material is. From my point of view, the main purpose of the class is to get the students excited about learning about the topic. If they just can't get it or don't enjoy it, what's the point? (Okay, sometimes you are required to cover certain material - but I still think that the guiding principle should be what I just said.)
posted by louigi at 10:03 PM on October 8, 2005

What jokeefe said also seems like very good advice to me. The initial reluctance to participate on the part of students is the hardest to overcome - once you manage to break through that everything will get easier.
posted by louigi at 10:07 PM on October 8, 2005

Do treat your role as a TA seriously. (I get the feeling you already do or you wouldn't be here.) When I was in my undergrad, I was really offended by TAs who acted as if their TAship was a scholarship. Some of my TAs would say things like, "This university makes me be here. I don't want to teach. Most universities provide a big scholarship and RAship, but this school makes you be a TA to get some of that money." I was also angered by TAs who said they would be in their office during office hours because the school forced them to do so but that they did not welcome students as visitors during this time. I even had one TA who informed us that his office hours would be held in the weight room because "this is the only chance I get to work out". TAing is important. Even if you think it is a pain in the neck, please don't convey this to your students. I realize these examples are probably not par for the course. I'm singling out four or five from my entire undergrad.

Do embrace your TAship as an opportunity to gain valuable experience. You'll be thinking about your field from new angles. You'll realize not everyone loves what you love. You'll need to motivate people who don't want to follow and who may not even see you as the leader. This is valuable, no matter whether you want to work in academics, business or government. You're honing important people skills. And, with any luck, you want to teach and see this as a great way to work toward being a great teacher.

As for spurring classroom interaction, you might want to look into a short (one evening) class on active learning. I took an active learning class last year and really enjoyed it. SOme resources for active learning strategies:
    When I took the course, I was a bit surprised that I hadn't taken part in most of these activities since high school. (I have a masters.) However, I soon realized that there was no reason that higher education had to wholly rely on lectures and class discussion. I'm not sure you need to go overboard with active learning, but you could probably sprinkle it throughout your sessions.

  • posted by acoutu at 11:31 PM on October 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

    my best two teachers have been jeans-and-tshirt types

    Not to belabor the clothes point, but:

    I had a brilliant teacher who specialized in greasy hair and stained printed cotton summer dresses. She carried her papers in a torn PanAm bag.

    But she was a respected, published author and possessed a rapier wit and a steel-trap mind. She was workin' the frumpy look.

    She was not an insecure first-time TA, about the same age as her students.

    We are not talking dressy: jeans and a pressed linen shirt with rolled up sleeves and an unfrayed collar, comfortable shoes, but shined.

    A good belt without torn and stretched holes.

    These signal that you are not one of them.
    posted by StickyCarpet at 5:21 AM on October 9, 2005

    Get policies on lateness, attendance, grading, etc., in writing at the beginning of the term (probably created by the professor) and stick to them.
    posted by whatzit at 7:29 AM on October 9, 2005

    Regarding group work: DO NOT do group work because you've been told it's a good idea. DO NOT do group work unless you are absolutely sure of its merit.

    I've had way too many teachers, TAs and profs alike, who regularly break us into groups to discuss the day's topic simply because they've been told we learn better this way. We end up talking about what an ass the teacher is instead of doing what we're supposed to.
    posted by katieinshoes at 8:11 AM on October 9, 2005

    As for the discussion questions--you can't have a decent class discussion unless most students have done the reading, and most won't unless you test them over it. All my upper level classes meet once a week, and we always begin with a short quiz over the readings. The questions tend to be open ended: "Describe, with specific details from the readings, two of the ways that Montezuma tried to stop Cortes on the road to Tenochtitlan." I typically have 3-4 such questions on the quiz and ask students to answer them in short 2-3 sentence paragraphs. It takes up only 10-12 minutes at the beginning of class and grading them doesn't take much longer.

    For the actual discussion, I have 2-3 rotating student discussion leaders each week. They meet me in my office a half-hour before class with 6-8 open ended questions each. They read me the questions and I comment on them (my comment nearly always being "Great question but a little too specific, could you frame it more broadly?") I also advise them to ask, but not to answer their own questions.

    From these two things we are pretty much guaranteed a great discussion. My one other strategy is that every student gives me a 4x6" index card at the start of class with 2-3 questions or comments on the readings. During the class discussion I try to mostly shut up (it makes the students more willing to talk) and I look through the cards. I let the students talk 20-30 minutes, then make a few comments of my own, and address some of the points on the cards. The cards are great for drawing out the quiet students: "Jill, you had an interesting observation about Cortes and Malinche--care to share it with the class?"

    All this may sound like a lot of work but it really isn't. Students often comment that they have the best discussions in their college career in my classroom.
    posted by LarryC at 12:42 PM on October 9, 2005

    Also--my email is the profile if you want more information.
    posted by LarryC at 12:43 PM on October 9, 2005

    Just a guess, miriam, but if New Haven = Yale I'd skip the pop quizzes and assume they read the materials.
    posted by StickyCarpet at 5:54 PM on October 9, 2005

    Expect to get through half of every lesson plan. Class time drags on for students but breaks the sound barrier for teachers. At least that's my (relatively limited) experience. if not, you're boring. having your time eaten up by questions and discussion is a good thing.

    in that way i'd also agree with "teach them one thing." pick that one thing well - try to have them leave with an understanding of something that's at the root of a lot of other things you'd ideally want them to walk away with. if you were interesting, they'll pick those things up later in their lives.

    as for dress:
    These signal that you are not one of them.

    you're a freakin TA, fer chrissakes. you absolutely are one of them, you just happen to have specialized knowledge in a certain area. everyone in the class is likely to have that, just not necessarily in the subject at hand.

    don't make assumptions about your students, don't be afraid to be fallible and, indeed, don't be a pedant. be a person there to share knowledge, emphasis on the "share" part. just don't let anyone walk over you. it's a fine balance.
    posted by poweredbybeard at 8:55 PM on October 11, 2005

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