Tips, Hints, and Suggestions for Teaching Assistants

from Cole Miller

Presenting yourself

  • A friendly, enthusiastic demeanor can increase your approachability and make you more interesting to listen to.
  • Using personal references and examples can make you more approachable. Strike a balance with this - the class should still be more about them than it is about you. Picking personal examples that illustrate why it is that you like science or alerting them to your own research interests can be a good way to do this.
  • Use your students' names as much as you can. This shows an interest in them as individuals and makes you more approachable.
  • Humor can be a great help in making a class entertaining, with a few caveats. Be careful with sarcasm and make sure your humor is not at the expense of a student.
  • Your arriving on time, well prepared, and relaxed can relieve your students' anxiety.
  • Speak slowly, loudly and clearly. Using the written word through overheads or other notes can help reinforce what you are saying to those for whom English is not their first language or those who may have difficulty understanding your accent.

Involving students

  • Get the students involved wherever and whenever you can.
  • Give positive feedback of some sort every time a student participates - especially in high risk situations like making presentations or answering a question
  • When working math problems, have several students assist - some can supply the numbers for the equation, another can do the solution on their calculator
  • Use a long 'wait time' when you ask the students a question - give them a chance to think about the answers (and a little gender equity aside: studies done at younger levels show that if you double your wait time, you also double the number of girls who will raise their hand)
  • Encourage participation by acknowledging students who participate. Comment that a question is a good question, or thank a student for an answer when they volunteer.
  • Encourage your students to expand their answers to your questions and put things in their own words. It can be very easy to shut down a student and take over the discussion or to move on when they've given you the key words you are looking for, but those may not indicate a true understanding. Listen carefully to their answers and ask follow up questions.
  • Find something positive to pull out of every student answer. Techniques include "You're right, now we understand that this isn't a problem for the heliocentric model" (shift ground to where their answer is okay), "People use to think that, but….." (historical) "Ah, but remember that…" (dead wrong but give them a hint and another chance).

Student Questions

  • Visually scan the room regularly so that you don't miss student questions. Look for the half raised hand and the quizzical stare.
  • Repeat student questions to be sure that the whole class heard them.
  • Try your best to reason out an answer to student questions, but don't be afraid to say that you don't know and you'll have to get back to them with the information.
  • Talking through your reasoning as you try to work an answer for students in class and asking them to double check your thinking can model problem solving skills.
  • Be sure to ask students for questions, concerns, and problems. Be sure to wait long enough that this is a real question. A common joke in the education department? "Are there any questions?" = "I'm done now, so there better not be!"

Presentation and Activity choices

  • Use a variety of approaches - demonstrations, overheads, images, slides
  • Changing modes of operation several times in one section can help keep student attention.
  • Tables are a good way of comparing and contrasting two concepts.
  • Work several examples when covering math problems
  • Show all of your thinking when solving problems. Steps that are obvious to you may not be obvious to the students
  • Stress the "is the answer reasonable?" end of problem solving
  • Quizzes at the start of class can help emphasize the importance of being on time.
  • One good format for group work is to let the students answer questions individually, and then compare answers and work together in a group. This ensures that every student has taken a few minutes to think about the problems and keeps groups from being overly dominated by one or two personalities.
  • When going over multiple choice quizzes, ask how many students got it right and have one explain the answer. This gives the students who got it right a pat on the back, and still lets you know who didn't without drawing attention to them.
  • Sharing things about science that you find interesting can help connect your students to you as a person and make the class more fun.

Visual Aids

  • The larger the writing the better - this applies to overheads, the board, anything that's held up in front of the class.
  • An agenda or outline of the plan for the day can be useful in organizing student thought.
  • Use dark markers when writing on the board.
  • Diagrams, diagrams, diagrams - if there is some way you can draw a concept, do it!
  • Drawing complicated diagrams in front of the students, explaining each part as you add it, can be an effective method for increasing student understanding

Grading & Feedback Issues

  • Be clear about expectations
  • Be clear about consequences for not meeting expectations
  • As much as you can, avoid bringing your emotions in to discussions with students about their work. Leaving your own frustration, disappointment, etc out of these conversations is a clue to your students to do the same and can help avoid ugly scenes. It also makes it easier to move on from a disagreement and preserve the relationship with your student.