TA SPECIFIC TEACHING RESOURCES
Increasingly, universities look for documented teaching excellence in the graduate students they hire into faculty positions. For this reason, working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant is not a small thing in terms of your career. For many students it is their first line of authentic professional activity that will be recorded on a Curriculum Vitae. It is therefore essential that you treat it like the real job that it is, pursue it with enthusiasm and commitment, strive for excellence by learning new strategies, and document your work (e.g., with a portfolio) as you would any other type of professional activity. Equally important, use the experience as an opportunity to connect with those faculty members who will eventually write letters of support for you, describing both your effectiveness as an instructor and your potential to become a faculty colleague.
This resource is a service of the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL). ITLAL features a variety of Teaching Consultation Services, as well as an extensive collection of web-based Teaching and Learning Resources. ITLAL also sponsor an ongoing series of Events and Workshops for graduate students, faculty, and instructional staff.
For more general information about moving to the Albany area and working for the University at Albany, you might also want to check out our New Graduate Teaching Assistant Resources.
If you have been assigned to a teaching role where you are “instructor of record,” your charge carries with it a tremendous responsibility that must somehow fit into the litany of other responsibilities you have: your studies, research, home life, etc. This task may seem daunting, but careful and thoughtful course design will help you manage all these responsibilities effectively.
Goals, Objectives, and Assessment
Courses are usually described in student handbooks. In addition to department expectations for courses as part of a sequence and general notions of the scope of particular courses, these handbooks are resources for making content decisions. They also form the basis for developing course goals. Goals are essentially what students will be expected to be able to do after they have taken the course. These goals may be broken down into objectives, specific behaviors, and conditions under which they will be demonstrated. Assessment includes any and all methods for determining whether objectives have been met. (More specific information about assessment can be found in Question #7 below.)
Preparing a Syllabus or Course Outline
Think of the syllabus as a contract with the students. It is documentation and communication of your plans for the course. It makes explicit what is expected of students, what students need to know to plan their semesters, and grading procedures. A well-conceived, comprehensive syllabus minimizes confusion and misunderstandings throughout the semester. However, consistent enforcement of the rules and guidelines put forth in the syllabus is just as important its preparation.
Included in the evaluative element of syllabi is often some form of attendance policy or requirement. At the University at Albany, attendance policies are left to the discretion of the instructor. Questions about attendance policies are among the most frequently asked questions, from both students and TAs. Also, although it is not required by the university, it may be a good idea to include a statement reminding students that some things such as due dates and specific parts of the course may be subject to change as the semester progresses.
Note that many departments require instructors to have a syllabus on file with the department. Be sure to check with your department.
According to University at Albany policy, all courses must have syllabi readily available to students and must include certain information. The course syllabus may also include such additional information that the instructor deems appropriate or necessary.
In addition, University Senate legislation requires the following information to appear on syllabi for courses approved as General Education courses information:
Instructors make materials available to their students in one of four ways: bookstore purchase, collection of articles compiled on the web or in print copy (often called a course reader or course pack), on reserve through the University Libraries, or through the University’s Blackboard Learning System web instructional platform. Departments also sometimes allow instructors to distribute small quantities of print materials directly to the students; however, you should be sensitive to cost issues associated with photocopying, and you must comply with all fair use and copyright guidelines as noted below.
Textbooks and Course Packs
The University at Albany Bookstore will help you order textbooks, although you should check with your department to see if their ordering procedures are centralized through an administrative assistant. You will want to find out if a textbook has already been chosen for the course, or if you need to choose one yourself. Once you know the book has been ordered be sure to stop by the book store before the class starts to make sure that the book is there and that there are enough copies for all of your students. It is never fun to have hours of planning ruined because your students don’t have access to the book for the first few weeks of class.
To create a customized course reader, you can contact Copies Plus (on campus) or Shipmates (off campus) to have copies made for students to pick up. You can also make materials available through electronic reserves in the library.
Copies of Books for Instructors
The secretaries in your department probably have a directory containing publishers’ addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers, which you may use to inquire about available material from particular publishers. Many publishers have a website where you can go and order a desk copy directly. Instructors are usually offered materials free of charge when they are considering these materials for courses they plan to teach. Such material should be ordered directly through the publishers, not through the bookstore. Be careful not to incur unnecessary charges by ordering through someone other than the publisher. Some publishers give you return labels if you choose not to use their material, and they will usually tell you whether they expect you to return the books or not. Always remember to ask the publisher about supplemental materials (i.e., test banks, CDs, overhead transparencies, instructor manuals, study guides) even though you may get only the actual text until you put in a full class order.
The Library: Electronic and Traditional Reserve Services
You may place University Libraries' books and media, or your own personal copies, on reserve for students to use in either hard copy or electronic format. Library staff can place journal articles and other loose paper documents on the electronic reserve system, ERes. You are responsible for bringing books, journal articles, and reserve lists to the Reserve Desks of the University Library on the uptown campus or the Dewey Library on the downtown campus for library staff to process.
To ensure that all items needed are on reserve for students at the beginning of the semester, give the Reserve staff your lists and all materials at least two weeks before the fall and spring semesters, and no later than one week before the session starts for the summer.
The ERes system may be accessed directly by instructors. Files can be added or removed from the comfort of your campus office. Instructors can also use the bulletin board and chat functions. Each electronic reserve course is protected by a single password which faculty distribute to their students.
If you want students to have access to films and videos, ITLAL offers a variety of services to allow you to digitize your existing media into formats that are exportable for a wide range of uses, such as in web pages and in visual or audio presentations. Access to these files can be managed through your online course or through any course-related website.
Photocopying of copyrighted materials for classroom distribution and reserve use is permissible only within limits allowed by the Copyright Law of 1976, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and accompanying fair use guidelines.
If you are going to digitize or photocopy materials for your classes, take some time to familiarize yourself with the University at Albany Intellectual Property Copyright and Fair Use Resources.
Increasingly, a variety of instructional technologies are being used to help deliver content and engage students in course material. For instance, PowerPoint presentations or web-based environments such as Blackboard Learning System (BLS) can be used to present materials in ways that encourage students to be more interactive in the classroom or online. Effective teachers continually work to expand their professional competence not only in research in their disciplines, but also in selecting, developing, and utilizing the most appropriate tools and teaching methods available to accomplish their instructional goals. Professors and teaching assistants at the University at Albany have access to a wide range of instructional technology resources to enhance teaching and learning, including: Internet resources, web-based course management tools (such as Blackboard), presentation tools (e.g., PowerPoint) and technology-enhanced facilities (“smart classrooms”).
Once you have a sense of what your goals are for using instructional technologies, you will need to know how to access the resources that are available to you on campus. ITS is responsible for setting up Blackboard accounts, giving technical support, updating and maintaining software and equipment, and training individuals to use these specific technologies.
ITLAL is available to assist faculty and teaching assistants in the how to use these instructional technologies effectively in the classroom and in locating other resources on campus.
“Must Have” Technology Skills for You
Three technology skills are considered “must have” for you and your students:
If you do not feel confident in your technical abilities, there are many training resources available to you. The Library’s Interactive Media Center offers a walk-in service, tutorials, and classes to faculty who want to learn applications such as Web editors, audio and video editors, DVD burning tools, and much more. Information Technology Services also provides training sessions for applications such as Excel, Access, Dreamweaver and Photoshop. ITLAL currently provides one-on-one help to graduate students who want to learn media conversion and editing.
Technology in Classrooms
At the University at Albany, the lecture center classrooms are equipped with instructor panels that provide the instructor with a computer with web access and projection equipment. The University also has electronic (or “smart”) classrooms throughout the campus that are assigned to particular departments. Some rooms provide network access for the instructor if you bring your own equipment. Others provide an instructor machine, projection device, and computers for the students. You should check with your department to see what level of access you have to these resources.
In addition, projection equipment, Internet access, and standardized software such as Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver and Photoshop are available at the podium.
Public User Rooms
ITS maintains public user rooms where your students (and you) can work. There are computer user rooms in the main library and the science library on the uptown campus, the Dewey Library on the Downtown Campus, and the School of Public Health on the East Campus.
The UNIX system provides a very powerful computing environment and is the system on which many of the official University web pages reside. To request web space on the University web server for instructional web pages and class projects, you need a UNIX account. You can also use your UNIX account for e-mail and to author web pages.
All registered students (you as well as the students in your class) can obtain a UNIX account to use for personal e-mail, statistical applications, and web development. Students apply for accounts on the web and agree to follow the university’s usage guidelines.
Computer mailing programs need to include the recipient’s computer name (userid or username) and computer address. The entire electronic mail address is represented as: email@example.com. All University at Albany e-mail addresses end in “albany.edu”. Your UNIX e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All students at the University at Albany have computer userIDs included as part of their student records. Usually, your student userID consists of your initials followed by some digits from your University ID number (e.g., ab1234 or xy989800). If you are the instructor of record for a course, you can obtain a list of the userIDs of the students in your course via MyUAlbany. If you are a teaching assistant, you can obtain this list from your supervising professor or departmental secretary. We recommend that you verify that your students are active e-mail users before sending them e-mail. Academic Computing is also responsible for “loading” your Blackboard courses with the students registered in those courses.
Electronic Mailing Lists
Electronic mailing lists are a form of electronic conferencing in which the communications are exchanged via e-mail. They provide a forum where people can exchange information and have discussions relevant to the topic of the discussion list. Several pieces of software are used to manage such mailing lists. At the University at Albany we use Listserv software. You can arrange to have an electronic discussion via e-mail as an extension to your class discussions by setting up a Listserv list for your class. If you would like assistance in setting up an e-mail discussion list for your class, see one of the faculty members in your department first (to make sure such a list does not already exist).
Blackboard Learning System
Blackboard Learning System (BLS), offered through ITS at UAlbany, is a course management system that facilitates the creation of password-protected, web-based educational environments. BLS requires minimal technical expertise on the part of the course developer and the student. Among other things you can use Blackboard to post your syllabus, publish materials that supplement your course, create online discussions, and conduct real-time chats.
ITS can help you in setting up Blackboard and e-mail (listserv) distribution lists for your classes as well as preparing appropriate technical handouts and support materials for students. BLS Training and Workshops are offered regularly throughout the year. Use of Blackboard requires only a web browser (Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox) and an active Internet connection. No additional software is necessary.
MyUAlbany is a service that enables students to register for courses, check grades, correct or update personal information, and use a number of other account management tools. If you are the instructor of record for the course you are teaching, you will use MyUAlbany to view class rosters, submit grades, and manage advisee information.
Whether you are the instructor of record, leading a discussion section or lab, or assisting in a large lecture class, remember that the first day of class is a time of anxiety for all instructors. For some, this anxiety is little more than a mild elevation of heart rate, while for others it may approach the terror stage. As a new TA, you should not be too concerned about feeling anxious; in fact, you might think about the fact that the same adrenaline rush that produces the physiological symptoms associated with anxiety will also give you the intellectual and emotional energy you need to make your classroom a lively, interesting environment.
Before the First Day: Preparing your Classroom
A first step is to become familiar with the territory, your teaching environment—that is, the classroom. You can find the classroom assignments for your courses by logging on to MyUAlbany, or if you are a TA for a large class, ask your lead instructor. If you want to change classrooms, the process begins by putting in a change request through an administrator in your home department.
Go to your assigned classroom before your class starts, preferably a day or two early. Does the room have a screen for projection if you need it? Is there an overhead projector? A computer projector? Chalk and erasers? Other types of equipment? Do you want to arrange the room in some special way for your class? (If so, be sure to rearrange it when you are done!) Are there enough seats for the size of the class? In other words, familiarize yourself with your classroom before you actually start teaching, and you will have one less thing to think about on the first day.
Many smart classrooms are available throughout the campus. If you need media support but are not assigned to a smart classroom, Audio/Visual Services can, with advance notice, provide you with portable equipment (i.e., TVs, slide projectors and portable computer projection systems).
The First Day: What Your Students Need to Know
No matter how well prepared you are, you will probably tend to speak too rapidly at first. This is a normal reaction to anxiety; to help yourself relax, make a conscious effort to speak slowly. You might even put a reminder in your class notes: “Slow Down!!” Speaking slowly has multiple benefits: relaxing you, allowing your students to take clearer notes, and helping them to understand you better.
Keep in mind that the first day of class sets the tone for everything that will follow. Don’t let it be a throwaway day, but take advantage of the opportunity to get the students interested in your course. More strategies for the first day of class and suggested icebreaker activities are available in ITLAL’s General Teaching Resources.
Even though discussion sections are usually less formal than large lecture classes, your role is key to students’ success. It is important that you take the time to prepare for discussion sections, get to know your students, and keep them engaged with the course material. Participating in a discussion can be an exciting and challenging way for students to develop skills to articulate their thoughts, to test their ideas in a public setting, and to evaluate the comments of others. Here are some tips for effectively planning and leading discussion sections.
In general, it is useful to develop a questioning strategy for any discussion section. The following three-step strategy might be used:
Here are a few strategies for building rapport with the students in your class:
Encouraging Individual Student Participation
Here are some basic hints to encourage student participation in discussion:
The benefits of using cooperative learning include increased student participation, student-led discussions, and activity-based learning. It requires the use of a structure or procedure for students to interact with the information and each other. Many cooperative learning structures are applicable to a wide variety of content areas. While students learn how to operate in cooperative learning environments, familiar or introductory material is preferred. Once the structure is familiar, they can tackle challenging material. In addition to exams, projects may be used to assess cooperative learning assignments.
Strategies for Facilitating Group Participation
Here are some hints for encouraging participation in groups:
In lab sections, you have the opportunity to help students bridge the gap between theory and practice. In the sciences, laboratories have traditionally been taught with three main objectives:
Several departments on campus offer laboratory science courses. Laboratory teaching policy varies greatly among departments and even among courses. However, a few guidelines may be generally useful to the laboratory TA. The role of the teaching assistant in most labs is to provide direction and assistance, and to serve as a reference for students as they conduct their own work.
Preparing for the Lab
The main secret to a well-run lab is the old scout motto: “Be prepared.” You will feel more relaxed and confident as a lab TA if you aren’t running around frantically trying to set up the lab as the students are streaming in the door! You can take several key actions to assure this:
Conducting the Lab
If you have prepared well, you will be ready to interact with students and enjoy the lab. In conducting the lab, several points to remember are:
One of the unavoidable realities of working in a large university is teaching large classes. While dealing with over 50 or 100 students in one class presents unique challenges, there are strategies that can make the task not only manageable, but also productive and enjoyable for you and your students.
Presenting a lecture is a common teaching practice in large undergraduate classes and can be an effective means of relaying information. If you rely entirely on lecture, however, you may find yourself losing your students very quickly. Research suggests that most people can listen attentively for only about fifteen minutes at a time, so think about condensing information into mini-lectures interspersed with other activities that force students to become more involved with the course material and responsible for their own learning.
When you do lecture, make sure that you are communicating in ways that are interesting to the audience. With your first words your goal is to capture the students’ attention. You may begin with a question or a story. Throughout the lecture, watch students’ faces for evidence of attentiveness and comprehension. Ask questions and be prepared to rephrase information or provide an additional example. Also remember that an individual has an average attention span of fifteen minutes, so plan changes in delivery accordingly.
Because students in your class will have varying learning styles, you will want to make use of a variety of ways of conveying information to them. Using media and other non-print materials in addition to written and verbal information can help ensure that you are reaching as many of your students as possible. This might include highlighting details from photographs, focusing on relationships between elements in a concept map, or repeated viewing of an image to gather additional information. Written forms of information may include writing on the board, outlines projected onto screens, and handouts. In addition, a videotaped interview brings new people into the classroom. Effective uses of visual representations are those that are integrally tied to the curriculum and to assessment.
Don’t let students be anonymous
It can become very easy for students in large classes to fade into the background. When students feel anonymous, the atmosphere of the class will inevitably be affected in a negative way. It is important to establish upfront that you are going to hold students accountable for not only attending class but also contributing to it. Don’t think of this as policing student behavior (although it has that function) but rather as a way to establish identities and help students to learn about, and from, you and each other over the course of the semester. Here are some useful practices to consider:
Establish and enforce a clear attendance policy
If all class members are equally responsible for the success of each session, everyone needs to be present. The University gives instructors considerable latitude in this matter, so long as the policy is clear and in writing at the beginning of a course. We strongly suggest that this policy be outlined in your syllabus, and discussed with your students on the first day of class. Additionally, make it a class policy that attendance can and will be taken at any time: the beginning of class, after any breaks, in the last 10 minutes, etc.
All students should come to class prepared to answer questions about readings, to read from writings, to participate in class activities, and so on. Demonstrating preparedness may contribute to student grades in a variety of ways, such as short quizzes on readings and participation in class activities.
Abandon (absolute) uniformity
This is a corollary for “expect preparedness” that states: “If we expect all students to come to class prepared, we can call upon them in class to do different kinds of work on different days.” For example, if you assign everyone to read an essay, write a response to be read to the class, or advise them to be prepared to participate in a panel discussion, then you are not obliged to make all 140 students (say) take part in that particular panel. Rather, you can fairly ask any six (for example) students.
Create a variety of opportunities for speaking
As noted above, most people associate responsibility and active learning with speaking — and with good reason: we need, as the axiom has it, to “put things in our own words.” Thus, although so many things about our lecture centers tend to discourage distributed speaking (one microphone, one lectern, fixed rows of seats, etc.), it is worthwhile to create occasions for students to do some of the talking. Here are some ways you can do this.
Make frequent use of in-class writing
The writing-intensive literature over the past decade has suggested quite a few ways to use writing as a mode of learning. For large classes, frequent short writings — to be read aloud, or shared with a partner — can help keep students actively engaged. These may be graded or ungraded activities.
Classroom Assessment Techniques
Thomas A. Angelo and Patricia K. Cross have developed a series of techniques for assessment that can be used in class. Many of these require minimal preparation and only a short amount of class time, but they can provide a wealth of information about what your students are and aren’t getting out of your class. Below is a sampling, taken from Angelo and Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2 nd ed.
When you want to assign grades for students’ performances on particular tasks, then you are ready to conduct a summative assessment, or evaluation. Tests and exams are among the most common types of summative assessments, and while they may appear rather simple, they actually require quite a bit of time to construct. Thoughtful test design is important to ensure that you are getting a fair and accurate picture of students’ understanding, so don’t wait until the day before you are administering a test to write questions.
A test is a way to assess students’ understanding from prior experiences, class work, readings, homework and other assignments. It is a sampling process, and for that reason the first step in test construction is planning. To construct a summative assessment, review the course’s educational goals and decide what kind of test will best assess these goals. That is, briefly outline the major topics that were covered and note how much time/effort was devoted to each topic. What level of understanding do you expect from your students? That is, are students expected to
These initial questions can help determine how many questions to ask for each topic, and what types of questions to ask.
Test Types: Limited Response and Open Response Tests
Limited response tests are made up of multiple choice, fill in the blank, matching and true/false items. Open response tests are made up of short answer and essay items. A comparison of advantages and drawbacks of each type includes the following:
Quick and easy to grade
Time consuming to develop
Cover wide range of material
May encourage memorization
Often tests knowledge and analysis
Does not test articulation skills
Diagnosis using patterns of incorrect responses
Guessing and test taking strategies may inflate scores
Tests reading skills
Less time consuming to develop
Time consuming to grade
Allows personalized feedback
Covers limited sample of material
Builds understanding of ideas and relationships
Difficult to grade consistently
Presents a more realistic task
Tests articulation and writing skills
Limited Response Tests
Limited response tests require clear and unambiguous language. If an exam is poorly written, syntax and language may reveal the correct answer to students who don’t know the content. Worse yet, a poorly written question may obscure the correct choices to a student who does know the content. The following list provides some advice for writing limited response items:
Automated Test Scoring
ITS provides free, blank ScanTron forms for short-answer tests and processes the completed forms. The Test Scoring Customer Service Center is located in the Lecture Center complex between the Arts and Sciences and Fine Arts buildings. ITLAL can work with you on testing strategies, test item development, and distracter refinement. ITLAL can also provide examples and models of effective short-answer testing to measure higher levels of student thinking.
Testing Your Limited Response Test
Limited response tests may be assessed. Once you have given the exam, you can test your test and revise items to improve its quality. Using the Scantron scoring statistical information, you can determine whether test items were of acceptable difficulty and successfully differentiated between those who had mastered the material and those who performed poorly.
Open Response Tests
Open response tests are effective means of assessing students’ higher cognitive processes. Constructing essay tests requires a precise formulation of questions. Students must understand what you expect from them, yet the topic has to be flexible enough to allow for a range of possible answers. Following are a variety of ways to construct essay questions:
Preparing Students for Open Response Tests
Here are some tips to help your students prepare for tests:
Grading Open Response Tests
Your role in determining grades
If you are the instructor of record, you are responsible for grading—completely responsible. If you are a discussion leader or lab instructor, your role in grading should be made clear by the faculty member in charge of the course. He or she should either inform you of the policy or consult with you in the process of determining the policy. You may be the person assigned to grade quizzes, lab reports, exams, papers, journals, or combinations of these items. You may also be responsible for maintaining records of attendance, class participation and grade-related data.
Hopefully, you will have some opportunities to create evaluations (assignments, quizzes, etc.). In this case, you can think about what you want students to learn, and ways they can demonstrate or apply this learning. Exams, papers, reports, journals, performances, or projects may be used.
Since the various forms of evaluation should contribute to the students’ overall education in your course, you should think about the emotional aspect of receiving grades and comments from faculty. A student who receives a paper liberally decorated with red marks and comments will normally have a negative reaction to the process (unless your comments are all positive). Try to find a marking pen or pencil that is blue, green, pink or purple, as comments are perceived as somewhat less aggressive, given identical content. Positive comments go much further than negative ones in encouraging students to improve, so try to find something in the students’ work for which you can offer praise. Compare the marginal comments “Awkward and unclear!” with “Interesting idea; can you clarify it for me?” Which would you rather read on a paper or exam?
Handling student complaints
If a problem in grading arises first check to see if the error is yours, and correct it if this is the case. Your error may have caused some real distress, and you should try to understand the student’s concern and apologize appropriately. If you have not made a mistake, however, and the student did not answer the question correctly or as completely as possible, you should point this out and be firm about your position. Firmness is not aggressiveness, however. A good policy is to give yourself some time before finalizing a decision on changing a grade; tell the student you will go over the material and let him or her know in a day or two. This waiting period removes the temptation to either agree quickly in order to avoid further discussion, or disagree immediately in order to assert your position.
Keeping Good Records and Keeping Students Informed
In your efforts to be scrupulously fair and consistent, you will need to have good records and be able to access them easily. Part of your grading record will be student exams, papers and similar materials that you have for grading purposes. If you are responsible for final course grades, you should make sure that you are familiar with the University policies regarding course grades and incompletes. Be sure to keep these records either written in a grade book or in an electronic format such as Excel and keep them even after the semester is done just in case the dean or anyone in your department needs to see them. Keeping clear and organized records of grades and attendance can be a great help should a student challenge a grade.
Once grades for the course have been recorded, however, they should not be changed except for administrative reasons, and may not be changed because of additional work done by the student or from reevaluating previously graded work .
Remember that with personal information, such as grades, you must be careful not to violate a student’s privacy. Also note that it is now illegal to use a student’s Social Security Number as their student identification number, and you may not request this information from them. The University at Albany now assigns a Student Identification Number that is used to identify each student. Before posting grades, be sure to check with your department to verify the department policy on this issue. You can use the gradebook feature of Blackboard to provide convenient online access to grades.
Grading on a curve
When students ask this, they usually are indicating that they want you to give them a higher grade than the quantitative score might suggest. What grading on a curve really means is that you divide a distribution of scores into groups of different sizes. In a normal (bell-shaped) curve, the smallest groups occur on either end of the distribution, and are awarded A’s and E’s. The largest group is the middle group, and those persons are assigned D’s, C’s and B’s; some expect the center of the distribution to be equivalent to a grade of C, while others talk of a “B curve” implying that the mean is a B. An alternative to grading on a curve is to assign letter grades to fixed numerical scores: 90% and above is an A, 80-89% a B and so on.
This section gives you some suggestions for handling certain special situations that you will likely face in your classes. Other situations will sometimes arise that you are uncertain how to handle. Questions about any of these can be directed to ITLAL, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, or the Office for Conflict Resolution and Civic Responsibility.
Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are those with an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life functions. These include sensory, mobility, learning, psychiatric and alcohol/chemical dependency disabilities.
Students with disabilities are held responsible for learning the same material. You must make reasonable accommodations to assist the student in completing the course requirements. For example, additional time or other special testing accommodations may be needed. If you have questions about students with disabilities, or need to arrange assistance or accommodations for a student with a disability, contact the Disability Resource Center .
Classroom management is essential to establishing and maintaining an effective learning environment (and your sanity!). Even with your best efforts, though, there will be some students who push the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Sometimes unusual behavior can be overlooked, but not if it disrupts the work of the class or upsets some of its members. Some problems you can handle yourself; more serious ones need to be referred to professionals competent in handling them.
In general you should be clear about what you consider appropriate participation. Does everyone need to speak in each class? Second, you might want to think about broadening your view of participation. Does participating in an on-line forum count toward a discussion grade? Finally, be aware of differences in gender and culture in the classroom and how these differences may affect students’ participation. The following are types of difficult students you may encounter.
The Overbearing Student
You may find yourself dealing with a student who talks too much, blurts out answers before others have a chance, asks complicated questions off the subject being discussed, or speaks at length on a pet topic. An occasional digression is fine, but if this behavior persists for several meetings you need to take action.
Start indirectly. Try to head off trouble by saying “Let’s hear from some other students” and obviously passing over the student, or saying, “That’s a fascinating topic; let’s discuss it after class.”
If neither option works, ask the student to stay for a minute after class. Then, in the empty classroom, or somewhere in public where you can talk relatively privately, explain to the student that you value his or her participation and wish more students contributed. If the student’s answers in class are generally good, say so. Do not criticize but point out matter-of-factly the difficulty of involving everyone in a discussion if someone dominates.
The Silent Student
Students who attend class regularly but never speak may need encouragement. It is helpful if all students know each other by name. When handing back assignments, compliment their performance (if possible). Ask them to come in during your office hours. After calling on three or four others in class, call on the quiet one(s) by name. If you expect all students to participate in discussions, you should note this in your syllabus – it is after all the “contract” that you have with the students.
If participation is required for your class, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
The Dependent Student
It may be flattering to have a student continually asking questions after class, filling your office hours, perhaps seeking extensive personal advice. Some students are “dependent types”—that is, they like individual attention. But this attention doesn’t have to come from you. Consider encouraging them to become more independent: “I could help you with this, but I think you’ll learn more doing it by yourself.”
The student may want to be friends or just enjoy spending time with you, possibly without realizing this explicitly. If you’re unhappy about it or cannot afford the time, let the student know in a businesslike, but tactful, way.
The Troubled Student
Students may come to you with personal or academic problems because they like and trust you. If you feel more experienced guidance is called for—and this will certainly be the case if the student’s problem is serious—then be wary of offering too much advice of your own. It’s better to refer the student to one of the University’s counseling resources, such as the University Counseling Center or Middle Earth Peer Assistance. Normally advisors refer students and you should find out if the student has talked with his or her advisor, or would like to. In general, try to have the student make the appropriate appointment by phone while still in your office.
The Possible Date
It’s a situation that occurs in various sexual configurations, but for purposes of discussion let’s say you’re a male teacher who has noticed an attractive female student who sits in the second row, asks good questions, and sometimes stays after class with a comment. You find yourself drawn to her and wonder if you should ask her out for coffee, or dinner and a show, and see where it leads. Our advice on such a situation is brief: DON’T.
Be aware that many of your students—especially if you teach freshman courses—may still be adjusting to the college environment and finding the transition from high school to college work especially difficult. While this is not your responsibility you can take steps to ensure this student’s success in your class. If you see a student starting to miss class, getting poor grades on tests and class work, or beginning to behave erratically you can approach him or her after class or put a comment on a test recommending a meeting with you after class or in your office hours.
These students are often having trouble coping with the changes around them and may need suggestions for help with study skills and time management as well as get additional help with the course material. Encourage them to take advantage of tutoring services (e.g., those offered for some of the large freshman courses through Academic Support Services, or the residence hall and fraternity tutors).
In dealing with a disagreement or confrontation with a student, seek the advice or guidance of a department head or coordinator for teaching assistants who has dealt with similar problems and can advise you on appropriate steps. You may ask a colleague to witness your interaction with the student, as the colleague can remain neutral and point out possible routes for solving the problem.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with these potentially volatile situations:
Plagiarism occurs when students use the words or ideas of another and do not reveal the identity of that source. Examples vary from purchasing a paper from another to quoting or paraphrasing a passage without proper attribution.
Careful planning and assignment design can help to discourage plagiarism in your course. Here are some suggestions.
There are various steps you can take if you suspect that plagiarism is taking place in your course. You can use a search engine like Google to look for a particularly suspicious phrase, talk to your senior faculty and colleagues about what they do to detect plagiarism, and see if your department has any resources in place for dealing with plagiarized work.
Reporting Plagiarism and Academic Honesty and Dishonesty
The University at Albany has a clear and complete policy dealing with academic dishonesty. This policy statement may be found in all copies of both the Graduate and Undergraduate Bulletins. The preface to the statement of Standards of Academic Integrity states the matter eloquently:
Throughout their history, institutions of higher learning have viewed themselves and have been viewed by society as a community of persons not only seeking truth and knowledge, but seeking them in a truthful and ethical fashion. Indeed, the institution traditionally trusted by the public and the one to which it most often turns when unbiased, factual information is needed is the university. Thus, how a university behaves is as important as what it explores and learns.
This statement and additional information about the University’s policies regarding academic dishonesty are available in the Undergraduate Bulletin.
Letters of Recommendation
As a teacher you will be an important influence on the lives of many students and you may occasionally be called upon to write letters of recommendation to accompany a student’s application for a summer job, full-time employment, or graduate school. If you remember the student’s performance as commendable, you should have no difficulty with such a request. However, do not hesitate to decline when you feel you do not know the student well enough or when you would not be able to make a positive recommendation. The following suggestions may be helpful for writing letters of recommendation.
Prior to Writing a Letter of Recommendation
You may want to use this opportunity to teach students about their responsibilities in this process. The student should provide you with the information necessary for you to write the best recommendation possible, including
You may also find it useful to ask the student to provide a brief outline of what he or she would like emphasized in your letter of recommendation or ask the student for a brief resume in order to give you some insight into her/his goals and subsequent academic activities and achievements,. If applicable, you may ask for a copy of the letter or essay that many applicants are asked to write.
Writing the Letter of Recommendation
When recommending a student, a standard business letter format on your department’s letterhead is generally appropriate, unless other forms are provided. Be sure the student has provided you with this information.
If possible, use specific examples or anecdotes to illustrate the points you make in this letter. Focus on what makes this student different from others, but be careful not to overdo your praise and be honest above all else. If you are approached for a letter of recommendation and you feel that you cannot, in good conscience, write a positive letter, suggest that the student ask someone else.
A final note: include your title, telephone number, and address in case the employer should wish to contact you for further information, and keep a copy of the letter for your files.
Save your class records! Although you may get to know your students quite well during a course, your recollection of individual students may become vague several semesters later.
Professional Relationships with Faculty and Staff: Working with Professors
Since professors are just as variable in their behaviors as any other group of people (some would say more variable), there can be no simple or single way of preparing to work with one. You will find them demanding and easy-going, on time and late, cranky and affable, friendly and aloof. Some view the academic world hierarchically; some are more egalitarian. Some will care passionately about the course you are helping them with, while others may appear to care very little. One may have clear expectations of you, while another doesn’t seem to know just what to do with you. With very few exceptions, professors do care about their courses, and they are very busy people, despite what you might read in newspaper editorials.
Professors are interested in providing the best course possible, as efficiently as possible. Ask how you might help (instead of waiting to be told), and even anticipate situations where your assistance will be of value. If an exam is coming up, find out if you can help with writing questions, arranging for computer grading, scheduling meetings with other TAs to discuss the exam, getting exam booklets prior to the test, and so on. You may know what to do, and if the professor isn’t the type to tell you how and when to do everything, ask! If the professor wants to take attendance in lectures, suggest ways that you may take care of this task. If there are videos to be shown, offer to make the necessary arrangements. In other words, think about ways of helping and ask if such help is needed.
Since most professors do care about their courses, and about their teaching, your help in keeping the quality of the course and instruction high is critically important. You may be assigned to a course that is not in your area of specialization. You are expected to rise above this situation and be supportive of this area, as well as of the professor. Make every course your course, at least in your own mind.
Professional Relationships with Faculty and Staff: Working with Administrative Professionals
Administrative professionals occupy critical and often under-appreciated positions in the University. The administrative staff’s job is to serve a large and varied constituency, and the typical member of this constituency often believes that these professionals work for him or her. While this may be true technically, having dozens of “supervisors” is clearly impossible. Departmental secretaries do want to help you do your job, and they have to balance your needs with the needs of many others. Your best approach is to ask if help, supplies, or whatever you need is available and, if so, how to obtain it. Listen to the secretary’s response.
Departmental secretaries are excellent sources of information about your department. They can tell you about office space, mailboxes, classroom locations, office hours and all sorts of things of critical importance to you. Secretaries, however, typically do not set policy or establish departmental rules. Direct your opinions or concerns to the faculty or department chair.
The University at Albany provides for a variety of student evaluations of teaching. Some methods of evaluation are formal and are conducted by your specific department; others are informal and are available should you choose to administer them. All of these evaluations are designed to help you become a more effective teacher.
The University at Albany mandates course evaluation for all instructors, for all courses, all semesters. The most common form is the Student Instructional Rating Form (SIRF), on which students use a rating scale to comment on several aspects of the course and the instructor. There are also separate evaluation tools that are used in the various General Education, Human Diversity courses, and Writing Intensive courses. Departments frequently create forms for their internal use, and some departments have separate forms for TAs teaching sections and/or labs.
As a beginning instructor, you may feel that evaluation is the last thing you need to think about. Being prepared for your sections, creating discussion questions, preparing good assignments — all these activities may seem more pressing than evaluation. But evaluation can provide you with information that can help you improve your skills in all these areas.
Be aware that if you ask your students for comments on your teaching style, you may get criticisms, particularly if the section or lab is not going well. Try to take these comments graciously and use them to improve your teaching.
Many TAs associate “evaluation” with students’ responses to the end-of-year questionnaires described above. But if you wait until the end of the semester to evaluate your teaching, you won’t be making pedagogical changes that will benefit your current students. There are numerous ways of informally seeking evaluations of your teaching throughout the semester.
Several times during the term, pass out 3x5 cards to your students and ask them to anonymously respond to two questions, one on the front and one on the back. You can pose general questions such as “How are you finding the course?” or “Any suggestions for changing the course?” or “Any problems?” If you suspect that there is a specific problem, ask about it: “Is the pace of the laboratory sessions appropriate for you?” If your discussion sections drag, you might ask students to provide suggestions about ways to liven them up. You can also consult more informal venues such as ratemyprofessors.com to find what comments are being made about your classes.
Bring a box or manila envelope to class and ask students to place their unsigned comments, questions, or complaints in it. Their questions will alert you to material they don’t understand, and perhaps clear up any ambiguities or confusion at the next class meeting.
Mid-semester Written Evaluation
Once or twice during the semester, hand out a short questionnaire (or write the questions on the board). You can also use the mid-term survey service provided by ITLAL. If you design your own questions, make sure that the issues posed are ones you can respond to during the term; otherwise your students may develop false expectations about the remainder of the course. Respond to the students’ suggestions as quickly and as candidly as you can, explaining what you can change about the course and what you cannot or will not change.
Midway through the term invite a colleague or someone from ITLAL to conduct a focus group interview to find out what your students are thinking about your class. At the beginning of class, introduce the guest evaluator and then leave the room for twenty minutes. Have the evaluator ask your students to cluster into groups of five or six and take ten minutes to
Invite a teaching colleague or someone from ITLAL to observe one of your classes and make suggestions. You may find this experience most helpful if you inform your colleague of your specific goals for the class meeting or the particular technique you are trying to improve. Then your colleague can focus his or her observations and the results will be more useful to you. Be sure to let your class know that a colleague will be sitting in.
While watching yourself on a videotape can be a startling experience, it gives you an excellent opportunity to judge how well you conduct a class: whether you dominate discussion, whether you allow enough time for students to think through questions, whether you maintain adequate eye contact, and so on. Again, tell your students beforehand that a particular class session will be taped.
If you contact ITLAL and set up an appointment, we will send someone with a video camera to your class. You need to provide this individual with a VHS tape. Your class will be taped and dubbed onto the VHS tape, which will then be given back to you. As long as you provide the tape, this service is free of charge.
After you have had the opportunity to view the tape, we recommend that you discuss your perceptions of the video, particularly if you see something in your teaching style you would like to work on changing.
Developing Professional Relationships
Teaching can feel like a very solitary activity, especially when you are doing it for the first time. One way to help break the pattern of isolation is to develop positive, supportive, professional relationships with other teachers. Others who are new to the classroom can help you feel less alone; those with more experience can be a wonderful resource for teaching ideas (and a reminder that people do make it through the first year!). Discussing pedagogy with your colleagues in a positive way is a habit that can help you maintain a good attitude and ultimately improve your teaching.
You should also consider keeping a drawer or folder of teaching ideas, activities and lesson plans that worked well in your classes and that you can share with others. This can often be a fruitful point of interaction and exchange between you and your colleagues, many of whom are looking for new ideas to use in their classrooms and have their own ideas to share as well.
The Teaching Portfolio
A variety of professionals—including artists, architects, writers, illustrators—use the portfolio approach to summarize their work experience. A teaching portfolio is a collection of materials related to course instruction, organized in a coherent form. A well-prepared portfolio should enable a reviewer to get a good understanding of the applicant’s relevant experiences, methods of teaching, efforts to improve and some measures of success. While there are no limits to the amount of material that might be included, a thick portfolio -- like all enormous documents -- rarely finds its way into the hands of willing readers. The following list, adapted from Braskamp and Ory (1994), provides a checklist for developing your teaching portfolio:
This list can be expanded as your experience grows and abridged as needs require. Be sure to edit your portfolio for each specific position applied for, as different institutions have varying expectations for their applicants. The teaching portfolio is clearly designed for academic settings, but it may have some uses outside of educational institutions as well. A brief teaching portfolio could, for example, provide documentation of your ability to organize a major project (a course) and interact with clients (your students) and supervisors (faculty mentors); your evaluations should speak to your ability to communicate ideas clearly.
Other Opportunities for Professional Development
ITLAL regularly sponsors Workshops on professional development for Graduate Teaching Assistants who are preparing for faculty careers.
The list of elements to include that is provided above is an abbreviated one. More information is available from a variety of sources, including:
Braskamp, L.A. and Ory, J.C. (1994). Assessing Faculty Work: Enhancing Individual and Institutional Performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Selden, P. (1991). The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.
This is a new edition of the University at Albany’s Teaching Assistant Handbook produced by the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL). Many individuals have contributed to the production of this handbook over the years: faculty members who have shared personal experiences and anecdotes and were instrumental in developing the first edition of this handbook; the staff of the Institute for Teaching, Learning & Academic Leadership; and a cadre of very committed and experienced graduate students, who dedicated their time to the revision of past handbooks, the planning and execution of the graduate student orientation for incoming graduate students each year, and the ongoing workshops for graduate teaching assistants. We are grateful to all of you for your hard work. In increasing numbers, colleges and universities are developing in-house publications such as this one to provide information on various pedagogical issues to new teaching assistants and faculty. Much of the information in such guides is relatively generic and appropriate to any number of institutions; thus, it finds its way into many of the extant teaching books, and ours is no exception. We acknowledge the work of many others who have traveled this path before us, and we have found valuable information in many of the “TA booklets” we have perused. Specific referents for our approach include the following: