CETL—For Graduate Students

Classroom TAs

Classroom teaching assistants play a vital role in the learning processes of their students. Below are some guidelines for your teaching sessions.

From the moment that you are hired as a TA, actively cultivate a clear line of communication with the course lecturer. This will ensure that there is an alignment between what s/he teaches in class, and what you do in class. When in doubt about any aspect of the course, ask! Also, be sure to raise any concerns about your students' progress with this faculty member sooner rather than later.

Attend as many sessions as possible so that you have a handle not only on what is being taught, but also how it is being taught.

In your first class, begin with an ice-breaker exercise—a brief, focused and usually fun activity designed to help the students to get to know each other and you.

Be prepared for each class: this means reading what the students were assigned to read, doing the mini-assignment that the students had to prepare, and so on.  Doing this allows you some insight into any potential problems that students might experience, as well as an opportunity for developing solutions in advance.

Preparation also includes considering what teaching method you will use in class, and how you will promote active learning. You can use a range of different methods such as debates, buzz groups, think-pair-share exercises, and so on. Ideally, you should try and engage the students during the class instead of allowing them to sit passively and take notes.

Begin each class with a general 'check in'—'How is the class going? What is challenging you? What parts are you enjoying?' This is useful for gauging the mood before beginning with the day's work. Then provide a brief summary of what they have covered so far in the course, followed by the objective of that day's class (in other words, what you want them to both know and be able to do by the end of the class).

Throughout the class, encourage participation. Ask them questions, let them ask you (and their peers) questions, allow space for 'Yes but...' and 'What if...?' In other words, make your classroom a safe space for students to engage with you and each other—even if their answers are wrong. Incorrect responses are as important as correct ones because they can be 'dissected and corrected'—a very powerful learning opportunity.

Use examples throughout the class to illustrate key concepts. Either you could provide the students with examples, or you could ask your students to come up with some of their own to share with the class.

End each class with a brief summary of the day's work (you can do this, or you can ask the group to). Alternatively, you could go around the group and ask each student to name one thing that s/he learnt in the day's class that they did not know (or were uncertain of) before. Ideally, there should be no 'repeats', but it is not the end of the world if more than one student lists the same thing; what is important is that they have a chance to reflect on and articulate their learning—also in a safe space.

Assignments are an important and anxiety-inducing part of students' lives. As a TA, you can offer support by: setting aside time in class to discuss the requirements of the assignment, developing and unpacking some assessment for them (against which they can check their work before submitting it), and ensuring that they are aware of your office hours should they wish for some one-on-one attention.

The actual grading of the assignments needs to be led by the faculty member who lectures the course—s/he needs to provide you with a grading rubric well in advance of the submission date. This rubric needs to be discussed in some depth to ensure that both you and the faculty member understand the assignment requirements in the same way.

Always provide your students with as much constructive feedback as possible; that is, comments that develop students' understanding and advance their learning. Once the assignments have been handed back to them, spend some time in class providing a summary of the generic kinds of mistakes that were commonly made as well as how these could have been avoided. Don't forget to include some of the things that were generally well done—such validation is important for student motivation.

After every class, reflect on what happened in the day's session—what worked, what did not, and what you might want to do differently in future. Capture these thoughts in a journal, and keep coming back to them—this journal will become a resource for you in future. You may even want to share it with new TAs, to give them some insight into the experience of being a classroom teaching assistant.

If you have any questions or would like a sounding board, please do not hesitate to contact Jenny Hadingham at CETL.