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Career Advice

Tips for TAs – Part II

Expert advice on how to work toward your best TA'ship

BY MEGAN BURNETT | OCT 09 2007

This month, Part II of our three-part primer for TAs will help you stay the course once you’re standing at the head of the class. Click here to read Part I, which covered the beginning basics.

Staying on track

Once you’ve settled in following the first week of classes, classroom management and effective communication with students become the next skills to master. For these, you will need to:

  • Learn how to structure a class so that students maintain focus and retain the information you are communicating;
  • Develop effective oral presentation skills and facilitation skills for encouraging discussion;
  • Practise asking questions that elicit critical thinking from your students;
  • Ensure that at each step of preparing an assignment students understand what is expected of them.

Have an outline prepared for each class or lab

Since human attention spans tend to wane after about 15 minutes, it’s a good idea to break your class time into 15- to 20-minute sections. You can change the topic you are teaching or simply the medium of communication – move from the blackboard to small group work to the overhead projector. Allow the students to loosen up before jumping into the subject material, and leave time at the end for summarizing and questions. This structure is known as “set-body-close.” For each section, try to maintain this structure. Breaking the material into manageable sections will also help keep you on time and will dissuade you from cramming in too much material. At the end of a class or lab, call on students to summarize what they’ve learned as a means of closing. Following these steps will ensure that students remain engaged and they’ll remember what’s been covered.

Come to class with prepared questions

Prepare one set of questions that you would like to ask students based on the main points to be covered, and one list of anticipated questions from students and their possible answers. Avoid simple yes-or-no and fact-finding questions. Include questions that require comparison, analysis, evaluation or judgment (while encouraging students to back up their personal observations with evidence). Wait after asking a question to give students time to think of a response. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least 10 seconds; often students simply need time to think through a possible answer and will speak up if you allow them this time. Asking more effective questions and allowing more time for responses will teach your students critical thinking skills, and will build opportunities for more profound reflection on the course material.

Practise generating effective discussions

A good way to start off a discussion is to determine what the students already know; try brainstorming with the entire class. Work with them to eliminate all but the most salient ideas generated by the brainstorming. That list becomes the agenda for that day’s discussion.

Other options:

  • Create a problem or question based on the main points of a reading or experiment. Give students a moment to write down their personal solution or reaction to this problem. Divide students into pairs and have them share their thoughts. They can then present their reactions to the class or can form groups and can work at reaching a consensus within their group.
  • Bring in some material related to current events – a recent scientific discovery, a newspaper article or news report, an event from students’ own lives on campus – and use the material as a starting point for discussion.
  • If your class is based on course readings, ask students to prepare three things to discuss before coming to class: one point they found particularly interesting, one point they totally reject, one point they did not understand.
  • To keep the discussion moving along, summarize the main points when you observe that things are getting off-topic or when you think the discussion has run its course. Redirect the discussion with a new handout or by putting a new point on the blackboard or overhead projector, or use one of your students’ previous comments to launch a new discussion.

Megan Burnett is assistant director of the teaching assistants’ training program at the office of teaching advancement at the University of Toronto.

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