One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority.
An important factor in teaching non-majors is identifying the goals of the course. Generally, saturating students with content is how most syllabi and curricula seem to look on paper, but when I teach a calculus course, I know that our major goals are to build mathematical and quantitative literacy, develop the skills involved in calculus, and give students the required background for their majors and for their careers. This is universal, independent of the intended audience (biological sciences, social sciences, engineers) or the level (we have 4+ semesters of mathematics for non-majors, depending on their curriculum). Quantitative literacy is an important goal of mathematics education, and is a reason mathematics is a component of many majors (and of other general requirements). As Michael, another fellow blogger, mentions in his recent post, scientific literacy (and I would say quantitative literacy, statistical literacy, and other such matters) are important for our civil discourse and our society in general.
It is important for non-majors to understand expectations, especially expectations surrounding assessment. Alexandra mentions this in her post this month. Student work should be legible and comprehensible – this is very important in mathematics I can say from experience. Establishing the expectations and assessing students fairly, but firmly, makes an assessment tool more effective (and easier to grade not just in itself, but by soliciting good responses from students). Remember that this is not a non-major’s “native language,” so to speak.
Brian mentions in his latest post that sometimes students are hopelessly out-of-touch. That is certainly the case, but when teaching non-majors (or introductory classes, or interdisciplinary classes) it is especially important to adapt to students’ interests and abilities – otherwise, they are indeed pushed more and more out-of-touch. There is usually a reason students are required to take a course, but they don’t necessarily see it that way. Many students (freely!) confess that courses are often things to “get out of the way” – if a lecture, quiz, homework set, or discussion can develop their interest and give them some hands-on time with the course material, it may spark interest and make the course meaningful and connect them better to goals like quantitative literacy (or a respective equivalent).
Fellow-blogger Jennifer speaks about the enthusiasm of TAs in her most recent post, and to tie that discussion into this post, I would assert that non-majors do not usually share that enthusiasm. It is important to identify the level of interest students have, and if there are enthusiastic students, give them opportunities to extend and enrich the course. But if, as is likely, the majority are not especially interested, it would be a mistake to disconnect from students by expecting them to connect with that level of enthusiasm. Not that enthusiasm is bad (it’s great!), but it’s important to meet them at their level – and also to meet them at the interface of the course and the topics about which these students are enthusiastic.