The two types of teaching assistants (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Originally posted  on November 13, 2012

Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

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. Continue reading “Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

5 Teaching Tips for New TAs

A year ago, I was starting my first semester as a TA in the new Biology Workshop set-up. This change was going against decades of pedagogy as TAs were asked to act as facilitators rather than re-lecturing content that professors explain in lectures. Now, I had taught some informal pass/fail classes before, as well as done some science outreach teaching middle school students (Rutgers Science Explorer Bus), but this was my first experience teaching course content to college students. To make matters worse, I hadn’t taken biology since my first year of college! But over the past year, I’ve not only learned more about biology than I ever thought I would need again (as a chemist!), but I’ve learned even more about teaching and controlling a classroom.

1. Learn Student Names

After my first year teaching, I was appalled at how few TAs actually took the time to learn student names. I’m actually very poor with remembering names but as an instructor I think it’s important to know who your students are as it makes you seem more personable, as well as holds students accountable for their actions. If you have a Sakai site, getting photo rosters from them is extremely easy. I’ve actually made use of seating charts to help me early on each semester. From a student’s perspective, it might be the only time during their first year that an instructor of a class knows their name.

2. Be Yourself

Whatever your personality, find a way to integrate that into your teaching style. I feel most first year TAs try to portray an image of them acting like a professor, I know I did when I first started teaching, but I often find imitating the intimidation of a “scary” real-life professor can sometimes curtail questions from students. If you like to joke around, find ways to connect to your students that way. If not that is fine too, but students need to see you as knowledgeable AND approachable before they’ll feel comfortable in your class.

3. Be Prepared

I try to account for every situation imaginable but I’ll be the first (hopefully!) to tell you things will go wrong sometime this year. You will make mistakes, but that’s okay!! As great as technology is, it can lead to problems. This happened to me this week as 35 minutes wasn’t enough time to prevent tech issues from showing up 1 minute after class started. As someone who has a strict routine in almost all aspects of my life, teaching helped me think on my feet and innovate on the fly! You’ll need this in any job, especially teaching.

4. Grade as You Go

If your students are handing you work that needs to be graded, don’t take any new assignments until you hand them back. If you are expecting students to generate content, you should be generating feedback. As a side bar, hand out previous assignments/quizzes at the end of class as low grades can increase side chatter as well decrease motivation to listen during class.

5. Don’t be Afraid to say “I don’t know”

There have been times when students have asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. These are maturing adults. Copping out with an answer like “That’s a good question, look it up!” or merely avoiding makes you seem like you don’t know the answer AND you don’t care if the student finds out either. Try looking it up yourself, asking another TA, and if necessary follow up with the student the following week. It’s actually a nice way to review content and build connections from past material to what you are covering that week.

Most importantly, if this is your first semester teaching, good luck and I hope you learn from your students as much as they do from you.

Teaching Non-Majors

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.

The two types of teaching assistants

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.