How to be a good TA

I've taught seven recitation sections as a graduate student, and this semester I'm teaching three more. Between them it's several hundred hours of standing in front of a classroom teaching. That's nothing compared to career teachers and professors, but it's a decent bit of experience as far as TA teaching goes. I put a fairly large amount of effort into teaching, with preparing lectures and example problems, grading quizzes and lab reports, conducting extra review sessions, and answering questions by email. Does that make me a good TA? I'd like to think so. But what do my students say in their confidential evaluations? My scores are always pretty high, but the single most common good thing they have to say about me is this:

He speaks English.

Gee, thanks guys. All that work and you're most impressed with the one thing that I never actually had to put any effort into. Oh well.

The reason of course is that there's a lot of TAs from countries without English as a native language. I personally don't have any trouble understanding foreign TAs - after all in order to teach they have to pass an English language proficiency exam, which not all foreign students manage to do at first. But I'm used to it since science departments usually have a wide variety of people from all over the world. But to a new college student learning physics for the first time, the additional hurdle to make sure the accent is understood properly doesn't help matters, at least in the mind of the student. Objectively however, I've never noticed any real negative correlation between the native language of the TA and exam scores.

So other than speaking English, there's a few other things the students always look for. As much as it pains us physicists, they hear enough theory in the lecture itself. What they need in recitations is only so much theory as is needed for an understanding of the concept, with lots of worked example problems. Lots of them. Do them as interactively as possible, so that instead of just working through the problems yourself in front of sixty glazed-over eyes the students are actively involved in figuring things out. That's what they're going to have to do by themselves on the exam, after all. And they can take the skills they learned in recitation and apply them to the homework.

Quizzes at the end of class. Students don't really like them but since they're graded they give students a clear incentive to have practiced a few problems before recitation. The more times a student is exposed to problem solving, the better they'll do on the tests.

Extra practice. If you have time to hold optional review sessions before exams, the students will love you forever. Just have a purely open session where you do nothing but work problems with the students who choose to come.

Put real thought into how you present your lectures. What seems beautiful and elegant to you might be obscure and overly complicated to a new student. Try to be clear with concepts and buttress each new idea with a concrete example problem. A real one, not a toy problem that's orders of magnitude easier than what they'll face on the homework.

Those are the main things that I've found work well in helping students learn. In the final analysis all you do is only a small part of how much they learn, but every bit helps. It's a complete cliche, but it is nevertheless completely true that a job well done is its own reward, and a student with a good grade on a test makes my day.

And finally (though it doesn't actually help the students), I've noticed to my surprise that students are impressed when you can lecture well without notes. I promise it doesn't actually mean we're super smart, it just means we've been doing this stuff for a long time and by now we've memorized it. But even so it still impresses me when my professors do it.

I'd be very interested to hear from you teachers out there what your strategies are, and I'd be extra interested in students who can tell from experience what makes a good or bad TA. We can definitely use the improvement.

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It is really about how clearly you speak. My first semester I had a professor who spoke at like 10^7 m/s with an Indian accent, at 9am. That was really hard to keep up with. Last semester my lab TA should have used a clip-on microphone. This semester I have sir umm-alot for professor. While it may not affect exam scores too much, it does make it a lot harder to understand the concepts when you have trouble understanding the words.

By erik Remkus (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

A good TA will always work clearly through problems just harder or somewhat identical to those on exams. And teaching without notes is great because usually it's much more interactive (telling jokes, asking involving questions) and there's some kind of confidence which is telling the students to listen to him (there's already enough mumbling teachers...) It should also be a time to play and try things with the science/math/(subject).
Bad TAs will just stick to -boring- problems in the course book and do nothing more than following the solution without telling clues about the steps.
I'm actually a physics student, and I think I speak for many others.
Just a "simple trick" would be to smile, or to be able to make students laugh once a week.
By the way, wonderful blag!

When I was a TA we had the luxury of two grad students for the 100+ eng-scis taking the classes (200-level physics), with tutorials scheduled at different times. So, we didn't do the same thing. Students could choose which of the tutors best suited them. The other tutor had a very popular style. He would do the entire problem set out on the board before it was due, so that people who showed up and copied it out could hand it in for full marks (with some rather amusing (to me) exceptions when he made silly mistakes). I would tend to emphasize the physics and mathematics underlying the discussion, tying the material into their diff-eq or lin-alg classes. Almost everybody attended the other tutor's classes. I got about 15-20 students, the ones who were really serious about understanding the physics and had time to attend both tutorials. I had to do more work to prepare in my model, but I got many of the brighter students, and it was more interesting to me that way.

I would often start with, "If you don't have any questions for me, I'm going to do new stuff to show how all this ties together." That, I felt, helped reduce the reluctance to ask questions. I find that students, particularly the students known among their peers as quicker to understand material, tend to be reluctant to ask questions in a group, for fear of losing prestige. If I'm offering it more as a sort of "stump the TA or else he'll start teaching difficult material" situation, it's less about making themselves look bad.

While my example was a somewhat extreme bifurcation, get your homework done by the guy who's going to correct it vs. learn stuff not on the exam, if you have multiple tutorial slots or multiple tutors, your students might benefit from having a choice of styles.

If you want to be a good physics teacher, you must understand the basic principles, and know how students think. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon. There is a lot of physics in this book.

By Dr. Sanford Aranoff (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

One Horace Ming Ma at an unnamed place and time stood before us in physics recitation and mathematically proved that a rotating solid conducting sphere with its spin axis parallel to a uniform magnetic field will speed up. That his command of English was modest is no excuse for the proof and its conclusions.

Uncle Al TA'd organic labs - crystals or academic demise. Imagine the savings in human lives for the pre-meds who didn't make it through.

Speaking as a student (and Future TA) I think one key to being a good TA is to invoke curiosity in the students. I'd say a good way to do this is to present "interesting problems" that relate, not only to the concept you wish help the students learn, but also to some aspect of everyday life. (but perhaps not necessarily "real" life).

One good example of this is James Kakalios who teaches his students about the physics of superheros. It doesn't just present a problem with no context, it instead leaves room for students to come up with their own questions. (for example: what force does superman have to exert on the ground to leap a tall building? perhaps he can do this because krypton has more gravity on the surface... how much more assuming superman has a "normal" jumping height on krypton?...).

English skills are quite important. I once took a Modern Physics class (300-level) from a Chinese teacher, whose English was hard for native English speakers to understand. One of the other students was an Iraqi, whose English was about the same. Neither the Chinese teacher nor the Iraqi student could understand a word the other said, so the Americans in the class had to translate everything for them.
It was annoying, although it did force us to listen carefully.

If I were to be a TA I would hold a rigid weekly schedule with frequent quizzes and homework collections.

I would want my students to be able to contact me at any time of day so I would give out my cell number, encourage text messaging, encourage showing up to office hours and make myself available on AIM whenever possible. I would also follow rigid lecture notes and make these notes available online before the lecture. Students should learn better when they know what they are going to be learning ahead of time.

The best teachers also maintain an attitude and ethic that exudes expertise in the material. Dressing like a teacher is really good for morale because the students often need to believe that you are capable of teaching regardless of how well you actually lecture. I can't begin to tell you how fast students will judge you. Also if you can make the students laugh you should do it on occasion... Probably no more than once a class. The trick here is that you need to avoid at all costs making the students think that you are trying to be cool, but at the same time laughter helps people.

So logistically your knowledge should be as accessible as possible, and beyond that all you need to know is this: Your job is to teach, therefore you need to become the teacher.

By Paul Johnson (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

Cool! Advice request!

Speaking English cuts both ways. As a native speaker of English, it's easy to speak in a way that the non native speakers will find impossible to understand. Try to avoid speaking too quickly, slurring words, and avoid making references to popular culture or other obscurities. Separate your words. Your students will thank you for it; they're there to learn, not because of your repuation as a stand-up comedian, and every brain cell they don't have to devote to listening to you is another cell available to understsand the material.

Other than that, I think it's important that students be aware that the material can be understood by human beings. So if you devote time to working a problem, let the students pick one from the book for you. That way they get to see you approach the problem from the beginning, and they get to see that, yes, you are an expert and can do these problems.

I was mostly educated in math so I taught math classes, but for me, it was very difficult to convince students to write down their work. It is necessary to do this because otherwise error checking is impossible. So I would every now and then do a problem, with out writing it down, and get it wrong, just to show them. You say, "uh oh, is that right?" after making a mistake, and the students will speak right up (sometimes getting students to talk is difficult). And then you can say "oh is that right?" when you haven't made a mistake, but want the students to apply a little extra brain power to the issue.

Which reminds me, make sure you put errors in your work, and then go back and iron them out. It's not enough to teach students to ride the bike, they also need to know how to get back up on it after they've screwed up and you are the one giving the examples in this.

There's one thing else I should mention about communication in general, and that is that if there is something very important the students need to know, be sure and tell it to them 3 times, in 3 slightly different ways. The reason you have to do this is not because your students are idiots; any one of them is likely to understand you just once, and if you were talking one-on-one you can say things just once.

But in a group of people, each thing you say will be missed or misheard or (who knows) by a certain % of the class. Repeating the message 3 times is like giving 3 coats of paint; the problem is not the painter, and it's not the surface, it's the paint. (Uh, did you see how I repeated the message 3 times in this paragraph? What, why, and a metaphor.)

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

I agree with the comment about making the problems tied to life ouside of class. For example, when I took intro to special relativity course, all the routine problems about spaceships were connected to pop culture. It's a small thing, but it was so much nicer to solve problems about the Enterprise or Major Tom rather then spaceship A and spaceship B.

Excellent post! I've been a TA now for a few years, and I also get the plus of "speaks English". Also, I had one student go OFF on me in a lecture, because I said a bad word. Once. It wasn't me being mean, I got excited about something, it was along the lines of "this is the COOLEST f**kin' drug!". The person was horribly offended. I'm still taking advice on whether or not I should police myself better.

I agree with you, lecturing without notes makes a lot of difference, you're able to convey yourself better. When you get excited about the material, other people will, too! And applying stuff to the real world can make all the difference as to whether or not people remember it. I can tell them over and over about physiology and systems, but they only really remember when I give them diseases and stuff they hear about in the real world.

And quizzes at the beginning of the class will get a lot of groans, but they'll thank you when their final exams come back.

Are those English language exams written? I had a TA teaching an introductory geology lab that could not speak a word of English. However, he could write English very well and basically just taught the class by writing everything on the board. It was difficult and embarrassing for him and many of the students gave him bad reviews for not being able to speak English. Having TAs that can understand you when you ask questions is a great asset.

Back in the early '90's there was much concern that science teaching was mostly ineffective. The major criticism students had of physics courses was that they were too oriented toward problem solving. Geeza-whizz. I mean, what else can one do with physics?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

At my university, evaluation forms were a joke. The time between the forms being handed out and the forms being collected again was so brief that it was simply impossible for students to write down any remotely thoughtful or reflective feedback.

I've written extensively on the subject of teaching, but will add some comments below after offering one to you: Notice what you said about what impresses students? Being able to work without notes? It is not because you memorized the material (I hope), it is because you learned it. The same thing will impress your diss committee (and a hiring committee) if you show the same command of the physics you develop during your research work. If you really did the work and fully understand it, you should be able to talk about it as easily as you do basic physics.

On language:
It is not just the other TAs. The faculty at an R1 are often non-native speakers. And you did have to do something to come up with that skill: you had to choose to go to grad school in physics.

On style:
I followed a similar approach in my classes as a TA, with great success. Your point about too much theory in lecture was something I noted also. Guess what? There IS too much theory in lecture! However, I gave in to the temptation to lecture the first year or two, but noticed that the problem session approach (we are using this one equation, how do we do that) was the realy key. I avoid "lecture" as much as possible, even on a lecture day. You should be explaining the importance of Newton's Third Law or the application of Ampere's Law, not "delivering" it to them. If it takes a few start-of-class quizzes to get them to read the book and make a few notes before lecture, so be it.

After all, the derivation is in the book; they can read it there as part of their homework if it matters to their future, say if they plan to be a physics major. (And if the book does it badly, get a different book.) Now my focus is entirely on problem solving from the known equations, with an emphasis on minimizing the number of equations used and getting them to learn the approach we all use to solve real problems.

The greatest challenge is twofold: (2) convince engineering and physics majors that they need to LEARN specific things now and will still need to know them for the next year or three because no one will ever explain them again, and (1) disabuse them of the notion that teachers have just MEMORIZED the answers in the teachers manual and parrot them to the class rather than working them out each time from a single fundamental starting point.

The subset of item (1) is to convince them that we, as physicists, do every problem just like we show them in class. There is no magic wand. We draw the picture, sort out the key principles involved, write down the BASIC equation that applies, and work out the answer using geometry, algebra, trig, and calculus. No more, and certainly no less (unless we can do all of that in our head, and usually not even then).

Finally, writing as someone who has close to 100 students spread across three lecture sections without any TA to help with the grading or anything else, but who once operated as a TA in an environment where I taught recitations that had more students than my lectures do now (drawn from a class with almost 1000 enrolled in multiple lecture sessions), I would say that the students of #4 were lucky to have another TA who anticipated the questions some students were afraid to ask rather than threatening to show off. I tell them to send me e-mail if they want to see something but are afraid to ask about it in class.

CCPhysicist: you are correct, of course, that the students in my tutorial were fortunate to have another tutor available. That was the main point I was trying to make, and I may not have communicated my ideas effectively. We had two tutorials, scheduled at different times. Initially, the students were assigned to one or the other tutorial, but on the first day we both showed up to explain that we were running two different styles of tutorial.

My tutorial would try to concentrate on understanding of the concepts, tying things together. Students could memorize equations and pass the course, and for most of them, as eng-scis under a very heavy course load, that's all they wanted to do. Some of them, though, were considering specializing in eng-phys, a choice that had to be made at the end of the year. My tutorial partner and I tutored all of the physics classes they took during that year. We made a conscious decision to do one tutorial in this style.

As an example, I quite liked to use linear algebraic methods to solve problems. Once we had solved a problem in, say, coupled mechanical oscillators, I showed how the solution related to basis vectors, something that their lectures didn't touch (a strange omission, I thought), but which I hoped would sink in and help with the quantum material in the next term. They had physics, linear algebra, calculus, and diff-eq, but sometimes needed a nudge to connect them all in their minds. Students can read their textbooks, but if the teacher and tutors can get them from isolated facts to a web of related concepts all supporting one another, that, I believe, really helps. Students get a result and write it down, but don't always have the experience or time to examine the result and see its implications. Having done quantum oscillations in , I'd take 10 minutes to show them how the quantum zeno effect follows.

I did initially question the other tutor on his style, because he actually did, every week, spend the entire hour doing their upcoming homework assignment on the board verbatim, but, unlike me, he had gone through that program as an undergraduate, and he assured me that the students needed that more than anything else he might do during the tutorial.

We would have loved to get students to show up for office hours, I really wanted to know what was causing difficulties for the class, but I think between us we saw maybe four students per year, and undergraduates didn't routinely have email access in those days.

Anyway, my point, which I think you reiterated, was that you can ask what is the best way to run a tutorial, but I think that there is no single best way. Different students will be coming to the tutorial for different reasons. If you have the luxury of two tutors, or even one tutor with the class broken across different sessions, then it might be worth considering going out of your way to make sure that the tutorials are not all the same, to communicate the differences clearly at the beginning of the year, and to give the students the flexibility to choose the style that they find most suitable. It's much more work for the tutor, but worth it if you can spare the time.

When tutoring other classes where I was the sole tutor with only one tutorial a week, I, of course, had to do things differently. A one-size-fits-all tutorial based around what chapter they had most recently covered in class. I'm sure it was boring for some.

CCPhysicist says it like it is in post #16 "There IS too much theory in lecture!" This happens in math, too. Most students will accept a calculus theorem as "proven" by a few example calculations that happen to be of the sort similar to what they are being asked to be able to do for tests and homework. Most do not get any use whatsoever from epsilons and deltas; other than for the math majors, who don't need it anyway, it is a waste of breath.

And I also like the idea of having several different style tutorials so the students can pick the technique which fits them, or attend more than one, if they want to see it both ways.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 07 Sep 2008 #permalink

Here are some comments from a longer blog post I wrote here:…

I think a lot of these methods would work if there was good evidence that lectures work. But so far, the evidence suggests that students don't learn by telling, they learn by doing. As long as you're up there in front of the blackboard, you're stuck in a classroom structure where information is supposed to travel from teacher to student. I don't think that's the best approach, based on the evidence. Get the students talking to each other, working through problems, discussing and arguing. Then act as their "guide on the side" (not the "sage on the stage") to help them learn. You can't teach anybody anything.

Now, I'm really not slagging on anything that Matt's saying (or any of the other good suggestions in the comments of his post), just that the initial structure of the teaching environment he's using is flawed. For instance, I can't argue that it's good to give clear explanations, to think about your lectures in advance, and to give example problems. I love his suggestion of giving quizzes -- research shows that the act of trying to recall information increases your memory of it (even if you don't get the answers), so taking as many tests as you can is a really good thing. But the "good lecture" techniques only go so far. Students plead for us to give them example problems often because they want to see something that "looks like" the homework so that they can follow it as a recipe.

The comments to Matt's post suggest that at least the better students don't want those boring example problems, though -- like Matt says, they want "real" problems -- interesting, tough problems that get them engaged in solving it. I've seen that desire in our physics majors here as well. What would be great is if we could really model to students how we go about solving such a problem -- taking wrong turns, thinking back to worked examples, looking at limiting behavior, etc. But that takes a very long time, and is hard to do justice in front of a class.

One idea that I've found really compelling is called Preparation for Future Learning. The idea is that sometimes there is a time for telling (for the "theory" part of the presentation, tying things together, giving out facts), but it is after a student has already struggled with the ideas. One way to do this is to give them a canonical problem and ask them to come up with the solution. For example, ask biology students to come up with a strategy for eagle conservation. That's a huge, open-ended problem (they don't have to be that unstructured) but after students come up with a bunch of (poor) strategies, they are better equipped to hear and understand a lecture about conservation techniques.

"Speaking English" could also mean that you are someone they can relate to. I think undergrads appreciate a TA who doesn't look down on them, who isn't professorial, who realizes that they where in the same seat facing a TA just a few years ago. You are there to facilitate. I think that "speaking english" also means being humble and accessible.

I am a math phD grad student in one of Ive League school. I am a foreigner so my english is not native, but definitely fluent and solid enough to articulate, make jokes and so forth. But still, from what I can see in class, a few American students just look down on me, they never looked at me when I tried to talk to them. When I am teaching in class, they just look at the floor unattentively. That's just totally rude. Maybe the reason is that I am Chinese, so they do not like me right away. And I also feel like speaking non-native (but fluent and clear) english already makes them lose their attention. From the scores they have in HW and quizzes, those unattentive students certainly are not top-notch. They are above average at best.

I did not face this trouble when I was TA for math-majors. But now I am the TA for a very low-level calculus courses in which all students are not studying science. Perhaps in their majors they never saw a foreign TA before. I am getting a bit fed up now: Just because my english is not native, there is no way I can communicate to those students who don't give a damn about my class.

About my ability of english, I am sure it is accented but I have no touble in communications, I have never heard of a student saying 'what? what are you talking about?'. And even if I make quirky jokes in class, everybody laughs , it means that they understand what I said, I believe

But to be fair, 95% of the Americans are nice, just that 5% makes me angry. And normally those 5% comes from non-science majors, in which you can see more americans in the department. Science majors definitely have no discrimination against foreigners.