Teaching is a skill that comes with time. Think back to some of your favourite classes in high school or university: What made them so special? What was it about the instructor’s pedagogy that made it engaging? What are some practices you would like to mirror? On the other hand, what are some things you would not like to perpetuate?
With that in mind, you can use a number of teaching strategies to make your tutorial or seminar a successful one, including planning ahead, setting learning outcomes, communicating effectively with students, and instituting active learning methods and activities. Not all techniques will be liked by all students. Consider diversifying your delivery methods using videos, case-studies, group exercises, open discussions etc.
Preparedness: Generally following lecture, tutorials are a space in which students are going to clarify, reinforce and apply what they learned in class. Plan your tutorial ahead of time by revisiting what was taught during lecture. Choose key concepts or theories you want to focus on. Make sure to include time estimates for each. Allow time for questions and student participation, but also for the lack-thereof. Try finding visual aids to support your teaching. These can include videos, pictures, and articles. Make sure your supplementary materials are concise and don’t overwhelm students.
- Strategies for Effective Tutorials
- Creating Community Guidelines
- Facilitating Online Discussion/Participation
- When Things Go Wrong
- Active Learning
- Guest Lecturing
- Online Lecturing
- Collecting Feedback on your Teaching: TA Evaluations
Use the first tutorial to introduce yourself and set the tone for the semester. Alternatively, if you are TAing online, consider emailing your tutorial group a small introductory paragraph:
- Tell them a little about yourself and your research
- Explicitly establish shared expectations as to when and where students should check for announcements or other communications
- Explain when you will be checking emails and answering them. We suggest that you set some time aside every other day to answer several emails at once. This will enable you to better manage your schedule, and effectively count your hours.
- Consider including your gender pronouns. (Check out the resource "Why include pronouns in your email signature" from Ryerson University. We also recommend Lee Airton’s No Big Deal Campaign for banners to include in your email signature or on OnQ.)
- To address students’ expectations with respect to email response times, you may want to add the following message to your email:
“Email can be a fast and practical way to manage some types of communication. However, it is not suitable for all types of inquiries, so please do not email the instructor or TA about information that is readily available to you on the syllabus and/or onQ. When corresponding over email, please be sure that the course number (e.g PHIL 399) appears somewhere in the subject line and that you include your first and last name in your closing. While I will typically respond to your email within a day, please allow 48 hours for a response.”
You can adjust this message according to the turn-around time you’ve agreed upon with your instructor. Make your students aware of this response time at the beginning of the course.
In order to create a more inclusive classroom, consider creating community guidelines with your students. Community guidelines are agreed-upon protocols that act as a contract for the duration of the semester. Collaborating with the students in the creation of such guidelines will be central to its success. This practice will foster a collective space for mutual respect and collaborative inquiry. Community guidelines have the potential of cultivating a sense of belonging amongst students, and help to facilitate a space in which they can engage productively and respectfully.
TA Tip: In the middle of the semester, or whenever needed, consider revisiting your guidelines as a means to “check-in” with students. You might want to collectively add new guidelines or simply reiterate them. This time can also be used as a reference point for students to self-assess their participation and interactions with/in the class.
While guidelines may differ across disciplines, they will generally include:
- Confidentiality: Depending on the discussions had in class, folks may disclose personal experiences, or make mistakes. The classroom should be a space for honest and respectful exchange. What happens in the class stays in the class.
- Respect: Give your undivided attention to the person speaking, and allow them the space to speak through their ideas.
- Listening: Don’t interrupt, turn to technology, or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Be aware of your body language.
- Awareness: Be aware of the words you use, and how they may affect others:
- Challenging the idea, not the person: Disagreement is a healthy form of learning. We can disagree with others without putting them down. The video "How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist" by Jay Smooth reviews the difference between “what they are" conversations and “what they said" conversations
- Be open to making mistakes, and allow others to make mistakes as well!
- Step Up, Step Back: Be mindful of how much space you are taking in class, and how this might be affecting those who would want to take more space. If you tend to be less talkative, empower yourself.
- Respect each other’s personal space: Ask for consent before touching another person.
Leading tutorials can include a variety of duties, depending on the course you are TAing and the expectations of the course instructor. Your primary task in the tutorial space will be facilitating discussion among students. Whether you are facilitating tutorials in-person or online, there are some principles and best practices that you can follow to ensure that you create the most accessible and engaging space for your students.
- Clarify expectations: How often are students expected to post? How long does each post have to be? How often should students reply to their peers' posts? Provide an example that demonstrates the expected quality and content of an individual post.
- Provide students with clear instructions on how to submit posts and replies in the learning management system (onQ).
- Pose a good discussion question to get the conversation started.
- Provide feedback early in the term. Your feedback and encouragement will be particularly important at the start of the course in order to establish and reinforce expectations. If a post is vague, prompt the student for clarification. Encourage a student to complicate their post by referring to course material or providing a real-world example.
- Promote peer engagement by encouraging students to ask questions to one another. If students direct their questions to you, put the question back to the group.
- Move the discussion forward. You can encourage participation by responding to posts that have not received a response, pointing out patterns in discussion threads, and asking probing questions. Rather than providing students with answers, prompt them with additional resources to further their thinking.
- Track your feedback. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of which students you have given feedback to in order to ensure that you provide at least one meaningful response to all of your students.
- Plan for technical issues. Make sure students know what to do and who to contact if they experience technical difficulties.
- 10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions - Edwige Simon 2018, EDUCAUSE review
- Online Discussions: Tips for Instructors - Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
While discussions can generate insight and stimulate critical thinking, things do not always go according to plan. Many issues can be avoided by designing activities according to Universal Design for Learning principles (see UDL Guidelines, CAST) and approaching group work and discussions with a plan; however, things still happen. Here's what you can do when things go wrong in discussion and group-work settings:
Students who take up too much space:
- Speak with the student privately. Let them know that their contributions are appreciated, but other students need to be given the chance to participate.
- Divide students into smaller groups and consider assigning students to specific roles. For example, students could alternate between discussion leader, summarizer, recorder, devil's advocate, and timekeeper.
Students who talk too little:
- Speak to the student privately to discern the reason for their lack of participation.
- Consider alternative means of participation or the creation of even smaller discussion groups. Some students may feel more comfortable in one-on-one settings.
- Assign a low-stakes writing assignment prior to discussion or group work. Ask students to share their responses with their group.
- Recognize that quantity is not necessarily quality.
Students who are disruptive:
- Speak to the student privately to discern the reason for the disruption.
- Check that a student is actually disruptive and not just momentarily expressing a strong opinion.
- Change up the discussion groups.
- Ensure that the rationale and instructions for any group activity are clear and explicit.
- Set clear expectations and guidelines with your students at the start of term. By creating a code of conduct and/or specifying guiding principles for discussion and collaboration, you will have something to refer back to when things go wrong.
- Ask for help. If you're unsure of how to deal with a situation, consult your fellow TAs and/or the course instructor. Likely, they have dealt with similar situations and will have sound advice and resources you can draw from.
When Things Go Wrong - Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
Sensoy and DiAngelo (2014) wrote an excellent article on social justice education and power relations in the classroom. They suggest alternative strategies for facilitating deeply complex issues and dynamics, as well as responding to systems of privilege and oppression in the classroom. Here are some community guidelines the authors suggest:
- Strive for intellectual humility. Be willing to grapple with challenging ideas.
- Differentiate between opinion--which everyone has--and informed knowledge, which comes from sustained experience, study, and practice. Hold your opinions lightly and with humility.
- Let go of personal anecdotal evidence and look at broader group-level patterns.
- Notice your own defensive reactions and attempt to use these reactions as entry points for gaining deeper self-knowledge, rather than as a rationale for closing off.
- Recognize how your own social positionality (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, ability) informs your perspectives and reactions to your instructor and those whose work you study in the course.
- Differentiate between safety and comfort. Accept discomfort as necessary for social justice growth.
- Identify where your learning edge is and push it. For example, whenever you think, I already know this, ask yourself, How can I take this deeper? Or, How am I applying in practice what I already know?
- Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education. - Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, A. (2014), Democracy and Education, 22(2), Article 1.
- Guide to Group Agreements - Seeds for Change
Facilitating discussion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms will likely look different from the social sciences. Here are some suggestions for facilitating discussions in a STEM context:
- Be aware of how much you are contributing to in-class discussions. If you have a tendency to contribute often, give others the opportunity to speak.
- Listen respectfully. Don’t interrupt, engage in private conversations, or turn to technology while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language.
- Understand that there are different approaches to solving problems. If you are uncertain about someone else’s approach, ask a question to explore areas of uncertainty. Listen respectfully to how and why the approach could work.
- Take pairwork or small group work seriously. Remember that your peers’ learning partly depends upon your engagement.
- Be careful about how you use humour or irony in class. Keep in mind that we don’t all find the same things funny.
- Make an effort to get to know other students. Introduce yourself to students sitting near you. Refer to classmates by name and make eye contact with other students.
Guidelines for Classroom Interactions - Centre for Research in Learning & Teaching, University of Michigan
Research shows that teaching evaluation results are often skewed by systemic discrimination and bias. Factors such as gender and race can sometimes lead to negative comments and evaluations that do not accurately reflect the TA’s teaching abilities and their delivery of course content. Accent discrimination is one of the ways these biases manifest in teaching evaluations. From 2009 to 2015, the Human Rights Office investigated accent discrimination experienced by instructors and TAs at Queen’s University, producing the Understanding Each Other report. While we all have accents, the report outlines how certain accents are afforded more respect and credibility than others, and how systemic discrimination and a culture of whiteness can affect student perceptions and evaluations of TAs and instructors.
- Know Your Rights: The Ontario Human Rights Code does not explicitly recognize language-based discrimination, but accent discrimination aligns with other aspects of the law that are recognized, such as ancestry, place of origin, and ethnicity. Students cannot expect instructors and TAs to have unaccented English. Any complaints on this ground constitute a violation of your human rights as listed by the Ontario Human Rights Code.
- Accents are an asset, not a barrier.
- Accent discrimination is a systemic issue that requires institutional action; it is not an individual issue to be addressed/resolved by TAs.
- Students are equally responsible for their role in learning. Complaints about a TA’s accent are not grounds for students switching tutorial groups, for example. Students can become better listeners and take increased responsibility for their own learning by increasing their exposure to different accents, keeping an open mind, and being willing to make extra time for conversation and communication.
Where do I learn more? For more information on accent discrimination at Queen’s, check out the summary of the Understanding Each Other report on the Queen’s Human Rights website. You can view and download the full Understanding Each Other Report on the Queen’s Human Rights website.
Additional information on accent discrimination and teaching evaluations can be found in the "Briefing Note: Student Questionnaires on Courses and Teaching" by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
Encourage your students to actively participate in their own learning by including active learning exercises in tutorials (or any other teaching you might lead). All of the strategies suggested in this guide can be adapted to multiple contexts--including face-to-face or virtual--and are presented simply as catalysts to your own creativity. The single most important factor in selecting a strategy is ensuring that it directly supports the intended learning outcomes of the course.
Here are some examples:
- Buzz Groups: Small groups of two or three students formed, to discuss a topic for a short period. These groups are very useful for stimulating discussion, and can tune students in to your subject matter and gauge their familiarity with the topic.
- Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question to students; give them time to think and write a short response before turning to a peer to compare responses. After a short time to share, have pairs share with the larger group. In a pair it is almost impossible for a student to stay silent and the one-on-one experience is a lot less intimidating than speaking out to the whole group. Additionally, once students have spoken in private they are more likely to speak afterwards in the whole group.
- Note Sharing: After a particularly important or complex part of a lecture, invite students to compare the notes they took with those of a neighbour. Allow a few minutes for students to explain their thinking to one another and perhaps to supplement their own notes.
- Mind Mapping: As a way of bringing out ideas or principles on a topic ask students or groups of students to produce a simple, graphic representation or illustration of key concepts. This can be done either on large chart paper to be displayed or posted to onQ. This is a way for students to make personal sense of the material and link it to what they already know.
- Case Studies: Using written descriptions of a problem/situation--complete with background and context--students are required to analyze and propose solutions.
- Question of the day: At the end of the session pose or post a question that is based on the day’s topic. It can be a question similar to one that might appear on the final exam, one that requires students to synthesize the day’s material or one that provokes an opinion. Discuss the answer to the question at the start of the next session or post the answer to a discussion board or onQ a few days after the class.
Where do I learn more? Refer to the CTL Toolkit’s Student Engagement Guide or the Focus on Active Learning Guide for additional information and ideas on active learning activities, and building community through discussion and dialogue.
As a TA, you may be afforded the opportunity to guest lecture in an undergraduate course. Following the tips below can help you feel confident and make the most of your guest lecturing experience.
Prepare in advance:
- Visit the classroom in advance. This can be helpful if you are not familiar with the specific building or classroom.
- Find out what technology is available in the classroom and take time to test the computer or your laptop to ensure that you know how to connect to the projector or other technology you wish to use.
Structuring your lecture:
- Request a copy of the course syllabus so that you can situate your lecture within the existing course structure.
- Review the learning objectives and outcomes for the course. Think about how your lecture will align with and reinforce those outcomes.
- Don’t try to cover too much. Pick 2 or 3 main concepts to cover in a fifty-minute lecture.
- Make transitions explicit. Clearly describe how each section of the lecture relates to the next.
- Define and explain unfamiliar terminology. Think about what kind of background and prior knowledge your students will have and seek to build on that.
- Repetition is key. Restate and rephrase the main points of the lecture throughout.
- Summarize each section of the lecture before moving onto the next.
- Consider integrating active learning activities and prompting students with questions to promote engagement throughout your lecture. You can find more information on active learning in the CTL's Start Here Guide: Student Engagement.
Other things to consider:
- Use a microphone, if there is one available in the classroom, to amplify your voice.
- Make presentation slides available beforehand. You can send your slides to the instructor so that they can post them on the course website or email them to the class.
- Ensure closed captions are available and enabled if you plan to show a video during your lecture.
- Use visual aids to support your lecture.
- Schedule a break if you are lecturing over a longer period of time.
- You can ask for a teaching evaluation for a guest lecture from the students, the instructor or a member of the CTL.
- Lecturing Effectively - Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
- From Presenting to Lecturing: Adapting Material for Classroom Delivery - Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
Given the current climate of remote delivery, you may have the opportunity to deliver online lectures for students. Many institutions are currently compiling resources on various technologies that you can use to deliver content remotely. The technology you use will depend on a variety of factors such as whether you are delivering your lecture synchronously or asynchronously. For information on the educational technology available to you, check out the Educational Technology section of the CTL’s webpage, including the specific technology that can be used to Record a Lecture.
If you will be delivering content asynchronously, creating a narrated PowerPoint is a great option to consider for your remote lecture. There are many resources available to help you put together your first narrated PowerPoint lecture - check out this 12-minute YouTube video created by the Queen's University Engineering Teaching and Learning Team (ETLT) that will walk you through best practices for narrating your PowerPoint.
- Educational Technology: Record a Lecture - Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen's University
- Record a slide show with narration and slide timings - Microsoft Support
- Transitioning to Online Lectures - Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
Why are TA Evaluations important?
Soliciting feedback from students on your performance as a TA is important for a variety of reasons. Many job postings in higher education require evidence of teaching effectiveness. Positive evaluations from past students demonstrate a history of teaching effectiveness. Teaching evaluations can also be used to apply for future teaching awards. Finally, teaching evaluations are a simple mechanism for professional growth and improving your teaching and learning skills.
Administering TA Evaluations
While the Registrar’s Office administers the University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT) for faculty, there is not a parallel program organized for TAs. As such, TAs are largely responsible for administering their own assessments. The following steps will help guide you through the process of administering your own TA Evaluation:
STEP 1: Discuss your plans to seek student feedback with the course instructor. They may be able to include TA specific questions on the USAT Evaluations or grant you time in lecture to administer your own survey.
STEP 2: Draft a survey. You might start with a sample TA survey, or a sample TA evaluation for lab TAs. You might also consider creating an online form through platforms such as Google Forms or Survey Monkey in order to administer your survey electronically through email or OnQ. Whatever you decide take care that you will want to administer the same survey for multiple courses in order to effectively communicate your results.
STEP 3: Deliver your survey. Sometime towards the end of the course, dedicate at least 15 minutes of course time – ether during lecture or tutorial – for students to fill out your survey. Alternatively, you might consider delivering the survey electronically. Make sure to remind students that this evaluation is separate from the USATs, their responses will remain anonymous and only seen by you, and the evaluations will have no impact on their final grade.
STEP 4: Document the results. Compile the results of your survey into a concise report that you can include in a Teaching Dossier. At the very least you should document the average rating for each question and pull out some key responses from student’s written comments.
While demonstrating evidence of teaching effectiveness is useful in and of itself, the most successful uses of teaching evaluations connect the feedback to their overall teaching philosophy. If you have not already, consider drafting a teaching philosophy by consulting the resources available at the CTL. The feedback you receive from your TA evaluations should inform – and be informed by – the tenets of your overall teaching philosophy.
- Collecting Feedback on your Course - Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen's University