5 Tips for Becoming a Better TA

The first experience many grads have with teaching is through a TA training course provided by their university. Most universities have such a course, though they vary in scope, timing, and quality. So you might be looking to brush up on your teaching skills (especially if you want to pursue a career in education). Here are some tips, ideas, and resources that might help:

1) Observe other teachers!

Contact other TAs or professors in your department and ask them if you can sit in on one of their classes. Chances are, they will say yes, even if they aren't particularly innovative teachers. You can learn a lot by watching the way that they present their material and how the students respond to it. If you want to offer something useful to the teacher you're observing, ask if they would like to be evaluated! There's a great app developed at UC Davis called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) which has the observer track what the teacher is doing and what the students are doing at 2 minute intervals throughout the class. This gives both the observer and the teacher a qualitative description of what was going on in their classroom and how dynamic their classroom appears to their students. Find more information here!

2) Attend conferences and workshops

This is especially true if you are about to apply for jobs. Hearing what people from other institutions are trying in their classrooms can be incredibly useful to your own teaching practices. Plus you can network with people who care about teaching as much as you do. It's a win-win! Also, it's interesting to see that sometimes the most innovative teachers are the ones at smaller institutions where the class sizes allow them more academic freedom and room to play around with different techniques. Find out more information about conferences and workshops here.

3) Don't be afraid to try new things

Any new teaching technique you try is going to take time to perfect. Often, the first time you try something new in your classroom, many things might go wrong, and it might not be well-received by the students. The best thing to do is to evaluate yourself after class and figure out what went wrong. Don't get discouraged! Watch videos of other teachers using the technique in their classrooms. Remember, students are used to being taught in a dry, lecture-style classroom. Pulling them out of that habit will be challenging. But in the long run, they will perform better on tests and retain the information long-term. Read about the challenges facing innovative teachers here.

4) Get feedback from your students

Most universities have an evaluation process that occurs at the end of each quarter/semester. The evaluation forms (either in paper or online) typically have a low response rate, and usually include generic ranking questions ("rank the TA on a scale from 1-5"). This may not be the type of feedback you are looking for. Instead, consider writing your own evaluation forms with more useful questions, and distribute them to your students whenever you want! You can give them mid-semester evaluations so that you can actually adapt your teaching style to match what they are looking for. You can find out what's working and what's not while there's still time to do something about it. You could even have the students fill out "exit tickets" at the end of each lecture/discussion section giving short (few sentences) reviews of the activities/techniques used in that day's class. To read more about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of student evaluations, click here.

5) You don't have to re-invent the wheel

So you want to try new teaching techniques in your classroom. Where do you start? There are tons (TONS) of resources online for you to choose from, no matter what discipline you're coming from. You can find practice problems, think-pair-share questions, worksheets, lab manuals, etc. online along with scripts/directions for the instructor. One great resource is the SERC (Science Education Resource Center) at Carleton. Click here for more information.