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Career Advice

Tips for TAs – Part III

Expert advice on how to work toward your best TA'ship


Maintaining a civil environment in the classroom requires establishing guidelines, maintaining clear communication and demonstrating enthusiasm. Here’s how to keep the peace while keeping your students engaged.

Managing student behaviour and student learning

Work at maintaining civility in the classroom. Establish clear guidelines for student interactions during the very first class. While open discussion is crucial for effective learning, respectful discourse is a skill that must be learned if free exchange is to be fruitful and meaningful. To avoid one or two students dominating a discussion, establish a rule that everyone must wait for three other people to speak until they can talk again. When responding to each other’s comments, students must acknowledge one positive point before making any constructive criticism. Use students’ names when addressing them and make sure they do the same with each other. Acknowledge all comments from students, whether correct or not, while providing gentle coaching to indicate where they might find the correct information.

Manage disruptions efficiently

If students disrupt the class with constant chatter, one option is to move to where the conversation is taking place and simply teach from a position right next to the talkers. If a student becomes argumentative, acknowledge the comments but say that you would like to hear others’ points of view on a different topic and quickly and physically move to another part of the room to start a new branch of the discussion with other students. If the argument does not die down, you should start a new topic or a new activity. You could assign a problem and give students time to write their responses down. Moving from group discussion to individual writing can diffuse a tense situation. If the disruptive behaviour persists, never confront a student in class – arrange to meet with the student outside of class time. If the problem persists, it will need to be brought to the attention of the course supervisor.

Polish your oral presentation skills

Students will stay engaged in a class if they feel the instructor has genuine enthusiasm for the subject and shows concern for their learning. You can maintain the students’ attention by moving around the classroom and addressing everyone on an equal footing – avoid directing your attention to just the first few rows. Maintain eye contact with your students – speak directly to them. It is amazing what the power of the human voice can do to energize the atmosphere in a room full of people. Modulate your voice – practice speaking in a slow, steady rhythm with a variation of pitches and tone to add variety and interest to your delivery. If you are an interesting speaker, students will be interested, class disruptions will be rare and you will have little trouble encouraging engaged and civil discussion.

Manage your communication with students outside class

Set guidelines for communicating with students outside class. If they are going to correspond with you via e-mail, what kinds of questions can they ask you and how often will you respond? Check with your department to see if there are any directives governing electronic communication with students. Some good tips for handling student e-mail: Acknowledge every message you receive within 48 hours but do not feel you have to provide a complete answer to every message. E-mail should be used for brief questions and clarifications and to request appointments with you. E-mail should not become a vehicle for re-teaching course material or handling grade disputes. You can request that a student come see you during your office hours for a detailed explanation, or you can re-direct them to the textbook or workbook for further information. If students are emailing the same general concerns over and over again, identify the most common ones and take them up in class. You can identify scheduled times during the week when you will be available to answer e-mail queries in more depth and set limits as to when and how often you will reply to messages. At all costs, avoid instant messaging with your students. They need to know that you are not available at every moment of every day. Defining limits for your contact with students outside of class will allow you to manage your time more efficiently and reserve the best teaching moments for in-class discussion.

Check in with students and your course supervisor

Check your students’ understanding of assignment requirements and course material on a regular basis. Get feedback from them at least mid-way through the course, if not more frequently, about which concepts they comprehend well and which they still don’t understand. This can be achieved by having a simple anonymous form filled out at the end of a class asking students to identify what they’ve really enjoyed learning and feel they’ve mastered and what they find very difficult. Try to be proactive in identifying students who are having difficulty. Know when and how to refer students to the appropriate campus resources if you realize that they need additional support. Touch base with your course supervisor to ensure that you are on track in teaching the course material and that you have a clear understanding of where the students should be in working through the material. Take this opportunity to double-check the procedures for grading the end-of-term assignment.

Megan Burnett is assistant director of the teaching assistants’ training program in the Office of teaching advancement at the University of Toronto.

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