Teaching Effectively

As a TA, you may engage in one or more of a variety of interrelated teaching activities--lecturing, class discussion, running labs, conducting office hours, and grading. The specific responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants may vary widely from department to department. You may find it most helpful to read only those sections in this handbook relevant to your situation. In any case, confer with your graduate coordinator to insure that you are aware of your TA duties. Finally, as you develop your personal philosophy of teaching, the most important aspect to keep in mind is the ultimate goal of your teaching: student learning.

Dimensions of Effective Teaching

Teaching is a highly individualized activity, and the student-teacher interaction is an intense human relationship that encompasses a broad range of personalities and behaviors. There is no “best” or “most effective” teaching style which will work well for all teachers. Many beginning teachers attempt to imitate the style of a favorite teacher from the past, but the most successful styles are those that develop as naturally as possible from a teacher’s own personal characteristics. The most effective teaching style for you will be one that reflects a combination of sound teaching techniques, knowledge of the subject, enthusiasm for teaching, and sensitivity to your own personal characteristics. For example, if you are by nature a formal person, an attempt to assume an informal manner may appear to your students to be just that, an assumed posture. Whatever your style, you can generally perform in a more relaxed manner if you simply maximize your own best personality traits. In general, if you come across to your students as a caring person, their appreciation for your personal sincerity will enhance their impression of you as a teacher.

CTL Speaker Series

CTL provides different developmental opportunities centered on transforming and improving teaching at UGA. Each semester, we host a National Speaker Series and Award Winning Faculty Series, as well as workshops for graduate teaching assistants and faculty members focused on improving instruction. For information about future CTL events and workshops on teaching go to: http://www.ctl.uga.edu/events/all-events

The links below will take you to specific talks from our Speaker Series Archive. We hope these, along with other development opportunities we organize throughout each academic year, will help inform and improve your teaching.

Strategies for Teaching the Millennial Student. Cynthia Ward, Professor of Internal Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, UGA.

Feedback Exercises for a Dynamic Classroom. James “Jeb” Byers, Professor, Odum School of Ecology, UGA.

How to Foster Deep Approaches and Achievements in Learning. Ken Bain, Best-Selling Author and Pedagogue.

Active Learning with Large Classes: Strategies that Work Better with 100 Students than 10 Students. John Knox, Associate Professor of Geography and Climatology, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, UGA.

Enhancing Student Learning through Group Projects. Jean Martin-Williams, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, Hodgson School of Music, and Director of the CTL Lilly Teaching Fellows, UGA.

Making the Most of General Education Courses. Peggy Brickman, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Biological Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, UGA.

Teaching Large Classes. Gary Green, Assistant Dean and Professor, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, UGA.

Additional teaching resources are available at: http://www.ctl.uga.edu/pages/teaching-resources

Teaching Methods

Understandably, new teachers tend to pick the teaching method that they found the most comfortable as a student; however, an effective teacher will become proficient in a variety of instructional methods. Since some teaching strategies may be more appropriate than others for attaining a specific educational goal, you may wish to vary your instructional method based on your daily lesson, your learning objectives, and your students’ needs.

Lecturing

Lecturing is one of the oldest and most common methods of teaching at colleges and universities, especially in introductory and survey courses that require much of the material be covered in a short time. Historically, before the printing press, lecturers read to audiences whose access to written materials was limited. With the proliferation of books and the advent of the internet, the original purpose of lecturing is obsolete. However, lecturing remains useful to provide structure and organization to scattered materials and to distill the important points from a barrage of details. Lectures are also very easy to update, and notes from lectures can serve as excellent self-study guides for the motivated student. When executed well, lecturing can be one of the most effective and interesting teaching methods available to an instructor, but when poorly performed, it can be most ineffective. Thus, teachers who use lectures must learn to use them well. Unfortunately, competency in lecturing techniques seldom comes naturally or easily to a new teacher; rather, like most other factors in effective teaching, effective lecturing requires careful preparation.

If lecturing will be your method to teach a lesson, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind. Aim to know your material well enough that you can deliver it in the same way you might relate a story or carry on a conversation. A more relaxed, thinking-out-loud, narrative style will challenge your students to think creatively and abstractly about a concept or idea.

Preparation

This cannot be repeated often enough. A confident, relaxed, and successful lecturer is a well-prepared one. Begin with your lesson topic for the day. What objectives would you like for your students to meet? What terms, concepts, and background information do you need to provide your students to help them with the lesson? What teaching aids are available? From these answers, draft a rough lesson plan.

Now comes the hard part--deciding what to leave out. It is virtually impossible to cover any subject completely, and any attempt to do so will only overwhelm your students with too many details. It will take time to learn how to gauge how much material you can cover during a class period. Be safe! Build a basic lecture with lots of options. For example, you might want to structure an early stopping point in your lecture, should you be over time, and prepare an activity, or have an extra segue story or two should you have time left at the end of class.

To keep a lecture focused and concise, many accomplished lecturers write a one-sentence statement that covers the heart of the entire lesson in thirty words or less. (The word limit is arbitrary, but this challenge has proven to be a very efficient way to focus on the essential content.) When you are satisfied that the sentence reveals the essence of the day’s lecture, rewrite the sentence in the form of a general question. Next, list the three or four key points or arguments that will best help you to answer the question. Again, limit each point to a single, brief sentence. Once this is done, you have produced a basic outline for the body of the lecture.

Organization

How you organize a lecture can make all the difference in whether students retain the material or understand it in the first place. While you may have been thinking about your lesson for weeks, months, or years, your students are often hearing the information for the first time in your class, and their attention is divided between listening to you and deciding what to write down. With this in mind, it is paramount that you do not try to cram too much information into a single lecture, and that you indicate--by emphasis, repetition, and summary--your major points and how they connect. You could bulletpoint your main points in 10-15 minutes on the board or via Power Point presentation, but students need time to digest and reflect upon the material. A good lecturer devotes much of the class period providing examples, case studies, and reformulating the main points into questions. Listed below are some suggestions to develop a well-organized lecture:

Presentation

Delivering a lecture calls for honing basic presentation skills as well. Again, listed below are a few tried but true pointers from effective lecturers:

Cohesiveness

Although this has been mentioned in the previous sections, it bears repeating. Remember that the key themes of the course are probably clearer to you than your students, as you have already spent weeks or months planning for the course. Your students will want the same clarity and sense of direction for the day’s lecture as well as for the entire semester. To help students understand the larger underlying framework of the course, use the first few and last minutes of class to show the links between lectures. Here are some suggestions:

Making Your Material Relevant

This is advice that is particularly helpful for those serving in introductory survey classes. Students want to know how what they are learning in the classroom has relevance to the world outside. Students who have not decided on a major will be interested in how they can apply the ideas that they study in your class. Listed below are some suggestions:

Mixing it Up

While the lecture method has some distinct preparation advantages, it is an inherently teacher-centered mode. To promote active student learning, you may want to intersperse your lecture with activities that assess student learning. For example:

A few role plays can be particularly helpful when students’ attention spans seem to be fading. One student remembers how a physics professor started a lecture on gravity by playing an Elvis Presley song on guitar while balancing upside down on his head. In addition to keeping students engaged in the lecture, these strategies give students a chance to apply what they have just learned and give the lecturer valuable feedback on what students think and understand.

Handling Questions

Another way in which lecturers can promote a more engaged classroom is by going out of your way to encourage questions. Some professors prefer to break up their lecture by soliciting student questions, while others find it distracting and will reserve question time at the end of the lecture. You will quickly figure out which method you prefer; just let your students know when you will handle questions. Here are a few pointers:

It’s a good idea not to throw out a generic “Any questions?” to your students at the end of a class period, as students will quickly learn that they will be dismissed earlier if they have nothing to say. Often, this does not sound like you are genuinely interested in clearing things up for your class. Instead, try asking them something more specific, such as “What points are still a little muddy to you?” or “What can I help clarify?” or even “Is there anything that inquiring minds want to know that I did not answer as yet today?” Furthermore, when you ask, make sure to make eye contact with your students. This is not the time to be erasing the board.

Make sure that you understand what a student is asking. Paraphrase the question back to the student, and ask if you understand the question correctly, and if you are teaching a large class, repeat the question for the entire class to hear.

Perhaps most importantly, know that it is OK not to know the answer to something. Your students are savvy enough to see through a bluff. Tell them that the particular question is outside of your primary field of study, or that to answer it fully will require some sleuthing. Your students will appreciate your honesty, as well as the extra effort you take to find the right answers.

Classroom Assessment Techniques

Occasionally you may suspect that students have questions, but they are reluctant to ask. You may want to try one or more of the classroom assessments described by Angelo and Cross in Classroom Assessment Techniques. Often used during the last two or three minutes of a class period, such assessment tools help teachers gauge if they are effectively communicating course content during their lectures without devoting lots of time or effort. Such techniques also help teachers identify student thinking, which can help in tailoring your lessons. Here are a few classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross.

The Minute Paper: Ask students to respond briefly to some variation on the following two questions:
“What was the most important thing that you learned during this class?”AND “What important question remains unanswered?”

The Focused List: Direct the students’ attention to a single important term, name, or concept from a particular lesson or class session, and ask them to list several ideas that are closely related to that “focus point.”

Muddiest Point: Ask students to jot down a quick response to one question. “What was the muddiest point in______?”

Directed Paraphrasing: Have students paraphrase information or concepts as a way to assess comprehension and to develop the ability to translate information into their own words.

Teaching by Discussion

Teaching by discussion is one of the most effective and also one of the most difficult teaching methods. Whereas lecturing is an efficient method for conveying new information to students, discussion is much more effective for involving students and encouraging them to think critically and originally. Discussion is more likely than lecture to challenge student attitudes about a subject and to require students to formulate ideas and arguments for themselves. A student may gain useful information and formulate ideas through any type of instruction, but concepts so attained may or may not be seriously evaluated. Effective discussion requires students to present, defend, reformulate, and evaluate their ideas.

Preparation

If you are going to be leading discussion sections, make it your first priority to sit down with the instructor of record and understand what objectives are for the term.

Getting Started

There are several techniques that may be used to get discussion started. A common method is to ask the students to nominate the points for agenda. Another method involves the use of a few carefully selected open-ended questions to stimulate discussion. Here are some suggestions:

Student Participation

Discussion leading is a little like a juggling act. You’ll want to ask good questions, encourage the reticent students to participate, and discourage overly talkative students from monopolizing the discussion, all the while processing what answers students provide, and directing their answers towards your class objectives for the day. Listed below are a few suggestions to help keep the juggling act manageable:

Summation

Reserve time at the end of class for a brief wrap up of the day’s discussion. You may simply summarize the major points that students raised, or repeat the concepts that were discussed. In any case, end your session with a focus on the students’ contributions. Give your students confidence in their ability to think for themselves, and they will assume greater ownership in the learning they undertake for your class.

Discussions Attached to Lecture Courses

Many departments with large enrollments in introductory courses break the classes down into one or more discussion sections to facilitate better student learning. Generally, the professor gives lectures to the whole class, and graduate teaching assistants are in charge of the discussion sections.

If your assignment includes a discussion section, you may be expected to handle only questions and problems related to the materials covered in the lecture, or you may be expected to supplement the lectures with new information. Before the semester begins, meet with your professor in charge of the lecture and make sure you are clear what is expected of you.

If students complain to you, as discussion leader, about the professor or the other discussion leaders, be very careful and diplomatic. Professors and TAs are a team that must show a united front.

Science Laboratory Sections

Graduate assistants who are assigned to teaching responsibilities in laboratory settings have special responsibilities for planning, teaching, and evaluation. For those involved in science laboratory instruction, student safety is an important concern.

Purpose of Laboratory Sections

In most introductory science courses, laboratory sections are conducted in conjunction with lecture sessions to give the students an opportunity for hands-on experience with the scientific method. Generally, the lectures are conducted by professors, with graduate teaching assistants responsible for conducting laboratory sessions.

Lab sessions provide an excellent opportunity for students to acquire valuable technical skills and to expand their understanding of the relation of scientific concepts and theories to “the real world.” This practical experience is also intended to nurture the students’ spirit of inquiry and to generate an appreciation of the nature of scientific discovery.

Planning for Lab Safety

Lab sessions present a unique responsibility for student safety. The common safety precautions for lab operation may be second nature to the teacher, but the students are much less experienced and need close supervision, especially in the first weeks of the course. If improperly performed, simple procedures, such as inserting glass tubes into rubber stoppers or the decantation of toxic, volatile, or corrosive liquids can produce serious injury. Consequently, to insure student safety, thorough instruction and frequent reminders of the necessary safety techniques must be primary objectives of each lab session.

If your assignment involves lab teaching, you should review the following information carefully and contact your faculty supervisor or departmental safety officer to obtain complete information about your responsibility for the safe conduct of your classes.

Guidelines for general lab safety are published in the University of Georgia Chemical and Laboratory Safety Handbook distributed by the Environmental Safety Division (ESD). The ESD includes the Hazardous Materials Management, Radiation Safety, Biosafety, and Fire Safety Programs, each of which has it own materials on ESD’s main website (http://www.esd.uga.edu). ESD advises that the Chemical and Laboratory Safety Manual covers the type of information needed for most lab teaching operations, but that a teaching assistant should check carefully to determine if any portion of the course will involve operations to which specific regulations apply. Information regarding the application of specific safety regulations and copies of the regulations may be obtained from your department’s safety officer or the Environmental Safety Division.

The Laboratory Safety Manual states that “the basic purpose of laboratory safety is to protect the student, researcher, staff member, or instructor from the many real and potential hazards encountered when using various materials in a lab setting. These hazards can be eliminated or reduced by adoption of a series of common sense rules tailored to the specific needs of the individual lab . . . . It is up to the faculty member or instructor in charge of the lab to establish and enforce a set of rules tailored to the lab in question.”

Safety rules require the use of long pants, closed-toe shoes, disposable gloves, safety goggles, face shields, and body shields if there is any possibility of a violent reaction in the lab. The instructor of record and teaching assistants should make certain that hazard warning signs have been posted, and that necessary safety equipment is available and used as required.

When using lab chemicals, the user needs to know what protective steps to take for all materials used. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), which can be found through the ESD website, provide proper procedures for handling or working with particular substances. You should know what emergency equipment is available. How should these be used in the case of a chemical spill or accident? Do not proceed with any project until the information has been obtained. Teaching assistants should make sure that all students receive sufficient instruction for the safe use of chemicals and/or potentially hazardous lab equipment, whether in the form of written safety guides, pre-laboratory lectures, teacher-demonstrations, or otherwise, prior to the beginning of the laboratory exercise.

Any accident that occurs should be reported immediately to your supervisor. As stated in Section 2, Part IX of the Safety Manual, “all serious injuries which require medical attention shall be reported by calling 9-911. All incidents that result in an injury or property damage are to be reported using a University Incident/ Accident Report form, which should be available in the offices of department or division heads.” The lab safety manager of the Environmental Safety Division has advised that it is good policy to file a report of any accident, no matter how minor, that involves injury to anyone. In the case of a large chemical spill or other emergency situations beyond the instructor’s capability to handle, the instructor should immediately notify the Environmental Safety Emergency Response Team at (706) 542-5801, during normal working hours, or the UGA Police at (706) 542-2200 after normal working hours.

Additional Responsibilities in the Lab

The following general suggestions may help new teaching assistants to provide for the effectiveness of lab sessions. Learn all you can about the University’s current safety regulations and procedures before classes begin. Be sure the first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and be sure that you know how to use them. Review the basic rules for first aid, and post in a conspicuous place the procedure for obtaining emergency assistance. Be aware of where the closest fire alarm is before you need it.

Check out the lab area and equipment so you can feel comfortable when classes begin. Become familiar with the lab stockroom so you will be able to locate extra supplies and equipment quickly if they are needed during a class session. Obtain a copy of the required student manual, review the supplies needed for the scheduled experiments, and notify the faculty supervisor if there are any shortages. Check with your supervisor regarding the availability of written materials, procedures, and demonstration supplies (audio-visuals, slides, charts, and so forth) that you may need throughout the course.

The First Day of Lab

As in other kinds of instruction, this is the time to set the tone for the rest of the semester. Explain the importance of lab safety and make sure the students know what to do in the event of an emergency. Show them the lab facilities and give them a few minutes to become familiar with their surroundings. Then, explain in detail the general ground rules for the proper handling and storage of supplies and equipment. Emphasize that because the lab must be used by subsequent classes, work areas must be cleared and all equipment cleaned and stored before the end of each session. Explain the relationship of the lab session to the overall course and point out that most of the experiments performed in introductory science courses are intended to illustrate basic ideas that underlie the fundamental concepts of science. Briefly review the types of experiments the students will be performing. Emphasize that because it will generally be necessary for you to present essential information and instructions at the beginning of each session they should arrive for class on time.

Identify the name and source of the manuals and supplies the students will be expected to purchase and explain the general type of preparation required for each session. Review the overall grading policy you will use and discuss your expectations regarding independent and collaborative work. Explain the types of notes and reports the students will be expected to prepare, and finally, make the assignment for the next laboratory session. If the work is to be done in pairs or small groups, it may be expedient to arrange the groups at this time.

Instruction in the Lab Course

Maintain student awareness of the educational importance of the laboratory experience by explaining the purpose of each experiment. Advance reading assignments or very brief introductory comments regarding the significance of an experiment may generate greater awareness of the nature of scientific research, and a few carefully selected study questions may help to focus student thinking. Unfortunately, laboratory experiments have occasionally been misperceived as irrelevant busy work, but proper student orientation and imaginative teaching can turn a laboratory exercise into an exciting and challenging learning experience.

Thorough teacher preparation is vital to each lab session. It is strongly recommended that you perform each assigned experiment, including the calculations and reporting that will later be expected of the students, before the laboratory session to determine if the instructions in the student manual are complete and clear and to be sure that the exercise can be performed in the time provided. This practice will also help you discover those procedural difficulties the students are most likely to encounter. The theory on which the experiment is based should be reviewed in detail in preparation for responding to student questions regarding the theoretical significance and practical applicability of their newfound knowledge.

Because of the nature of laboratory instruction, it is very important to begin each session promptly. At the beginning of each session, demonstrate how the students should handle and care for any new supplies and equipment they will be using and review the essential safety precautions. Briefly but explicitly explain the purpose of any necessary final instructions and let them get started. The introductory comments should be kept to a minimum to allow as much class time as possible for the experiment. Otherwise, the pressure of time may reduce a meaningful learning experience to an exercise in futility. In many cases, the instructions and the next class assignment can be written on the board before the session to greatly reduce the time needed for teacher comments. During lab sessions, you will have an opportunity for a unique involvement with student learning on a one-to-one basis. By circulating around the laboratory, you will be able to demonstrate your interest and accessibility to those students who may need help, while simultaneously monitoring lab safety. Try to maintain an informal manner while moving around the room. Regular pacing may be perceived as inspection tours; conversely, hovering in one place may be intimidating to the students in that area. Few teaching situations are as amenable as lab sessions to developing a personal rapport with students. So, with a little effort, you should be able to establish quickly an enjoyable working atmosphere.

At times, it may be tempting to take over and help a struggling student through a difficult part of an experiment, but this is generally inadvisable—except to avoid an impending problem. Students are generally more appreciative of assistance if it helps them discover solutions through their own resourcefulness. Questioning techniques are very effective for helping students redirect their thoughts and, if used skillfully, will generate creative thinking ability; therefore, if you can maintain your patience and diplomacy during your students’ plodding efforts to learn by experimentation, teaching can be especially rewarding to both teacher and student.

Near the end of the class session, a brief summarizing discussion of the experimental results can be very productive. Allowing students to explain what transpired will help them to understand how to generalize from the experiment data to the concept under investigation. As the students discuss comparative variations in lab data, they may also gain additional insight into the nature of scientific knowledge and learn to appreciate their own abilities to apply experimental methods. The summary sessions will also provide you an opportunity to obtain group feedback regarding the lab procedures and practice.

Language Laboratories

Language labs are invaluable learning settings for introductory students of modern foreign languages, and graduate teaching assistants may be assigned to supervise the laboratory and assist students as needed. Although language lab teaching is not the same as that discussed above, there are several essential commonalities regarding teacher performance: reliability and punctuality, accessibility to the students, and familiarity with the lab equipment.

In language labs, two of the most important teacher characteristics are accessibility and a demonstrated willingness to help students since many students, especially first-semester first-year students may be reluctant to seek out assistance on their own. Encountering a foreign language for the first time can be a bewildering experience, and difficulties with strange lab equipment and procedures can be very intimidating to an uncertain student.

Although students are generally expected to work independently in language labs, any assistance you can give during the first few sessions will help to generate self-confidence and create an appreciation of the value of the laboratory experience. Teacher sensitivity to individual needs and differences in such instructional situations can make the difference between a student’s decision to withdraw or to persevere in the course. Consequently, the effective supervision of language labs is of paramount importance to the department’s success in language courses and perhaps to the entire academic career of many talented students.