Running undergraduate tutorials and labs is a component of graduate students' training at most departments in North American universities. The experience is meant to prepare graduate students for the transition into academia, if they wish (and are fortunate enough to land a position), and to help departments manage teaching loads. TAs typically deliver material provided by the course instructor, help students better understand course concepts, invigilate quizzes and exams, and grade exams and homework assignments. How big is the change when a TA transitions from providing support to teaching the course? Earlier this year, I found out firsthand.
I'm ABD in a department of mathematics and statistics that has a program that allows a few graduate students to run first-year mathematics courses as instructors of record. I was lucky enough to be selected for this program, and although I had some previous teaching experience in another country, being entirely responsible for a course was a big change. I found it exciting and challenging. Based on my experiences, I'd like to summarize what I've learned and share it with you as advice—but first a bit about the biggest differences.
The most obvious difference in my case was class size; 40 students in my tutorials, 250 in my course. The second and subtler difference involved added responsibilities. No longer can you cover some of the key ideas like you could in the tutorial setting. My course was one section of a multisection coordinated course, which meant I had to keep pace with everyone else. In addition, I had the new responsibility of setting up the assignments and preparing the exams. I wondered what I would do if the midterm turned out to be a disaster. Could I gauge the degree of difficulty needed for the final? Finally, there is the small matter of student evaluations. You really don't want to fall below the department average, do you?
Take center stage:
Don't be alarmed—I understand the importance of moving towards learner-centered classrooms rather than teacher-dominated ones. To me, taking charge is not the same as dictating what happens in class. The students are looking to the teacher to maintain a productive learning environment, and they will follow your lead. Taking a back seat on the assumption it needs to be a participatory classroom can quickly result in students losing focus, especially when there are more than a hundred of them.
Break the cycle:
“Write, Wipe, Speak, Repeat,” or, as it goes in today's multimedia classrooms, “Click, Click, Click, Repeat.” Always going through the content the same way becomes repetitive quickly. Students get bored and struggle to listen. Avoid the monotony by trying something different every now and then. For example, once while teaching geometry, I mentioned the novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
, which describes a flat world where circles, triangles, and squares live. Referring to the novel's plot helped me get my point across, but it also caused some excitement in the classroom.
The idea of planning instruction is underrated in STEM classes. Maybe it's underrated in all kinds of courses. Most TAs (and a lot of professors) think that lecturing is about trying to cover as much material as possible and then picking up from where you left off next time. I could not disagree more. Following a preplanned and systematic lesson plan is the way forward. Personally, I use the BOPPPS (bridge – objective – preassessment – participatory learning – postassessment – summary) model. The bridge
is what gets students hooked to the lesson and is followed by stating the objective
gives the instructor an idea how well prepared the students are. I also use it to gauge students' understanding of previous material. Participatory learning
takes up most of the time, and post-assessment
provides feedback on the success of the lesson in achieving its objective(s). A summary
at the end reiterates the key ideas.
TAs and teachers alike face backlash when grading is strict and not uniform. When you're the professor in charge, students come to you with their objections. Transparency is the best way to address grading issues. I recommend creating detailed rubrics for each assignment, posting them online well in advance, and sticking to them when you're grading. It behooves new teachers to consult with other professors if they don't have much experience developing grading criteria for rubrics.
Establish multiple lines of communication:
Grading issues highlight the importance of communicating with students, and not just by answering questions during class sessions. Our various learning management systems make communicating with students easy. I post updates on the weekends outlining the activities of the week ahead and then send an email that directs students to these updates.
Reflection and receptivity:
Finally, remember you're a new teacher, and all teachers, even experienced ones, make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them. Feedback from students, peers, and the department head can help identify areas for improvement, if it's considered with an open mind. Feedback can also alleviate fears. What you may think is a problem may not even be mentioned in the feedback. Positive student comments build confidence and increase your commitment to becoming the best possible teacher.
Muhammad A. Khan (firstname.lastname@example.org), PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge. Previously, he was at the University of Calgary, Alberta.