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Suggestions/Tips for being a TA?

  1. Jul 30, 2007 #1
    I'll be a TA this fall. I assume I'll be grading papers and teaching the Phys 1 and 2 labs (I believe that is what was said). We don't have orientation and training until the Wed.-Fri. before Labor Day.

    Do any of you professors, researchers, or grad students have any suggestions or tips to make my lab something that the students enjoy? Should I just be as helpful and knowledgeable as possible? Should I force them to use their brains to figure things out?

    I don't know what kind of TA I'm supposed to be, I may just end up sitting in the corner grading last weeks labs for all I know. I figure if I show enough initiative they'll put me in a position of a little more authority.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2007 #2


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    Well, if you want to get students to like you, you basically have to give them the solutions.
  4. Jul 30, 2007 #3
    Ha, so true!
    I guess I don't care if they like me. I care if they have a good experience, whether they know it or not. I want them to become more analytical/critical thinkers. I feel like the methods at my undergrad pretty much hammered me into doing things on my own (I think that was their point). I want to do the same thing.
    I almost wish I could teach a real class. I think I'd be a great professor already. I know how students still think, and I know exactly how to teach them. (Like when I tutor my friends or girlfriend). They may get frustrated, but the key is to feed them a moderate amount of material, use it in example, then show them how to use the tools they just learned. You have to make them feel like they learned something. That feeling is what ends up driving them.
    It was like pulling teeth trying to get my girlfriend to learn fields. She just wouldn't focus, wouldn't understand, or kept saying she didn't get it or it was beyond her. I just hammered along and made her do more and more problems, fed her more and more material. She was getting really frustrated, but I knew its what had to be done. Then, as expected (as it did for me), one day it clicked and she started to realize when reading problems "Oh, thats all their asking? Thats easy." And once they hit that point where they realize its way below their potential they become a sponge. They just have to get in the habit of saying "Oh, thats easy, I can do that" anytime they read something or try something.

    But I ramble. Any real advice on how to be a good TA?

    Should I be very thorough in my grading (I hate vagueness, you just see a red -4pts and maybe a slash through some equation. But I guess that was part of what made me go figure out what I did wrong, and thus made me a better student.) Its so tough to find the balance between driving a student to perfection and keeping them from being so frustrated they give up.
  5. Jul 30, 2007 #4


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    I was a TA in undergrad. I was loved by most of my classes because the profs didn't relate to the students very well and thus no one really learned from them. They would wait until lab and then ask me questions. Personally, I preferred to stand back and let the students come to me. I'd occasionally walk around and ask how it's going, but not too often. If you have a really good professor teaching, your job will be pretty mundane.

    Be careful what you wish for. You may think that you know the material cold, but when you get to the point of having to explain it and teach it to someone you'll be amazed to find out just how much of the topic you don't know.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2007
  6. Jul 30, 2007 #5
    Did you spend most of your time grading, or sitting there? Were you allowed to do homework or study during the lab?
  7. Jul 30, 2007 #6


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    You as a T.A. should stress guidance to make the students use their critical thinking. Simply giving them the answers is unsuitable most of the time. Expecting them to use their minds without giving guidance is not helpful, especially in the laboratory class period. One thing you must expect and emphasise is that the students must prepare for each lab class meeting. Another expectation you need to teach is that students should specify their questions well for help; students should be able to ask for clarification of procedures or options. Anything as general as "how do you do this", could likely require THE STUDENT to clarify what exactly he wants to know.

    A lab class session must be a tough situation in which to teach, since the students are just starting to study what they will be laboring for, and they are still in the early processes of learning to perform these kinds of practical studies, and there will be several in the class during the period - you are like a supervisor needing to supervise maybe 12 to 18 people in one laboratory at one time. Consider student lab-partnering! They could help eachother handle to thinking, planning, and the processes.
  8. Jul 30, 2007 #7


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    Like I mentioned, I was usually pretty busy during the labs helping people with questions because of the professor issues. There were slow days that I did grading during the labs. That way I didn't have to spend my out of class time on it. If I was lucky enough to not have any grading or questions, then I did do my own homework. It didn't happen very often though.
  9. Jul 30, 2007 #8
    I was a TA for a pretty heavy electrical/computer engineering design course. It was a lot of work, but it was also an incredible learning experience.

    One of the things that really helped me was staying ahead of the class with regards to the material. I would take a few hours to review the material they were going to learn, that way I would walk in very fresh and a lot more helpful. I always made sure I reviewed the material before they even learned it.

    I also used Google a lot. You're going to be asked A LOT of questions that could be answered by a simple Google search. However, for some reason, students lose the ability to Google when they get stuck in the lab.

    You're going to be a physics TA, so this really doesn't apply, but it was also VERY helpful to read the data sheets for every neccessary component over and over again. I knew a lot of numbers off the data sheets cold. That made things a lot faster.

    You're going to be asked the same questions over and over and over and over. If you get the same question from 3 or 4 people, make an announcement that you are going to write a clarification on the black-board. This will make life easier as well.

    Don't make a lot of promises about returning work. The students will hold you to it and hound you repeatedly about it. Just say you'll have the grading done when you get it done - but make sure you are reasonable about it and get it done fairly quickly.

    You're also going to have a lot of students beginning for extra lab time or extra help. Be compassionate but don't be a wimp. You have work to do as well - you are a student FIRST, and a TA second.

    Be very organized. I know it sounds obvious, but the papers pile up and you're bound to lose a few. Make sure you record grades using an excel spread sheet and not a scrap piece of paper. Keep very good records.

    You'll also get people who are frustrated and they will take their anger out on you. Be reasonable, be helpful, and don't be intimidated. If someone is hounding you about obvious things and it's obvious they did not put in the work to understand the material before coming to lab - tell them this. You can only do so much. If they have a good question that you can't answer at the time, promise them you'll either e-mail them with the answer later on or tell them that you'll know the answer by next lab. Make sure you keep your promises!

    That's a few things off the topic of my head. It's not very organized, but it should help. I'll add more later when I've had some time to think it over.
  10. Jul 30, 2007 #9
    Not much to add to Maxwell's comments....

    Learn the students' names. One way to do this is to collect their pre-labs from them by circulating at the start of the class (you can return their marked labs at the same time).

    When you're grading, don't put down -0.5 for every little thing they do wrong. It's just as helpful to make comments about what they've written and give them a holistic mark at the end. This also cuts down on the tendancy of people to argue with you about their grade.

    Are you TAing with a partner?
  11. Jul 30, 2007 #10
    For the class I teach, I generally follow the rule of give the class a quick overview of techniques they should already know from lecture, and don't be scared to answer a question by asking a question.

    If the students become completely stumped, than take the time to scan over their process and make sure it wasn't a simple mistake that was made. If it was try to direct them to it.

    If you are teaching a subject where it is necessary to show them a worked problem as an example, make sure the problem you choose is one where you can examplify a lot of common mistakes.

    Hope that helped
  12. Jul 30, 2007 #11


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    How much work and how involved you are depends very much on you. Most TA's look at Lab work and grading as a chore that they had to do to as a means of paying the tuition and fees. In other words a burden. However, what many do not realize is that this experience can be as rewarding to you as to the students when you do it well. You in fact can learn several skills at the same time the students are learning theirs. You learn how to speak and explain physics in front of a group of people, you get to relearn all those undergraduate principles and to look at them from the perspective of a student who are learning this for the very first time.

    How much effort you put in depends on you, and can also depend on how the course is structured, as well as how much of a freedom the class instructor gives you. When I was doing it for the first time, I was basically trying to feel my way around, getting used to the equipment, doing the experiment myself before hand, and essentially trying to anticipate where the students might have some confusion or issues with either the lab instructions, or the experiment itself. I stuck rather closely to the experimental instructions at first time. During the lab itself, I seldom just sat down and let them do the experiment. I tend to walk around, looking at what they do, and some time ask them what did they observe, or why do they think they were asked to do something a certain way. I try to make them pay attention not only to the physics principle that the experiment is trying to illustrate, but also the experimental technique and observations that are relevant to doing a good experiment.

    After I've done it for one semester, I managed to be a bit more "creative" with the experiments in the next semester. I altered minor parts of the laboratory for almost every single experiment and made it slightly different. In most cases, it was more of a time crunch, since I noticed that the students simply didn't have the time to finish everything, and I'd rather they learn a few things well, rather than do a bunch of things but got very little out of it. However, another motivation for changing the experiment slightly was to prevent cheating. Many students, it turned out, simply copied the lab report from previous students who had taken the same course. When I changed it a little bit, it made it a bit different and so, they can't just copy it off. Still, there were still students who handed in reports containing parts that were not set up for, or were not done, or were done differently (let's just say that they had a lot of explaining to do, and the whole class now realized that I meant business. There were zero copying after that week.)

    All this will mean a bit more work on your part. It certainly did for me. However, I see 2 reasons for doing this:

    (i) I want to be fair to students who actually ARE doing the lab report themselves. If you do not weed out people who simply copied off "perfect" lab reports, then these people are getting good lab grades while those who actually did the work aren't. There is then very little incentive for people to play it straight.

    (ii) there is a bit of "dignity" involved here too on my part. I simply cannot overlook someone trying to get the better of me by cheating. I think this is more of a question of self-respect, that you won't let someone take advantage of you.

    TA'ing lab session can be a highly rewarding experience. You get to meet and deal with students, who can range from some of the most intelligent and eager people you'll ever met, to the laziest bum with the can't-be-bothered attitude. You should consider it as a challenge, and a practice for your career as a physicist, because these are the range of people who will encounter, and some of them could be from your funding agency! As long as you consider this as being your learning experience as well, you'll never look at it as a burden that you have to do.

  13. Jul 30, 2007 #12


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    This is not my experience at all.
  14. Jul 30, 2007 #13
    Interesting thread. I too am going to be a first time TA this fall. I'm actually looking forward to it quite a bit (almost more so than my graduate classes). Anyway, I'll be paying attention to the comments here as well.
  15. Aug 1, 2007 #14


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    the basic rule for all teaching is to prepare every day, even if you are 60 years old and teaching the same course for 30 years.
  16. Aug 1, 2007 #15


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    Students will like me because I'm cool and not nerdy, but it ends there. They truly just want answers at my school.

    There are some who enjoy the personal help you offer, but that's only like 5-10% of the class.

    Oh, and the marking is such a burden. You think writing proofs is hard. Marking them is even harder!

    As a tip, like mathwonk said, prepare for every seminar. I would normally be in the room 5-7 minutes early, and have half the questions written down on the board already. So that I can talk and explain the steps as they write them. Of course, I go slowly so they don't have to rush. Also, it's good to emphasize things that are important.
  17. Aug 1, 2007 #16
    In my labs, being a good supervisor meant giving the answers - since the teaching staff couldn't be bothered. Shouting endlessly over and over and over again at the lab boss for datasheets that are essential but don't exist anymore or nagging them to confirm whether or not a certain bit of kit was broken has forever soured my opinion of laboratory work. Is it really that unreasonable to ask for primers on how to use kit so that you don't waste over half your alloted time trying to work out what you're supposed to press?
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