Friday, August 15, 2008

Teaching Teaching in 2 Hours or Less

I believe I may give off the impression that I have unrealistically high expectations for what a department can be or do. Despite my natural cynicism, I do have hope that departments can be highly productive spaces by handling social and interpersonal issues upfront. But I also recognize that it takes a lot of work and that we all already have a lot of work. So there are projects I'm involved in which don't measure up to my own standards. I'm here to ask for help with one of them.

Another grad student and I are helping Bill run TA orientation for our department. There is also a university-wide TA orientation which lasts one or two days. I have no idea what it's like, since I never went. The university-wide orientation is not well publicized and it's possible that my department orientation was held at the same time (that or I was moving in, I don't remember). Still, it's optional while the department orientation is mandatory so many (most) students don't go to the longer orientation. The department TA orientation is, at most, 2 hours (actually, I should find out how long it is...). In that time, we need to explain the job, the expectations, the resources, and how to teach to a group TA-ing everything from introductory CS for non-majors to upper level or graduate classes. Some will need to lead discussion sections while others will only be grading and holding office hours. I helped with TA orientation last year as well, and while I think we were entertaining and got across all the necessary information, towards the end when we were taking questions it became clear that many of the entering TAs mostly wanted basic information about how to teach. For example, we got questions like "if a student is sleeping in my class, should I wake them up?" and "should I be writing notes on the board?". The future TAs didn't seem confident in their own teaching style. I taught middle school math for a year before starting grad school, so the teaching part of TA-ing was never confusing for me (it was the fact that someone else was writing the tests my students were taking which was the strange part). Perhaps this makes me a bad choice to help with TA orientation, I don't know. But I'd like it to be better this year. I'd like each TA running a discussion section to feel confident enough to do something other than read from a piece of paper while never looking up at the students sleeping and sending emails. And I'd like that to happen in 2 hours or less. Any ideas on how to work a miracle?


Dr. Sanford Aranoff said...

If you want to be a good teacher, you must know how students think. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

David Molnar said...

How about this approach - although it may need several orientation instructors:

First 30 minutes: break up into groups of ~10 each, each group elects a TA, that TA then teaches something in his or her specialty for 30 mins while the others, including an orientation instructor, role-play students. The orientation instructor role-plays a "difficult" student, e.g. disruptive, hasn't done the work, show-off, reading the newspaper, etc.

Next 30 minutes: Discuss what happened in the first 30 minutes. Odds are it will have gone badly. You can then discuss strategies for coping with disruptive students. You can also go over suggestions for improving section technique in general, such as better board use.

Next 15 minutes: Repeat, but with a different person in front of the class. (Shorter this time because everyone knows what's going on).

Remaining 45 minutes: Bring all the TAs together. Have them share their experiences, talk about what problems they saw. Then close with a list of common things to work on and give handouts to which to refer to later.

UC Berkeley has some great TA orientation, and the most helpful thing for me was this kind of role-playing. It's one thing to talk about what to do with disruptive students. It's quite another to actually have one (even a role-played one) loudly insulting you to your face.

Anonymous said...

Most of what I learned as a TA I learned from another guy who was TAing the same course. Assign them "mentors" who are teaching the same courses as them. That will do 90% of the work, methinks.

(Otherwise they would just be too lazy or shy to go ask for help).