SURVIVAL TIPS

What GTAs need to know to prepare them for success at S&T

Irina Ivliveya, PhD, Associate Professor of Russian

University Expectations

Most departments expect their GTAs to perform a variety of duties, including but not limited to:

  • Prepare lectures          
  • Give lectures     
  • Conduct laboratory sessions         
  • Grade written assignments                      
  • Monitor examinations                      
  • Prepare examinations                      
  • Grade examinations                                   
  • Conduct drill or practice sessions      
  • Conduct discussion or review sessions, usually in conjunction with large lecture classes in which the instructor does not have the time or opportunity to answer all the student’s questions
  • Answer student questions on a one-to-one basis after class or in an office  

Every department has different requirements, so the bottom line is to check with your department on policies, procedures, verify individual responsibilities and define expectations, reporting schedule, etc.

Students’ expectations

There are several things all students expect:

  • They expect GTAs to be knowledgeable in the course material.
  • They expect GTAs to present the material in a clear, easy to understand, and systematic  way.
  • They expect GTAs to be completely fair and impartial.

 Preparing your class

  • Prepare your classes well in advance
  • Prepare for your class/lab thoroughly
  • Structure your thoughts; organize your material
  • Be familiar with the textbooks for the course
  • Anticipate the questions students may ask.  Be ready to answer them
  • Explain at your students’ level
  • Stick to the textbook
  • Prepare more material than you think you’ll need
  • Work all the problems yourself before you assign them to your students
  • Anticipate problems and gear explanation towards them
  • Practice lecturing at home – talk to the wall, the mirror, your roommates.
    • Timing is crucial:
    • Time yourself activity by activity
    • Allow extra time for questions
    • Prepare a little more
    • Anticipate where you could break the material

How do you prepare an explanation of a material?

Analyze each problem from the following standpoint:

  • What difficulties may this problem present to my students?
  • How should I structure my explanation so that I address these problems?
  • What questions may they ask me and how will I answer them?
  • Write out (on board or worksheet) all the steps necessary to solve the problem (even if you can do all the calculation in your head!)

NOTE:  Explaining the material right the first time will save you and your students time and headache! 

  • There is no such thing as a “dumb” question.
  • Mention all the resources your students can use to be successful in your course/lab
  • Motivate!

 Presenting your material

  • Speak at a good rate:  too fast – you will lose them: too slow – you will bore them
  • Eye contact:  Good, intermittent eye contact is a sigh of self-confidence, assuredness, attentiveness, honesty, and respect for the listener
  • Don’t talk to the board
  • Look at the eyes of 3-4 people seated midway back in the audience

Know your material.  Admit when you are wrong or don’t know

  • Prepare for your class/lab thoroughly
  • Be familiar with the textbooks for the course
  • Anticipate the questions students may ask.  Be ready to answer them
  • Explain at your students’ level
    • Stick to the textbook
  • Work all the problems yourself before you assign them to your students
  • If you want to digress:
    • Explain why you need to do so
    • Specify which chapter/page in the textbook the material that you are about to explain refers to
    • Spend the time where it needs to be spent

 Create a “helpful” learning environment

  • If a student asks a question – that is a good sign
  •  Dealing with “Dummy Syndrome”: (How can we help our students overcome the fear of giving the wrong answer??)
  • Make them feel comfortable about expressing their opinions
  • Give students credit for making a “good mistake”
  • Make them feel comfortable about asking for help

 Responding to incorrect answers

“No, that’s wrong!” is not the right answer!

Use the responses that support a student’s willingness to speak while gently correcting the mistake.  Memorize them!

  • That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it’s quite right.
  • That’s a reasonable suggestion but there is probably a more accurate one. Who else has an idea?
  • I hadn’t thought of that possibility.  Do any other ideas come to mind?
  • That might be partly correct but there’s more to it. Who can elaborate on that?

Checking student understanding

The situations will occur in which the GTA will not
understand what a student is saying. Thus, it is necessary to ask the
student for clarification. An effective way to check one's understanding of
what was said or meant, is to restate the comment or question, and ask the
student if this is what s/he meant.

Some common phrases in checking one's understanding of what
has been said or asked are:

  • "Are you saying that...?"
  • "Am I correct in my understanding that what you want to know is... ?"
  • "Are you asking... ?"
  • "If I understand you correctly, you are asking... "
  • "What you seem to be saying is that... Have I understood you correctly?"
  • "Let me restate what I think you are saying. You're suggesting that..."

GTAs need to check whether or not their responses to
students' questions have been understood correctly. There are a many ways to do
this. The most effective method is to have students apply the information they
gained from the explanation.

Miscommunication also occurs when students phrase their
questions poorly or in an ambiguous manner. The GTA must help the student state
the question clearly or check with the student in order to be sure the question
has been correctly understood.

Spoon-feeding

There is a relationship between student learning styles and
the subjects they choose to study. Atomistic learners tend to be
attracted to departments in which knowledge is hierarchically structured; they
spend a great deal of time on rote memorization of facts and may find studying
tedious and unrewarding. Students who favor the global approach are
often found in departments in which knowledge is more subject to personal
interpretation. They spend a longer time studying, find the material more
interesting, and feel that studying is gratifying. Thus, successful learning
depends on the student's ability to combine the best of both learning styles.

Knowing about these differences in approaches may help the
GTA to interpret students’ behavior. For example, when students ask extensive
questions about the exam it might be easy to assume that these students don't
want to study or are not interested in learning, and therefore want to be given
answers (i.e., "spoon-fed"). In reality, students may just be trying
to find out what is expected of them so they can concentrate their efforts on
the appropriate learning style necessary for success in each particular course
or exam.

  • Realize that the students’ expectations for explicit, step-by-step instructions are not the product of lack of intelligence
  • Be prepared to answer students’ questions about the details of the course
  • Be very specific and detailed in stating your requirements
    • what assignments your students are supposed to do
    • when they are due
    • will you accept assignments turned in late? Under what conditions?

Make the class fun

  • Try to use films, slides, interesting articles, experiments, class discussions
  • Talk with experienced TA’s         
  • Observe classes taught by teachers who are considered exceptionally interesting

Students’ preparation and motivation

  • Don’t assume that all of your students will perform well.  Expect them to have problems.
  • Gear your explanation toward an average student and keep the weaker students in mind.

Click here for article on student types 

Informal classroom behavior

  • Be accepting of cultural differences.  Try not to pass judgment on a student just from the way he/she dresses or looks. As they say – “Don’t judge the book by its cover.”
  • International GTAs:  Realize that you will never get your U.S. students to behave the way students in your country do.  American students treat all of their TA’s informally.

Behavior

Friendliness

  • Be friendly and pleasant to all
  • Don’t place yourself in an ivory tower.  When you enter the classroom - SMILE
  • Let your students address your by the first name (my personal recommendation)
  • Consider using an American first name and remember to respond to it!
  • Learn your students’ first names
  • Talk informally with your students outside of class
  • Let your students know something about yourself as an individual
  • Feel free to joke (kindly!)
  • Be personable, but remember that you have to maintain a certain distance
  • Subjects to avoid:
    • politics
    • religion
    • your students’ private lives (unless they volunteer to tell you)

International GTAs:  Learn about American culture and your students’ interest

Respect

  • Always, treat your students with respect!
  • Do not ridicule your students (or colleagues)
  • Avoid talking down to them
  • Do not enforce rules for rules’ sake (be prepared to explain why)

 Frankness

     When you have to tell the student an unpleasant truth:

  • Be firm, frank, respectful & tactful
  • Do not be a judge rather sincerely seek to understand your students’ problem and find ways to help
  • Convey your sincere concern – when a student sees a concerned friend in you (rather than a judge), he will be more receptive to your criticism
  • Avoid discussing differences in front of the class – discuss them in private

 Confidentiality

  • You may not indicate, in any way before the class, how each individual student is performing in front of the class. Avoid embarrassing your students in front of the class!
  • You may not post students’ test or final grades by name, social security number or any other for that allows the student to be identified by others.
  • Avoid asking questions, unless the student volunteers to talk to you about the matter, (i.e. age, money, personal matters, etc). Refer the student to the professional counselor, if necessary.

Promptness

  • Meet your appointments
  • Grade and return your exams, quizzes as soon as possible (no later than 1 week after the exam/quiz)

Be Accessible

  • Office hours are required
  • Keep your office hours
  • If you must leave during your office hours, announce it in advance
  • You are welcome to ask me questions any time you see me
  • Respect your own time
  • Never date your own student

Three most common reasons students
may come to your office:

  • To get help with class material
  • To seek help with a personal problem
  • To socialize

NOTE: related issue – Sexual Harassment 

Please check the Missouri S&T policies at:http://affirmativeaction.mst.edu/

Grading

  • Grading is difficult.  It cannot be done mechanically.  Usually an element of subjectivity is involved
  • Students care intensely about their grades.  They may question your objectivity in grading
  • We recommend:
    • Have well-defined criteria you use in grading
    • Apply these criteria consistently for each student
    • Be prepared to explain
    • Defending your position to a dissatisfied student
    • Be polite but firm: use facts to prove your standpoint
    • If you made an error in grading:
    • Admit your mistake and apologize with dignity.  Trying to defend your position may create you a reputation of being unfair and cause student complaints

You may also consider:

  • explaining the criteria you used in grading before you distribute the graded test
  • welcome students questions
  • making an answer key to each of your tests
  • giving partial credit

 Student Complaints

General Rule: 
If a student brings to your attention what he believes to be an injustice on
your part, take a critical look at your own behavior toward the student
and….  

  • If it was your fault - admit it and apologize (don’t’ try to save face)
  • If the student has failed to fulfill his or responsibilities - respectfully and firmly insist on what you know to be right

Some examples of complaints you might hear:

  • You are giving us too much homework.
  • Your assignments are too hard.
  • I have other classes to study for, too, and I can’t do this much work for your class.
  • The questions on the test were not fair.
  • The questions on the test were not clear.
  • The test was too long.  We couldn’t possibly finish it. 
  • You should have given me a higher grade.  This answer wasn’t’ wrong.
  • You should have given me at least some points for this answer because I have a part of it right.
  • I answered this almost exactly the way my friend did, but she got more points for it than I did.  I think I deserve a higher grade.
  • I just can’t understand your explanation of things.

    Examples of requests for special consideration:

  • I got sick the night before the test and couldn’t study.
  • When I started to study for this test, I realized that I didn’t understand this very important part, and I couldn’t find anyone to help me with it.
  • My boyfriend/girlfriend decided to end our relationship, and I’ve been very upset.  I haven’t been able to study.
  • My family doesn’t have much money so I have to work a lot of hours at my job, and I don’t have enough time to study.  I’m tired all the time.
  • My mother (or other relative) got sick (or died) and I had to go home. That’s why I missed the exam.

Where can a GTA get help?           

  • Supervising faculty member
  • Experience GTAs and faculty
  • Your students
  • Observation of your own teaching
    • invite an experienced teacher to visit your class
    • observe yourself on recording
    • See recommended readings

International GTAs

In addition to all of the above, you have an extra challenge in learning the ropes of the American classroom, and possible, some more English.  We recommend:

 Address the language issue directly at the first class meeting

  • Encourage your students to let you know if they have a difficulty understanding you with a special gesture
  • Tell your students which sounds you have particular difficulty with. Teach them your pronunciation.
  • If you speak the variant of English that is different from American English, pay attention to your:

 Vocabulary:         
Watch for the words that are different in the two variants of English e.g.   a relatively innocent mistake:  corridor – hallway; venue – place;  You may embarrass yourself:   rubber – eraser

Spelling:     
e.g.    tyre – tire; programme – program; neighbour – neighbor; colour - color

Pronunciation:  Americans say “Schedule”  pronounced “Skedule” (sch is pronounced sk as in school) And LABoratory not laBORatory.

Understanding students

The rule – if you don’t understand, ask for clarification! Plus, there are useful books on idioms exist such as the Handbook of American Idioms and Idiomatic Usage by Whitford and Dixson. 

In summary: If you don’t understand a student:

  • Ask him/her to repeat  
  • Restate his/her question in different words.  Ask if your understanding is correct
  • Don’t lose your patience
  • Recognize that some students may use your accent as an excuse for poor performance

If English is a Foreign Language for you

Work to improve your English.

  • Take an English course
  • Spend informal time with your American friends.  Ask many “whys”!
  • Listen to the radio.
  • Listen to your professors.  Observe their behavior      
  • Watch TV (educational programs, Learning Channel, news, children’s programs)
  • Try not to live with friends who speak your own language
  • Speak English as much as possible
  • Simplify sentences
  • Be honest in self-review!
  • Listen to yourself – record yourself and watch and listen

Be aware of non-verbal communication  See “cultural awareness”

  • Be aware of behavioral differences.
  • What you consider a normal behavior may be misinterpreted in a different culture.
  • Observe the way Americans behave

The prejudices of some students

  • Best way to overcome prejudices:  be friendly, respectful, honest, compassionate and helpful.
  • Realize that some students’ prejudices against foreigners are not related to you personally.

Observe American teachers in the
classroom

  • What do they wear?
  • Where do they sit or stand?
  • How much do they move about in the classroom:
  • How much do they mover their hands and arms while they talk?
  • What gestures or expressions seem to indicate agreement with what is being said?
  • Disagreement?        Confusion?         Friendliness?       Boredom?         Impatience?     Interest?
  • How fast do they talk?  How loud?
  • How far do they stand or sit from the person to whom they are talking?
  • Where are their eyes directed when they are talking to an individual?
  • To a group?  When they are listening to someone?