Preparing for your first week
Policies your lecturer should tell you about
You lecturer should definitely tell you about overall grading policy, including how your discussion section fits in, and calculator use during tests. These are the first things your students will ask you about. Some will also tell you what your homework and quiz policies should be, others will leave this up to you. As you continue to TA, you will see that lecturers range from very "hands off" to very "hands on." Regardless of how your lecturer wants to do things, they are right. If you disagree with them discuss it privately with them. If you still disagree with them, do things differently when you're a lecturer.
Another topic that your lecturer should address at some point (not necessarily during the first week) is regrading test questions when students have disputes. If your lecturer does not have a policy, a good one to follow is to find the TA who graded the problem in question and have her or him look at it again. Don't be afraid to be stingy with regrades! If you get a bad (for you) reputation, you may end up facing a mob of students trying to take advantage of you. Many times it is enough to tell the student why they got the number of points they did and to point out that this happened to many of the students in the lecture. If the student understands that the grading is fair (albeit harsh), they will usually back down at this point. Another tactic which you may see is that a TA will tell the student that they will only regrade the entire test and not just select problems. This usually appeals more to the student's fear than reason, but that can still be a powerful motivator. When all is said and done, though, regrade following the lecturer's policy.
Questions your students will ask you
This is a big section. This may be the one time your students are inquisitive, so enjoy it. One topic that is broad enough to get its own page is your students' concerns about their background knowledge, getting extra help, etc. For these questions, please go to the "extra help" section. Other FAQs include:
- Students will ask about grades first. They will want to know if there is a curve. To them, a curve means that points are added to their test scores. In reality, a curve usually means that test scores are fitted to a bell curve. Do not answer this question if you don't know the answer. Say, "I don't know. I'll ask the professor and let you know what he/she says." Similarly, say this for any other question for which you do not know the answer.
Overall Grading Policy
- Similarly, the overall grading scheme for the class is set by the lecturer and "should" be on their syllabus. If it is not, ask the lecturer first, then tell the class.
- The next question you will get will be about calculator use during tests, quizzes, etc. The lecturer decides this. If it is not on the syllabus, ask the lecturer first and tell the class second.
Switching Sections (Officially)
- During the first few discussion sessions, you may have students that want to switch into your (full) section. If your section is full you have every right to turn them away. You also have every right to let them in, but they need to do the paperwork. Send them to Sharon Pittman.
Switching Sections (Unofficially)
- You may also have students who are registered for one discussion section but want to attend yours instead. Just say no. Do not let students attend your section if they are not supposed to be there. If they want to be in your section, have them officially register for it. Otherwise you (and the other TA and the student) will be dealing with a grading nightmare.
- Students will ask if they need to go to lecture. Say yes. Even if they hate the lecturer, they will at least know where they are in the class and they will see what the lecturer has been emphasizing.
- Students will also ask if they need to attend discussion section. Say yes. Even if they hate you, they will at least get more exposure to the material. Seriously, more realistic than abject hatred is a discussion section that does not affect their final grade in the class. This can be a wonderful demotivator for students. Point out that calculus is a 5 credit class, and they really should put in those 5 hours of class per week. The class covers a lot of material, and they should get as much exposure and practice as they can. You may want to reemphasize this after they fail their first test.
- Students will ask about the student solutions manual. It is usually sold bundled with the textbook. (Some students will even have illegally obtained a copy of the instructor's solutions manual.) They "shouldn't" use it, but they will. The realistic way of dealing with this is to grade even problems on correctness. You should also warn them that the solutions manuals are sometimes wrong and often terse. For this reason, it is usually obvious when a student copied the answer out of a manual.
Final Date and Time
- Students will want to know when the final is, usually for the sake of booking plane tickets. The date and time of the final is always listed in the timetable online, and they should have made note of it when they registered for the course. The locations are not announced until toward the end of the semester. When the department knows, they will post the list on the building doors.
Planning the first lessons
Ideally you should have some sort of lesson plan for every class. It will save you a lot of time and embarassment. TA's often are not sure what they are supposed to be doing during a discussion session. If your lecturer tells you what they want, do that. If they don't, your options include (but are not limited to) reviewing what happened in the lecture in case they didn't get it the first time, working example problems, answering questions about the lecture or about the homework, having students present solutions at the board, and having them do problems in class. Group problems will allow you to ask more complicated problems that they may not be able to solve themselves, and it's a nice change of pace. If nothing else, you can ask the students what would be most helpful for them.
Many teachers will tell you that discussions and doing homework are where the students actually do their learning. The learning that some students do is mostly inductive, from examples. So a lot of lesson planning begins (and often ends) by picking good examples to do in class - and learning what constitute good examples is a big part of learning to be a TA. Note that planning means not only choosing the examples but also working them out in advance. One of the easiest ways to embarass yourself and confuse your students is to make up a problem on the spot. Similarly, a few minutes spent on your students' homework before class can save you a lot of misery during your discussion sections.
Keep in mind that when students see an example done in class, they often feel that, because they followed your reasoning, they've done the problem themselves and can do it again on an exam or quiz. We all know that this is not true. More students will learn from your examples if you have them do the work. Putting an example on the board, giving them a few minutes to think about it or talk about it, and then going through it with their input takes a lot longer, but can benefit more people. [Also see Diversity and Inclusive Teaching Practices .]
One good strategy for the first few lessons would be to have a rough synopsis of what the lecturer covered and a few exemplary problems worked out in advance. However, do not fall into the trap turning discussion section into another lecture for a couple of students who are skipping classes; keep discussion geared toward the majority's needs. You should also take a peek at their homework assignment so you have some idea of what they will be asking you. Between all of these different options you should be able to fill up the full 50 minutes.
If you are in the position of holding a discussion section before the first lecture, at least introduce yourself and establish your office hours and contact information. To make the class last the full 50 minutes, be aware that the first chapter of the book is all "review" material that the students generally appreciate seeing. One thing that some TAs find useful (especially in the context of the "Early Warning System") is giving a diagnostic quiz based on review material that won't count in their grade. This gives you an idea of where your students are coming from and it can help you decide if a student might be in the wrong class. It can also be a good "wake up call" for the students to see what it is they are expected to already know. It is NOT recommended that you let the first class out early -- if nothing else, use this time as the very rare opportunity to get to know your students.