New Faces Join Stanford’s Teaching Community at CTL’s Annual TA Orientation

New Faces Join Stanford’s Teaching Community at CTL’s Annual TA Orientation

Caucasian woman, 50's, bobbed gray hair, speaking as female grad student listens, smilingTo start things off, Robyn Dunbar (Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, or CTL) did a quick reflective exercise.  

“Think briefly about a teacher you had that made a difference to you. Raise your hand if somebody came to mind.” While my mind floated back to a high school Latin teacher whose impact reached far beyond her course, hands shot up all around me.

 “Now keep your hand raised if they are aware that they made that difference.” It was as if gravity had woken back up. What Dunbar was telling this room full of soon-to-be teaching assistants is that many of their contributions would, indeed, be significant, but odds are they will never really know how.

“We want you to carry that with you today, because when you look back at your own experiences, you understand that students will remember you as people much more than they will remember the content of your course,” said Dunbar. “We want you to stop and think, ‘How do I make a difference for learners in this class, and what’s my role there?”

The organizers of the orientation put together an impressive program designed to help graduate students think practically about what would be for many their very first time teaching a college course.

Tips From the Undergraduates

First up at this year’s TA orientation was a panel of Stanford undergrads who volunteered to articulate what it’s like to be an undergraduate student here. Along the way, they reflected on how various TAs had helped them throughout their university experience.

So there we were, a large crowd sitting in front of a few knowledgeable undergraduates. We wanted them to tell us something that could make us better at our jobs. Maybe they could give us a secret or two. One of the first things we wanted to learn was what makes a Stanford undergrad a Stanford undergrad.

2 female and 1 male undergrad, seated in lecture hall, smiling, relaxedHanna Burch, recently graduated with a degree in Human Biology, chimed in, “It all boils down to the duck syndrome.”

Jordan Gray (a recent graduate and current CTL academic support assistant) explained, “You’re cool and calm on top of the water, but underneath you’re paddling really fast.” So, it’s vital that instructors at Stanford remember to listen below the flow of things and to be aware of how our students might actually be feeling.

Rebeca Yanes (a junior in Mathematics and Computational Science) took a different angle: “One of my favorite things about Stanford students is their use of collaboration.  People are always working together at Stanford.”  Why not harness that collaborative spirit and help students find ways to work together throughout the quarter, she suggested.

Burch sat up straight and smiled as she thought back to one of her favorite TAs: “She really achieved this balance between encouraging and supporting her students, and also challenging them. She also had this longer-term perspective that I think is unique. It’s something that TAs can bring into their classrooms.” Burch went on to share that this particular TA had recommended that she apply to be a tutor for CTL, an experience that turned out to be one of the most important of her undergraduate career.

Yanes also remembered a particularly good TA from a couple of years ago in the Math 50 series. “It’s a difficult series, so TAs were definitely a large part of people’s success in that class.”

For courses with complex content, Yanes urged TAs to come prepared to be flexible.  “[This TA] came into class with a plan of action – practice problems to do, things to review – but he was always able to adapt it quickly. If he saw that students really understood where he was coming from, he would challenge the students right away, but if he saw that the students were not on the same page, he’d take it back a little and review some of the more concrete concepts that were needed,” reported Yanes.

It’s Not About Having all of the Answers

One question posed to the panelists had everyone leaning in just a little bit: “If you could make a wish list of qualities for a TA, what would make the list?” 

The panelists seemed to agree that a high level of understanding of the material coupled with a willingness to learn along with their students makes for a pretty good TA. Burch offered, “Somebody who is comfortable in the classroom and exudes confidence but also is able to say, ‘No, I don’t know the answer. Great question. I’ll get back to you.’”

Later she added, “Being able to say, ‘I don’t know’ is really much more powerful than knowing all of the answers. It can make you accessible to the students and break down a lot of barriers. It also really pushes the students to find great questions, especially if you do get back to them with a correct answer later.”

What’s the Point?

The panel was well warmed up when one audience member asked them point-blank, “What is the purpose of a section, especially for those disciplines that don’t require problem sets?”  The TAs in the humanities laughed nervously, hoping for some kind of reassurance. The panel didn’t disappoint.

Burch offered, “Section is where you get a lot more personal engagement with the material and the other students in the classroom. You can get to know someone in an instructor capacity and also get to know your fellow students.”

Yanes added, “Specifically with the humanities where there’s not necessarily a right answer most of the time, it’s a time to explore all of those possibilities and debate why one is answer might be better than another.” What better place than a discussion section to tease out some of those big ideas?

How Do We Relate?

Another audience member asked, “How would you recommend getting students to come to office hours?” Yanes made the room laugh with a quick retort: “Assign really challenging homework assignments.” In all seriousness, though, the panel expressed a real need for the TA to sincerely broadcast their office hours.

Justin Brown (junior, Urban Studies) explained, “Something that was really valuable for me was, halfway through a class, the professor came up and said that nobody was coming to office hours. He was hoping that it meant that everyone was getting the material, but he said to everybody, ‘I want to just talk to you and get you know you as people, even if it’s not about the subject I’m teaching.’” Sometimes just getting students in the door is all you need to have a productive conversation.

Being Effective

Next up at the orientation were Mariatte Denman (Associate Director for Humanities, CTL) and Jeremy Hsu (third-year PhD student in Biology) to talk about the nuts and bolts of effective teaching. Perhaps anticipating the still very tangible nervousness in the room, Denman began her segment of the orientation by telling the TAs that there are two things that would help them relax.

About their future students, she said, “When you think of people as people - you’re basically in a village of co-learners – your own stress levels start to go down. Don’t worry so much, and know that they are just people. Look them in the eye and know their name.  The second thing that will help you relax is when you get a sense of competency.” And that comes with practice.

Using a collection of short video clips of former TAs teaching, Denman and Hsu walked attendees through how to start a session off right, how to effectively explain examples, how to work with student questions, and how to close a session meaningfully. Here are a few of the takeaways:

How to Start a Session Off Right

  • Set the agenda for the lecture: this is where we are now, this is where we’re going next, and this is how we’re going to get there.
  • Establish a sense of conversation rather than instruction.
  • Pre-write things on the board so that you can refer to them with ease.
  • Make things more inclusive by using “we” instead of “you.”
  • Be clear and upfront about your expectations for students during the class (i.e., “I want you to take notes at this specific point in the lecture”).

Explaining Examples

  • Help cue information or thought processes the students already know.
  • Provide a framework for thinking through problems later on.
  • Move the conversation away from the abstract and closer to the concrete.

Working with Questions

  • Get the students to answer the question along with you.
  • If you don’t get an answer right away, pause. Consider rephrasing the question.
  • Craft questions at the right level. Too hard, and nobody wants to answer it. Too easy, and everyone wonders why you’re asking it.

How to Close a Session Meaningfully

  • Commend your students on a job well done.
  • Give a succinct summary of the key concepts of the class.
  • Use a bit of humor to make it stick.

After Denman and Hsu modeled how to close a session meaningfully by helping us all see how transferable teaching skills can be, the plenary ended, and the audience divided itself into breakout sessions. From how to grade to how to conduct offices hours, topics ranged the span of what one might encounter during the TA experience. I joined Julia Bleakney’s (Director, Hume Center for Writing and Speaking) session on how to assess essays.

Grading Essays

Caucasian woman, glasses, curly auburn hair, 30's, gestures in front of whiteboardFirst, Bleakney started with an explanation of what the Hume Center has to offer. Sometimes just knowing where to send your students when they need help is the first step to being a good TA. “The more specific you can be about what ways the Hume Center can help, the better.” This advice is true for making referrals to any of the resources on campus.  Making sure you can articulate how these resources are valuable to students makes the suggestion stick.

Next, Bleakney asked a couple of productive questions. “Why do we grade papers?” and, more specifically, “Why to we write comments on papers?” Some responses:

  • “To incentivize students to work on hard on their papers and make them good.”
  • “To assess how well students master the material.”
  • “To help focus their attention on what is going well and what could be improved.”
  • “It’s a justification of the grade.”

This last one seemed to hit the sweet spot for a number of participants in the room, and Bleakney begged us to remember what it was like to be a student. Trying to anticipate how students might respond can be really helpful for thinking about how to frame feedback and what kind of feedback to include. 

Thinking ahead really is the key, said Bleakney. “Good evaluations really begin with good assignment design.” A TA’s job is not only to supply rubrics but also to interpret them for students. When students know what’s expected, they can better deliver.

The session was lively from start to finish, and true to its workshop format, much of the input came from the audience. Here are a few of the main ideas from the session:

  • Give students multiple ways to understand the expectations of the writing assignment, and give them opportunities to practice.
  • Use feedback to motivate and engage students in their own learning and development.
  • Align your evaluation of student writing with the course learning goals and criteria in the assignment guidelines.
  • Prioritize your feedback on students’ writing and be selective in your comments.
  • Remember that even strong writers can struggle when writing in a new and unfamiliar context; don't assume students know how to transfer prior learning from one class to another without guidance.

The First Day: Starting off Right

After Bleakney’s session, I helped lead one of my own along with Julian Damashek (graduate student, Environmental Earth System Science) on what to do on the first day of class. Damashek and I wanted to start out by letting our participants air their concerns about what to expect on their first day of teaching.  We were surprised by the sheer quantity of concerns floating around the room. Here are just a few:

  • “Being very nervous and having it be obvious.”
  • “Silence.”
  • “Making some sort of egregious faux pas that undermines my authority.”
  • “Being that international TA that nobody understands.”

Our next step was to try to brainstorm with them how to address those concerns. As a group, we generated ideas about what to do before, during, and after that first day. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • Check out your classroom in advance and arrive early on the first day
  • Go to Axess to try to learn students’ names even before you meet them
  • Study the syllabus carefully and talk with the lead professor to make sure you’re up to speed
  • On the first day, introduce yourself and have students introduce themselves.
  • Get to work on some content and teach them something on the first day.
  • After class, think about what went well, and what things can be improved.

To read more about what to do on the first day, check out my recent post on Teaching Talk.

Since I could be in only one place at a time, I asked the leaders of each of the other breakout sessions to share with us some of the main takeaways from their respective workshops. And quite graciously, they did! Below are the points that each of them found to be most important.

Leading Effective Discussions in the Sciences and Engineering

Meghaan Smith, (graduate student, Chemical Engineering) and Rachel Egger (graduate student, Biology)

This session focused on five key points: structure your section, establish an open climate, know your students, make connections, and get feedback. In their session, they covered why each of these five items are important to being an effective TA as well as how to implement each of them. Some examples of how to implement them in the classroom are:

  • Learn student names.
  • Let students know your expectations on the first day of class.
  • Have an agenda for your class time and share this with the students either verbally or by writing it on the board.
  • Use the same notation as the instructor or textbook uses.
  • Small group evaluations provided by a CTL consultant can provide mid-quarter feedback from students.

Leading Effective Discussions in Humanities and Social Sciences

Long Le-Khac (graduate student, English) and Jennifer Haskell (graduate student, Political Science)

  • workshopReflect on the unique pedagogical possibilities and goals of the discussion section format and plan strategically from those. 

  • Build a discussion section in pieces moving from simple to complex. 
  • Mix up the format of section to increase interactivity and engage many learning modes. 
  • A great discussion strikes a balance between structured progress toward goals and flexible integration of student perspectives. 
  • Prepare rich, open-ended questions that generate higher-level thinking. 

Grading Problem Sets, Labs, and Exams

Ian Wright (graduate student, Economics) and Saumya Sankaran (graduate student, Biology)

  • Set expectations for how assignments will be graded, and communicate them to your students early on.
  • Use grading rubrics to help you assign points.
  • Be consistent - it doesn't matter whether you are harsh or lenient, so long as you are consistent.

Office Hours and Review Sessions

Joanna Sturiano (graduate student, East Asian Languages and Cultures) and Ashley Adams (graduate student, Chemistry)

  • Don't look at the test before giving a review session!
  • Be prepared by knowing what resources are available in your department and at Stanford for when unexpected situations arise during office hours (or review sessions).
  •  It's OK to be unsure or admit you don't know how to respond to student questions, but have a plan for who you can ask for help or how you will get back to students whose questions you can't immediately answer.

Common Classroom Problems

Tim Randazzo (Assistant Director for Tutoring and Teaching Programs, CTL) and Kurt Barry (graduate student, Physics)

  • Take advantage of faculty, other TAs, and campus resources to solve classroom problems - you don't have to tackle everything alone.
  • Think about preventing problems as well as solving them - clear communication with your students is important for this.
  • Teaching problems can take many forms: motivational (students won't talk), pedagogical (dealing with differences in student preparation), confrontational (disruptive student), ethical (honor code violations), and infrastructural (room next to noise source).

If you’d like to know more about any of these topics, please visit the TA Orientation page on Teaching Commons. Also, please feel free to ask questions in the comment section below.

And for all of you first-time TAs this year, I wish you a most wonderful experience.

Suggested Reading:

TA Orientation page on the Teaching Commons

CTL Teaching Services for Graduate Students

Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.