Through the early morning light, they gathered. Some had been here for years; some had never been in the U.S. before last week. Some had been teachers before; some had never stood in front of a class. All, it’s safe to say, are brilliant and hardworking and doing groundbreaking research. And all were here to improve their teaching.
Over 300 Stanford graduate students attended the Center for Teaching and Learning’s TA Orientation on Friday, Sept. 19. CTL, which helps teachers teach better and learners learn better at Stanford, drew on its research-based expertise to provide a full menu of 15 workshops in three sessions. Topics ranged from the first day of class to grading papers to leading discussions.
The grad students attending were first treated to an alfresco breakfast with plenty of coffee—the least CTL could do after the full week of NGSO activities many had just been through. Then they were welcomed by Robyn Dunbar, the Director of CTL.
She encouraged them to embrace their unique role and connect with students. “You will make a difference in a way your profs don’t get a chance to,” she promised. She also encouraged them to make teaching fun by reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and by talking about it with colleagues.
Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry, gave the students a road map through the stages of their graduate career and the areas they’ll need to focus on in their teaching: increasing knowledge, practicing teaching, building community, and documenting and reflecting on their teaching.
Though it might seem daunting, said Poehlmann, the TA’s work is vital. “As a lecturer, it hurts when I hear a student say, ‘That TA is the only reason I made it through your course!’ Not me, the lecturer, but the TA." To audience laughter, she continued, "But that’s okay. It’s you guys who make that difference.”
After the welcome came three hours of breakout sessions. Tim Randazzo, Assistant Director of CTL for Tutoring and Teaching, had worked with his CTL colleagues and with CTL’s grad student consultants to prepare short, informative, helpful workshops to address TA questions.
In “Classroom Expectations,” a panel of two undergrads and two TAs spoke about their Stanford experiences. While new TAs may feel inadequate at the prospect of teaching at an elite school like Stanford, the undergrads also feel inadequate just being there. The sooner that barrier is broken down, the better, said Saumya Sankaran, grad student in Biology. “Share what was difficult for you,” she said. “Foster a sense of collaboration: how can we all learn?”
CTL Associate Directors Jennifer Randall Crosby and Adina Glickman led a workshop on “Creating an Inclusive Classroom.” To start off, Glickman drew on her experience as an academic skills coach and director of the Resilience Project to give the TAs two keys to success. First: “Students tell me the #1 thing that makes for a good class experience is to be known by name by the TA,” she said. “Call them by name!”
Second, she encouraged them to share their own struggles and barriers they’ve overcome. “When you help them with a difficult concept, say, ‘This is hard. That’s normal. I didn’t get it on the first try either,’” she suggested. This idea of making it normal to experience difficulty and work through it links to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s (2007) research on growth mindset.
As an example of ways TAs can create a feeling of community and being known in their sections, participants tried out an abbreviated version of “Fast Friends” (Aron et al., 1997). Participants were paired to ask each other a series of questions like, “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.” Talking and laughter gradually filled the room, proving Crosby’s point that this activity had been shown to increase feelings of closeness even among strangers, and could help create a feeling of community in a section or class.
Crosby went on to give the attendees an overview of some issues that may be specific to members of underrepresented groups, such as stereotype threat (Steele, 1997, 2011) and wise feedback (Cohen et al., 1999). Crosby noted that things like making students feel included and creating a space where it is safe to ask questions and make mistakes were beneficial to all students, but may be especially beneficial to members of underrepresented groups.
Inclusive Handout [PDF] from this session
American culture, and American university student culture in particular, can be wholly unfamiliar to grad students from other countries. Worse, it can be uncomfortable or unfathomable. If you come from a culture where the only person who speaks in class is the teacher, it's a major shift to work with students who have always been encouraged to speak out in class, and who are used to very informal relationships with the teacher.
In “Advice for International TAs,” Randazzo and four experienced TAs presented American classroom culture and explained that Stanford undergrads want their TAs to be friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful. They also treat them informally and disagree without meaning disrespect.
They showed a video of an American TA running a review session, and TAs discussed how she moved around the room, was friendly with students, and used humor to make a point. The panel also answered questions like whether it’s OK to tell undergrads to put away their mobile devices (yes, but better to have a class discussion about it first) or to call attention to a student falling asleep in class (better to approach the student one-to-one after class).
Whether they were experienced or novices, all the TAs found some tools to use in the classroom, strategies to help them develop as teachers at Stanford, and real reassurance and support at TA Orientation.
Visit the TA Orientation page, which has full schedule and links to most of the workshop handouts.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R., Bator , R. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, April 1997 vol. 23 no. 4 pp. 363-377.
Cohen, Geoffrey L., Steele, Claude M., and Ross, Lee D., The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 1999, vol. 25, no. 10: pp. 1302-1318.
Dweck, Carol S., MIndset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential, Ballantine Books, 2007.
Steele, Claude M., How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, Vol 52(6), Jun 1997, 613-629.
Steele, Claude M., Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, W. W. Norton & Co., 2011.