The [not-so-]secret benefit of the ‘stupid’ TA

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be a better TA and how to interact with both my professor and students better. With that being said, the professor I work for is fairly opinionated about what TAs should and should not know. Sometimes I find my recall isn’t perfect; I don’t remember every detail of the course. Sometimes the professor comes close to rolling their eyes at my recall, or lack thereof.

However, I think this is a benefit. I think this allows me to see ‘holes’ in student understanding and address them more effectively. For many topics, I can discuss the lack of student understanding with more familiarity than the professor, despite their multi-semester experience. Sometimes its helpful to simplify the professor’s plan to focus more challenging points. And sometimes its very helpful to point out easy pitfalls in both calculations and understanding. Generally, my professor doesn’t really mind my snafus, since they usually happen in their office when we are discussing student assignments prior to dissemination. They would be severely annoyed [rightly so!] if I was perpetuating incorrect information during recitation sections.

However, there are other professors that aren’t so generous. One of my colleagues is currently teaching for a professor who decided they were frustrated with their ‘stupid TAs.’ So the TAs were unexpectedly given the exam during the exam period, instead of their normal proctoring responsibilities.

Now I’m not saying I don’t think the TAs should be capable of taking an exam for the class they are teaching, but I do have a problem with the goal of this exercise, which was to catch a TA demonstrating less than brilliance. One of the TAs did do poorly on the exam, and that TA needs to work harder for mastery of the material. However, having a meeting in which the professor berates the TA for answering incorrectly is completely unproductive.

I think a better way to handle a lackluster TA would be to focus on the necessity of preparation. That has certainly helped me develop my teaching over the last few semesters. Facilitating correct preparation would increase the TAs ability to work as an advocate for both students and the professor. Even something so simple as giving notice that TAs would be expected to take the exam prior to students would be sufficient to increase general preparation. I realize (although I have no direct experience), some people care so little about teaching that no amount of professor intervention will cause a satisfactory outcome, but attempting to use humiliation to facilitate performance often fails. As my recall sometimes fails me, I often spend a significant time preparing my notes prior to teaching. The extra time is well spent, because I rarely mislead my students.

Anyways, I think its beneficial to have a TA who does not immediately recall every detail of the course, because it provides the teaching team with the opportunity to reexamine complex concepts and teach students more effectively. Sometimes I worry this idea is just a way my brain convinces me that I am not stupid. Either way, I am constantly striving to increase my knowledge base while maintaining my memories of which concepts were difficult and why I had trouble.

Writing quizzes for everyone

During my recitations, I am responsible for writing a weekly quiz. The instructor doesn’t offer a lot of feedback, and so I get the opportunity to try new methods and write my own quiz questions. As you can imagine, this means l write some good questions and l write some bad ones. I never hear much about the good questions, but boy do I hear about the bad ones. If I hear a lot of confusion over a question, I usually drop it the next semester or try to clarify the wording.

This week covers some of my favorite material, which means I have to hold back my creativity and remember to write level appropriate questions. I try to write a couple of softball questions, a mid level and a high level question, with the points weighted to easy questions. Well one of my softball questions gained considerably more attention than it deserved. I had a student waiting outside the room for me. He was unhappy with his grade.

As it turns out, his understanding of the concept was correct, but his answer was not precise enough to merit points on my rubric. And so its back to the drawing board. Maybe I should have given him points back, but it seems that he was thinking about it incorrectly and l don’t want to reward his complaints. I find it tricky to decide when I should focus on concept or details and what about precision? I don’t want to make students feel hopeless, but I want precise answers.

How do you teach students to answer precisely without crushing their morale in the process?

Teaching philosophy and technology

I currently TA for comprehensive biochemistry I at Big State University. It’s semester four for me. The course usually enrolls about 120 students, about 20 or so drop before the end of the semester. Generally, students attend lectures where they follow along with pre-printed power points. The professor I work for leaves strategic blanks so students will attend class. After lecture, the students will generally study their notes prior to recitation (which I teach) before the quiz is administered. Sometimes they come to recitation with questions, and sometimes our discussion generates a question. This pattern is very familiar at lots of universities.

Recently I have been working to develop my teaching skills through some on-campus workshops/seminars/etc. You might be asking yourself, why do I want to spend time developing my teaching skills when I don’t have a defined career goal? Its part of my overall strategy to increase marketability. I have traditionally considered it likely I would enter teaching, and so many things I do set me up for this goal as I explore options.

Anyway, recently I attended a seminar discussing teaching with technology. I thought there were some really interesting (somewhat) free programs that could potentially make lecture courses more engaging for more students. There were platforms that allowed student polling via text message or browser, that allowed remote management of slides via tablet or phone, and even chat sessions for students to interact with each other. I think these tools could have really interesting application.

And so I brainstormed a bit and tried some of the programs out. I set up some test situations and played with them at home. Then I brought in my mini-quizlet to the prof to pitch about integrating this at the end of the class today. I initially emailed after the seminar and got a mostly positive response. The prof suggested questions indicative of the grade level students were seeking. So three questions, A, B, C level. And today the prof doesn’t want to do anything with tech because it must take time from somewhere, and we couldn’t cut anything out. Prof even went as far as to describe the tech tools as likely distraction.

Sigh. For the record, this prof is 32. Not that it really matters, but for those of you following along at home who would imagine a greybeard. I did get some free rein to experiment in recitation, which is going to be my next experiment. I think I’ll start with some poll questions and see if I can use them to help out the students. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not the students like them or show any better understanding (I know, quantitative metrics), after Spring Break is over anyways.