Some developing thoughts on TA preparation

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While we have been working on a fairly large transformation to our first year lab this year, one of the biggest transformations we’ve made is on the Teaching Assistants’ (TAs) roles and responsibilities in the classroom. With that, of course, has also come a significant transformation in how we prepare and train the TAs for their roles and responsibilities. This development is certainly a work in progress.

Fortunately, I have been able to meet with and observe some experts on the issues of training and preparing TAs and LAs (Learning Assistants) last week. [Sidebar: As far as I can tell, the primary distinction between  TAs and LAs is that TAs are typically graduate students and LAs are typically undergraduate students. For my purposes, I will use TAs generally to mean TAs or LAs, though there are certainly many important differentiating features.]. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned through my discussions and eavesdropping during training sessions last week.

They are not necessarily experts yet

This was a “duh” moment for me. I had been starting my meetings telling the TAs, “Here’s what we’re going to get the students to do next week.” We did have the TAs work through the experiments themselves, but there was definitely a lot of content delivery (transmission of information) in this process. About 2 minutes into the LA meeting at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), I realized that I need to make sure the TAs learn the lab the same way I expect the students to learn the material. Practice what you preach, Natasha.

Now, this refers to learning the pedagogical skills as well as the content itself.

Content

While the TAs may think they know the content, they may not actually be experts. So don’t assume they know the material, but don’t let them assume they know it either. Even if they do know the material, they probably have forgotten how to struggle with the material.

Let them answer a question correctly, but then deconstruct that answer into the smallest bits possible so they think harder about it than they ever have before. Remind them that a single answer or concept comes with a lot of baggage and it’s important to remember where it comes from. What do I mean? At SPU, they were discussing springs. They talked about the force equation: F = -kx, and then started talking about what k means. Yes, k is the spring constant, but what does that mean? They then went into a lengthy discussion using proportional reasoning, bringing up different ways to present the units of k, and talked about the spring constant on a much deeper level than, at least, I had ever discussed it when learning about springs. And I can see how thinking about a simple fact that the TAs may take for granted can unearth deep seeded misconceptions and ideas that may be held either by the students or the TAs themselves.

Pedagogy

In my meetings,  we had been getting the TAs to go through the lab exercises themselves. We got them to make the measurements the students were going to make so they could get comfortable with the equipment, the process, and any issues that may come up. We began asking them to keep track of the questions they ask themselves while they work, areas they get stuck on that other students may get stuck on, or just ideas they have that students may need help with. This required them to think somewhat metacognitively while they were working.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that they may not yet be strong metacognitive thinkers. That is, they may not be able to extract those questions through their own problem solving. One way to assist the TAs through this process would be to ask them, “What questions could you ask students at this point to help them?” Why may this question not be useful? Well, the TAs probably don’t know what the students are going to need at this point. They’re not experts in understanding student difficulty or modes of thinking. But they are expert learners themselves and understand how they themselves work through tasks. At SPU, they turned the question around, “What questions did you ask yourself to get there?” “What steps did you take to get you to that answer?” Breaking down their own problem solving behaviours and their own learning process is a much easier task to begin with. Once that has been determined, it may be easier to transition to what the students may need.

Once you’ve discussed how they solve the problem and what questions they could ask, you need to insert the common alternate conceptions that novices may bring into the equation. These are the conceptions in the expert blind spot – the ones that the TAs, being more expert than the students, can’t imagine other students believing to be true.

Other things I picked up

  • Build an environment that respects their experiences in the classroom. SPU’s meeting began with, “What was one thing that went well for you this week?” Question for the reader: Would it be worthwhile to ask them about what didn’t go well? What did students struggle with that you weren’t expecting? Or should it be kept positive?
  • Remind them to think about their teaching toolbox. For example, “What are the questions in your back pocket to ask students?” I had previously been giving the TAs some useful questions to ask their students. Duh! Get them to come up with these themselves! I can always add my suggestions during the discussion.
  • Lastly, make sure you discuss the forest beyond the trees. Once you’ve gone over what we’re doing next week, spend the time discussing why we are doing this activity. What was the point of getting students to do this ? Think about the forest beyond the trees.

I highly recommend checking out my friend and colleague Jared Stang’s blog for other good TA ideas, especially this one and this one.

TA handouts

Here’s a template of the handouts I prepare for my TAs for each lab with some adjustments that I’ll be applying from now on:

Lab Title
Learning Goals
[List specific goals for that lab, both new and old]

Time What the students are doing Common issues or misconceptions* What the TAs are doing
Broken down timeline of the lab activities Instructions of what the activities are that students are working on List of common issues or points at which students may struggle Info about what TAs should be doing
e.g. 0 – 10 min e.g. Lab Intro by Course Instructor e.g. Paying attention! Just kidding e.g. Blank – to be filled out by TAs at meeting
e.g. 10 – 1h e.g. Hooke’s Law experiment: Measure extension of spring for at least 10 different masses up to 100g e.g. May record the stretched position instead of the change in position from equilibrium. May forget to include the mass of the holder e.g. Blank – to be filled out by TAs at meeting

Detailed Marking Scheme
What should each of the marks come from and what should they be looking for to count as full or part marks

*Arguably, the third column in the table (common misconceptions or issues) could also be filled in by the group during the meetings.