TA interactions in the classroom

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Recently, a colleague and friend of mine published an article in Phys. Rev. ST PER about the correlation between TA behaviours in the lab and students’ engagement (full citation below). The author, Jared, also recently wrote a blog post summarizing the study. I definitely recommend checking out his post and paper, but I wanted to provide my own comments on the study, and describe how it has changed the way I interact in the classroom. This idea followed after I posted some developing thoughts on teaching assistant (TA) preparation.

The bottom line of the study is that student engagement (on-task behaviours) correlate with TA-initiated interactions with students. That is, the more the TA is proactively interacting with students, the more the students will stay on task (yes, I’m implying causation, let’s not deal with that right now). What is especially interesting is that neither the length of the interactions nor the number of student-initiated interactions correlated with student engagement. This means that just because your students are asking lots of questions and initiating conversations with you, it does not mean that they are more engaged in the activity overall (across the full session).

What does this have to do with learning?

Well, the general consensus is that learning takes place when the learner is actively engaged in the learning activity. We should, therefore, be promoting any behaviour that encourages students to stay on task. Whether initiating conversations with your students is a carrot or a stick (an analogy I borrow from the authors of the study) is beside the point. In fact, in Jared’s blog post, he describes asking students in a later course about what he did well and the students generally favoured how he initiated conversations with them.

What does this mean for a typical TA in a classroom then?

After Jared presented his research in our department, I began restructuring how we move around the lab. In the past, TAs frantically moved about the room responding to student-initiated questions and issues. And I mean frantically. But many of the students’ issues were low-level concerns – my oscilloscope isn’t working, how do I do this calculation? I had even seen that, if there were no questions, some TAs would sit passively at the front of the classroom waiting for the chance to be useful (sure). We also found, through in-class observations for another research study, that some groups in the lab got way more attention from the TAs than other groups, and groups that were in corners or against walls could often get ignored for most of the lab. Plus, lots of students would get complete off track with their work, but were so lost they didn’t realize that there was a problem, and so weren’t asking questions.

With two TAs in a classroom at a time, we began dividing the class in half each lab and assigning one TA to each group.  The TAs would move systematically through their group checking in on them (initiating conversations). This immediately solves the issue of groups getting ignored, since the TA will regularly pop by to look at their data and see what they’re doing. Beyond just asking, “Hey, how’s it going?” the TAs were also armed with two key questions that they should ask: “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing it?” This moved the conversations from simple debugging conversations to higher-level discussions (metacognitive) about the lab itself (credit goes to Schoenfeld here).

But what about the debugging issues students run into?

Surely, the students are still going to run into the low-level issues and have their hands up. What do you do then? Well, the students were told that before they ask any sort of technical question, they must first consult with everyone at their table. If no one at their table can help them figure it out, then they can ask the TA. This must be rigorously enforced, but it promotes peer interaction and lets the TA help out with the higher level issues. In general, systematically moving through the groups meant that the TAs were interacting with each group more regularly, which meant that there were fewer student-initiated interactions.

A simple solution that may have been obvious to others, but the benefits were much bigger than I had anticipated, beyond just student engagement. I would love to hear if others have similar tactics or solutions to student engagement or TA-student interactions.

Stang, J. B. & Roll, I. Interactions between teaching assistants and students boost engagement in physics labs. Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res 10, 020117 (2014).
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