Be Able To Illustrate Points Clearly

You may know all there is know about quantum physics or Keynesian economics, but if you cannot clearly convey these principles to your students, you may not be the most effective TA. Below are some suggestions to help ensure you have "successful" (a.k.a. educational) discussion sections.

  • Prepare in advance.

The more comfortable you are with the material and with presenting it in front of the class, the clearer your presentation will be and the more your students are likely to absorb and understand. The more confused a student is, the more likely that they will "tune out." Preparation can take various forms, but a good standard is to write out a lesson plan highlighting the main points you want to make and the best ways to present those points. It is often helpful to plan a second approach if your students cannot grasp the material the first time around. Also, try and predict and prepare for any questions you think your students might have. Often times you will know in advance places where they will have difficulties.

  • Speak clearly and slowly.

As intuitive as this sounds, it is quite easy to get carried away and speak too quickly for students to understand or take notes. There is also the tendency to speak "over the heads" of students, especially those in introductory courses. Make an effort to use language that challenges the students but that is understandable and relatable.

  • Use visual aids.

Many students, especially visual learners, appreciate visual illustrations. Some of the most common include Powerpoint presentations, overheads, slides, artwork, artifacts, movie clips, newspaper clippings or even handouts. Visual aids can be used at the beginning of the section to engage students or present them with a question that the following discussion is aimed to help them answer. Visual aids can also be strategically placed throughout or in the middle of class to regain the students' intrest in the lesson.

  • Use the "chalk"board effectively.

The same visual learners (and others) also appreciate when TAs utilize the chalkboards. Difficult spellings, problem sets, or diagrams can all benefit from clear explanations on the board. A word of caution: Many students will copy down exactly what you write and how you write it. Thus, try to avoid scrambled and disjointed boardwork. If possible, use the boards from left to right taking into consideration how your students will be copying the notes in their notebooks or laptops. A cluttered chalkboard can lead to a cluttered notebook and thus…a cluttered mind!

  • Utilize illustrative quotes.

Like visual aids, appropriate quotes from course readings (or other related material) can help clarify difficult points for students. Quotes can be used to illustrate difficult or complex points and/or provoke thought and discussion. One suggestion is to have students chose a quotes from their readings, some they would like to affirm and some they would like to challenge. This familiarizes students with the material and gets them thinking beyond the readings. Another suggestion is to provide students with a list of themes and it is their task to find quotes from the readings that illlustrate or support those themes (Brookfield and Preskill 2005). Utilizing quotes in section has an added bonus- it shows students that the readings are important and that doing their reading just might help them learn! (If students are assigned readings that are never or rarely discussed in class, most students simply will not do the readings.)

  • Check for understanding.

Periodically or at least at the end of class, it is important to check your students' understanding. A simple, "Do you understand?" is not enough. Students are likely to nod "yes" even when they have no clue what you just said. Asking, "Are there any questions?" is an improvement, but often times students will not ask. Instead, ask questions that go beyond simple recall and ask students to apply the information they just learned. For example, ask "We have gone over several examples. Look at one more and tell me whether it illustrates this concept and why" (Erickson, Peters and Strommer, 2006, pg 96). Try to ask them questions wherein their answers are at the crux of the lesson. If they can answer the question correctly both you and the student will know that they understood the lesson and their correct answer can help boost their confidence. A TA can also check for understanding over the longer term by giving short quizes or homework assignments.

Helpful Links UCSB TA Development Program handout on checking for understanding.

Brookfield and Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2005.

Erickson, Gette LaSere, Calvin B. Peters and Diane Weltner Strommer. Teaching First-Year College Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2006.

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