Keep Students Involved


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Active Learning

Some frightening facts.

  • During lectures, students are only paying attention 40% of the time.1
  • Students retain 70% of information from the first 10 minutes of lecture, but only 20% in the last 10 minutes.2

Vary your teaching strategies. Lectures aren’t always the best way to get information across to students. Try a combination of pairwork, groupwork, debates, case-studies and role-playing to keep things interesting throughout the semester – for you, and for your students! (Check out "Ideas, Ideas, Ideas")

Employ "best practices" when teaching. You might not know everything there is to know about a topic, but it’s your job to convey the important principles to your students. Here are some tips to help you have a successful discussion section:

  • Illustrate points as clearly as possible. Be prepared to use another method if your students aren’t grasping the material right away. Try to predict and prepare for any questions or challenges you think might come up during class.
  • Speak clearly and slowly. As intuitive as this sounds, it’s quite easy to get carried away and speak too quickly for students to understand or take notes. This can be particularly challenging if there are non-English speakers in your classroom. Be sensitive, and make an effort to use language that challenges students, but is also understandable and relatable.
  • Use visual aids. Many students appreciate visual aides to “flesh out” the information being presented. Visual aids can also help retain students’ interest in a lesson/discussion.
  • Use the chalk-board effectively. Chalk-boards can be great tools for explaining difficult concepts, working out problem sets, or drawing diagrams. Beware, however, because many students will copy down exactly what you write and how you write it. Try to avoid scrambled and disjointed boardwork, and use the board as you would if you were a student taking notes on a computer or in a notebook. Also, remember that you’re teaching to a class, not to the board – face your students as much as possible, only turn when you have to write on the board, not while you’re talking or explaining.

Make it Relevant to Them

Distractions. Since the advent of the “laptop age,” students have ever more distractions teachers have to compete with. Let’s face it – there’s some magnetic force constantly drawing students to play solitaire, watch online videos, or IM with their friends. (Check out "How Do I Deal With" for ways other TA's deal with distractions.)

Why does it matter? Let’s face it – most of the time, students leave class figuring that they’ll never need to know the material past the midterm or final exam. So how do you make it “matter” to them? Try learning something about your students as individuals, and see if you can tie something from class in to their specific interests. Teach students to always ask “Why do I care?” so they learn how class materials can be relevant to their lives.

People learn best when they ask an important question that they care about answering, or adopt a goal that they want to reach. If they don't care, they will not try to reconcile, explain, modify, or integrate new knowledge with old. They will not try to construct new mental models of reality. They may remember information for a short period (long enough to take the test), but only when their memory generates questions will it be prepared to challenge knowledge structures. Only then does it know where to place something. If we are not seeking an answer to anything, we pay little attention to random information.3


Yes, you never imagined your role as a TA would include entertaining a classroom of less-than-motivated students, but sometimes, you might just have to do that. This doesn't mean that you need to put on a full-scale theatrical production every discussion section, but rather that you need to bring a positive, engaging "energy" to the classroom.

Watch for Telltale Signs of Boredom or Confusion

If you notice a number of students staring off into space, a sudden lull in participation, doodling, sleeping, etc. it may not be that you’re a boring teacher, but that your students aren’t engaged with the material.

  • Are they understanding the material?
  • Have you made it relevant to them?
  • Are you showing that you’re excited about what you’re teaching?

Leave Them With Questions

Why does it matter? Students should leave every class with questions – not questions trying to figure out what they should be getting out of a class or discussion, but questions about the subject.

If they’re studying East Asia, they might be asking themselves what could happen if China uses military means to prevent Taiwan from declaring its independence. If the class is about art, students might be asking themselves how they came to decide what they consider “good” or “bad” art.

Get Feedback

Informal feedback. Soliciting post-section feedback can be as informal and immediate as asking “was that to fast, too slow, or just right?” to a few students as you’re walking out the door. Be open to students Emailing you comments/questions/suggestions throughout the semester. Let them know their ideas are appreciated (even if not used) – it can even help them take ownership of their learning experience.

Take advantage of Blackboard. Try posting a forum on Blackboard where your students can start discussions and ask you or each other questions. This can also be a great way to cover material you didn’t have time to detail in discussion.

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