A Few Tips Every TA Should Know

Tips & Anecdote # 1: Mark Redekopp: Gaining Confidence and Being Prepared

Mark, who is now a lecturer for the Department of Electrical Engineering, gives advice about ways to prepare for teaching your first class or lab session. He outlines four ways to prepare oneself in order to gain a level of confidence that will help to minimize any first-day jitters. Through his experience, Mark recommends that you:

1) Write beforehand what you want to say to the students and make a list of things you want them to learn. You may find that while you know the material, expressing it clearly in words is often more difficult than anticipated. Therefore, articulating the information in writing often proves very helpful in the delivery of your lesson.

2) Practice your lesson plan in front of a white board—don't hesitate to enlist the help of others! You may, for example, ask your nice roommate to "sit in" on a mock class you've prepared. This will build your confidence and help you to anticipate any questions students may have while providing you with the opportunity to clarify any ambiguities in your lesson.

3) Know your audience. Putting yourself in the place of your students can greatly improve the reception of your lessons and reinforce a student-centered learning environment. For example, if you get to know the interests of your students, you can use their interests as a point of departure in any lesson in order to better engage them in the subject and capture their interests and intrinsic motivation to learn. While this may take a few days after you begin your class, you can always go to roster.usc.edu before the first day of class to preview your students along with their respective majors. As an example, if you see that there are a number of students who major in cinema, perhaps try to incorporate a reference to a film in one of your lessons.

4) Go to your class or lab session ahead of time in order to familiarize yourself with the equipment or the lab activity. Always make sure you have performed the activity before the students so that you are prepared for any potential snags or problems with the equipment. Because students are able to sense very quickly if you have not prepared a lesson, be sure to take the first step in protecting yourself from a bumpy lab or lesson by coming prepared to each session. Preparedness will make each session more enjoyable for both you and the student.

Tips & Anecdote # 2: Tony Toghia: Breaking the Ice and Establishing a Rapport with Your Students

Tony, who teaches a discussion session for a graduate level class in Computer Engineering, talks about how he likes to break the ice on the first day by sharing with the class his own experiences as a student. He prefers to establish a rapport with the students from the very beginning with some light humor; something along these lines: "You know, it wasn't so long ago that I was in your shoes…" He goes on to illustrate a kind of empathy towards the students by telling them that he remembers what it was like to struggle with the material, but he's also careful to emphasize his joy of learning it. In this way he puts the students (and himself) at ease and creates a sense of unity in the class. As a result, he breaks down any intimidating, hierarchical barriers, making himself more approachable to students and encouraging a much-needed open line of communication between teacher and student that can serve as a great relief to even the most reticent of students.

Tip # 3: Handling a Question to which You Don't Know or Remember the Answer

If you don’t know how to answer a student’s question on the spot, say “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I will get back to you." Write the question down, find the answer as soon as possible, and email the student immediately with the answer. If this turnaround doesn’t take more than 24 hours, you will gain your student’s respect. It’s much better than trying to patch together an answer when you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

Tip # 4: Proper Ways of Addressing Your Professor

Make sure you find out in advance how the professor expects to be addressed. If you don’t know for sure, go for Dr. or Professor (especially in writing, even email communication) until he/she specifically tells you that it’s OK to use the first name.

For more useful information, see the following sections:
Running a Weekly Discussion Section
Running a Weekly Lab Section
Teaching with Technology

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