As one of Jen’s undergraduate teaching assistants, I had the welcoming challenge of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities in the second term of the school year. Whereas Jen and the students have already established a working relationship and good rapport from first term, January marked the first time I was meeting the students – and being a teaching assistant. As a senior undergraduate student, I have had plenty of good and bad professors, lab instructors, and teaching assistants. I found that having a good teaching assistant that I could go talk to and ask for advice really made a difference in my learning, especially in grasping new concepts. As such, I was motivated to be an active, empowering and encouraging teaching assistant. However, I found that this is a big responsibility, and one that takes time to grow into.
One immediate challenge that I faced was keeping the students engaged and getting them to talk. Jen always prepares carefully planned classroom strategies and lesson plans that prompt lively student discussion. However, what I’ve come to realize is that active learning strategies is completely dependent on active student interest and participation, and thus, are particularly vulnerable to student apathy. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I have the opportunity to observe class discussions, facilitate discussions, and try to engage students. Sometimes I am simply greeted by blank stares and silence; for reasons beyond my control, students just refuse to talk at times. As a TA, I was motivated to minimize these occurrences and crack the cycle.
As I walk around the classroom to listen in on discussions and chime in at the appropriate moments, I do my best to create open, safe, and supportive spaces where students can feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their own opinions. One major concern that students usually have is saying the ‘wrong’ answer. Students perceive this as an outright negative phenomenon, so they tend to remain silent. This results in diminished participation through fewer responses, and responses of lower equality that lack critical thinking or analysis.
To model the type of participation and curiosity I would like the students to exhibit in class, I tried a couple of strategies. During in-class discussions, I would go around the groups and if students have trouble grasping the question, I would rephrase the question and give an example by thinking out loud. Since the students are often discussing in pairs or groups, I would ask them for their ideas and ask a follow up question that would lead the student to further develop their answer. I then go over and repeat what they just said to demonstrate what a full response would look like and offer a positive piece of feedback. Finally, I encourage them to raise their hand and speak up when the professor is asking for student examples. If it’s a great point and the student is still not willing to convey their point (ex. shyness, English barrier, not sure if it’s the ‘right’ answer, ‘too cool for school’), I have the ability to give them a voice on their behalf (“Student X had a great point, and I would like to share what they said to the class”).
Over time, the students got the hang of active learning and participating in group discussions. I think another big piece in motivating student participation is how a TA or professor responds when students speak up, either in lecture discussions or in office hours. It’s a two way street: if you want students to participate seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. By being an active listener and seeing things from their perspective, I always try to provide specific and thoughtful responses to a student question or comment. What I found interesting was that once a student sees that I’m making an effort, they would make an effort and try harder too. I had a group of students who voluntarily came to my office hours today to share their case study progress. By creating a safe and encouraging environment and nurturing a positive TA-student relationship, I have seen signs that the wall of silence is breaking and that the groundwork for voluntary participation is slowly building up.