Category Archives: teaching assistants

Guest Blogger Audrey Tong, UBC Political Science: ‘Encouraging Student Participation’

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.

Guest Blogger: Oren Adamson, UBC Political Science ‘Teacher or Student– Which One?’

As an undergraduate member of “Team Political Science,” I had the pleasure of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities during the first semester of this school year. What I was most excited about was being on the other side of the student-teacher relationship, and contrasting the two different – though similar – perspectives. How would POLI 100, which I had taken not so long before, differ when approaching the material with an eye to communicating knowledge, and helping students develop analytical skills, rather than sitting in a lecture hall jotting down notes for myself?

Starting off the semester, I was of course apprehensive. Would I blank? Would students respect me? How would I handle questions on topics that I know hardly anything about? These issues certainly came up over the course of the semester, forcing me to address them head on (and often, ad hoc), with varying degrees of success. Below I will outline a few of the key take away points that I gained from my experience as an undergraduate TA. These relate both to my role as a teaching assistant, and my inherent role as a learner in the process of teaching.

Level of Abstraction

Of course I know as a general rule that when teaching, it is easiest to “start simple” and gradually build on concepts from the base. It is somewhat ironic, then that I recognized this general abstract rule, but did not fully comprehend its practical implications until I had to put it into practice – what level of abstraction is appropriate for POLI 100 students? At what rate can we add complications to theories and concepts, while still keeping students engaged?

Probably not my first blunder on this issue, but the most memorable one, was in Jen’s lecture on civil society. As Jen stood at the front of the room explaining where civil society fits into the private/public divide, I piped up and said “Jen, where would political parties fit into this discussion?”  My intention was to contribute to the lecture and students’ learning by bringing in a relevant and somewhat complicated example (as well as encouraging of question-asking among the often reserved students). As soon as I asked the question and saw the confused look on Jen’s face, however, I realized that my question was ill placed. This moment made me reflect on the knowledge and questions I possess that may not be conducive to student learning in an introductory setting such as POLI 100. In this instance I saw the possible value behind a teacher saying, “let’s worry about that tomorrow.” Evidently putting the “start simple” rule into practice didn’t come quite as naturally to me as I may have expected.

Guiding Students’ Thinking

Related to gauging the appropriate level of abstraction, I often struggled to effectively guide students’ thinking, rather than leading them to a pre-ordained conclusion. For me, this was the most intellectually stimulating part of being a teaching assistant. It forced me to step back from concepts and theories enough to ask somewhat vague questions that force students to think, while still providing something for them to grab onto and work with. In doing so, it tested not only my knowledge of political science, but my ability to manoeuvre varying levels of analysis and abstraction in order to point students in the right direction.

This was most evident to me when weighing the merits of different models of democracy with students. At each station, they were tasked with brainstorming the benefits and drawbacks of direct, representative, deliberative, and elite democracy. Being assigned to the elite democracy station, I helped students think through the implications of such a theory – what could be a positive implication of limiting individuals’ decision-making power in society? And conversely, what are some negative consequences of this? After doing this with a number of groups, I found that I repeated the same questions to each group in order to help them along the way. Additionally, each group seemed to leave the station with similar answers for the benefits and drawbacks of elite democracy.

Once I realized this, I asked myself: were my questions too concrete? Did they encourage a certain response? (All questions do to some extent I guess, but we can do our best to limit how much our values come through when posing questions). Going further, I found it difficult to vary my questions, causing me to reflect on my knowledge and value judgments regarding the concept in question. In what ways could I alter my thinking about it? And how can I begin to limit the extent to which my political views taint the questions I ask? I was learning as much in this process as the students were; the line between teaching and learning is an ambiguous one.

Silence is Okay (sometimes)

One piece of feedback I received from a fellow member of Team Political Science was to allow for more silence when interacting with students. At first, I interpreted silence as the student implying, “I don’t understand, and you aren’t asking me the right questions.” When in reality, silence can say this, but is also a signal that students are thinking. Which is exactly what we want them to do! My discomfort with silence, I’m sure, goes hand in hand with a tendency to lead students too much, rather than guiding their thinking in a more hands-off manner. Gauging what is productive silence, and what is apathetic silence, is key to discerning whether or not students’ are engaging with the material.

To be sure, apathetic silence is certainly a thing and I did experience it in the classroom. However, in another instances, my tendency to interrupt silence came to the fore. This was when I was leading the whole section of 40 students in identifying different international relations theories in an excerpt of text. I would read out the text, ask which theory it related to…and wait. Wait for what felt like an eternity, with 80 eyes staring back up at me, but in reality it was probably 2 Mississippis. In this instance, as I look back, silence was not necessarily bad. It signals students’ brains starting to work (whether this is because they want to think, or because the silence makes them so uncomfortable that they feel the need to speak, is irrelevant, as long as they’re thinking!).

All of these reflections have made clear to me that we are all students and teachers alike, even though we may not recognize it right away.

Guest Blogger: Elise Sammons (UBC Political Science) Simplify and Complicate: The Paradoxical Role of an Educator

I have heard many educators express how much they love the feeling they get when one of their students first understands a new concept, or when a student who has struggled with a skill or idea has finally had a break-through and has learned that skill or comprehended that idea.  In my short teaching experience, I have had a few moments like these and have found them rewarding.  But what I really love about teaching are the moments when I have challenged a student and maybe even left them feeling a little confused about the world.  It’s not that I enjoy stressing out my students; it’s that I think one of the greatest parts of a university education is the chance to be exposed to different ideas and new ways of thinking.   University is a chance to re-evaluate your own opinions, and to give some thought as to why you think the way you do.

Working as a teaching assistant with Vantage has given me the opportunity to more fully reflect on my teaching and learning experiences, and to begin the process of developing my own teaching strategy.  One of the concepts that I have been pondering recently is the idea of a teacher’s role.  Ironically, I have come to the conclusion that two key aspects of a teacher’s role are to simplify things for their students, and to complicate things for their students.   Though these ideas are opposites, I do not think that they are at odds when you consider the role of a teacher as a whole.

Clearly, it is important that teachers simplify concepts for students.  By simplify, I do not mean that a teacher’s role is to dumb-down the material, but rather than teachers explain concepts and illuminate theories by breaking them down for students or providing context or examples that help students to comprehend big ideas.  Teachers should want to impart knowledge to their students, to simplify the course material so that students can understand it. Our students at Vantage, just like many first year students, are dealing with the experience of learning new concepts, adjusting to the expectations and norms at university as compared with high school, and also learning new discipline-specific vocabularies.  They need their Professors and teaching assistants to clearly explain new terms, and to break-down new ideas so that they can make sense of them.  However, I do not think that this is the only role of teachers.

Especially at the university level, students should be called upon to think critically, to question some of their own assumptions, and some of the assumptions in the material that they are learning.  I think as a teacher assistant, I have a responsibility to encourage my students to explore their own ideas, and to invite them into some of the debates that exist within Political Science.  In my own undergraduate experience, I had the experience of taking courses with a Professor who had a knack for reducing complex ideas and case studies from international relations down to four or five bullet points.  He was excellent at explaining ideas in a way that made sense, and made them easy to memorize.  However, I was left wondering about what was never said.  I never felt as though it was okay for me to have a different opinion, and I knew that the world I saw around me was nowhere near as neat and tidy as the explanations he offered.  It made me wonder if political science dealt with the real world or some bizarre parallel universe that was far less complex.  I found that the courses that got me really excited about political science and academia were the courses that acknowledged the complexities of the real world, and encouraged me to engage with some of the debates within the discipline.

As I continue to reflect on this idea of the responsibility of a teacher to offer understanding and knowledge, versus the responsibility of a teacher to address the complexities of our world, and to invite students to explore these complexities, I am searching for a balance.  I am aware that some students are more interested in having the concepts of political science simplified.  They may have less background knowledge, or less interest in the subject matter; they may simply want to get through this class and earn a passing grade.  Other students, whether because they have a pre-existing interest or some prior training in the subject, may be ready for more, and may just be waiting to be engaged in a deeper conversation that will provide them with valuable ideas and skills to understanding the real world around them.  All students have a right to understand the basic concepts of the course and should have the opportunity to gain that knowledge, but even students who are in the class simply because it is required, may find that they become engaged with and excited about the material because their teachers took the time to challenge the students’ assumptions and to encourage them to think critically about the world in which they live.

‘Team Political Science’ (or) How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Weekly Peer Review of My Teaching

One of the great things about working within the new Vantage College is the challenge we were set to experiment with new ways of teaching and new models for running a class over a semester.  With each topic being taught having their own requirements in terms of optimal class size, pace of learning, number of topics taught,  mode of delivery etc., allowing  instructors to set up their intro courses beyond an ‘orthodox model’ was a great step towards facilitating innovative teaching.  On the Arts side all of the content courses have been configured differently (with traditional lecturing, use of technology, active learning and small discussion groups being used to different degrees and in different ways based on what suits teaching the material best). This has prevented all of us from having to ‘crow bar’ our material into a pre-set template.  It has of course created unique scheduling issues (sorry admin team!).  Sometimes we have been confronted by ‘computer says no’ type  moments[1]  but we’ve overcome those with a great team of administrators and a strong commitment by the college to create the conditions for innovation.

Introducing ‘Team Political Science’

What has been equally great is the fact that the college has provided us with the resources (human and financial) to make these new configurations work.   What I asked for in this regard falls outside the realm of the ‘normally funded’.  I wanted to hire TAs (totally normal) but I wanted to hire several for one section (not so normal) and have them in my lectures with me, to co-teach—not just  to run separate tutorials and do some of my marking (also not so normal).  The result is that on some days I have anywhere from 2-3  teaching assistants in my intro classes  with me, helping with my small group tasks and wider class activities.  ‘Team Political Science’ consists of me, an Academic English Instructor, Senior TAs (MA and PhD students) as well as, uniquely for my home department, Undergraduate TAs. There is a lot I could say about Team Political Science (and hopefully you will hear from some of them on this blog in the future) but for now, some thoughts on my decision to have them teach alongside me every week and some notes on an unexpected set of outcomes.

My decision to have my TAs in classes, teaching and assisting alongside me was initially made based on how much I thought it would help my students. I figured they would have more one on one contact with experienced scholars as we all circulated between groups during break out discussions and activities that are peppered between my mini-lectures.  They would have opportunities to ask questions and explore ideas during class time, when core ideas are first introduced (instead of waiting till a tutorial that might be held up to a week later). Important to remember here is the fact that some members of Team Political Science are Undergraduate TAs, made up of some of UBCs top junior scholars.  Currently in the process of transitioning from apprentice scholars to established scholars they are more able to understand why a student is still grappling with an academic language that for me, after over 15 years of study, has become completely natural.  It is often difficult for me to understand why a student still struggles after doing the reading, attending a lecture, and engaging in a related learning activity.  For the ‘junior members’ of Team Political Science this is less of a problem as they have more recently learned this ‘foreign’ disciplinary language.  I hope to report back on whether any of my hypotheses were correct after reflecting on my ‘experiment’ later in the year.    I suppose the true test will come next semester when I teach the same course in two different formats.  I’m not sure whether one will be better than the other, but I am sure there will be some interesting differences to report.

However, four weeks into term I can confidently report back on at least some the benefits of this decision—and in ways I hadn’t necessarily predicted.  I have found myself asking my team for feedback regularly:  before classes when I send out lecture slides and activity materials to the team, during the sessions themselves (in breaks or when the students are reading activity instructions), and also after class, to get a general recap on what worked and didn’t in that session.  I have gotten incredible insight that is already informing my teaching.  From comments about the clarity of my lecture slides, to reminders to SLOW DOWN when I talk, to TAs writing key terms or diagrams on the board while I teach, to feedback on specific concepts that are not being grasped (despite my best efforts), I am leaving every session with constructive critiques and ideas for improving next week.

Even better is that I am also getting feedback on what is working well.  As a scholar (ahem, human being) in the habit of second guessing myself it has been very good for me to hear back from my team on things that worked well.  Generally teachers have to rely on non-verbal cues from students regarding if they are ‘getting it’ or really engaging with the material.  These cues are not always forthcoming when students are busy concentrating and/or tired. Anyone who has taught can tell you how hard it is to ‘read the room’.  But now I have several objective room-readers. The result?  Some activities that I might have scrapped out of my own subjective reading of classroom dynamics have been saved from the scrapheap based on comments from my team.

As someone who has historically been slightly terrified of feedback (mostly related to the fear of opening dreaded emails from book and journal editors on article submissions), my twice weekly peer review has been surprisingly painless and extraordinarily useful.  I don’t have to wait until the end-of-term student course evaluations to find out what worked and didn’t from students (though this is another way to improve our teaching)—instead, I can make efforts to improve week on week.

Getting your institution or department to grant you the resources  (or more accurately, allow you to shift already existing resources) that would allow you to try something similar might be tricky but please drop me a line if you’d like to discuss how to present a convincing argument to try something similar for yourself.

[1] For any ‘Little Britain’ fans out there.