Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
Traditional metaphors for learning that depict a student as an empty vessel or a blank slate to be filled with knowledge are reflected in classroom practices that call for the teacher to be active and the student passive. Despite the invention of the printing press centuries ago, the lecture remains the standard method of instruction in higher education, reinforcing the notion of knowledge as a product to be passed from a teacher to a student. These metaphors and practices have exerted a strong influence on the ways in which we think of teaching and learning in the college classroom. Studies show repeatedly that nearly 90 percent of time in college classrooms is filled with teacher talk.
Recently, new challenges to traditional practices and ways of thinking about learning have been raised. National reports criticizing higher education have called for the use of instructional strategies that more actively engage students in learning and help them to acquire better skills in writing, speaking, thinking critically, and solving problems. Cognitive scientists are arguing for new conceptions of learning, emphasizing that knowledge is not passed intact from a knower to a learner, but is actively constructed by learners who draw on their previous knowledge, mental processes, and experience to integrate new information into their knowledge base in ways that expand their knowledge and influence subsequent learning.
This section will talk about ways in which instructors can engage students actively through integrating instructional strategies into a lecture or using them as standalone methods. (See also the section on Questioning in the Classroom)
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
A highly effective way of promoting active engagement in learning is to provide opportunities for students to verbalize what they are learning in the classroom. Instructors are thus able to provide the feedback that is such an important part of the learning process at the time when it is most needed.
Discussions not only get students to verbalize what they are learning, but they also can provide a socializing mechanism, can examine and clarify confusing concepts, and can raise value questions. Discussions can be useful for any of the following goals of instruction:
• to help students learn to think in ways that are particular to the discipline
• to help students learn to identify and evaluate the logic and evidence that forms the basis of their own and others' positions
• to give students opportunities to formulate applications of principles
• to help students identify and formulate problems using information gained from reading or lectures
• to use the resources of members of the group
• to gain acceptance for information or theories counter to previous beliefs of students
• to develop motivation for further learning
• to get prompt feedback on how well objectives are being attained.
Preparing for Discussions
Discussion sections differ from lectures in many ways. A major difference is that the students can be more active and that there can be more personal contact. Good discussion sections give students an opportunity to formulate principles in their own words and to suggest applications of these principles; they help students become aware of and define problems implied in readings or lectures; they can also increase students' sensitivity to other points of view and alternative explanations. (adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986)
Some new TAs wonder how there can possibly be enough to say to fill the class period. This will be the least of your worries. Your job is facilitating and moderating the discussion, not doing all the discussing. New TAs sometimes tend to overmanage the situation. Remember that the discussion isn't just a matter of your communication with your students; it's a chance for your students to share ideas and pool resources. Many TAs overlook this potential and end up trying to carry the whole conversation themselves. (adapted with permission from Ronkowski, 1986)
There seems to be an unfortunate misunderstanding about the amount of preparation that discussions require. Too many instructors assume that you can "just walk in" to the classroom and begin useful discussion. It is as if they feel that, with a basic understanding of the subject, they can rely upon their students for 40 or 50 minutes. However, a good discussion takes a great deal of prior planning and review of the subject matter. To begin with, the content itself must be reviewed and brought up to date; that is why keeping up in one's field is so very important. Inevitably in a discussion, a question about present applicability or trends, etc., will be raised, and at that point you can be of great help if you are able to relate what is being discussed to the most recent events or developments in the field. It is also helpful to be knowledgeable about the backgrounds and interests of your students. This is why student information and background sheets and get-acquainted sessions at the beginning of the term are useful. For example, if you know that the mother of one of your students works as an accountant in local industry, you may be able to make a lesson on accounting procedures more meaningful by drawing upon the student's knowledge of the parent's activities. Prior planning also enables you to anticipate the kinds of questions that will emerge during the discussion. In this way, you can provide more appropriate and helpful sorts of answers to those questions. You can also consider how the questions might be referred to other students, thereby helping them to reinforce their understanding. (adapted with permission from the Freshman Advising Training Manual, Northeastern University, 1984)
Before the section meets, decide what kind of discussion is most useful for your class. Is there a certain topic to be discussed (perhaps arranged previously by the supervising instructor)? Does the group have to reach a conclusion or come to an agreement? Is there subject matter that must be learned? Is the section a forum for expressing and comparing views? Is it important that the students carefully analyze the topic or that they learn certain skills? Once you have decided what kind of discussion you want, tell the students. It is easier for everyone if the goals for the class have been clearly stated. (adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986)
Implementing Discussions
Adapted with permission from Ronkowski (previously adapted from McKeachie, 1978, pp. 35-68).
Before you can successfully implement a discussion section, you will need to become aware of the implicit set of attitudes and messages you bring into the classroom with you. Your reactions, your responses to students, the attitudes you project in your actions—all suggest to your students the sort of interaction they can expect. The way in which you field students' comments will give the most important clue. No one wants to feel that their remark will be put down or put off. Students are also sensitive to what they think you really want (e.g., Does he want a discussion or a chance for an extended monologue? Does she say she wants disagreement and then gets defensive when someone challenges her?) Your students will try to read you so that they can respond appropriately. Be sensitive to the clues you give them.
There are a number of techniques you can use in opening up discussion. The most obvious is to draw upon students' questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. What do you do if the subject matter is new and your students are, too? You may want to write several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.
When you start a discussion with a question, ask open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies—rather than merely the basic facts. You've probably often heard a professor spiel off a list of questions that require only brief factual replies and little student involvement:
Q. When was the Battle of Hastings?
A. 1066.
The result could hardly be called a discussion. You'll want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are valued as well as welcomed.
Some ways of initiating discussions include:
• having students write about a question or idea for a few minutes (this method also increases the likelihood that everyone will have something to contribute)
• assigning questions or tasks for small groups to work out amongst themselves (such activities tend to loosen things up, helping students overcome any inhibitions they may feel about speaking up in front of the class)
• asking for reactions to specific portions of assigned readings or lectures (questions can be given as part of the previous class's homework assignment, or introduced at the beginning of a lecture).
The more students are prepared to discuss a particular topic, the better they will be able to participate in a discussion about it.
Some behaviors to avoid when asking questions are:
• phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, "I know something you don't and you'll look stupid if you don't guess right!"
• phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the class. Don't just show off your 25 cent words—discussion questions need to be phrased as problems that are meaningful to student and instructor alike.
• not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think. The issue of "wait time" is an often ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety in the instructor. Try counting to 10 slowly after asking a provocative question to which you are just dying to respond yourself. Students don't like a silent classroom either. Once they have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, they will participate more freely.
Moderating Discussions
To speak of "controlling" a discussion may be misleading since in this setting what you are really doing is relinquishing control over the learning process to your students.
Running a section skillfully requires creating a context of "organized spontaneity" in which "the good section leader gives the students opportunities and incentives to express themselves and develop skills within the otherwise somewhat passive context of the lecture course." (Segerstrale, 1982) One of the keys to facilitating a discussion is to guide its course without appearing to do so. Here is a list of some common difficulties TAs encounter in leading discussions which relate to the problem of "control," and some suggestions for overcoming them. (McKeachie, 1978)
• If you habitually can't get discussion started, you first need to pay more attention to the topics you're picking; they may not be broad enough. Or you may not be using good questioning skills—putting people on the spot or embarrassing them. (See the section on questioning techniques, page 58)
• If one or two students consistently monopolize the floor, there are many causes at work, but the end result is a great deal of tension. You don't want to reject the one student, but then you don't want to alienate the rest of the class. You may want to take one of two approaches. Either you can use their comments to throw the discussion back to the class ("You've raised an important point. Maybe others would like to comment."), or you can acknowledge the comments and offer another outlet ("Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class.").
• If there is a lull in the discussion, relax. This doesn't mean you've failed. Every conversation needs a chance to catch its breath. It may mean that your topic is exhausted or it may be a pause for people to digest what they've heard. If the lull comes too frequently, though, you may need to give more attention to the types of topics you're picking. You may also be inadvertently shutting down discussion by dominating rather than facilitating.
• If students are talking only to you instead of to each other, you are probably focusing too intently on the speaker. You can help students talk to each other by leading with your eyes, looking occasionally at others in the room. This will lead the speaker to do likewise.
• If there are students who seldom or never talk, see if you can find out whether they are shy, confused, or simply turned off. Watch for clues that indicate that they might want to speak up ("Alan, you seem disturbed by Dan's idea. What do you think?"). However, be careful that you don't embarrass a student into participating. You may want to make a point of talking to this student before or after class to indicate your interest.
• If you run out of material before the end of class, ask your students if there are other topics they might be interested in discussing. If not, let them go early. Don't keep them the whole hour just for form's sake.
• If a fight breaks out over an issue, then you've got a hot topic on your hands! Facilitate! Your major task here is to keep the argument focused on the issues. Don't let it turn personal, under any circumstances.
TAs are also often concerned about how to encourage students to attend discussion sections. Despite the fact that section participation is a requirement for many introductory courses, students may believe that their attendance is not mandatory since the TA rather than the professor is in charge. Therefore you may want to devise a way to structure required assignments, projects or presentations into your sections so that section participation will be a part of the final course grade.
If students know that the TA has some responsibility for determining their grades, s/he or will have considerably more authority in the classroom or in any interactions with students. Students will also be more likely to attend sections or lectures led by the TA.
Leading Discussions of a Case Analysis
In several academic disciplines, the use of case analyses is common practice in the classroom. Business, law, political science, and other studies often involve the assignment of a "case study." This case depicts a series of "real world" events and facts, usually from the perspective of an organization, which must be analyzed by students. Should you be involved in leading case analyses as a teaching assistant, it is appropriate to discuss case study discussion methods with a faculty member experienced in leading such discussions.
Leading this discussion requires the full involvement of the students. The discussion leader does not lecture, recount facts, or draw conclusions, but rather uses techniques to draw out the analysis, conclusions, and recommendations from the students. Encouraging students to discuss or debate case issues among themselves, and leading them by suggestion or inquiry, are commonly used techniques as well. Writing key facts or information on the board as the students discuss the case also aids in directing the discussion. The more prepared you are as the discussion leader, the more adept you can be at focusing the discussion, bringing in key issues, and relating these to course objectives.
A useful publication for review prior to assisting in case discussion is: Christensen, C.R. (1987). Teaching and the Case Method. Harvard Business School Publishing Division.
Using Writing to Learn
While most teachers customarily think of writing as a means for students to demonstrate their learning of course material—as in an essay exam or term paper— there is another kind of writing that instructors in all disciplines can use in their classes as well: writing to learn.
Assignments designed to help students explore, understand, assimilate, and extend or apply course materials and concepts can take many forms: graded or ungraded, short or long, in-class or at home, formal or informal, individual or joint. They can focus on different genres, purposes, and audiences, and can range from journal entries, field observations, and interviews, to abstracts, proposals, reports, and manuals. You should use assignments that relate closely to the learning expectations of your course, and which work well together.
Peter Elbow, Director of the Writing Program, suggests that although writing requires much practice over time in order to improve both fluency and quality, writing-to-learn activities need not generate a grading burden. He recommends that teachers assign more writing than they will actually evaluate, since the process of writing in itself is a mode of learning. Here are some of his observations on the value of using writing to learn in courses of all kinds in all subject areas:
• Writing promotes active learning. Journals and short in-class exercises can stimulate engagement with course content or promote inquiry; these can be entirely private, or can provide the basis for group work or individual project development. They can simply be read and credit given for their completion, or minimal comments can be made in order to invite further thinking or offer encouragement.
• Ten minutes of writing in class can bring important material into focus, can generate questions to help guide discussions, or can consolidate comprehension of lecture or discussion topics. Such short assignments can take the form of reflections, letters, summaries, applications of theory, speculative leaps, etc. They can remain private, or can be shared in small groups or with the whole class.
• Writing done as homework, read by the instructor but not graded, can be used to get students to do the assigned reading, and can provide a way to specify the intellectual task you want students to engage in before the next class (e.g., think about a certain issue from the reading or lecture; compare two concepts; work out a definition).
• Using a variety of lengths and types of assignments will help students learn to write for a range of audiences and purposes, and will enable them to cultivate an awareness of their own voices and styles.
• Reading your students' frequent writings will help you keep your finger on the pulse of the class, making you a more responsive teacher, and ultimately making your course more successful for all concerned.
Anne Herrington, of the English Department, has some general advice on how to use and design writing activities, especially more formal writings, in specific courses:
• Link the writing to your learning objectives for students so that it is clear what knowledge and/or skills the assignment is designed to help students learn, and integrate the writing into class activities.
• Plan in-class activities to introduce students to the intellectual skills called for by writing activities.
• Provide opportunities for students to collaborate with you and their peers as they work through an assignment. For instance:
• break larger assignments into a series of smaller ones
• for longer, independent projects, advise students early as they formulate their research questions
• have students write planning proposals and periodic progress notes to you as they work on a major project
• schedule peer review sessions to discuss planning proposals or drafts.
• When possible, sequence writing assignments so one will build upon a previous one.
• Make the manner of your response to written work appropriate to your learning objectives. It would probably not be appropriate, for instance, to grade an assignment whose intent was to have students challenge or explore a disciplinary axiom, attitude, or practice.
She also suggests two key principles for planning specific writing activities, especially those of larger scope and weight, such as essays, proposals, projects, and term papers:
• Identify some of the important intellectual demands the writing will place on students. You can do this by doing the activity yourself, noting the questions you had to answer and the strategies you used in formulating and expressing your ideas. You can also analyze student papers from previous semesters, noting differences in the interpretive strategies reflected in the better papers and the less successful papers.
• Present the activity so that it gives students some guidance in exploring and shaping their ideas. You can do this by identifying the audience and purpose for the writing (for example, the purpose might be to advocate a certain policy to a social service agency); by posing questions that will guide their inquiry (focus on a limited number of key questions linked to the demands of the assignment); and by identifying evaluation criteria, ones linked to the important intellectual demands of the assignment that you have targeted.
Responding to Students' Writing
Responding does not necessarily mean grading. We assign writing activities for a variety of reasons and purposes, so it makes sense to vary our modes of response as well. Here are some guidelines offered by Anne Herrington for responding to different kinds of written work, for commenting on writing, and for formal evaluation of assignments.
• Make your reader responses appropriate to the purpose of the writing activity. Here are some examples:
• If you and the students have done a brief informal writing in class to explore ideas before a discussion, then you need not collect and read their responses. They'll come out in the discussion.
• If students are keeping reading journals (regularly recording their responses to reading material) so that they will read more actively, then you may want to skim them to check for completion. If you have time, you can respond briefly to the ideas and advise students as to the sorts of questions they might pursue. Evaluating journals and similar exploratory writings for quality of presentation is likely to defeat the purpose of the activity.
• If students are handing in a progress report or a draft of a major project, then you will want to advise them and respond to their ideas. If students are handing in final versions of a major assignment, then you will want to read to evaluate for quality of presentation and development, as well as responding to ideas and perhaps advising—if you have time and if it seems appropriate.
• Whenever you write a response, try to make it one that will foster learning and support your goals for students.
• Remember that while you are evaluating a written paper, it is the person you are responding to. Begin by using the writer's name.
• Be constructive in tone and in the substance of your comments.
• Point to what is done well.
• Try to make your comments descriptive.
• A bit of planning can make a marked difference in the quality of formal written work. Make your method of evaluation appropriate to the writing task, and when you introduce a writing activity that is to be evaluated, make your evaluation criteria clear to students.
• When you respond, limit your comments and set priorities.
• Focus on the most important criteria being specified in the assignment, considering first those matters that seem to you to have to do with learning your subject (e.g., how the writer interprets/analyzes the subject s/he's dealing with; appropriateness and sufficiency of information included; reasonableness of line of argument). Second, consider such matters as organization, style, and grammar.
• To deal with what you perceive to be errors of grammar or usage, try to avoid "correcting" all of them. As an alternative, you might note them in only the opening paragraphs or with a dash in the margins. Try also to note and point out particular patterns in a student's errors.
• Determine your skills and priorities; try to help students with problems that you understand and have time to deal with.
• Finally, make your minimum expectations clear and maintain them. Initially, you might allow students to revise or re-edit a paper to meet the expectations. Here are some additional suggestions for managing the writing assignments you give, for whatever purpose.
• Don't try to pack all your advice into your written comments for each paper. If a number of students are having difficulty with X, then devote some class time to instructing them about it. If an individual student is having a number of problems, then set priorities and focus on only one or two at a time. Finally, use in-process response from you and other students as a primary way of offering instructive advice.
• For longer writings, try to advise students throughout the process of the activity and have them consult with one another and formulate ideas once they've written their drafts.
• Ask students to write a cover note to you when they submit a writing. With rough drafts, you might want to ask students to indicate what they are most satisfied with, what they are having difficulties with or still working on, and what particular response they would like from you, or questions they have. With the final version, you can ask them to discuss significant changes they have made, or how they feel about the finished project.
• Play fair. Evaluate papers with the criteria you set up; try not to allow hidden agendas to influence your judgment.
Peer Response
Peer response, an activity in which students read and comment on one another's writing, can be a useful way for students to offer one another advice on drafts for an important writing before they compose their final version. Many teachers feel that the optimum group size is three to five students; the time needed for the activity will vary according to the size of the group.
Peer response can be oral or written. Either way, you should establish some guidelines for responding, You might prepare a response guide or have the class develop one. If you use a guide, tailor it to the demands of the particular assignment, and don't make it too long. Here are some sample questions suggested by Anne Herrington for a response guide:
• What seems to be the major point the writer's trying to get across? Any suggestions for clarifying or modifying it?
• What part is most effective or interesting to you?
• Any places where you want to hear more? Any different kinds of information you think would strengthen this draft?
• Any place seem confusing? Any place where you lost interest?
• Final comment and/or answer to questions asked by the writer. Before asking students to review their peers' drafts, you might ask them to write an informal assessment of their own drafts (e.g., What are you most satisfied with? Least satisfied with? What would you like some advice about/help on?) to be passed to the peer respondent along with the draft.
If you plan to use peer response, schedule enough class time for students to provide thoughtful responses, and take some time in class to introduce the process and discuss or illustrate useful types of comments. Stress that the aim of responding is to be constructive, to help another person improve her/his draft.
Make it clear that you believe students can offer useful advice to one another, and that you value the activity. It may take a while for your students to learn to make the most of this approach to responding to writing, and your confidence in it can help them weather the transition.
Some instructional situations involve, by their very nature, active learning.
Examples of such situations include studios, performance areas (perhaps where students are working on a creative project), field studies, or laboratory situations. While the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship and the criteria for improving it remain essentially the same as in traditional situations, the following additional points could be considered. Working with students in active teaching situations is especially challenging and an appropriate teacher-student relationship, clearly understood by both parties, becomes particularly necessary (adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992).
Teaching in the Lab
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
When preparing a lab assignment, instructors might take a moment to view it from a student's perspective. It is important to look for ambiguities and poorly designed procedures that may give the students trouble, and to think about whether they will understand the exercise. The best way for instructors to troubleshoot a lab is to do a trial run themselves. It is also most important to have students read through the assignment before coming to lab since time is always tight and they can come prepared to begin. An effective oral presentation might be planned in order to introduce the lab to the students. This brief presentation should include all the information needed to understand and complete the assignment. As the presentation is planned, instructors might stop and ask themselves whether they would understand if they were one of the students.
When teaching in a laboratory, it is easy to become a solitary figure at the front of the lab, doing nothing unless people approach with questions. A better strategy is to walk around the lab and talk with students, acting as their guide to the information rather than just answering their questions. They can be asked about obscure points from the lecture so the instructor will better know if they understand what they are doing.
This way, the instructor can also help students prepare for their examinations. When offering information, it is important for the instructor to be wary of talking over the heads of some of the students, especially if the information is pivotal to the basic understanding and completion of the lab exercise. Scientific vocabulary is a significant stumbling block; it is perhaps better to emphasize the concepts and gradually introduce the terminology that students should use to discuss concepts.
It is often a good idea to have students work together, either formally or informally. In this way they can help each other learn the material, share equipment and good preparations, and answer each other's questions. When students are working in groups, instructors are advised to check on the progress of each individual within the group, encouraging everyone to participate and making it everyone's responsibility to help their group members understand the material.
Good teachers stay organized and help their students to be organized, too. It is important to know where equipment and reference material are located, to make careful note of any missing or damaged supplies and equipment and take care of it right away rather than waiting until the next lab. Checking on how students organize their data collection, written work, and drawings helps keep them on track.
It is also useful to remind students how much time remains, what needs to be accomplished, and to allow for clean-up time. Safety rules should be established and the instructor should make sure the students follow all the safety rules and guidelines.
Preparing Lab Sections
Adapted with permission from Ronkowski, 1986
The most important thing you can do to ensure that your lab sections run smoothly is to be well-prepared. Your preparation, prior to the start of the semester, should include being acquainted with the storeroom of the lab so that time won't be lost during a lab looking for necessary equipment or materials, and if applicable, knowing the location of the first aid kit, basic first aid rules, and procedures for getting emergency assistance.
Basic weekly planning for your lab section might include the following:
• Know exactly what the students are supposed to learn and why they have to learn these things. This may come in handy when your students start to wonder why they're doing what they're doing.
• Perform the entire experiment in advance. There is no guarantee it's going to work as advertised in the lab manual. By going through the lab yourself, you'll be familiar with some of the stumbling blocks that your students may confront, and you'll know the subtler points of the process you are demonstrating.
• Read and study the theory on which the experiment is based. Your understanding of the theoretical aspect of the lab should be useful to you in handling most student questions which don't deal with concrete parts of the experiment.
• Research the relevance of the experiment, both the technique being taught and the applications of the theory being demonstrated.
• Decide how to introduce the lab most effectively. Before students get underway with the day's lab, will they need you to demonstrate the procedures that they'll be following? Is a handout with written instructions in order? Do you want two students in the class to demonstrate the experiment to the rest of the class? Will a 15-minute lecture about the theory and intent of the lab suffice? Your initial introduction to the lab or the day's first activity can set the tone and motivation for the rest of the lab.
Implementing Laboratory Sections
Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Labs are offered in conjunction with large lecture courses so that students may acquire technical skills and apply concepts and theories presented in lecture. This hands-on experience encourages them to develop a spirit of inquiry and allows them to live for a semester as practicing botanists, geologists, etc. It may sound trite, but you really do have an opportunity to help students develop some appreciation of the mysterious scientific method.
You needn't overwhelm them with Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions on the first day of class, of course. In fact, to realize your full potential as a laboratory instructor you'll have to recover some of the neophyte's enthusiasm for mastering fundamental principles and techniques of the discipline. Think of yourself as wearing bifocals so that you can examine a problem from the professional's and the student's points of view simultaneously.
Safety Procedures
Safety takes on special importance when you are directly responsible for the health and well-being of 25 or 30 laboratory students. Window-shattering explosions are rare, but it is not uncommon for students to break beakers of acid, cut themselves while inserting glass tubes into rubber stoppers, or ignite a stack of lab notes with a bunsen burner.
If your department's orientation does not cover safety procedures, the professor or lab coordinator in charge of the course will probably take responsibility for describing departmental policies. During the first few weeks of the semester you should demonstrate to students the proper technique of decanting and mixing liquids, handling glassware, organizing a work area, and using burners and other equipment—all of the precautionary measures you now perform almost unconsciously; your students, however, don't have your experience and will, therefore, appreciate your concern and advice.
Student Preparation
Those who have only a hazy recollection of the previous lecture will follow directions mindlessly, but those who have reviewed lecture notes and the lab manual will have some understanding of the experiment's importance. Devise some means to ensure that students are familiar with the lab before they come to class. Some instructors feel that grades on lab reports are incentive enough, while others require students to submit a statement of purposes and procedures or an explanation of why and how the experiment is relevant to the course. Students who have no understanding of why the experiment is important will derive as much knowledge from conducting the experiment as they would from spending a semester in the coffee shop.
Supervising the Experiment
At the beginning of the lab, review the purposes and procedures of the experiment. You might deliver a brief but inspiring lecture on how the experiment relates to current developments in the discipline, or you might discuss the students' statements of objectives. Ask for questions, clarify any ambiguities in the lab manual, and demonstrate special procedures now rather than interrupting the experiment later.
If both you and your students are well prepared, you will be free to perform your most important role, that of guiding the students' development. Try to talk with each student at least once during the experiment. Technical and procedural matters can be handled quickly with a few words of advice or a very brief demonstration. Your primary role, however, is to help students master the steps of scientific inquiry: recognizing and stating a problem, formulating hypotheses, collecting data, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions.
Helping students master each step is not an easy task. You can tell students to "hold the stopper between your index and middle fingers while you're pouring," but telling them to "think better" or "remember what the professor said about that yesterday" will not be very effective. There are a variety of ways to help students solve problems for themselves. Perhaps a scaled down version of the discussion techniques described above tailored to the student and the experiment would work. Or, perhaps you'll take the opposite approach and make yourself available to ask rather than answer questions.
However you approach this part of your task, refrain from giving outright answers or advice. If lab partners ask, "Why can't we get this to come out right?" try asking them a series of questions which leads them to discover the reasons for themselves rather than simply explaining why the experiment failed. Of course sometimes the reason will be relatively simple ("You used hydrochloric instead of nitric acid"), but just as often the reason will be more substantial—a matter of timing, sequence, proportion, or interpretation. Perhaps the student had the necessary data but has overlooked an important step in analyzing the results or is unable to synthesize a solution.
It's very tempting to help students by saying, "Aha, I see where you went wrong," but unless you resist the temptation, they are likely to falter at the same stage in the next experiment. Students may become frustrated if they can't get a straight answer out of you, but they will also learn more.
Teaching in the Studio
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
Studio situations present their own significant problems. Often, especially in performance areas, the role of individual judgment becomes extremely significant and the teacher has some hard questions to answer before the course begins. For example, instructional objectives take on particular importance when a teacher must consider whether talented performers who do little work will be judged equally as less talented performers who must work hard to achieve the same level of performance. Although much will vary depending on the precise instructional situation, the following guidelines may help.
Performance classes need to be planned carefully. The instructor is advised to determine in advance, and clearly communicate to the students, how the importance of such things as talent, level of achievement, attitude, effort, and attendance will be viewed. One major dilemma is the relative importance of process and product in the course. Will the instructor feel the students have achieved the course goal if they demonstrate an excellent process, even if their final product is bad? Does the instructor care just about the quality of the art work produced, or is s/he equally (or more) interested in how the product was arrived at? Such issues require serious consideration before the syllabus is written. Whatever the decision, the instructor is advised to make sure all students have an attainable goal for the course, however much talent or inherent ability they may have.
If process is of interest, the instructor needs to determine some way that it can be measured, both for evaluation and improvement, and build this into the course.
Other than personal observation and assistance, dancers or actors might be required to keep a rehearsal log, or artists may be asked to keep a journal listing the dates and reasons for major breakthroughs in the project. Instructors might give quizzes on readings or require students to turn in rough drafts, plans, or outlines as ways of documenting process.
When giving feedback, it is important to do so constructively (this is particularly important when a student may have a good deal of emotional investment in a creative project). It is imperative to restrict criticisms to things that students can do something about (this restriction may require more conscious effort than the instructor expects) and to help them overcome the barriers that only appear insurmountable.
Instructors can work on recognizing potential. Some students will be obviously talented in the studio area; others will have abilities that have not yet surfaced. It is the teacher's job to pull that talent out into the open and not to make snap judgments.
It is especially easy in performance areas for a teacher to take on the role of parent. While nurturing students is obviously important, it is equally important not to be patronizing about their achievements. Similarly, although students may be fellow artists at a difficult point in their careers, it is crucial to retain as much objectivity as possible when it comes to their performances and not become too emotionally or personally invested in their creative growth.
Working with Students in the Field
When students are working in the field (as student teachers or as interns, for example), the instructor is likely to see them only rarely. The number one point of contact for the student will be whomever is directly cooperating with them in their external activity. Selection of this important person needs to be made with great care and it is crucial to enlist her/his full cooperation and to open the lines of communication before the student is sent out. The field contact should be made fully conversant with what is expected from the student, the present level of the student's ability, what methods of evaluation will be employed (and who will be responsible for them), and other details of the field experience.
Once again, it is particularly important to communicate course objectives and methods of evaluation to students. It is good to let them know how often someone will be coming to see them (although perhaps not when) and what will be looked for. The person who is working with them on a daily basis is, of course, an appropriate person to offer help, advice, and evaluative input.
Students with serious problems should know that they can contact their instructor at any point in their assignment without the contact being taken as an admission of failure. It is appropriate for the instructor to initiate some contact with students in the field from time to time. Doing so could diminish the sense of isolation that they may be feeling.
If the aim of a field visit is simply to watch the student in action, the observer can try to minimize the effect of her/his presence as much as possible. Inevitably, the student will be more nervous and those participating in the experience may also change their typical behavior. It is a good idea for instructors to tell students that they understand that this will inevitably happen. If the student is in the field for an extended period, there will be the opportunities to make several visits, thus making it easier for the observer to encounter a typical student experience. One also needs to be wary of creating a difficult climate. Two evaluators who talk a great deal to each other during the field exercise, for example, can be extremely distracting to everyone who is participating. Similarly, there is a danger of undermining the authority of the person working in the field (once that has been destroyed, it is often impossible to recover). Criticisms, for the most part, are best delivered away from the field environment.
The particular learning strategies and activities that are selected for engaging students actively will depend on the context of the specific course and student preparation with which the strategies are employed. Given the wide variety of strategies available, however, there are ways to pervade every course with opportunities for students to become actively involved in learning during class time.
In addition to increasing motivation and providing feedback at crucial points, strategies that engage students help to develop the competencies of reading, speaking, writing, critical thinking, and problem solving that are marks of the welleducated person.
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
Before trying to improve skills at lecturing, each instructor must determine if the lecture approach is the best method of teaching for the achievement of the instructional goals of the class. Lecturing is very appropriate for some goals and very inappropriate for others.
Among the strengths of lecturing are:
• The speaker can convey enthusiasm for the subject (which stimulates interest among students and can increase learning), and can provide a role model of the scholar in action.
• Lectures can convey material otherwise unavailable, including original research or recent developments that have not yet been published.
• Lectures provide organization, particularly for students who read poorly or who are unable to organize print material themselves.
• Lectures are a low-risk situation for students, in that most of the activity is the responsibility of the instructor.
• Lectures emphasize learning by listening, an advantage for students who learn well this way.
Among the drawbacks of lecturing are:
• Students are largely passive in lecture situations, and little feedback about learning is thus available.
• Lectures are not well suited to complex, detailed, or abstract material.
• Lectures do not readily promote higher levels of learning such as application, analysis, and synthesis.
• Lectures assume that all students are learning at the same pace and at the same level of understanding, which is hardly ever true.
• Lectures rarely sustain student attention, and tend to be forgotten more quickly than more interactive lessons.
Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Planning a Lecture
When you start to plan a lecture, first consider your audience. Undergraduate students represent a broad cross-section of backgrounds and skills, and as a result may arrive at college with varying levels of competence. You neither want to talk over their heads nor patronize them. You will be more effective if you try as much as possible to draw on knowledge they already have or appeal to experiences that, by analogy, suit the topic.
Before preparing the lecture, ask yourself: How does the lecture fit into the course as a whole? What are my objectives? Do I want to provide the students with an overview of the subject, give them some background information, or provoke them into further contemplation?
Once you've decided that the nature of your topic is indeed suitable for a lecture and considered both your objectives and the knowledge level of your audience, you still want to make sure that what you need to cover will fit within the time allotted. A typical lament TAs have is: "There is so much material and too little time." Good organization will enable you to eliminate less relevant material so that you may cover important points more thoroughly.
Generating an outline
Once you have determined your subject, formulate one general question which covers the heart of it, one you could answer in a single lecture. Take time to write it down and study it. Then generate three or four key points which you could develop to answer this question. Note these down under the question. You are now beginning your lecture outline.
Filling in the outline
Your next task is to define the elements of your key points and generate effective examples or analogies for each. Examples generated "on the spur of the moment" in class tend to be trivial; if prepared in advance, examples can both illustrate a particular point and broaden students' understanding of the subject. Think the examples through carefully and consider ways to illustrate them with chalkboard diagrams, slides, overhead transparencies, demonstrations, or case studies, any of which can increase students' understanding and interest.
Ways to Begin
Having prepared an interesting, detailed lecture, it is still sometimes difficult to decide upon a way to begin delivering it once you are in the classroom. Here is a list of possible techniques for beginning a lecture, many of which rely on some kind of "hook" to capture students' attention from the start (adapted with permission from Bailey, 1986):
• State a question which will be answered (or at least better understood) by the end of the lecture.
• Pose a problem. The difference between this and stating a question is that a question is typically a single sentence, while a problem may require a paragraph or two.
• Give an example of the phenomenon to be discussed.
• Tell a personal anecdote or one about a friend or famous colleague.
• Create a demonstration which illustrates the topic, or puzzles the students.
• Provide a review of some previously covered material, when directly related to and essential for understanding the current lecture.
• Provide an overview of the lecture.
• State the objectives to be accomplished with the lecture.
• Tell a funny story or joke, if relevant to the material.
• Give the lecture a title.
Delivering the Lecture
There are a number of points to remember about the style and clarity of your lecture presentation. We would like to make the following suggestions to ensure that your lecture is clear and well received (adapted with permission from Cashin, 1985):
• Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. This may seem obvious but undoubtedly we have all sinned against this prescription. Perhaps in the very first class you should suggest that people signal you if they cannot hear, e.g., cup a hand behind their ear.
• Avoid distracting mannerisms, verbal tics like "ah" or "you know," straightening your notes or tie or beads.
• Provide an introduction. Begin with a concise statement, something that will preview the lecture. Give the listeners a set or frame of reference for the remainder of your presentation. Refer to previous lectures.
Attract and focus their attention.
• Present an outline. Write it on the chalkboard, or use an overhead transparency, or a handout. Then be sure that you refer to it as you move from point to point in your lecture.
• Emphasize principles and generalizations. Research suggests that these are what people really remember—and they are probably what you really want to teach.
• Repeat your points in two or three different ways. Your listeners may not have heard it the first time, or understood it, or had time to write it down. Include examples or concrete ideas. These help both understanding and remembering. Use short sentences.
• Stress important points. This can be done with your tone of voice. It can also be done explicitly, e.g., "Write this down; This is important; This will be on the test."
• Pause. Give your listeners time to think, and to write.
The Conclusion of the Lecture
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992 McKeachie (1986) says that in the conclusion of the lecture one has the opportunity to make up for any lapses in the body of the lecture. He also notes that encouraging students to formulate questions by asking questions oneself can facilitate memory and understanding. The prospect of unanswered questions to be treated in future lectures creates anticipation. Other possibilities include:
• Restate the main points (without cueing that it is a summary) by using a new example, asking for the main points, and showing where the class is now.
• Ask a student to summarize the lecture's key ideas.
• Restate what students are expected to have gained from the lecture. Instructors can stimulate discussions and increase interaction after presenting a lecture or large amount of content by pairing up students and giving them two to three minutes to react, respond, and raise questions or issues about the material just presented. They can ask for volunteers to report out what were the issues or questions raised in their dyads.
A final point: Lecturers should not let their students tyrannize them (through packing bags, talking, moving around) into cutting the lecture short. Herr (1984) suggests that instructors avoid verbal or behavioral cues that habitually signal the end of class, such as gathering notes or returning to the podium, and that they can prepare remarks to refocus waning student attention, a friendly reminder such as, "You have four more minutes for which you have paid, and I shall end promptly, so just wait to grab your backpacks."
Adapted with permission from Hyman, 1980
By learning to handle questions effectively in the classroom, instructors can accomplish a number of interrelated goals. First, by engaging students in dialogue, the usual "one-way" flow of information from instructor to students is transformed into a more interactive process. Second, encouraging students to ask questions helps them become more active participants in their own learning. Finally, skillful questioning by the teacher can encourage students to engage in higher level cognitive processes (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), thus helping to develop students' critical thinking capacities. (For additional suggestions, see the section on Discussions.)
Managing Students' Questions
Strange as it may seem, many college teachers are ill at ease when students ask questions. For some reason they have not learned how to field questions. Fielding refers to how a teacher reacts to questioning in a broader sense than direct response to questions; responding is but one fielding option. The skill of fielding student questions is vital for a teacher who wants students to think about the topic of study; one result of student thinking is student questioning.
If there are few student questions, it may be that students are not attending to the teacher's remarks and not thinking about the topic at hand. Alternatively, students may be afraid to ask questions because they think they will be put down. It is also possible that students do not ask because they believe that the teacher doesn't want them to ask questions. That is, the teacher somehow discourages students from asking questions. This discouragement is rarely explicit; few teachers actually say, "Don't ask me any questions." (They may say, "Hold your questions for a few minutes."). Generally the discouragement is implicit. It comes from the negative way a teacher fields a student question. For example: "We discussed that issue yesterday," or "That question is really not on target." Sometimes an instructor will answer the student's question and then say something like, "Where were we before we got sidetracked?" After one of these negative fielding moves a student may say, "I'll never ask another question in this class."
It is difficult to explain why teachers discourage student questions in this way. However, some tentative reasons can be offered. Teachers feel the need to be in control of both the content and of the procedures in the classroom. They feel that they need to "cover" the established course content. Time is precious. There is never enough of it to cover the material. Thus, they discourage student questions because the questions may lead them away from their material. Teachers also want to appear knowledgeable to their students. Student questions may embarrass the instructor who is unable to respond adequately. In short, instructors fear that they may lose control or lose face if students ask questions.
The potential for loss of control and loss of face is real. It surely is possible for a teacher to go off the track and appear to lack knowledge. However, it is also true that the fear of this happening is overdrawn and the probability for it to occur is low. The teacher must weigh the advantages gained by permitting and encouraging questions against the desire to maintain tight control.
Questioning Students
There are several tactics suggested by the current literature which may assist teachers in improving the use of questioning in their teaching (adapted with permission from Hyman, 1980):
• After asking a question, wait for a response. Do not answer the question yourself; repeat it, rephrase it, modify it, call on another student to answer it, or replace it with another question until you have waited at least three to five seconds. Students need time to think about the question and prepare their responses. The research indicates that with a wait-time of three to five seconds, students respond more, use complex cognitive processes, and begin to ask more questions. One word of caution is in order here, though.
Sometimes when teachers reword questions because they believe that the initial question is unclear, the result is greater student confusion. Students may not know which question to try to answer. In short, ask a question, wait, and thereby express your expectation to receive a response and your willingness to listen to it. Be patient.
• Ask only one question at a time. Do not ask a string of questions one after the other in the same utterance. For example, ask, "Compare the skeleton of an ape with that of a human." Do not ask, "How are apes and humans alike? Are they alike in bone structure and/or family structure and/or places where they live?" A series of questions tends to confuse students. They are not able to determine just what the teacher is requesting from them. Napell (1978) states that videotape replays reveal an interesting pattern when the teacher asks a series of questions: "Hands will go up in response to the first question, and a few will go down during the second, and those hands remaining up will gradually get lower and lower as the instructor finally concludes with a question very different from the one for which the hands were initially raised."
• When student questions are desired, request them explicitly, wait, and then acknowledge student contributions. For example, a teacher may wish to solicit questions about the plays of Shakespeare which the class has been studying. The instructor might say, "Are there any questions or clarifications of points we have raised?" or "Please ask questions about the main characters or the minor characters, whichever you wish, at this point," or "In light of Sally's allusion to Lady MacBeth, I invite you to ask her to elaborate or clarify."
• Indicate to students that questions are not a sign of stupidity but rather the manifestation of concern and thought about the topic. Be very careful not to convey subtly or even jokingly the message that a student is stupid for asking for a clarification or restatement of an idea already raised in class or in the text.
• Use a variety of probing and explaining questions. Ask questions that require different approaches to the topic, such as causal, teleological, functional, or chronological explanations. Avoid beginning your question with the words "why" and "explain," and instead phrase your questions with words which give stronger clues about the type of explanation sought. Thus, for a chronological explanation instead of asking, "Why did we have a depression in the 1930's?" try "What series of events led up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the high unemployment in the 1930's?"
• A variety of probes can also be used to stimulate different cognitive processes.
For example, suppose that a student in a sociology class has stated that a woman's most important role in society is to be a mother. The teacher could probe that statement by asking "Why do you say that?" However, it might be more stimulating to ask the student or the class as a whole "If you were Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, or Simone de Beauvior, how would you react to that statement?" or "What are the positive and negative consequences that arise within a family when a woman devotes herself chiefly to being a mother?" or "What actions would you expect the government to take if and when it incorporates your idea into its social and economic policy?"
In responding to student questions there are a number of guidelines which can positively reinforce good student responses and facilitate further discussion. (adapted with permission from Hyman, 1980):
• Praise the student in a strong positive way for a correct answer or response. Use such terms as "excellent answer," "absolutely correct," and "bull's eye." These terms are quite different from the common mild phrases teachers often use such as "O.K.," "hm-hm," and "all right." Especially when the response is long, the teacher should try to find at least some part that deserves praise and then comment on it.
• Make comments pertinent to the specific student response. For example, suppose that a student has offered an excellent response to the question, "What function did the invasion of the Faulklands serve for Argentina?" The instructor might say, "That was excellent, Pat. You included national political reasons as well as mentioning the Argentine drive to become the South American leader." This response gives an excellent rating to the student in an explicit and strong form. It also demonstrates that the instructor has listened carefully to the student's ideas.
• Build on the student's response. If the instructor continues to discuss a point after a student response, s/he should try to incorporate the key elements of the response into the discussion. By using the student's response, the teacher shows that s/he values the points made. By referring to the student explicitly by name (e.g., "As Pat pointed out, the Faulklands' national political status ...") the teacher gives credit where credit is due.
• Avoid the "Yes, but ..." reaction. Teachers use "Yes, but ..." or its equivalent when a response is wrong or at least partly wrong. The overall impact of these phrases is negative and deceptive even though the teacher's intent is probably positive. The "Yes, but ..." fielding move says that the response is correct or appropriate with one breath and then takes away the praise with the next. Some straight-forward alternatives can be recommended:
• Wait to a count of five with the expectation that another student will volunteer a correct or better response.
• Ask, "How did you arrive at that response? (Be careful, though, not to ask this question only when you receive inadequate responses, ask it also at times when you receive a perfectly good response).
• Say, "You're right regarding X and that's great; wrong regarding Y. Now we need to correct Y so we can get everything correct."
• Say, "Thanks. Is there someone who wants to respond to the question or comment on the response we've already heard?"
These four alternatives are obviously not adequate to fit all cases. Indeed, it is generally difficult to field wrong or partially wrong responses because students are sensitive to teacher criticism. However, with these alternatives as examples, you will probably be able to generate others as needed.
Adapted with permission from University of Nevada, Reno
If you are assigned to teach outside of your specialty, you'll have to work to stay at least a week ahead of your brightest students. Remember that you are not responsible for knowing all the answers, so don't feel compelled to apologize for your "lack of knowledge." If you cannot answer a question or you have made an error, admit it, but tell your students where they may find the answer or offer to look it up ...and then do it (this is good advice for teaching within your own field as well). University students are usually forgiving in nature, but the one thing they will not tolerate is subterfuge on the part of an instructor.
Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Most TAs have some responsibility for grading student performance (weekly quizzes or essays, mid-term or final examinations, lab reports or term papers) and those with considerable autonomy often assign final semester grades as well. It is important, then, that you develop a sense of academic standards as quickly as possible, explain them clearly at the beginning of the course, and apply them consistently throughout the semester. However, as you know from your experience as a student, grading practices vary considerably from one instructor to the next.
It will probably take a semester for you to strike a comfortable balance between the "I'm tough—learn because you respect me" and the "I'm compassionate—learn because you love me" extremes of motivating students. Regardless of the approach you take, students will not respect you or your standards unless you provide them with the means to meet your expectations.
Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Students are very sensitive to grades and to the criteria on which the grades are based: "Will this be on the test? How much does the quiz count toward the final grade? Do you consider attendance and participation?" Grading is a thankless job but somebody has to do it, and you may as well be prepared to answer these questions on the first day of class; that means, of course, that you must have answered them for yourself well in advance.
Before constructing an exam or assignment, you need to decide exactly what it is you expect your students to demonstrate that they have learned. Reviewing the instructional objectives you established at the beginning of the term may be a good way to begin. The first step is to think carefully about the goals which you (or the professor teaching the course) have set for the students. Should students have mastered basic terminology and working principles? Should they have developed a broad understanding of the subject? Should they be able to use the principles and concepts taught in the course to solve problems in the field? The next question is how you can best evaluate the extent to which students have achieved these goals.
Perhaps a certain type of test will suggest itself immediately (e.g. multiple choice, matching, fill in the blanks, short answer, problem solving, or essay). If you know what you want to assess and why, then writing the actual questions will be much less frustrating.
Objective Tests
Although by definition no test can be truly "objective" (existing as an object of fact, independent of the mind), an objective test in this handbook refers to a test made up of multiple choice, matching, fill-in, true/false, or short answer items. Objective tests have the advantages of allowing an instructor to assess a large and potentially representative sample of course material and of allowing for reliable and efficient test scoring. The disadvantages of objective tests include a tendency to emphasize only "recognition" skills, the ease with which correct answers can be guessed on many item types, and the inability to measure students' organization and synthesis of material. (adapted with permission from Yonge, 1977)
Since the practical arguments for giving objective exams are compelling, we offer a few suggestions for writing multiple choice items. The first suggestion is to avoid this testing style if you can. If it is unavoidable, there are numerous ways of generating objective test items. Many textbooks are accompanied by teachers' manuals containing collections of items, and your professor or former teachers of the same course may be willing to share items with you. In either case, however, the general rule is adapt rather than adopt. Existing items will rarely fit your specific needs, so you should tailor them to reflect more adequately your objectives.
Second, design multiple choice items so that students who know the subject or material adequately are more likely to choose the correct alternative and students with less adequate knowledge are more likely to choose a wrong alternative. That sounds simple enough, but you want to avoid writing items which lead students to choose the right answer for the wrong reasons. For instance, avoid making the correct alternative the longest or most qualified one, or the only one that is grammatically appropriate to the stem. Even a careless shift in tense or verb-subject agreement can often suggest the correct answer.
Finally, it is very easy to disregard the above advice and slip into writing items which require only rote recall but are nonetheless difficult because they are taken from obscure passages (footnotes, for instance). Some items requiring only recall might be appropriate, but try to design most of the items to tap the students' understanding of the subject. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1985)
Here are a few additional guidelines to keep in mind when writing multiple choice tests (adapted with permission from Yonge, 1977):
• the item-stem (the lead-in to the choices) should clearly formulate a problem
• as much of the question as possible should be included in the stem
• randomize occurrence of the correct response (i.e., you don't always want "C" to be the right answer.
• make sure there is only one clearly correct answer (unless you are instructing students to select more than one)
• make the wording in the response choices consistent with the item stem
• don't load the stem down with irrelevant material
• beware of using answers such as "none of these" or "all of the above"
• use negatives or double negatives sparingly in the question or stem
Essay Tests
Conventional wisdom accurately portrays short answer and essay examinations as the easiest to write and the most difficult to grade, particularly if they are graded well. However, essay items are also considered the most effective means of assessing students' mastery of a subject. If it is crucial that students understand a particular concept, you can force them to respond to a single question, but you might consider asking them to write on one or two of several options. TAs generally expect a great deal from students, but remember that their mastery of a subject depends as much on prior preparation and experience as it does on diligence and intelligence; even at the end of the semester some students will be struggling to understand the material.
Design your questions so that all students can answer at their own levels. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1985)
The following are some suggestions which may enhance the quality of the essay tests that you produce (adapted with permission from Ronkowski, 1986):
• Keep in mind the processes that you want measured (e.g., analysis, synthesis).
• Start questions with words such as "compare," "contrast," "explain why". Don't use "what," "who," "when," or "list". (These latter types are better measured with objective-type items.)
• Write items that define the parameters of expected answers as clearly as possible.
• Don't have too many possible answers for the time available.
Reading 50 papers or 200 essay exams presents special problems, especially when all 50 or 200 are responses to the same topic or question. How do you maintain consistency? You are more likely to be thorough with the first few papers you read than with the rest and less likely to be careful with the comments when you are tired. To avoid such problems, read five or six papers before you start grading to get an idea of the range of quality (some instructors rank-order the papers in groups before they assign grades), and stop grading when you get tired, irritable, or bored. When you start again, read over the last couple of papers you graded to make sure you were fair. Some instructors select "range finder" papers—middle range A, B, C and D papers to which they refer for comparison.
Depending upon the number of students you have, you may have to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes on a three- to four-page paper. Try to select only the most insightful passages for praise and only the most shallow responses or repeated errors for comment; in others words, don't turn a neatly typed paper into a case of the measles. Avoid the tendency of new TAs to edit the paper for the student. Remember, also, that if you comment on and correct everything, a student loses a sense of where priorities lie. Do not give the impression that semicolons are as important to good writing and to a grade as, say, adequate support for an argument. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1968)
In assigning grades to essay questions you may want to use one of the following methods (adapted with permission from Cashin, 1987):
• Analytic (point-score) Method: In this method the ideal or model answer is broken down into several specific points regarding content. A specific subtotal point value is assigned to each. When reading the exam, you need to decide how much of each maximum subtotal you judge the student's answer to have earned. When using this method be sure to outline the model (ideal or acceptable) answer BEFORE you begin to read the essays.
• Global (holistic) Method: In this method the rater reads the entire essay and makes an overall judgment about how successfully the student has covered everything that was expected in the answer and assigns the paper to a category (grade). Generally, five to nine categories are sufficient. Ideally, all of the essays should be read quickly and sorted into five to nine piles, then each pile reread to check that every essay has been accurately (fairly) assigned to that pile which will be given a specific score or letter grade.
Grading of multiple choice exams can be done by hand or through the use of computer answer sheets available through your department. If you choose the computer grading route you must be sure to provide number 2 pencils for students to mark answers on their sheets. These are usually available from your department's main office. At the time of the exam it is helpful to write on the chalkboard all pertinent information required on the answer sheet (course name, course number, section number, instructor's name, etc.). Also remind students to fill in their university identification numbers completely to ensure that their answers will be properly graded by the computer.
Procedures for grading and the distribution of grades to students will most likely be negotiated with the professor teaching the course. Many will have established procedures for the distribution of grades, while others may leave it up to you. When posting grades in any kind of public area (outside your or the professor's office, for example) be sure that students' names are not visible on the grade sheets. Grades should be recorded by ID number rather than by name. If the exams have been computer graded, the printout you receive will include a sheet with ID numbers and grades only, which is suitable for posting. Another method is to record grades on the attendance roster, photocopy it, and then clip out the section of names on the sheet, leaving only ID numbers and grades.
Handing back papers or essays to a large class can be a very time-consuming task.
Some instructors deal with this by leaving time at the end of class to hand back assignments or tests, or they may ask students to come to their office to pick up papers. The latter alternative provides an opportunity for students to get more personal feedback from you about their papers.
This table shows letter grades and their corresponding grade point equivalents. For further information and elaboration of grading policies in your department, consult with your supervising faculty member.
A = 4.0
AB = 3.5
B = 3.0
BC = 2.5
C = 2.0
CD = 1.5
D = 1.0
F = 0.0
I = Incomplete
W = Withdrawn
P = Passed