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Teaching Assistants/Associates play an important role at ASU. Whether you are teaching courses or labs, tutoring, leading discussions, marking assignments or exams, or mentoring students during your office hours, your work has a tremendous impact on the lives of undergraduate students and the quality of their education.
TA work is also very rewarding. It is a rare opportunity to share your knowledge of your discipline with others, to learn from students’ questions and ideas, and to improve your presentation, assessment, and facilitation skills.
As a TA it is your responsibility to handle whatever happens in the classroom. This means you need to be aware of university and college policies for handling situations from academic integrity to sexual harassment to missed exams. It is impossible to prepare for every situation you may face. However, this guide is just that, a guide to the policies, people and tools that will help you respond. This Resource Guide for Teaching Assistants/Associates offers a wealth of information to help you have a successful TA experience. Whether this is your first semester as a TA, or you are a “veteran” TA who serves as a peer mentor, the resources in this guide can assist you in your development as a teacher. We encourage you to explore the guide and to use it as a resource.
Teaching requires courage, dedication, and hard work. It can also be one of the most interesting and fulfilling experiences of your life! Good luck and enjoy! (TA Resource Guide PDF, revised August 2014)
We would like to extend a special Thank You to the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Many of the ideas, adaptations, and information that follow are based on their “A Handbook for Teaching Assistants” by Allyson Hadwin and Susan Wilcox.
An extended thank you to the following ASU campus community members, who in 2009 were an integral part of the assembly of this resource guide.
You will play many roles as a Teaching Assistant/Associate (TA). These roles include that of subject expert and facilitator of learning, role model and advisor for students, assistant to a professor, representative of a department, and employee of the University. Perhaps most importantly, the TA acts as liaison, providing both a bridge and a filter between the student and the course instructor. Depending on the particular situation, these roles can be very rewarding or very trying.
The roles you will play and duties you will perform as a TA vary from one department to another. The purpose of this resource guide is to provide assistance and resources for a wide variety of TA roles and duties. All TAs share specific responsibilities regardless of how their roles may differ. The TA/RA Policies and Procedures Handbook defines these general appointment and enrollment policies.
Teaching Assistant/Associates have responsibilities to: the professional standards of the discipline, the general academic standards of the university, the department to which the TA is attached, the students, and to the TA themselves. The diverse set of roles and responsibilities held by the Teaching Assistant/Associate also carries the potential for serious value conflicts. It is not our intention to provide grounds for either assessing or resolving these conflicts, but merely to provide a realistic picture of the range of these responsibilities and implied ethical obligations.
As a graduate student, you should be concerned with your responsibilities to yourself and your department. You have been accepted into the graduate program primarily as a student and should therefore ensure that:
As a teacher, your responsibilities are primarily to the students. To show that you want to help the students with their learning, you should:
As an assistant to a faculty member, your responsibilities are primarily directed towards that individual. It is your responsibility to:
In your capacity as an expert, you are expected to represent the department by being knowledgeable (as best you can) in the subject matter of the course. Your responsibilities are to:
Students will come to you for advice. In your capacity as an advisor you should:
Teaching Assistant/Associate Development (TAD) program
Must complete Teaching Assistant/Associate Development (TAD) program and review the TA Resource Guide for complete details go to the Teaching Assistant and Research Assistants webpage.
Obtain a Sun Card/ASU Photo ID. For details go to the ASU Sun Devil Card Services website.
Parking/public transit information
Review information regarding Class Registration, Class Rosters, Your ASU Account, Personal Record Information, Class Information, Blackboard and much more at: MyASU.
This section helps you get started in your position as a Teaching Assistant/Associate. Some of these issues will vary from one department to another. The hiring academic unit should provide you with the name of the instructor you will be assisting, as well as information regarding the course name, description, times, etc. Contact the course instructor and make yourself known. Check that it is really the course you are supposed to TA for, and that the instructor knows your strengths and weaknesses in the subject matter of the course.
While most departments try to match TA interests with positions available, some courses must be taught whether qualified Teaching Assistant/Associates are available or not. If the course is new to you, quickly analyze the level of competence you need to reach. You may need to do some additional study. Ask your supervisor for help with this—some suggested reading, for example. If you feel absolutely (or even partially) incompetent to handle your assigned task, consult the course instructor and the Graduate Studies coordinator immediately.
Initial observations and impressions are too important to risk an ill-prepared introduction. Don’t take the first day of classes for granted. Think about the course, why it is important, what you will say about it, how you will describe course content, and your role in presenting it to students. Students are often overwhelmed with input the first day of class. They may not recall the details and they may lose the syllabus. What matters is what actually happens. What kind of an impression did you make? Did you let them know why the course is interesting, why you are pleased to teach it, what they will know and be able to do by the end of the course? The effort spent preparing something special lets students know that you care about them and the course.
Make sure that you have the following:
Although these dates are available through the online schedule of classes, you should remind your students (preferably on your syllabus) of important deadlines and that they should make their decisions accordingly. As instructors, you need to be available to students so that they may obtain the requisite signatures and process their requests in a timely fashion. For more information on deadline dates visit: asu.edu/calendar/academic.html.
If a student wishes to audit a class or enroll for pass/fail, the student MUST obtain instructor’s approval to audit prior to registering and paying fees. Students may NOT change from a graded option to audit or from audit/ pass/fail to grading after starting a course. It is not a form of grade point protection and not to be used in lieu of withdrawal or the awarding of a grade which has been earned.
Incomplete (the grade of “I”)
When a student is doing satisfactory work but has some acute disruption at the end of the semester, you may decide to allow the student to finish the work later. The grade of “I” is treated as a contract (and some departments/Colleges have “I” forms) between the student and the instructor. Students do not re-enroll in a class to complete the “I.” “I” should be issued only after consulting the department.
Instructors are asked to evaluate students at midterms for academic progress. If a student’s grade at midterm is a “D” or an “E”, a midterm report is mailed to the student. The midterm “D” and “E” grades are not recorded on the student’s permanent records. For more information regarding grades contact your hiring academic unit or student records and grades at students.asu.edu/student-records-grades.
If a student has a critical health problem that disrupts his/her academic work, or if a member of the student’s immediate family dies, then the department may grant that student a medical or compassionate withdrawal. Medical/Compassionate withdrawals are at the College’s discretion and there are procedures that a student can follow in requesting these. If a student approaches you requesting a Medical/Compassionate Withdrawal, you should refer them to the Dean’s office of your College. Please do not make promises that cannot be kept.
Exceptions to the deadlines and Medical/Compassionate withdrawals are made only for extraordinary reasons. Several of the Colleges have designated individuals to field questions. If you are unsure about a College or University policy, please contact your hiring academic unit.
Although for the most part your teaching may go very well, inevitably you will face some problems with students that are not easily resolved. Sometimes unusual student behavior in the classroom can be overlooked, but not if it disrupts the work of the group or upsets some of the class members. Some problems you can handle yourself, while more serious ones need to be referred to the professor, academic chair or another department on campus designed to assist in the area of concern, for example Counseling or Public Safety, see Appendix A for a list of other resources.
You should get in touch with students who do poorly on the first test or exam, or who miss a couple of homework assignments, to find out what the problem is. It is usually you who will have to do the seeking out, since students are embarrassed by poor grades or performance and thus feel awkward about seeing you. Many will try to pretend to themselves there is not a problem, or optimistically hope that things will go better “when they get things together.” Some first year students behave this way when after 12 years of success in school they find themselves for the first time in academic trouble and have to cope with the resulting internal and external pressures.
Your job is to advise these students to make sensible plans for their academic work. They may need suggestions on how to study and manage their time, as well as help with the course material. Encourage them to take advantage of the services available like the Student Success Centers or perhaps there is another student in the section who is interested in tutoring. If the problems seem serious, you should contact an advisor in the student’s major or the Counseling Services.
It is important to develop awareness of your personal values as you strive to meet your academic goals. Becoming a respected, honest, trustworthy person in your chosen profession begins with developing academic integrity in your approach to learning and earning credits toward graduation.
Faculty and TAs should make appropriate preparations for all encounters with students, meet classes as scheduled, evaluate students’ work fairly and impartially, and be prompt for prearranged conferences and regularly scheduled office hours. Inappropriate language in the classroom, remarks or jokes in class or during office hours and frequent deviations from the course topic have no proper place in the University. These requirements and expectations of the course should be outlined in the course syllabus.
All members of the academic community should conduct themselves in a straightforward and honorable manner. It is also important know and follow the FERPA guidelines and to respect the principle of confidentiality. Do not, for example:
As a TA, you are responsible for ensuring that academic dishonesty is not rewarded. Students need to know that if they work honestly, they will not suffer because of those who do not. Challenging a student you think may have cheated or plagiarized is not pleasant. If you feel uncomfortable in this area of responsibility, helpful literature and the Student Code of Conduct Policy are available in Appendix B.
There are a various types of academic dishonesty and as a TA you should become familiar with them and the procedures for pursuing charges of Academic Dishonesty.
Plagiarism is using another’s words or ideas without citing (giving credit to) the source. The source could be your teachers, fellow students (lab reports, computer programs, as well as papers), the internet, books, published papers, newspapers, and magazines.
“Twofers” is submitting the same paper for two different classes, without permission from your professor(s).
Cheating on exams
Zero tolerance at ASU and consequences of cheating
ASU’s policy on cheating is zero tolerance. If you are caught cheating, you could face severe short and long-term consequences, such as:
Most important of all, you may risk not being knowledgeable in your profession, and you may damage your reputation permanently. In short, cheating is not worth the cost!
Develop strategies to avoid cheating or being tempted to cheat. Try these:
These procedures are designed to encourage a fair and appropriate response to allegations of academic dishonesty. They may be modified in individual cases, so long as the student is provided an opportunity to respond to allegations of academic dishonesty within a reasonable time after those allegations have been made. An advisor may accompany the student at any point in the process. The advisor will not be permitted to participate directly or speak for the student, but may be present during meetings and hearings.
Response to complaint
For additional information, please refer to the Student Academic Integrity Policy, available on the web at provost.asu.edu/index.phpo?q=academicintegrity.
The professional responsibility for assigning grades is vested in the instructor of the course, and requires the careful application of professional judgment. However, make every effort to fairly hear and respond to student concerns. Here are a few tips for dealing with grade disputes.
Problems with Professors (Your Supervisor)
As TA the challenging situations you will face will more likely involve annoying student behavior rather than serious student problems. Learning how to handle these quickly and effectively will make the course more enjoyable for you and the other students. Here are some brief characterizations of “problem” students encountered by TAs before you, along with suggestions from experienced TAs for handling these difficulties in a positive manner.
There is a young man in the first row who talks too much: he blurts out answers before others have a chance, asks complicated questions off the subject being discussed, or holds forth at length on a pet topic. An occasional digression is fine, but if this behavior persists for several meetings you need to take action.
Start indirectly, trying to head off trouble by saying “Let’s spread the answers around a bit,” and obviously passing over the loud-mouth, or saying, “That’s a fascinating topic; let’s discuss it after class.”
A subsequent strategy is to talk directly to the student one on one. After class breaks up ask the student to stay for a minute. Then in the empty classroom, in an office, or over coffee where you can talk privately, explain that you have a problem and ask for the student’s help. (The problem is indeed yours; after all, talking too much is not causing any pain to this student.) Tell the student that you value participation and wish more students contributed. If this student’s answers are generally good, say so. Do not criticize, but point out matter-of-factly the difficulty of involving everyone if someone dominates. If the student’s knowledge of the subject is really advanced, should that student be in another class? When the point has been made and acknowledged, change the subject. At the end repeat your determination to involve everyone in class.
It is a situation that occurs in various sexual guises, but typically let’s say you are a teacher of average libido, who can’t help notice an attractive student who sits in the second row, asks good questions, and sometimes comes up after class with a comment. You find yourself drawn to this student and wonder if you should ask this person for coffee, dinner, or a show. Our advice is simple—DON’T.
You are not equals: this is a power relationship. This means that if you have misinterpreted things and the student does not really want to go out with you, you may leave the student feeling pressured and unhappy. Even if the student does like you and you become involved with each other, the unequal relationship and possible sense of ulterior motives on either side can make for a lot of grief or trouble. Even if the two of you can manage it, others in the class will be suspicious and cynical, and your relationship with them will deteriorate. So, don’t make a move until the term is over and the grades are out.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you.” Students should have at least as much right to silence as those arrested for a crime. No one can or should force participation. Nevertheless, students who attend regularly but never speak up may be waiting for encouragement. Learn their names; when handing back assignments, compliment a particular solution if you can; ask them to come in during your office hour. After calling on three or four others in class, call on the silent one by name. None of these strategies may work. That is all right. Only gentleness is justified here.
It may be flattering to have a student continually asking questions after class, filling your office hours, perhaps seeking extensive personal advice. It can also be a pain in the neck. If so, you have to decide where the problem is and act.
Students may come to you with personal or academic problems, because they like and trust you. Listen as you would listen to a friend who wanted to talk, and respond as you would to a friend, offering what advice you can.
If you feel more experienced guidance is called for—this will certainly be so if the problems are serious, with possibly deep-lying causes—then be wary of offering too much advice of your own. It is better to refer the student to one of the University’s counseling resources. Never promise a student complete confidentiality. It is important that the student know that you may be able to avoid using names but that you will have to talk to someone for your own health and safety, as well as the student’s. In general, for serious cases, try to have the student make the appropriate appointment by phone while still in your office.
A list of campus resources is included in Appendix A. If you are not sure what the best thing to do is, call and ask for advice. If a life may be at stake, it does not matter how unlikely you think it is, act fast. If nothing else, contact the dean’s office and voice your concerns.
Office hours should be noted on your syllabus, on your office door, and announced in your classes. Office hours are an important extension of the classroom. (Not all departments have space for graduate offices. If this is the case in your department, find out the usual procedure for making yourself available to your students.) Office hours provide an opportunity and place where the University environment can be personalized. Students are not necessarily required to come in during those times. Make sure that the office hours you set are appropriate to the students’ needs. For example, try to schedule your office hours before classes meet if possible. You will also need to be sure that your office hours don’t conflict with office hours held by your office-mates.
For a first visit/introduction to your office some TAs find it useful to invite students to their office - two at a time. This ensures that they know where you are located and eases the stress of a first meeting. It may be easiest to do this when you hand back the first assignment.
As an integral part of teaching, your office hours should be included in the workload allocation you arrive at with your supervisor. The number of office hours you hold must be discussed jointly. No matter how many you schedule, however, you will no doubt also find it necessary to be available at other times. Announce with your scheduled hours that you will meet students at other times by appointment. It is extremely important that you make it clear that you are also a student and require notice to schedule appointments around your own work. Some TAs choose to hand out their home numbers. You may decide to do this, but be prepared to be called at all hours unless you make the “appropriate” hours VERY clear. Tell them your response time for returning calls and emails.
Finally, be reliable. If you can’t make an appointment or will not be present during your posted office hours, leave a message and an alternative time.
Students will come to your office for a variety of reasons. You may find yourself helping a student with the material for your course, with the logistics of a course that contains unfamiliar material, or with a personal problem. Be aware of ways to facilitate a helpful tutorial or counseling session.
Try to be as approachable as possible. The best thing to do when a student comes in during your office hours is to make him or her feel welcome. It is very easy to make students feel that they are intruding; it takes only a little bit of care to create a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere in which communication is natural and easy.
In a situation where the student is asking for more personal counseling, remember there are trained professionals for this purpose. If you feel that the student needs more specific advice, you may be able to suggest someone who can provide it. Appendix A provides a referral list for you. When in doubt, always consult the faculty member you are working with, especially if you feel that a student may be having serious emotional or other difficulties.
Students may ask you to recommend them for a job, acceptance to another institution, or graduate school. If you do not feel you know the student well enough, simply explain why not. If you are willing to write the letter, do so promptly, while you still have the student and his or her performance sharply in mind. A carefully written and thoughtful letter takes time and you are a busy person, but remember that others have done and will do the same for you.
Ask if there is a specific form to be used or whether a letter is needed. Have the student note the nature of the job or situation for which he or she is applying and any particular abilities that you might mention. Then be as specific as possible. Focus on the student’s best points, but don’t exaggerate; be honest. Be sure to define the context within which you knew the person, e.g. in class, as an advisor formally or informally, and state over what period of time. If you later see the student for whom you wrote the recommendation, ask about the results. This not only lets the student know you are interested but gives you feedback on your own letter-writing efforts.
Keep your old grade books for some time. Students may call upon you long after a class is finished. Some instructors make a habit of noting both good and not-so-good points about students in the margins of their grade books. This serves as a mental refresher if it has been some time since you last dealt with the student.
Keep in mind that you are legally responsible for statements you make in your recommendation, to the extent, at least, that you are liable for any deleterious remarks you make. If you have reason to be concerned about something you want to express, preface what you have to say with something like “To the best of my knowledge…”
It is a violation of ASU policy to discriminate against any employee or student on the basis of that individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, Vietnam-era veteran status, special disabled veteran status, other protected veteran status, newly separated veteran status, or any other unlawful discriminatory grounds. A safe learning and working environment encompasses protection from physical danger on campus, freedom from threat, intimidation, harassment, and hostile behavior. Significant indicators of a positive climate are that individuals feel valued and respected and believe they are treated fairly. You will all be spending many hours together during the semester. Make the classroom a place where everyone wants to be. Students who feel comfortable in the classroom will have better attendance, participate more, and take their education more seriously. There are several things you can do to help create a positive environment:
Most likely, you will be in the academic area you have chosen for yourself. Remember what drew you to this field and made you want to spend a lifetime in it. What first interested you in the subject; what continues to interest you; how it has been/continues to be important in your life; why did you want to teach this course?
The importance of trust in the student-teacher relationship cannot be overemphasized. Two components of trustworthiness are teacher credibility and teacher authenticity.
Do not deny your credibility. It is important to acknowledge your students’ ideas, experiences and abilities; however, be careful not to undermine your own credibility. Be confident that you have earned your position as a TA. Make sure your words and action are congruent. Avoid saying one thing and doing another or espousing principles that you do not believe in or put into practice.
Be ready to admit your errors. Such admissions will help reduce the tension students feel about their own need to be seen as perfect by their peers and teachers.
Reveal aspects of yourself unrelated to teaching. When you reveal aspects of yourself that do not relate to your teaching role, it makes you appear more human to your students.
Show that you take your students seriously. Listen carefully to any concerns, anxieties or problems voiced by students. Arrange opportunities and provide encouragement for students to speak out about what is on their minds. Never let an issue go unresolved.
Do not play favorites. Playing favorites quickly destroys teacher credibility. Avoid showing preference through verbal and non-verbal cues. Realize the power of your own role modeling. Acknowledge the symbolic significance of your actions, and ensure that these actions are perceived as authentic by students.
Most returning adult students have sacrificed a lot to be in school, and are often very conscious of risking failure. This fear of failure or embarrassment may mean that these students will be reluctant to speak in class, or that they will undergo a great deal of stress over their academic performance. They might have difficulty with being corrected, especially if their TA is considerably younger than them. Bear this in mind when making comments (written or oral) and try to be tactful.
Years of absence from school can lead some mature students to have inefficient study habits or unrealistic expectations of their capacities. You might want to offer special assistance in these areas, or recommend remedial workshops and courses.
The wealth of life experiences brought to the classroom by an older student may mean that they will favor “real world experience” over theory. Where a younger student may need to be reminded to take practice into account, older students may need to be steered in the other direction.
Mature students can easily feel marginalized from the rest of the student body. TAs should be extra careful not to encourage this through classroom dynamics.
Many mature students have work or family-related demands and stresses that need to be taken into account.
Language often acts as a barrier for students from other cultures or languages, either because they are conscious of their accents or dialects, or because they are sometimes unable to find the right words when under pressure. Take the time to listen carefully to what all of your students are trying to say. Rephrasing a question or response may prove helpful, but try not to pressure your students when they are speaking.
Some international students may be from a culture in which education is more authoritarian, or where public dissent and debate are not encouraged. Creating an open and supportive environment in your classes will go a long way towards dealing with this problem. Encourage international and English as a Second Language (ESL) students to speak in class, but do not push too hard.
Sometimes the words we use, the speed at which we speak, or the culturally-based examples we use (e.g. examples drawn from television shows) will prevent international students from understanding what we are saying. A puzzled or bored look may be a sign that there is a problem with comprehension. New terminology should always be written on the board and defined, and difficult concepts should be explained as graphically and concretely as possible. Colloquialisms and irony may be ineffective when communicating ideas that we want the students to understand exactly. Address your explanations and clarifications to all students in the class, not just international students.
Many international and ESL students will benefit from opportunities to submit drafts of essays for preliminary comments and advice. Students may be embarrassed to admit to difficulties of comprehension, so you might need to approach them outside class in a sensitive and personable way to ensure that they understand the material.
Like mature students, international or ESL students can easily feel discriminated against. If you suspect racism, or are aware that one of your students is or has been racially harassed, contact the Office of Equity and Inclusion, 480-965–5057, regarding questions or complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment.
Remember, think of the person before the disability. Students requiring accommodation are differently abled but they are intelligent, capable people first and foremost.
Students with vision impairment, motor coordination difficulties, or hearing impairments may require note-takers, copies of overheads and class notes, and special testing situations. If this is the case your supervisor should be notified and the Disability Resource Center should be contacted for advice. Students who require note-takers may solicit your help early in the term to find a volunteer. These volunteers will be trained and paid by the Disability Resource Center.
Students with learning disabilities may vary widely in the type of special accommodation required. Specialized testing and recommendations are available through the Disability Resource Center.
Students using wheelchairs may need few special arrangements, though you may want to leave a little extra time for them to arrive. Lab stations may require some modification in order to accommodate wheelchairs.
In the case of emergencies, the TA should ensure the safety of their students. Some students with disabilities may require special assistance evacuating a building in case of fire or a fire drill. Consult your hiring academic unit or the office of Environmental Health and Safety (HUhttp://www.asu.edu/uagc/EHS/UH) if you do not have evacuation information for your classroom. If you require more information on assisting a student with special needs, or if one of your students needs more information or support, visit the Disability Resource Center at HUhttp://www.asu.edu/studentaffairs/ed/drc/UH.
Anyone can inadvertently fall into behavior in the classroom which is not gender inclusive. While women may be more sensitive to the concerns of female students, this is not always the case. Deeply rooted patterns of behavior towards women in our society can lead any of us to marginalize the classroom contributions of women students. Subtleties such as using a distinct tone of voice or different mannerisms with female students can have the effect of discouraging women students from achieving their full academic potential. For instance, studies have shown that:
While a person is not wholly defined by sexual orientation, it is a major component of one’s life.
Creating a comfortable environment for gay, lesbian and bisexual students may reduce some emotional barriers to learning. There are some things that you can do as a TA to contribute to the development of a welcoming learning environment for these students:
This section will look at strategies for consideration, setting ground rules for discussion participation, and ideas on starting, guiding, and evaluating the discussion.
Class/group discussion can serve many functions. These discussions may help students learn to formulate theories or concepts in their own words, and to suggest applications of these theories or concepts. They help to clarify students’ thought processes as they verbally and interactively work through information/ideas. Discussion may be used to help students discover or define problems in a reading or lecture. Or they may function simply to make students aware of alternative points of view, and to develop critical and dialectical skills within an environment of respect and tolerance. Often, discussion periods are the only time students get the chance to voice their ideas, and therefore actively engage in a critical part of the learning process. Initiating and sustaining a lively, productive discussion are among the most challenging of activities for a teacher.
Setting the context
Be sure to let students know ahead of time how they can best prepare for the discussion period. They need to know what reading should be done and/or what activities should be completed before they come to class. Further, they can:
If you habitually can’t get discussions started, you first need to pay 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.
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 offers 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. Remember that some students are often more hesitant to speak in class (particularly if they feel they are in a minority). If you notice that a particular group of students are dominating the discussion, or that others are habitually silent, make a point of drawing those students into the discussion gently when you see that they have something to contribute but are unwilling to do so. (“Alex, you seem to disagree with that opinion. How would you approach that subject?”). In such cases, be careful not to put students on the spot, and when a response is made, try to be especially appreciative. You may want to make a point of speaking to these students before or after class to indicate your interest in hearing their views in class more often.
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.
Sometimes the course instructor will give specific questions to be covered in the class session. If you aren’t given clear and specific questions by your supervisor, you will want to prepare some on your own. That way, if the discussion is sluggish, you will have some material with which to spark a discussion. In addition, this will allow you to anticipate questions that may arise, and to formulate strategies for dealing with those questions.
By learning to handle questions effectively in the classroom, TAs can accomplish a number of interrelated goals. First, by engaging students in dialogue, the usual “one-way” flow of information from TA 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 TA can encourage students to engage in higher level cognitive processes (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), thus helping to develop students’ critical thinking capacities.
When developing discussion group questions, you may want to keep the following in mind:
To improve your use of questioning:
Sample Question Starters
A good way of developing questions is to consider the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. More commonly referred to as Bloom’s Taxonomy, based on the work of educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, these objectives are based on skills that educators set for students. These learning objectives are divided into three “domains”: Affective, Psychomotor, and Cognitive. While the goal is to address all three domains, most educators focus on the Cognitive domain. By ordering your questions to start with the base level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge) and work up through the higher levels of the Cognitive domain, you can instruct and encourage students to think more complexly about the presented information. Following, is a brief description of each level of the Cognitive domain, example “question starters” for each, and additional key words to consider in developing your own questions.
Knowledge: Memory recall of facts, examples, data, terminology, basic concepts, trends, sequences, theories, etc… (basically “flash card” information)
Comprehension: Demonstrate an understanding of “knowledge” by organizing, categorizing, comparing, contrasting, interpreting, describing, translating, stating in “own words,” etc…
Application: Using acquired knowledge in new situations to solve unfamiliar situations with familiar knowledge, i.e., use classroom knowledge to solve problems in the work place.
Analysis: Identify motives and causes, make inferences and support generalizations with evidence; analyze elements, relationships, organizational principles; differentiate between facts and inferences, etc….
Synthesis: Propose alternate solutions, plans, or set of operations; derive abstract relations; build a structure or pattern from diverse elements with a focus on creating a new structure/solution, etc…
Evaluation: Using a pre-determined set of criteria to judge information, the validity of ideas, and/or quality of work, to be able to state and defend opinions. (The why/why not follow up question is necessary in evaluation questions.)
In responding to students there are some guidelines which can positively reinforce good student responses and facilitate further discussion.
These 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 criticism. However, with these alternatives as examples, you will probably be able to generate others as needed.
In addition to group discussion, any of the following methods may be used, depending on the purpose:
Description- Allows for total participation by group members through small subgroups of participants, followed with discussion by the entire group.
Description- A discussion in conversational form among a selected group of persons with a leader, in front of an audience that joins in later.
Description- A discussion in which a topic is broken into various parts: each part is presented by an expert or well informed person in a brief, concise speech.
Description- A pro and con discussion of a controversial issue. Objective is to convince the audience rather than display skill in attacking the opponent.
Description- A small or large group discussion following a report on the main point of a book, article, or life experience.
Description- Technique in creative thinking in which group members think about a problem or topic and throw out all the ideas they can come up with.
Description- An actual account of a particular incident and/or problem is presented to the class. How the matter was resolved is included.
Description- Allows for total participation by group members as experts and learners. It is often followed by a problem solving situation where all the knowledge must be utilized in order to succeed.
Adapted by the CLTE from Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
In your role as a Teaching Assistant/Associate you may need to present information to a group of students as the foundation for further discussion in seminars or tutorial groups. Or, the students may be expected to make presentations to their peers, to demonstrate and share what they have learned. The following guidelines can be used in planning an effective presentation. If you are asked to take over a lecture, these same guidelines should help you out.
The best presentations use methods that suit the personal style of the presenter, the learning needs of the students, and the material to be presented.
The requirements for content and organization of material are much the same as for an essay or written report. You must:
Remember to have your supporting material prepared (page references or statistics clearly marked or listed on a handout or overhead). Make sure all of these illustrations are clearly related to your arguments or main points.
Unlike an essay which can be read and reread, an oral presentation is transitory, once spoken, it’s gone. You must make every word count.
Capture: Your first words must CAPTURE the audience’s attention, engage, perhaps surprise them. Some good capture techniques are a:
Make sure whatever method you choose is clearly related to your topic.
It’s good to...
Try not to...
Briefly summarize your main points and relate them to your thesis or opening. Prepare questions for the class to encourage discussion. Do not say “Any questions?” and sit down. Do not end with “Well, I guess that’s it” and sit down. Tie all your points together neatly and make them see why what you said was important, answer their questions competently, smile- then sit down!
Audio-visual aids can be a great advantage for any oral presentation as long as you remember their one main purpose: to help make a point. They should not be used randomly, but should be chosen carefully to reinforce or illustrate your message in the best possible way. Choose the medium that best suits your purpose,
Handouts can be very useful for the class. An outline with your main points can show your organizational plan and help your listeners to make notes. Either prepare handouts in advance or require the students to print their own from the classroom management system, from Blackboard for example.
Adapted by the CLTE from Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
The most important thing you can do to ensure that your labs run smoothly is to be well prepared. Prior to the start of the term, your preparation 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, becoming familiar with procedures for getting emergency assistance, and, if applicable, knowing the location of the first aid kit, eye-wash station, fire blankets, extinguishers, spill kit materials, safety data sheets, etc.
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 rubber stoppers into glass tubes, or ignite a stack of lab notes with a Bunsen burner.
If your department’s orientation does not cover safety procedures, the professor in charge of the course will probably take responsibility for describing to students the proper technique of handling materials, organizing a work area, and using equipment. These are all precautionary measures you now probably perform almost unconsciously. However, your students do not have your experience and will therefore appreciate your concern and advice.
During your pre-laboratory presentation, emphasize any safety items or procedures that are specific to the laboratory of the day; e.g., if ethanol and Bunsen burners are being used at the same time, emphasize that ethanol is extremely flammable.
The following tips will help ensure laboratory and classroom safety:
Students who arrive at the lab with only a hazy recollection of the previous lecture may mindlessly go through lab procedures step-by-step, without any genuine understanding of the principles underlying the procedures. These students will derive as much knowledge from completing the lab activities as they would from spending a term in the coffee shop! Explain the benefits of preparation to the students, suggest some practical approaches to preparation, and try to provide some incentives for preparation. Reviewing lecture notes and/or the lab manual may be all that is necessary for most students. You might ask students to submit a statement of purposes and procedures or an explanation of why and how the exercise is relevant to the course - students are more likely to do this on a regular basis if it accounts for part of their lab grade.
A review of the purposes and procedures of the exercise at the beginning of the lab emphasizes the importance of preparation. You might deliver a brief but inspiring introduction on how the exercise relates to current developments in the discipline, or encourage the students to discuss the relevance of the activity to course 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 giving guidance and advice. Circulate among the students, and try to talk with each student at least once during the exercise. 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, including some of the techniques in the earlier section on seminars and tutorials.
The use of questioning is especially important. Encourage students to ask questions of each other as they go through the lab exercises. You will need to make decisions over and over again about when to ask questions, who to ask, what to ask. Most importantly, you will need to make decisions about answering questions. Don’t be too quick to give outright answers or advice. For example, 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, but just as often the reason will be more substantial --a matter of timing, sequence, proportion, or interpretation. Perhaps the student has properly completed all the steps in the exercise but has overlooked an important step in analyzing the results or is unable to devise a solution.
It is 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 assignment. Students may become frustrated if they can’t get a straight answer out of you, but they will also learn more.
Grades are extremely important for most students; hence, grading and discussing those grades with students may take up a great deal of your time as a TA. For the most part, assessment tasks (tests, exams, papers, etc.) are set by the instructor. However, grading is often done by TAs. Some TAs may also wish to devise their own quizzes for use in labs or tutorials. Depending on the department, you may be instructing your own class. A highly popular and extremely effective method of grading is the use of a grading rubric. The various types of rubrics will be discussed at the beginning of this section, and specifics mentioned within each assessment category.
A grading rubric is a set of criteria, usually based on learning objectives, used to assess students’ performance. Rubrics are an effective way of making subjective grading more objective through standardized evaluation. Generally, rubrics employ three components: criteria (the learning objective being assessed), levels (the rating scale to determine levels of competency), and descriptors (definitions of each level). Advantages of using rubrics include facilitating student self-reflection, evaluation, and peer conferencing/review. They also help avoid or resolve grade disputes by having clear definitions of grading criteria which foster fair and accurate assessment.
Objective tests are those which generally have answers that are seen to be either right or wrong, and can include multiple-choice, short answer, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank items; mathematical or logical proofs and problems; or tests which require the student to draw or fill in diagrams, tables or charts. If not already prepared, the first thing you will want to do is to prepare an answer key with the appropriate answers. By having this key beside you, you can simply compare the student’s answer with the preferred answer, and give the appropriate grade. In addition, having such a key will ensure fairness, because any other TA who might be marking a portion of these tests will do so in a way that is consistent with you.
Deciding what answers are appropriate is often the job of the supervisor who designed the test, though you will likely want to sit down with them to discuss how at least some of the answers were arrived at (if it is not obvious). One good reason to do this is that there could conceivably be other answers that are partially or wholly correct. By sitting down with your supervisor, you can work together to discover and agree on appropriate responses to the more ambiguous questions. As well as making your job easier, this will assist your supervisor to design clearer tests in the future.
You may also want to discuss the following questions with your supervisor prior to marking:
It is a good idea to post the answer key outside your office door. This will let your students know where your office is, and perhaps give them some incentive to come in and talk with you. In addition to merely posting the answers, you or your supervisor may prefer that one of you distribute the assignments or tests in class, or have the students come by your office to pick them up. Remember to follow FERPA guidelines when posting and returning student materials.
These tests usually ask students to respond to specific questions in a way that is understandable and readable. Because the questions are focused, there are usually some basic points that the student is expected to include in their essay. Therefore, before marking these tests, the first thing you should do is to sit down with your supervisor to discuss what these essential points are, so you can prepare model answers in advance. If there are other TAs marking these same tests, they should also be in on these discussions, so that the marking will be as consistent as possible. In this discussion you should also determine if there is more than one acceptable answer to a particular question, and decide on appropriate ways of dealing with these ambiguous or unclear questions ahead of time.
Another thing that should be clearly worked out at this meeting is how the grades are to be distributed on the test. You will need to decide how much each answer is worth and how important incorrect spelling and grammar will be (in terms of the overall grade). It may also be useful to make lists of common improper answers, along with the penalties for each.
This section presupposes that you are expected to grade the students in your discussion group, and that you are wondering how to go about this fairly. Generally, the preferred method of grading students is on the basis of three general factors: quantity, quality and progress.
Quantity refers to how much a student speaks. It is unreasonable and unfair to expect that no student of yours will be too shy to speak in the group, so a large part of your job as a facilitator is to help your students “break out of their shell.” If you clearly explain your expectation that everyone will make sincere efforts to speak, and do all you can to help your silent students, then it will be more than fair to mark the students on this basis. In the long run, they’ll be thankful, since a great deal of what is required to “make it” in the academic world has to do with one’s ability to communicate what she or he thinks. Though it may not be necessary to make a note every time a particular student speaks, keeping this requirement in mind will help you to decide who needs more help during the course. In addition, it will provide you with a way of considering the contributions of your students when you sit down to give out the grades at the end of the course.
With that said, it must be pointed out that many discussion group facilitators may be faced with students who speak either too much, or never to the point. This is where the second requirement of quality comes in. By considering the quality of what a speaker says, you will have some means of assessing the difference between a student who talks a lot and says nothing and a student who only occasionally talks yet always “hits the mark.” Again, you should clearly explain to your students at the beginning of the class that not every contribution will be positively evaluated, so they can learn to use judgment before speaking out.
Deciding what makes one student’s contribution qualitatively better than another does can sometimes be a tricky matter. Generally, the points you’ll want to look for are similar to those you would look for in a good essay, namely: a clear understanding of the course content (e.g. the facts, theories and concepts used); an accurate use of logic (e.g. not contradicting themselves, or using trivial or fallacious arguments); an effective ability to communicate (e.g. asking and answering questions effectively, and being clear and concise). Moral insight (e.g. the ability to identify the values inherent in course material and to formulate justifications according to some value system) is also an important element in any good discussion. In addition, there are skills to look for that are specific to group situations, such as well developed interaction skills (e.g. degree of enthusiasm) and the student’s overall contribution to the class (e.g. the relevance and constructiveness of their contributions).
Another factor on which a student’s discussion group grade can be based is the particular student’s progress or improvement. It is unfair to expect every student to enter a discussion group feeling equally comfortable about talking, or equally capable of contributing in a meaningful way. Therefore it would be unfair to hold the earliest performance (or lack of it) against a student for the duration of the course. Instead, a student should see improvements in their grade that reflect improvements in their contributions (based on the factors already discussed). Moreover, as a course proceeds, the material will likely become progressively more difficult because it relies on earlier lessons being understood and applied. So in factoring in the progress component of a student’s grade, you will likely want to consider weighing useful contributions that occur later in the course more heavily than those occurring earlier.
One final alternative for marking a student’s participation is to use learning journals. This not only allows the student to release any concerns or feelings about the course or issue, but also lets you see that the student has taken time to reflect upon the material discussed in the session. Often we neglect to consider the importance of silent thinking within the discussion group. Some students generate questions, theories, and elaborations in their heads, but may be reluctant to express these in front of the group. Journals provide a way of evaluating these reflections.
As you have probably figured out by now, it is rather difficult not to be somewhat subjective when evaluating a student’s discussion group performance. The progress component is intended as a safeguard against your students doing poorly, but it will only work if you are always very clear with them about their progress in the course. Providing accurate and up-to-date assessments of the student’s performance may have the added effect of motivating students to do even better.
Some Teaching Assistant/Associate jobs will consist entirely (or almost entirely) of grading papers, exams, labs, etc. This experience can be an alienating one, both for you and for the students. You may have started this job with the hope that you could have a clear and lasting impact on your students’ education, but you now discover that you will rarely get a chance to interact with them. The following suggestions will allow you to still maintain some human contact with your students, even if you rarely (or never) see them.
Giving out grades (even extremely bad ones) need not be the meanest thing you ever do. Softening a criticism so that it isn’t taken as a personal attack is always a good idea. For instance, instead of saying “Only an idiot would say...” or “How could you possibly think that”, etc., you could write “So-and-so disagrees with your statement that... What do you think about that?” This response, rather than stirring an immediate reaction of anger or despair in the student, will allow them to delve further into a question, and to come to understand for themselves where they went wrong. Even when grading objective tests and assignments, something as minor as not using red ink can go a long way towards improving your students’ confidence (some students have said that red ink looks too much like blood). Invite (in writing) students to come to see you for help when you must give them bad grades.
Always be sure to add positive and encouraging points where you think that the student has done well. For example, you could say “Good point. You should mention this the next time this issue comes up in class” or “Very interesting...I hadn’t considered that before,” etc. Rather than only telling your students where they’ve gone wrong, this will go a lot further toward helping them to develop the academic motivation and confidence they need to do even better in the future. Even adding some encouraging comments at the end of an objective test will go a lot further than handing back a paper full of check marks and numbers.
If you do know something about a particular student (e.g. because you’ve heard them speak in class, or talked to them during office hours, or you’ve graded their previous work), you might want to add specific or personal remarks on their tests or papers, depending on what sort of support or encouragement you think that particular student needs, or on the specific interests she or he has. You may even want to provide extra-challenging remarks for the more gifted students. This will help you to feel a closer connection with your work, and will help your students to know that someone out there cares about what they are doing.
The professional responsibility for assigning grades is vested in the instructor of the course, and requires the careful application of professional judgment. However, make every effort to fairly hear and respond to student concerns. For a few tips for dealing with grade disputes, please refer to the list on page 12.
Take breaks! You will be more efficient if you give your mind a rest and reward yourself at regular intervals.
The most immediate measure of your teaching abilities is your students’ response in class - if they start doodling frantically, yawning, or talking among themselves, if their numbers dwindle noticeably as the term progresses, if you are distracted from your grand orations by the sound of snoring, you may be justified in suspecting that your presence is not as compelling and charismatic as you have believed. On the other hand, sleeping, snoring, absenteeism, and scuffling seem to be a way of life among many undergraduates, and are not necessarily any reflection on your abilities as a teacher. If you do feel that you are doing something very wrong, one way to find out for certain is to invite a neutral observer to one of your classes. Another TA, the professor in charge of the course, or a representative from the department could be asked to do this for you. Alternatively, you might have your session videotaped, so that you can observe your own behavior. Finally, you can collect some additional information through student evaluation of teaching.
A fellow Teaching Assistant/Associate is the least threatening and least obtrusive observer. Your students are unlikely to notice a colleague and will behave more naturally. The TA may afterwards be able to point out to you any basic flaws in your teaching such as speaking too softly, asking the wrong kinds of questions, or using the wrong kinds of material.
The course instructor or coordinator may want to sit in on one of your classes at some point during the term to see how you are doing. Your supervisor will try to remain as inconspicuous as a professor is able by sitting quietly at the back of the classroom, and will not interfere with the conduct of the class, unless invited to do so.
It is a good idea to inform your students a week in advance of the professor’s visit, and make it clear that they are not “on trial”; if anybody is, you are. After the class, the professor will discuss with you an estimation of your “performance,” and perhaps make some suggestions that would improve your teaching.
At the end of the term, a course evaluation questionnaire will be administered in most classes. This usually asks students to evaluate the instructor in terms of teaching effectiveness, availability outside of the classroom, marking of papers and examinations, etc. Often these evaluations only cover the professor’s performance and neglect to evaluate the TA.
If you wish, you could conduct your own evaluation halfway or a third of the way through the term. This is an especially effective way to obtain feedback from students so that you can identify what is working in the classroom and what needs to be improved. Be sure to share the results of the evaluations with the students, and to tell them what changes you plan to make in response to their feedback. Visit the Office of University Evaluation website for more resources on evaluations http://www.asu.edu/oue/
Students at ASU come from a variety of ethnic, religious, linguistic, and economic backgrounds. ASU’s focuses on a commitment to intellectual and cultural diversity. We focus on outcome-determined excellence by admitting students with differing interests and indicators of intelligence and creativity. We will measure the success of the university by the success of each individual student. In looking beyond the academic profile of incoming students, we are seeking greater diversity in our student body, a diversity that brings with it the potential for excellence and perspective. In this commitment to the student as an individual, ASU is focusing on teaching quality, incorporating new research findings into learning processes, and developing new creative teaching and learning environments.
In order to do your job well, you must be sensitive to the varied backgrounds and needs of these students. Here are a few suggestions on how to create a welcoming and safe learning environment.
Informal written feedback from students about instruction
Index Cards: Several times during the term pass out index cards to students and ask them to respond to two questions, one on the front of the card, the other on the back. You can pose general questions, such as:
You can also provide prompts, and ask students to complete the sentences.
It is important that you respond quickly and candidly to your students’ comments. At the next class meeting after this activity, begin by thanking students for their comments. Present a brief summary of their comments, and then respond to any concerns that have been raised. Clarify any confusion about your goals and their expectations. Then indicate which suggestions you will act upon this term, which must wait until the course is next offered, and which you will not act upon.
Suggestion Box: Bring a manila envelope to class or tape one to your office door and ask students to place unsigned comments, questions, or complaints in it. You could ask them to comment on material they don’t understand or on the presentation. Clear up any ambiguities or confusion at the next class meeting.
After the first exam, you can pose three questions to your students:
Ask students to answer these questions, but not sign their name. In the next class, go over the summarized suggestions by each question. This approach not only provides you with feedback, but asks the students to take ownership of their own learning.
One classroom assessment technique is the one-minute paper. This simple approach to the improvement of in-class teaching works by instructors setting aside the last minute of their classes and having their students write on a scrap piece of paper:
Collect the responses immediately and read them before the class meets again. These papers can help you evaluate how well you have conveyed the material—when you go through the papers you’ll know what the students understood and what they didn’t. This information can help you structure the topics for the next class meeting.
Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom
by Lee Warren, Derek Bok Center
Sometimes things seem to explode in the classroom, and what do we do then? Knowing strategies for turning difficult encounters into learning opportunities enables us to address important, but hot, topics —religion, politics, race, class, gender—in our classroom discussions.
Hot moments occur when people’s feelings—often conflictual—rise to a point that threatens teaching and learning. They can occur during the discussion of issues people feel deeply about, or as a result of classroom dynamics in any field.
For some instructors, hot moments are the very stuff of classroom life. They thrive on such moments, encourage them, and use them for pointed learning. Others abhor hot moments and do everything possible to prevent or stifle them. For them, conflict prevents learning.
Fortunately all of us can develop techniques to handle the unavoidable difficult moments. Using them can open doors to topics formerly avoided and classroom dynamics formerly neglected. Most importantly, exploring these tensions can lead to deep learning.
The challenges of dealing with hot moments are to manage ourselves so as to make them useful and to find the teaching opportunities to help students learn in and from the moment.
Strategies suggested here rest upon the assumption that it is the teacher’s responsibility both to help students learn something from the moment and to care for and protect all the participants, perhaps particularly the student(s) who has generated the hot moment. This does not mean that discomfort can be avoided: sometimes learning about hot topics is difficult and uncomfortable. But no one should be scapegoated. Everyone should be protected so that learning can happen.
“We were ten weeks into Introduction to Afro-Am and were discussing Louis Farrakhan,” a young instructor told me. “Near the end of section, a very smart Jewish woman said, ‘Only uneducated black men would believe in Farrakhan.’ Six black men in the class turned on her and attacked. “Class ended, and she ran out of the room, down the hall, in tears.”
“I went after her and told her that if she was ever going to understand this stuff she had to go back the next time and listen very hard to what those guys, highly educated, say about why they might believe in Farrakhan.
“I then went back into the classroom. Luckily the men were still there, still talking about the incident. I told them that if they were ever going to get it, they had to listen very hard to why a Jewish woman might think that only the uneducated would believe in Farrakhan.”
This young man was able to turn a hot moment into a profound learning opportunity for his students. He did it by keeping his head, not taking sides, and letting both groups know that they would gain immeasurably by understanding the arguments of the other side.
It’s not easy to see the teaching opportunity when a student says she doesn’t think the U.S. should have gone to war to prevent the Holocaust “because they weren’t Christians” -- or when a male student makes a joke about irrational numbers being female -- or when one student heatedly says, “The trouble with you is you talk all the time and never listen!” -- or when the Jewish student says that only uneducated black men would believe Louis Farrakhan.
The first route to making such unanticipated and difficult occurrences productive lies in how we think about the moment -- as instructors. If we can get out of our own emotional confusion, we can begin to see the heat as an opportunity to explore different views about the topic. In the case above, for example, it could be helpful to students to examine why someone might think that religious affiliation was a reason to go or not to go to war.
We can also use the image of leaving the dance floor of the discussion and our emotions and going up to the balcony. From there we can look for a relevant meta-level issue that the hot moment raises. Often the difficult statement illustrates the complexity of questions being discussed, as in the instance of the Jewish student’s remarks about Farrakhan. Such a comment presents an immediate example of Jewish/African-American political difficulties.
It helps sometimes to think about listening for “the song beneath the words” of the student. What is the sub-text? What is the student really saying? Why is this coming up at all, and why at this time? Often students can’t articulate clearly what they are thinking. After double-checking our impressions with the student, we can use this information to further the conversation.
For example, the student in the holocaust story was African-American. Her sub-text might have been that we needed to deal with the United States’ own race issues before taking on those of other nations. That idea is certainly a valid one for discussion in contemporary international politics. Had the instructor been able to bring this to the surface, rather than avoiding her remarks altogether, the class would have come away with enriched understanding.
To help students think productively about issues raised during hot moments, establish discussion norms early in the term, or at the moment if necessary. Don’t permit personal attacks. Model norms that encourage an open discussion of difficult material -- by being open to multiple perspectives and by asking all students to argue their point responsibly.
We can take the issue off the student who has made the offensive remark and put it on the table as a topic for general discussion. Say something like: “Many people think this way. Why do they hold such views? What are their reasons?” and then, “Why do those who disagree hold other views?” This protects the student while also encouraging others who disagree to understand a view they dislike and then to argue their position later.
Another strategy is to require that all students seek to understand each other’s perspectives, as a prerequisite to understanding the subject at all. Ask them to listen carefully to the other point of view, to ask questions, and then to be able to restate or argue for that position. This can work for the hottest of subjects.
Ask students to write about the issue, either in class, as a reflective and hopefully calming exercise followed by discussion, or outside of class. You can ask them to do some research on the subject and write a more balanced essay. You might require them to argue the position they most disagreed with.
Sometimes it is important to talk with students outside of class, particularly those who have been most embroiled in the hot moment. Help them to learn something substantive from the experience—about themselves, about others, about possible positions, about the topic as a whole, and about how to voice their thoughts so that they can be heard, even by those who disagree. These conversations can save a student and keep them coming to class with an open and learning mind.
If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, acknowledge it, and ask them if they would like to remain in the classroom or leave for a while. At the end of class, find the student and ask if you can be of any assistance. In extreme cases, urge them to see a counselor.
Ask students, when things get hot, to step back and reflect upon what they might learn from this moment. This can move the discussion to a level that helps everyone see what issues have been at stake and what the clash itself might mean.
I’ve seen this work in a class in which a white student and an African-American student were wrangling at length and without apparent movement toward any understanding. When the teacher asked all students to explore what they might learn from this, the discussion shifted gears quickly. They began to think about the difficulties in black-white communications when different belief systems were at work, the reasons for those difficulties, and possible ways to bridge the gaps.
Another strategy is to ask students to think about how their reactions mirror the subject at hand and what they might learn from their own behavior. Often groups act out in their own discussion the topic under discussion. For example, when discussing how women’s remarks are often ignored in business settings, the class or the instructor may be ignoring the remarks of women in the class. Seeing this and talking about it in the moment can enhance people’s understanding of the issue.
When hot moments occur because of inter-student dynamics, in ways not related to the subject matter, it can still be important to address the issue, even in a math or physics class.
For example, if a student complains about another’s speaking behavior, it is tempting to go on as if the outburst hadn’t occurred. However, a discussion about who speaks and who doesn’t and why, and how to enable the quiet ones to make room for themselves and the talkative ones to listen, could help every student in the room and make room for a greater diversity of ideas in the class.
Or if a student makes a joke like the one about irrational numbers being female, it could be useful to stop to examine why and how men make such jokes and how they affect women’s experience in math and science classes. It might be helpful to the men to understand why the women get upset by their good-humored jokes and to the women to understand how to counter them. A discussion of this sort could open the classroom to far greater collaboration the rest of the term.
To ignore such remarks has its own consequences. Students learn that such behavior is OK and that they are not protected from it. They miss the opportunity to learn about their own behavior and its consequences. And they miss the opportunity to have a more open classroom in which a wider range of ideas can be explored.
It is, of course, almost always useful to talk about the moment outside of class with the individuals involved, to give them support, and help them to learn from the experience.
If you are unable to find a workable position in the moment, defer. Tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up at a later time. You then have time to plan strategies. This approach lets all the students in the room know that you take such occurrences seriously.
We often forget that a primary task is to find ways to manage ourselves in the midst of confusion.
Hold Steady. If you can hold steady and not be visibly rattled by the hot moment, the students will be better able to steady themselves as well and even learn something from the moment. Your behavior provides a holding environment for the students. They can feel safe when you appear to be in control; this enables them to explore the issues. Your behavior also provides a model for the students.
Breathe deeply. Take a moment. Collect yourself. Take time if you need it. Silence is useful -- if you can show that you are comfortable with it. A pause will also permit students to reflect on the issues raised. Deep breathing is an ancient and highly effective technique for calming adrenaline rushes and restoring one’s capacity to think.
Don’t personalize remarks. Don’t take remarks personally, even when they come as personal attacks. Such attacks are most likely made against you in your role as teacher or authority figure. Remembering to separate self from role can enable you to see what a student is saying more clearly and to actually discuss the issue. It’s not about you. It’s about the student and his or her feelings and thoughts, though often articulated clumsily and from an as yet unthought through position.
Don’t take remarks personally when they are about issues that you feel strongly about, or even about groups of which you are a part. Again, remember that both you and the group will be better served if you can keep some distance from the comments and find ways to use them to enhance people’s understanding.
Don’t let yourself get caught up in a personal reaction to the individual who has made some unpleasant remark. It’s easy to want to tear into a student who is personally offensive to you. To do so is to fail to see what that student and his or her ideas represent in the classroom and in the larger world. If you take the remarks personally, chances are you will not be able to find what there is to learn from them.
Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons and what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to enable your mind to work again.
Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (especially pp.250-276),
Fisher,R., Ury, W., & Patton, P. (1981, 1991). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin Books.
Frederick, P. (1995). “Walking on eggs: Mastering the dreaded diversity discussion.” College Teaching, Vol. 43/No. 3, pp. 83-92.
Frederick, P.(2000). “Approaches to teaching diversity.” NEA Advocate, 17, (4), pp. 5-8.
Schýn, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Videos. The Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University has made two videos that can help people process difficult moments and develop strategies for confronting them. Each comes with a Facilitator’s Guide. See the Bok Center website for information on how to obtain these videos:
Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicty of Experience
Women in the Classroom
A version of this “tip sheet” appeared in the NEA Advocate, October 2000.
Copyright © 2002-2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Permission is granted to non-profit educational institutions to print and distribute this document for internal use provided that the Bok Center’s authorship and copyright are acknowledged.
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Teaching and Learning
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Cambridge, MA 02138-2901
The Student Code of Conduct (https://eoss.asu.edu/dos/srr/codeofconduct)
The aim of education is the intellectual, personal, social and ethical development of the individual. The educational process is ideally conducted in an environment that encourages reasoned discourse, intellectual honesty, openness to constructive change and respect for the rights of all individuals. Self-discipline and a respect for the rights of others in the university community are necessary for the fulfillment of such goals. The Student Code of Conduct is designed to promote this environment at Arizona State University.
The Student Code of Conduct sets forth the standards of conduct expected of students who choose to join the university community. Students who violate these standards will be subject to disciplinary sanctions in order to promote their own personal development, to protect the university community and to maintain order and stability on campus.
All Students are expected to adhere to the ABOR Student Code of Conduct.
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