STS and the Super Science Side of Tumblr TA Tips for Teaching

We here at STS have TAed a lot.  We both taught lab sections when we were juniors and seniors in undergrad and then we taught more sections during our master’s work.  I also taught during my first year in PhD land.  As a graduate student, TAing is often non-optional (gotta’ pay those bills), exciting (young minds!  oh golly!), frustrating (it’s ON THE SYLLABUS!), and intimidating (wait, so I have to be in charge of 20+ other legal adults for an hour or more?).  So, what are some of the most efficient ways to increase the fun and excitement of teaching, while minimizing the stresses?  Back at the beginning of the term, Meridith was going through orientation for her new grad school adventure and part of that orientation involved TA training.  She posted on our STS Tumblr, and asked the Science Side for their TAing tips and tricks.  The response was great!  So great, we decided we needed to bring all the responses together and archive them here on our blog.  
If you’re a new graduate student, we hope this helps you put some tools in your forming TA tool belt.  Remember, people have personal teaching approaches, so everything doesn’t work for everyone!  If you’re an undergraduate or high school student, maybe this will give you some insight into what your instructors are thinking.  I promise, we are all actually working really hard to try and make this a good experience for all of us.  If you’re a senior graduate student, maybe you have some tips and tricks of your own that aren’t included in this post.  Share them with us in the comments!     
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STS and Science Side of Tumblr TA Tips

It’s orientation week for me! Today the focus is on the roles we have as TAs, whether grading or instructing. How many if you have taught before and what are some of your tips?
I’ll report more later but my go to teaching tip is that it is ok to admit you don’t know the answer to a students question! It’s a great opportunity to discuss how to find the answer.
Edit: I’m going to reblog the tips from the reblogs and replies, but I’ll also add them all here and maintain a master list of teaching tip! This was inspired by graduate student teaching, but by all means I’d love to hear your tips if you teach other levels as well. Any topic, too!
DO NOT fall behind on grading. Just do it. It’s a pain, but procrastinating will make it worse. And your students will NOT be happy if you take forever.  For yourself, keep a list of wacky answers on quizzes/exams/homeworks. It can help brighten a long grading session or just a bad day. Share with TA friends if it’s crazy enough.
Answer emails in a timely fashion.
Be nice, but don’t be TOO chummy with your students. Keep that professional line drawn at all times. If you want to be friends, wait til the end of the semester. Nothing ruins a reputation faster than whispers of favoritism or any other unprofessional conduct. 
When giving back marks, tell students that if they have questions/arguments/challenges with their grade, to e-mail you to set up a time to talk about it. Don’t field lots of angry questions 5 min after returning assignments. It’s overwhelming!
Via engrprof:
Write learning objectives for each class – it makes it easier to keep on track.  Don’t do any one thing for more than 15 minutes – break it up. Students will retain more.
I’m not a TA but I love doing this with kids. I try to phrase it as how exciting science is that we are always learning things, and that maybe they can find out the answer!
Don’t take their bad grades too personally. It can be really easy to think that you’re a terrible TA, especially if it’s your first time. Don’t! Remember that it might not be your fault (especially if no one goes to office hours), it might not have anything to do with you. Definitely look for any trends and try to address them if you can, but remember that personal issues happen and undergrads don’t always like to study.
Even though it wasn’t a requirement for my labs I always made “handout” to give them. Even if it’s just a list of the figures or terms to know that you already told them about,  having something physical in front of them helps you keep everyone on the same page and helps you keep your sanity when they start saying “you told us not to know that etc.” when trying to get out of answering a question wrong. 
Also, grade with a bottle of wine or a few beers handy especially if it’s a rough session. 
The first person Mer and I ever TAed for as undergrads.

Via nonlinearfluctuations

I actually just was on a panel for TA tips so I will say some of the things we discussed.
-Try to be clear with how the students are to be graded/what’s expected of them right in the beginning. It save you a lot of trouble arguing with students later on (especially if you have it written down on paper or your website) and for those following directions, it makes grading easier since they are more likely to do it right (such as the case with including units, standard error etc)
-Learn names asap. It’s really important. I think that students are more likely to listen to you and respect you if you know their name.
-Definitely agree with you about admitting when you don’t know the answer. If they student keeps pushing, you can stay that you will get back to them later (so they know you are thinking about the problem and care), or you can ask the class if anyone else has the answer.
-Time management is really important. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to grade everything! Try to keep on top of it.
-Even if you feel like you know the material, take a little extra time reviewing before hand. You’d be surprised how much of the little details you forget…
-Depending on the type of course you are TAing for and how much feedom you have, try to make the class as interactive as possible (I have students volunteer to work problems on the board. I try not to force any student that doesn’t want to, but will push a little explaining that we all make mistakes so there is nothing to worry about). After a classes, it will build their confidence about asking questions and trying things out.
I love, love, love TAing and have done it enough now to have a few dos and don’ts.
1. TAing is fantastic, but it can easily become a time sink. Remember that you have your own research/coursework/life that needs attention. By all means put your best effort into teaching, but in the end, TAing is not the reason you’re in grad school. Don’t spend five hours putting together the bestest best lesson plan ever when you could have made a great lesson plan in one hour or, in a pinch, a good enough plan in half an hour.
2. Students appreciate a TA who is nice, but they are in your class to learn. The best TA’s are effective teachers who challenge their students. Avoid the impulse to be your students’ friend. You are an authority figure so while you can be very friendly, you need your students respect and attention. Be assertive and, when necessary, tough.
3. Keep in mind that if you do something at the start of the semester, students will expect the same throughout the semester. For instance, my first time teacher, I held extra office hours right before the first quiz. Big mistake! I was really busy with my own work around the time of the second quiz but had a class full of students asking when my extra office hours would be. Not a good situation to be in because I had to choose between neglecting my own work or disappointing my students.
4. Create a unified professor/TA front. Students will general feel more comfortable around you than the professor. While it’s ok to commiserate with your students, resist the urge to gripe about the professor. Even if you share some of the students complaints, gabbing behind the professor’s back will weaken both your and the professor’s authority.
5. That being said, don’t be afraid to occasionally bend the rules. For example, the rule: the assignment is due at the begin of class. Period. Any late assignments will not be accepted. The situation: one student runs in crying ten minutes into class because they commute and got stuck in traffic or their alarm didn’t go off, or whatever. What to do? My first semester TAing, I’d email the professor, wait three days for a response saying yes, accept the assignment, and then finally accept the assignment. Now? I just accept the assignment. Some students purposefully try to get away with stuff but most are honest, and I’ve certain had enough, “Oh no! I hope my teacher is understanding :s” moments to justify being lenient on a student having a rough day.
6. Grading can be a soul-sucking ordeal. So, treat yourself 🙂 Get some nice snacks and beer (or whatever your beverage of choice is). Listen to music. If you like, arrange to grade together with other TAs. Solidarity!
7. If you make mistakes (everyone does!), just own up to them and move on. It’s tough being the one at the front of the class! But it can also be a lot of fun! Just don’t be too hard on yourself if anything goes wrong.
Keep organized ESPECIALLY if you teach a lab. Nothing makes you seem more unreliable than not knowing where things are or not having things labeled correctly.
I always start my lab with a ten minute introduction about background information that may be helpful for any new protocols and to address any housekeeping issues so that the entire class is on track.
Also, quickly realize that you cannot care about a student’s grade more than the student. I make it clear at the beginning of the quarter that I will work as hard as they do to help them understand the material and make the grade.
Via @nikzstar:
I did two semesters as an Undergraduate TA.  Stay up with your grading.  The kids will sometimes even email you two days later wanting to know how they did on X assignment, more so if a test or quiz is coming up related to that topic.  Even if you’re only teaching the lab portion of a course, keep up with what they are covering in the lecture side you will get asked questions about it.  Realize that your grad TA you work with is just as swamped as you and try to share the work as much as possible.
I taught two different class lab sections.  For our basic class they made us powerpoints to go over what needed to be covered, realize if your school does this for you it is a godsend and USE IT!  It saves you a lot of time.  Don’t assume your students did the reading they were supposed to to be prepared, but also don’t assume that no one did it.  So do a very brief go through of what you’re going to be doing for the whole class and then help those that didn’t read.  Don’t let this get to you, soon you will know exactly which of the students are which and how much freedom or help to give them.  Realize that those that don’t read will always require a lot more help in class and don’t let them frustrate you.  Always hold office hours and offer study help, most of the time they will not take you up on it, but you need to be there anyways in case they do need and actually come to you for help.  Be sure to have your own work with you during office hours so that if no one shows you aren’t sitting there wasting your valuable time, get your work done if no one shows up.
Realize that you will get some serious gems as answers to questions on assignments and quizzes.  I can still remember and laugh at some 3 years later.  Treasure these instead of thinking you’re a horrible TA, you can’t force them to learn.
I find that hitting them hard on the first day with an incomprehensible double-shot of unbridled science enthusiasm and excitement, plus a terrifying rundown of policies and procedures with arbitrary and draconian consequences works WONDERS. Be a baffling combination of a manic pixie dream science teacher who encourages open questioning and voyages of discovery, and an apex predator who eats undergrads for breakfast. Make them wonder if you’re a little unhinged. Drop casual hints about past careers as a rollergirl or a bounty hunter (note: try this only if you actually have these past careers, because there’s no need to lie). Above all else, scare the SHIT out of them. 
This serves several purposes:
1) the weak will be weeded out of your section. 2) the number of times you have to growl IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS will be drastically reduced. 3) any time they actually have the courage to ask you to bend your ridiculous “no exceptions” policies, it is more likely to be legitimate. Plus they’ll think you’re reasonable and understanding for letting them be the only special snowflake who got a rule bent for them, when in fact you intended on bending that rule in the first place for people who needed it.
i’ve been a TA & teacher, & found this very important when lecturing — make an idiot of yourself! use silly examples & analogies. students LOVE it, laugh, & actually can grasp/recall concepts. & then use an activity that shows them after you tell them. 🙂
Via stemtacuar:
Do little things that keep the morale up! Ex. If your section falls on a holiday do something fun for it! I TA’d the lab portion of a course, 6-9PM, and one of our sections fell on Halloween. The last thing people want to do is lab work on Halloween night. To keep the spirits up I showed up to teach in a super legit Chewbacca costume (lab coat and goggles included), and passed out candy after people finished up (no food in the lab!). Everyone was instantly in a good mood and I gained the much-coveted title of “best TA ever”. I also allowed the students to use the classroom speakers to play music that everyone agreed on to help time pass (some of the labs required lots of repetitive tasks, and the last thing you want to do is pipet, or screen animals in absolute dead silence).

Via @RachelWigginton

If you have a fear of public speaking practice a lecture before you give it.  Practice does not mean click through your slides, it means stand up and give the talk at a normal volume.  This is my best advice after 11 years of competitive speech and debate.  It will never get easier or better unless you give it a serious run-through.
– Don’t hand back grades on a day when teaching evaluations will be given out
– About 80% of the time (or more), it’s really not you
– If it’s important, repeat it at least three times
– Take every opportunity to apply things to real life situations or issues about which you care deeply.  Your passion will come through and make your students more engaged. 
– Dressing nicer doesn’t make you uptight.  As a lady on the younger side of my 20s when I started TAing, I noticed a BIG difference in how I was treated by my students when I looked more professional. 
– Pair your constructive criticism with genuine praise

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