Leading a Recitation

January 29, 2013

(This article first appeared in the Graduate Teacher Program Handbook. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Regents, University of Colorado.)

Margaret Asirvatham, Department of Chemistry


The recitation section serves several important functions. It is designed to help students find solutions to problems encountered in lectures and to clarify the subject matter that was presented. It also improves student-teacher interaction and allows the teacher to closely monitor the progress of individual students. The responsibility of conducting a recitation is delegated to graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and/or graduate part-time instructors (GPTIs), who have most of the close contact with students and hence directly influence their performance in the course. Those leading recitations can really succeed as teachers when they take the responsibility seriously and dedicate themselves to the assigned task. To assist in this endeavor, some guidelines are offered.

Some Obvious Administrative Details

Punctuality has its own rewards. Arriving 5 minutes early to each recitation sets a good example to your students and demonstrates a mature attitude towards your work. Start your recitation on time even if all your students are not present, as it will encourage them to come on time.

Dress may be casual but should be reasonably neat. Dress as if you care about the recitation session and have prepared for it. You must appear to be in charge of the class if you hope to maintain control in the classroom.

Learn the names of your students promptly so that you can address them by name in and out of class.

Accessibility to your students outside the classroom can be accomplished by arranging a time that is agreeable to as many students as possible. Some departments require office hours on a weekly basis. It is necessary that students are informed about how they can reach you outside of class.

Preparation

One of the greatest blows to student morale and to the quality of instruction occurs when a student is given incorrect information in recitation or during office hours. "To err is human," but the number of errors can be kept to a minimum by adequate preparation for recitation.

Be knowledgeable. You must know how the book treats a particular topic and how the professor presents the same material. Attendance at lectures is very highly recommended, and should be mandatory, as the benefits far outweigh any minor inconveniences. Some professors conduct weekly TA (or GPTI) meetings, and this is a great opportunity to keep up with activities in the course. You must be familiar with the problems assigned each week so that you can answer questions about them. Spend some time planning for your recitation; although your primary concern must be the constructive handling of questions raised by the students, be prepared to give a mini-lecture, ask questions, solve problems or initiate a discussion.

Outline of presentation or "game plan." Prepare a clear outline of what you plan to accomplish during the recitation, but do not be disappointed if you cannot complete everything you had planned. Time is very limited, usually about an hour, and must be used effectively. If you are instructed to discuss a topic or elaborate on material not covered by the professor, then this should be the first item on your agenda.

Writing quizzes or tests. Quizzes or tests are given during recitation in some courses and the recitation score contributes to the student's final grade. Questions should be well thought out and there should be no ambiguity. It is a challenge to write a good quiz or test. Check to make sure that all copies of the quiz are legible.

Conducting the Recitation

Start by outlining the activities that you have planned for the recitation session, and invite suggestions from your students. This will enable you to use the time effectively to cover as much as possible during the period.

Be enthusiastic! Educational studies show that the only thing that consistently correlates with increased learning is the enthusiasm of the instructor. Project a positive attitude towards the students and the course material. Just as enthusiasm is contagious, so also a negative and cynical attitude will rub off on your students. First-semester freshmen are very impressionable, and will take seriously almost everything you say. If you have any criticism of how the course is being run, talk to the instructor but never gripe to the students.

Speak slowly and distinctly, and try to maintain a good voice level. Use the blackboard, as necessary, to improve communication. Eye contact with students seated at different locations in the room will convey the idea that you are attempting to interact with all the students and not focusing on a small section of the class. Using gestures while talking is all right as long as they are not distracting.

When using the blackboard, write legibly and in areas that are visible to the whole class. It is not good practice to keep talking while writing on the blackboard and with your back to the class. Do not erase the blackboard too often or too quickly.

Problem-solving, especially in math and science classes, is an important part of recitation. Try to be systematic and use the same problem-solving technique as the professor. If alternate methods are possible, you may briefly refer to them, and suggest that interested students contact you for more details. You could request a student to solve a problem at the blackboard; this approach often works well because students relate well to each other, and the class tends to be more alert.

Student participation is essential to keep the attention of the class at all times. Invite questions and encourage all students to participate in the discussion. Be prepared to ask questions to break the ice or keep the ball rolling. Some students have a tendency to dominate discussions--do not destroy their enthusiasm, but tactfully call upon another student, by name, to keep the class involved. Unusual situations may put your patience to the test--a distracting conversation, a snoring student, a busy body frantically completing some other course assignment. Never lose your cool, but try to deal with the situation in the best way possible. An alternative is to ask the student to see you after class. If you encounter an unpleasant or hostile situation, inform the professor in charge of the course at the earliest opportunity.

Questioning skills can have a great impact on the learning process. Skillful teachers do not "spoon-feed" their students, but provide hints and ask questions that will help the student to find the answer. Students should feel free to ask questions and TAs should be sensitive to the needs of their students. Never embarrass or put down a student in class. Inevitably, there may be occasions when you do not know the answer to a question. Do not give a wrong answer. Simply state that you will find the answer and convey it at the next meeting. This is a promise and it is your responsibility to keep your word.

Your attitude towards your students can either bring out the best in them or destroy their morale. Be considerate and treat them with respect. You will earn their respect and confidence. Students want to learn and you should make learning FUN. Topics pertaining to events in everyday life and living is very popular with students, and it helps to increase participation.

Discipline and class control is usually not a problem for a good and enthusiastic teacher. Remember you are in charge and play your role well. Any discipline problems should be dealt with promptly, and, if unresolved, should be reported to the appropriate authorities.

Audiovisual aids, demonstrations, and/or analogies should be used effectively, and can be very helpful in understanding abstract concepts, especially for students who are still operating at the concrete operational level. Besides, "variety is the spice of life," and a change in routine is always welcome.

Giving a quiz is usually done at the end of the recitation session. Some of the reasons are convenience, less distraction, and the opportunity to review material and answer questions prior to the quiz. Sometimes it may become essential to give the quiz at the start of recitation to improve attendance.

Be adaptable. Stay tuned to the needs of your students and monitor their progress during the course of the semester. A word of encouragement or concern can go a long way. Look for opportunities to interact with students who are shy or lack confidence. Most students need just a little reassurance to bring out the best in them.

The First Encounter - Tips on Getting Started

It is not unusual to experience some anxiety about the first meeting and feel a little nervous about stepping into the "unknown." Remember, the students are probably as tense as you, if not more. Try to be as relaxed as possible, and use the first meeting as a getting-to know-you session. Introduce yourself and provide information on the blackboard about your name, course section number, office location (if appropriate), office hours, and any other relevant information. To get information about your students, you could pass out 3 x 5 cards and request details that would enable you to help them in the best way possible. Some suggestions are name, social security number, student classification (freshman, sophomore), major, advisor's name, and a local address (optional) and telephone number (optional).

This is also a good opportunity to tell the students how you plan to conduct the recitation, what your expectations are, your grading policies, and a breakdown of activities for the semester and the points associated with each activity. Discuss any departmental policies about attendance, absences, and missed quizzes or tests.

Special Situations

Be alert to the special needs of handicapped students and those who may have some unusual physical condition such as color blindness or dyslexia. Students tend to be restless before or after vacation periods. Recitations prior to an hour exam or final may have to be conducted differently so as to accommodate as many questions from students as possible. Some instructors arrange for extra review sessions. Foreign students may have a communication problem and you can help by being patient and making an effort to work with them. In an extreme situation direct them to higher authorities in the Foreign Student and Scholar Services Office.

Recitation Grades and Record-Keeping

Be a fair grader and provide input that could help the student to improve. Promptly returning graded materials reduces the student's anxiety and gives him or her the opportunity to avoid repetitive mistakes and thus improve the score. A grade book must be maintained and all scores faithfully entered. A cumulative score for recitation for each student must be submitted at the end of the semester to the professor in charge of the course .Some departments require information about the student that would be useful as reference when a letter of recommendation is requested.

Conclusion

Conducting a recitation is truly a great opportunity to review basic material and to find answers to questions that you have never asked yourself--a rewarding educational experience. It is also helpful in assessing your potential for teaching. Watching the students grow in knowledge and earn good grades is a reward in itself. Do your best and the best will come back to you.
Some of the information in this article is taken from "How to Succeed as a TA by Really Trying" written by Professor S. Zumdahl at the University of Illinois, and the Handbook for Teaching Assistants published by the Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society.

GTP HANDBOOK Publications B