Some random thoughts on teaching for new T.A.'s

Steve Pollock, Fall 2003

(With thanks/apologies to J. Thornton, from whom these notes were partly cribbed)

You are about to embark on the honorable profession of teaching. After all those years of being taught to, you are now moving from griper to gripee. For most of you, those years of experience on the receiving end will suffice to prepare you for this (at some level of proficiency!) Still, every one of us has our own ideas about what works and what doesn't, and how we can best prepare for teaching. Here I have compiled a few ideas, tips, and comments that I hope may be of some use to you. Remember that you are the front line for the physics department. Our reputation, and the quality of the educational experience for scores of undergraduates rests firmly in your hands. You are likely to find teaching incredibly rewarding at times, tedious and frustrating at others, and you will surely learn far more than your students will!


Discussion/recitation sections: The professor teaching the main lecture will have pretty specific guidelines for you regarding grading policy and recitation content. But beyond that, you're usually very much on your own. Get a little creative! Get the students involved. E.g., make them solve the problems while you play the role of guide. Pair them up and make them teach each other. Bring in a quick demo. (Talk to Mike Thomason for help if you want to do this) Review the key points of the week's material (but don't take the whole hour -- recitation is not a lecture.) I sometimes like to spend time throwing out quick questions (sometimes called "concept tests") that don't require any calculation, but are purely qualitative, to help consolidate their intuition about the topics of the week. It's especially valuable if you can get the students arguing about something.


The simplest and most obvious thing to do is stand at the board working through the solutions to their assigned homework problems. There is considerable evidence that this is the least effective way of teaching(!), but many students, and perhaps even the prof will demand this of you, so some of you will want to do it despite my warnings. It's your class, and your decision. But even so - prepare ahead of time! Working a problem similar to a homework assignment is a minimal alternative that forces them to do some valuable processing. Think about different techniques for solving the problem. There are lots of diverse learning styles out there, and if you can reach more than a small subset of the class you're doing well. Graphical, intuitive, algebraic, analogic... application of Newton's laws vs. conservation laws, (etc) there are usually lots of ways to tackle any problem. Thinking about it ahead of time really helps. Get your act together before you go to class.


On occasion, you're bound to get stumped. You flailing at the board can be instructive (and very entertaining) for the students, especially if you manage to pull through and figure out the problem. But don't let it get out of hand, and certainly don't try to bullshit your way through. You don't have to be a physics deity, tell the class you need to think about it, and go on to something else. Give them a nice answer the next time. Or better yet, make it a homework problem that they figure it out, and teach you next time. If you can swallow your ego, the teaching value and moral boost that would give students is enormous. Everyone is allowed to make mistakes (and does!), so don't let it get to you.


Watch the students. It's pretty easy to pre-prepare a class, blaze through it, and find out later that people just lost you. Look at their faces -- nods? smiles? dog-watching-the-TV looks? Feel free to ask them how you're doing. An anonymous 3 minute evaluation form now and again (make one up yourself) can give you invaluable information.(Do they know how to reach you easily? Do you encourage them to do so?) This may be one of the keys to good teaching - find out what they know and think, don't assume!


Techniques: Write large, neatly and clearly at the board. This is not trivial! If you haven't done it before, take a moment to practice ahead of time. Try to work across the board in an orderly fashion. Some students are taking notes. The organization on the board can help people see logical connections. Look at the board after you're done - could you figure out what the T.A. was doing if you hadn't been there while it was being written? Then there's the "obvious" things like: don't stand in front of what you're writing, erase the whole panel before starting to write over it...


Speak loudly and clear. Don't talk into the board (what if it starts talking back?) Stay calm, don't rush. This material may be fairly elementary to you, but try to remember how you felt when you saw it the first time. Give them time to think, and digest. Ask them lots of questions, get them involved. The rowdier classes seem to be the better learning environments (to a point, anyway!) This is often a real challenge - you'll ask a question, and there's a horrible deathly silence. Hang in there! That half minute of silence will turn your knees to jelly, but it can work wonders for drawing students out, and making them think. Try counting silently to yourself, whatever it takes to wait and put the responsibility for learning on their shoulders.


Get to know the students a little. Learning names can really warm them up. Arriving a few minutes before class and just chatting can encourage questions later, and may make some shy students less intimidated about coming to office hours later. In fact, try hard to avoid intimidating students whenever possible - no question is ever dumb, certainly no student wants to be told they're dumb. Attend lectures early on in the semester so you know the prof's lecture style and idiosynchracies. Attend as often as you have time! I sometimes like to play the "good prof, bad prof'' angle, where I'm on their side defending them against the nasty exam-giving main lecturer. This may not make you popular with the prof, but it can help establish a warmer and more comfortable environment in the recitation. Use your judgment.


Most important, in my humble opinion, be enthusiastic! If you arrive in class having spent the night doing your research in the beam dump, you're not going to inspire these people. Believe it or not, some of them don't yet realize how utterly cool and fascinating physics is. Show them! You are no longer a mere mortal, but a representative of Physics. Remember, someday you may be asking one of your students for a job. (or at the least, for their support of your physics research) Demonstrate to them how interesting, fun, and valuable this all is. Yes, even Newton's second law and statics problems...


Labs: DO THE EXPERIMENT AHEAD OF TIME! Even the most trivial intro labs have pitfalls, trust me on this one. Circle around the room, try to put out little fires before they become big ones. If you discover a common problem, stop the lab, and tell everyone about it, it'll prevent you from getting spread out thin trying to rescue everyone at once.


A few minutes of introduction before the lab is valuable. Come up with whatever tricks you can to get them to read the lab writeup before coming in. Summarize the essential physics, give them a clear picture of what's going on, so they don't lose the big picture for the gory details.


The hardest and most frustrating part of labs, for me, is getting the students to THINK. There is a curious and profound desire on their part to be given cookbook labs, fill in the required blanks, and (preferably) go home and "analyze'' the data, hopefully requiring little beyond a couple of trivial operations. When you're circulating, ask them if their numbers make sense. Make them analyze data before leaving. Try to encourage them to get creative, to do something a little different, to experiment (!) Point out weird aspects, get them curious. And of course, as with all aspects of teaching, pass on any clever tricks you come up with to your fellow T.A.'s, and the prof.


Office hours/help room: Office hours are often the most fun part of teaching. You have students one on one, you can really figure out how they're thinking, it gives you the greatest opportunity to really teach them something. You will learn a tremendous amount about what's really stumping them, how they learn, and it can help guide the recitation section you're going to give on this same material.


I like to give the student the chalk. Don't be an answer sheet. The goal is to get them to figure out the problem. Telling them the solution is of almost NO VALUE to them. It has taken me years for this to sink in, and I still fight the temptation to simply show students a clear, elegant solution while they watch, nod, smile, and thank me. It all makes sense when someone else shows you - but that's not how most people learn deeply! They get the points for the problem, but not the insights or understanding. If you do this - ask them a closely related question and see if they get it. In the end, I will get them from the start of a problem to the end (if that's what they want) but it's best if they can work their own way, with occasional hints or (better) questions from you. If they simply aren't getting it, try as many approaches as you can. Get them to make links to similar problems in the book. A key thing to avoid is making them feel intimidated in any way, so keep it relaxed, and even festive when you can.


Bottom Line: After spending hours hunting for a minus sign for your grad Mechanics homework assignment, or searching for another vacuum leak in your research lab, you will find that talking to real live people is a pretty appealing concept. For me, teaching has always been an incredibly rewarding experience. Good luck, and enjoy yourself -- no worries!