The work of Teaching Assistants (TAs) is important to a successful instructional program. From the viewpoint of the Department it is very important that this task be done effectively. (Indeed, poor performance in this role can be one factor leading to loss of financial support.)
From the viewpoint of the individual TA, this is an opportunity to practice communication skills, which will be important in your future career whether you work in university teaching or in industry. Even at research universities such as Stanford, search committees look for candidates who combine outstanding scholarly credentials with evidence of teaching ability. It is not unusual for a job interview to include a presentation concerning your experience and philosophy of teaching. Here are some ways you can improve your teaching skills. Some of these are particularly relevant if you are involved in leading recitation sections, while others are useful hints for all TAs.
TAs are generally expected to hold two or three office hours each week. To avoid scheduling conflicts, you need to plan your office hours in advance. Try to choose a combination of times when your students are likely to be free, but also add that they can make an appointment for other times in order to accommodate a person who wants to come in but can't make your regular office hours. Be consistent about keeping the hours you schedule. Leave the office door open during the office hours, even if no students are currently in it. Above all, be courteous to students during office hours. No useful purpose is served by negative remarks about a question or a student's level of understanding.
Make a plan for evaluating the students and stick to it. Evaluation procedures should be decided when the course is in the planning stages. Meet with your faculty member and other TAs to decide how many and what kinds of evaluation methods are to be used. Decide how the students' work should be graded and what proportion of the final mark each assignment, quiz, etc., will comprise. This is also the time to set out a policy for missed or failed midterms and late assignments. Once all of these things have been set out explicitly, make sure the students are aware of these policies. Tell the class what you expect from them and how you plan to measure their progress in achieving the goals of the course. Explain these goals and how you feel the evaluation procedures and policies will help to achieve these goals and allow you to evaluate their progress. Good planning and clear explanations will prevent student confusion --- and possibly anger --- later on. Sometimes, it may be necessary to alter the requirements during the quarter. Such a change is only permissible to make the requirements more lenient, not stricter.
Keep accurate records of your evaluation of each student's performance throughout the quarter. You should also keep your records around for several years since students may come back later to question a grade, finish an incomplete, or ask you to write a recommendation. Such records will make it easier for you to justify and/or reevaluate a student's final grade if necessary. Be sure to keep your records in a private directory or file so they remain confidential.
Occasionally students will dispute a grade. In that case, it is important to give the student a courteous hearing. You may have added incorrectly, or overlooked work, or not been able to decipher the writing. If, on the contrary, the grade should still hold, most students appreciate an explanation of how the grade accords with the policies you set forth and the manner you graded the other assignments or exams. Of course the clearer the records you keep, the easier it will be to reexamine and justify your grades. Students who ask for a reevaluation of their work should be informed that the reevaluation can lead to raising, lowering, or no change in the grade.
Although grading is important, you should emphasize learning rather than grades. Your class should have a strict policy on late homeworks, but be generous with that strict policy. It is more important that students ultimately learn, even if the homework is late. It serves no good purpose to ask for the homework on time when the student hasn't learned the material and then discourage the student by handing back a low grade on a homework.
If you are teaching a recitation section, visit the room before the first meeting. Know how long it takes to get to your classroom, how to work the lights, shades, windows, etc. Check any equipment you will be using. Get comfortable speaking in the room and make sure your voice and your writing can be interpreted by the person sitting in the most distant seat.
Write the course name and number on the board. This message will alert any students who are in the wrong classroom to leave before you begin.
Introduce yourself. Tell your students your name, your interest in the subject, and some facts about yourself to break the ice. Tell them where you were born, where you went to college, why you became interested in the subject, etc.
Address administrative concerns. Announce homework policies, office hours, project requirements prerequisities, etc. Ask students if they have any administrative concerns or any other concerns they might have.
Remain calm. Pauses while you wait seem very long to you, but really are not. Try counting to 10 or 20. Pauses give students time to think too, and it is okay to say you are unsure.
Use mid-quarter student evaluations. The evaluation can simply be a request for the students to take a few minutes to write suggestions about things you can do to improve, or it can be a more formal questionnaire. If you use a questionnaire, it should have two sections: a general section so you can spot general reactions to your teaching; another section so that you can focus on questions that are of most interest or concern to you. Be sure to try to follow up on some of the students' feedback. Announce in the next class which issues have appeared and how you propose to resolve them. This will give the students a sense that you take their opinions and feedback seriously.
Be videotaped by the Center for Teaching and Learning. This method allows you to see your own teaching. You may arrange free videotaping through the Center for Teaching and Learning by calling approximately a week in advance. You can have a personal copy made for a nominal fee, and then you can ask others to view and give comments on your teaching at their own convenience. It may also be good to have a copy for yourself for future reference to see how your teaching has improved and as evidence of effective teaching.
The Center for Teaching and Learning is in charge of keeping cutting edge resources at the hands of instructors of all types at Stanford. The following is a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of services available to you.