TIPS FOR ASTRONOMY TA'S

Attending Lectures

The Astronomy Discussion

In the Classroom

- Critical Points
- Preparation for Classroom Teaching
- Before and After Class
- Classroom Strategies
- Blackboard Tactics
- Close Encounters of the First Day
- Questioning
- Building Student Retention
- Increasing Student Motivation
- Ensuring Active Participation

The details of any large lecture class may vary considerably from year to year and depend largely on the professor in charge of the course. During lectures, you should be alert to what topics are stressed as well as to how the material is conveyed (slides? demonstrations? diagrams? etc.) so that you can reinforce or, in some cases, supplement the concepts that are presented. Many TA's believe they know how to explain difficult concepts, and at times, their approach may differ from that of the lecturer. Students often benefit from an alternative explanation, but the starting point should always be the explanation used during lecture.

Your students have the right to expect your help with the astronomy they are studying now; relying on the knowledge you gained three or four years ago in an introductory course is not recommended.

Most non-science students suffer more from lack of confidence in their ability than from lack of inherent ability. This awe or anxiety frequently prevents students from learning as easily as they might. Be sensitive to your students' feelings and give each some sense of accomplishment, no matter how small.

The key to an effective discussion is pre-planning. A detailed lesson plan is not essential, but you should have a list of topics and questions you wish to cover (see hints on questioning techniques). It is also helpful to attempt to identify and anticipate potential problems students may have with the material before you enter class.

To gain student attention and put them at ease, try to start class with an interesting astronomical anecdote, a current topic of astronomical interest, or a comment on recent lecture material. Don't simply ask, "Are there any questions?" as the usual response is an entourage of blank stares. It is much better to start with something like, "In lecture, Dr. Astrogod outlined the formation of a stellar blackhole. Meet with others at your table and discuss whether or not the Sun will eventually turn into a blackhole. Be prepared to defend your answer." Or, read an imaginary article: "In 5 billion years the Sun will turn into a blackhole and suck in all of its planets," and ask your students what is wrong with that statement. Again, a few moments of at-table-discussion will involve more students than just the top two or three. If

Your function in the classroom is to facilitate student learning, not to demonstrate how "intuitively obvious" astronomy is to you. A common problem for teaching assistants is that they neither remember how difficult the elementary ideas of astronomy once seemed, nor realize how difficult most students find

Try to bring a sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the subject material into the classroom with you. It is infectious (as will be your disinterest, if you have it)! Consider using some of the many teaching aids available: slides, videos, overhead transparencies. These aids, if carefully chosen, can stimulate even the most passive student. Don't overlook the possibilities commonplace items provide for classroom use:

- balloons with dots supply a visual interpretation of the expanding universe
- a couple of thumbtacks, a piece of cardboard, and a piece of string clarify the relationship between circular and elliptical orbits
- one student revolving about another provides a readily apparent model for the Earth-Moon system
- having the largest and smallest students walk into a wall (figuratively, not literally) brings Newton's third law to life.

- Your students always know less than you think they should.

The University requires that all undergraduates take at least one quantitative science course. As you face your students for each quarter, remind yourself that, because of the compulsory nature of this course, you will have students with many different majors and widely varying aptitudes. Since many of your students are freshmen, the most common major will be "premaj." These students will have only a high school background in science and mathematics; many students will not have had adequate preparation for college level science and mathematics. As a result, it would be a grave error to enter the classroom expecting your students to have the interests or abilities of science, engineering, or mathematics majors. Most of the difficulties you will encounter in sections are rooted in a lack of basic skill training, not in intellectual ability.

- Your students are always smarter than you think.

At first, this seems like a good thing, and primarily it is. Your students are certainly capable of understanding introductory astronomy. After all, they did get into college! The flip side is that your students are always smart enough to figure out what is the*minimum*amount of work they need to do to get what they want. Usually what they want is a passing grade (admit it---you've been this way sometimes yourself!). The trick is to find some other motivator. If you can make them want something else---the knowledge you have to give them, then you will be a truly great teacher! One way to do this is to be enthusiastic. Presumably, you think astronomy is way cool. Let that shine through---they will pick up on it, and your class will become their favorite!

Lastly, take a minute to think about the best teachers you've ever had. What was it that they did right? Be specific. Were they extremely well-organized? Did they have good speaking skills?

- Most importantly, before you assign a lab or homework in sections,
*do the lab or homework yourself*. No matter how straightforward each lab may seem, it will present problems that only experience will reveal. You will be able to help students more efficiently if you know what problems and results to expect. In fact, you may wish to begin each session with a short discussion about the lab or homework and possible areas of difficulty for the students. - Some labs will involve mathematical manipulation of data. Be prepared to explain these procedures in great detail, down to the simplest algebra involved. Many students will not remember or be able to use basic facts and skills you take for granted. For example:
- the number of degrees in a circle
- how to invert a number
- how to graph
- what a ratio is
- how to manipulate one variable across the equal sign
- how to divide fractions

- The lack in these mathematical skills is primarily due to the simple lack of use of skills that may not have been totally mastered in the first place. Your purpose in sections is to help your students develop (rediscover) these skills. Resorting to the familiar TA refrain of "The students are stupid, they can't learn," is more of a reflection of your failure as a teacher than it is a judgement on the intellectual abilities of your students.
- During quiz sections, make it a habit to walk around the classroom while the students work. This will allow you to observe individual student techniques and to see where potential difficulties are. Also, you will be in a better position to pose helpful questions or make instructive comments on experimental procedure. Students are more likely to ask questions when you are near than risk "embarrassing themselves" by asking in front of all of the students.
- At the conclusion of each section, be sure all material is in order so that the next class will not have difficulty.

When you correct and score lab write-ups, try to write meaningful criticisms or suggestions on them so that students know what you expected in the write-up. This is the first step in encouraging them to meet the standards you require. In fact, if you mark the first few lab reports carefully, you will find that most students will try to prepare quality write-ups for the rest of the quarter.

- Before class, check to see if you have white-board markers.
- Write on the board any announcements or reminders. You can then call attention to them rather than taking class time to write them out.
- Chat with students who arrive early. This can be an effective ice breaker and should help encourage student interest and participation.
- End class promptly in courtesy to the incoming TA and classes.

- Learn your students' names as quickly as possible and use them frequently. Knowing the names of your students demonstrates your concern and interest in them as individuals.
- To gain the attention of your students, incorporate a student's name in discussions of course content or hypothetical situations: "Suppose Amy was on a rocket ship traveling at 0.9 c ...."
- Try to maintain "eye contact" with your students by facing the class as much as possible. Please do not talk to the whiteboard.
- Speak clearly, loudly, and with a variety of vocal inflections. A persistent, flat monotone can provide an unintended lullaby.
- Look around often for raised hands indicating student questions.
- Consider using humorous or outrageous examples to make your points; students often find this approach an effective study aid. (Consider: Roy G Biv, Oh Be A Fine Geek Kiss Me.)
- Move around during the class. If you always stand at the front of the room near the whiteboard, some students may assume you are part of the class decor.

- Start each class by erasing the board; students can be confused by notes from a previous class. (A left-over derivation of the transfer equation is important only to students who have not passed the qualifier.)
- Write legibly and large enough so that students in the back row can read what you have written. (If you are not sure about how large is large enough, check it out before class!)
- Keep your presentation orderly -- left to right, top to bottom.
- Don't write
**everything**you say. Help the students to determine what's important by writing only the key points. Sometimes you wind up with an outline of your lecture notes on the board. That's good! - If you introduce a new term, or equation, be sure to write it on the board. This helps with spelling in the first case, and with visualization of mathematics in the second. Stating that "the force of gravity is proportional to mass, and inversely proportional to the radius squared", is very difficult to follow unless you also write the mathematical representation on the board. Each equation should be thoroughly explained, with all the variables (even "c"!) identified.
- Give all your students a chance to copy what you have written, even the slow writers. One of the most successful teachers I have ever seen wrote on the board in three steps: first, he said what he was going to write, then he wrote it and said it at the same time, then he stepped back and said it again. Each time he said it, he used slightly different wording. This takes a lot of practice to get it right, but your students will barely have to study if you use this method. The information will seep into their brains, in spite of themselves!
- If you make complicated diagrams, use colored markers.

- Write the course name, number, and quiz section number on the blackboard. Some students may find themselves in the wrong place.
- Place your name, office number, office phone number, and office hours on the board. It is recommended you repeat this step at the second meeting.
- Introduce yourself! Tell the students how you came to be what you are (professionally speaking!). Where do you come from? Why do you like astronomy? Tell a funny story about yourself---especially if you have one about when you decided to be an astronomer. (Take a hint from the world's best story-tellers: embellishment is a useful literary technique. Tell the story you would tell your friends---hyperbole and all!) You are the one who needs to open the door so that they can know you. Remember that you are asking them to devote 20 hours of their lives to you. That's a lot to ask if they don't even know where you come from, or why you are an astronomer. Respect your students enough to give them some insight into yourself, and they will give it back to you!
- Be sure to tell your students how you would like to be addressed. This will ease students' initial anxiety about speaking with you, both inside and outside of class. Remember that many of your students will be freshmen and may be unaware of the role of the teaching assistant, so explain what your function in the course will be.
- Take a few minutes to explain your academic and research interests.
- Announce and place on the board the title of the text and other required course materials. Mention where students can purchase these materials and display them if you have copies.
- Briefly go over the course syllabus or explain, to the extent that you have been informed, course policies on exams, homework, grading, etc.
- Encourage students to get to know each other through introductions and
### Well-Tested Icebreakers

An important task for a TA is to make the classroom conducive for learning. This includes making the students feel welcomed and comfortable. Here is a list of first-day icebreakers that work!

In your recitations, the following four classes of questions should be

- Yes/No Questions
- Can we say the Moon revolves about the Earth?
- Is there any reason to believe there is life on Mars?

- Ambiguous Questions
- Tell us about the Jovian planets.
- What about galaxies?

- Spoon-fed Questions
- So, we can say that stars form from vast clouds of dust and gas, right?
- Are these orbits circular or elliptical?

- Confusing Questions
- What is a satellite and how do we know the Moon causes tides on Earth?
- Do you think, from what I told you previously, that gravity or gravitational attraction would affect in any way the expansion or contraction of the universe on the large scale if one takes into account the density or geometry of the universe?

To be able to ask the "right" kind of question will make a big difference in how effective you are as a teaching assistant. You should plan appropriate questions and question-asking procedures before your recitations; such preparation will enhance your effectiveness in leading and participating in classroom discussions. It is best to vary the kind of questions you ask. If you work only at the knowledge or comprehension level, some students will "drop out" quickly. On the other hand, too many higher level questions (analysis, synthesis) can also frustrate student learning. Keep in mind that

Beginning teachers, especially new TA's, are anxious to display their knowledge of course material and often spend far to much time answering their own questions. In most cases, this will lead to the correct answer, but, at the same time, it can easily turn the discussion section into a fifty-minute lecture. In your classrooms, the emphasis should be on

When students do answer your questions, listen carefully and give them a chance to complete their answer, even if it is wrong. Ridiculing or interrupting a wrong answer will eventually reduce student participation in the class. It is better to tactfully correct student mistakes. If a student responds correctly to a question or makes a constructive contribution to the class, be certain you supply some form of encouragement: verbal praise, a smile, or a nod. Demonstrating your concern in these ways should help promote further contributions and increase student involvement in classroom activities.

Finally, strive to answer student questions simply and to the questioner's satisfaction. It is quite easy to misunderstand a student question. Sometimes, students aren't even sure what they want to know. If you get a question for which you have no answer, tell the student you don't know the answer, but that you'll find out. (Better yet, assign the question for the students to find out and report to the class during the next discussion section!) Trying to bluff your way through an answer can seriously undermine your students' confidence in your knowledge -- even more than admitting you don't know the answer. Often, it is helpful for you and your students to say something like, "I'm not sure. But if I have to guess, I'd say... because...", and then reassure them that you will find out. This gives the students insight into your thought processes. They begin to see, by example, how to think about problems. And, if you can come back the next time and say "I was wrong! It's actually true that .... because ...", so much the better. It's the scientific method in action. There may be instances when you make a mistake or the wrong choice in the classroom. At such times, about all you can do is recall the words of Wilbert McKeachie:

The instructor can occasionally be wrong. If he is wrong too often, he should not be teaching. If he is never wrong, he belongs in Heaven, not a college classroom.

Original Learning + Practice = Retention | ||
---|---|---|

1. meaning | 1. amount | |

2. modeling | 2.when | |

3. meaningful processing | 3. how |

- Build a bridge to information the students already know (association).
- Organize the material logically and relate the information to some recognizable pattern.
- Have the students use their new knowledge; show them why they are learning the material (have them bring in current newpaper or magazine article, for example).

Research has shown that each cerebral hemisphere has areas of specialization. The left hemisphere dominates for verbal, abstract, analytic, convergent, deductive, auditory, and logical tasks. The right hemisphere dominates for visual, intuitive, spatial, holistic, inductive, concrete, divergent, and non-verbal tasks. Because the introductory astronomy courses are for non-science, non-mathematics majors, as a TA you may find that many, if not most, of your students are more

- Give immediate quizzes after a lecture.
- Have students role play teaching one another some of the information just learned in class.
- Have the students apply the information from lecture to an earlier lecture, or a different situation.

How to help your student feel success?

- Match your instruction with the
aptitude of the learners. Generally this means watching out for jargon
and not expounding upon all that
**you**know. Watch for crinkled eyebrows, daydreaming, whispering. - Give clear and precise directions. Write them on the board; model a step or two; check initial student understanding.
- Provide constant feedback.
- Correct as promptly as possible.

- Check student work promptly.
- Provide different ways for students to get feedback.
- Have students grade their own work -- even record their own scores.
- Provide answer sheets.

- Make the material meaningful. (See above.)
- Use the name of a student in your example(s).
- Change your voice level.
- Make a game out of the practice or review (but don't over-do it).

Level | Result | Example |
---|---|---|

no concern | no motivation for the task | this won't be graded anyway |

some concern | focus on task | you'll have 1 week to finish this exercise and it counts for 10 percent of your grade |

too much concern | can't concentrate on task | you'll have exactly 2 hours to work on the test; it is comprehensive; it is worth 60 per cent of your grade. |

Here is a simple chart (

Covert | Overt | Level of Concern |
---|---|---|

think about ... | write on scratch paper | walking around to look at answers or listen |

visualize... | finger signals | look at me when you are ready with an answer |

Imagine... | talk it over with a neighbor | deck of cards with names of students--luck of the draw |

do a mental checklist... | on paper, write down the important things | walk around, checking answers |

take a minute to formulate an answer | some students respond at whiteboard; others write at seats -- then compare answers | put names in hat -- draw a name |

put yourself in the place of... | write answers on scratch paper | one of you will be called on... |

summarize to yourself... | discuss in groups (no more than four in a group) | one team will be called upon |

picture in your mind... | if you disagree, cross your arms over your chest; if you agree, raise your hand | nod your head when you're ready |

just suppose ... | thumbs up if you agree; down if disagree; wiggle hand if not sure | be ready with your comments |

what if... | multiple choices--jot down which you'd pick | examine student's answers at the board--be ready to support it or suggest another |

pretend... | private response--write a note to your neighbor | I'm goind to call on four people, be ready to add to the person's answer before you. |

Initially, you may find that this process of eliciting active participation from all of the students seems awkward. Why?

Some ideas for getting full participation: hand out red and green cards for true/false questions; hand out cards with the letters "A-D" on them for a visual multiple-choice quiz. For the Astronomy 101U class, Ana Larson gives a quiz called "Where in the Galaxy would you find..." and the students are given cards (actually photocopied sheets of paper cut into fourths) with the words

The number of different ways to get active participation is limited only by your imagination.

Go for it!