Departmental and Individual Responsibilities
Attending Lectures
The Astronomy Discussion
In the Classroom

Departmental and Individual Responsibilities Regarding Instruction by TA's

The Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington has extensive on-line resources for new and continuing TA's. For just about everything you may want to know about your teaching position, visit the CIDR Graduate Teaching Assistant Preparation site. Included are listings of meetings, orientations, seminars, awards, handbooks, departmental programs, etc.

Attending Lectures

Your effectiveness as a TA is enhanced by regular lecture attendance. Your attendance demonstrates to your students your concern and interest in the course as a whole. By attending lecture, you may get to know your students better -- some students make it a point to make contact with their TA after each lecture. In addition, your presence in lecture will insure that lecture related activities will run smoothly and efficiently.

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.

The Astronomy Discussion

The astronomy discussion sections are designed to complement the lecture sections and reinforce lecture material by providing students with a small group setting (20-30 students) where they may ask questions or work through specially prepared exercises (labs).

Getting students to talk about astronomy

Most students find the language of science intimidating and unrelated to their everyday world, so that actively involving all of your students in the discussion of astronomical topics will be a challenge. Since many of your students will have little background in science or mathematics, you will not be able to fall back on the elegant simplicity of mathematics for explanations. When a student is confused by a verbal explanation of an astronomical concept, you should be ready with another one. Saying the first one slower or louder is rarely useful. Learning to say things in different ways and using analogies to everyday situations are attributes of an effective teaching assistant. In addition, learning to solicit the help of other students in rephrasing the explanation is a valuable skill of any teacher. Many times, other students will be more successful than the TA!

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 all of your students are with you from the start, class participation throughout the discussion class will be easier to accomplish. Don't go to a discussion section unprepared; students can sense your lack of direction, and the entire class (and your quarter-end evaluations) will suffer accordingly.

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 the language in which physical prinicples are stated. "Simple," or "Trivial" can be deadly in a discussion class since students find such arrogance and lack of understanding annoying. The inability or the apparent unwillingness to learn exhibited by certain students may be frustrating and occasionally exasperating, but an outright display of disgust, contempt, or ridicule will only aggravate the situation. In the end, these responses will be self-defeating. It is far better to treat students with respect and consideration and to be sympathetic to the difficulties they encounter.

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: Your discussion sections will get monotonous only if you let them; introducing some variety into your classroom activities will make them more productive for you and for your students. Most importantly, GET THE STUDENTS INVOLVED.

In the Classroom

Critical Points about Teaching in General

There are two important concepts that you must understand before you begin teaching:
  1. 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.

  2. 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!
Realizing these two key concepts will get you out of a jam more often than not. If you feel that your students are not "getting it", come back to these two key points. Either there is a deficiency in their background, or they are still motivated by grades, and not by the subject!

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? How did they show that they cared about your understanding? How did they get you to connect with them and the material? How can you emulate these people, and use their knowledge to your advantage? (This line of thinking often leads to invidious comparisons with the worst teachers you've ever had---what did they do wrong? How can you keep from doing those things?)

Preparation for Classroom Teaching

The following suggestions are intended to help you prepare for your role as a quiz-section instructor.
  1. 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.
  2. 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:
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. At the conclusion of each section, be sure all material is in order so that the next class will not have difficulty.
A large fraction of your time may be devoted to grading of labs and homework. It is important to mark and return the student's work promptly, preferably within a week. This gives students a chance to see their mistakes. It will also keep you on top of the grading. It is especially important to be prompt immediately before a midterm and the final.

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 and After Class

The five minute intervals immediately before and after discussion sessions can be put to constructive use:
  1. Before class, check to see if you have white-board markers.
  2. Write on the board any announcements or reminders. You can then call attention to them rather than taking class time to write them out.
  3. Chat with students who arrive early. This can be an effective ice breaker and should help encourage student interest and participation.
  4. End class promptly in courtesy to the incoming TA and classes.

Classroom Strategies

  1. 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.
  2. 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 ...."
  3. Try to maintain "eye contact" with your students by facing the class as much as possible. Please do not talk to the whiteboard.
  4. Speak clearly, loudly, and with a variety of vocal inflections. A persistent, flat monotone can provide an unintended lullaby.
  5. Look around often for raised hands indicating student questions.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.

Blackboard Tactics

  1. 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.)
  2. 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!)
  3. Keep your presentation orderly -- left to right, top to bottom.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. If you make complicated diagrams, use colored markers.

Close Encounters of the First Day

The first meeting of any college class can be hectic and confusing, so a few procedural suggestions are in order.
  1. Write the course name, number, and quiz section number on the blackboard. Some students may find themselves in the wrong place.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. Take a few minutes to explain your academic and research interests.
  6. 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.
  7. Briefly go over the course syllabus or explain, to the extent that you have been informed, course policies on exams, homework, grading, etc.
  8. 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!


The Socratic Method, imparting information by means of question and answer, is one of the oldest forms of teaching. Then, as now, the quality of the learning that occurs in the question and answer exchange depends strongly on the process of the questioning. The programmer's familiar comment, "Garbage in, garbage out." is as valid for questions as it is for computers. It is not possible to teach effective questioning in this short introduction, but a reasonable alternative is to point out what characterizes an awkward or poorly worded question.

In your recitations, the following four classes of questions should be avoided:
  1. Yes/No Questions
    1. Can we say the Moon revolves about the Earth?
    2. Is there any reason to believe there is life on Mars?
  2. Ambiguous Questions
    1. Tell us about the Jovian planets.
    2. What about galaxies?
  3. Spoon-fed Questions
    1. So, we can say that stars form from vast clouds of dust and gas, right?
    2. Are these orbits circular or elliptical?
  4. Confusing Questions
    1. What is a satellite and how do we know the Moon causes tides on Earth?
    2. 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?
Different types of questions require students to use varying degrees of their reasoning abilities to arrive at answers. In fact, questions that can contribute to a meaningful exchange of information in the classroom are often characterized by the kind of answer they elicit. There is a vast body of theory about questioning, which is summarized by Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. The verb lists are particularly helpful to understand the difference between types of questions. The Task Oriented Question Construction Wheel also includes lists of activities which demonstrate the six levels of understanding (at the center of the wheel).

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 students have to be able to work at the lower level before they can master higher level questions. Most students will also need to be taught to think at the higher levels. Many times in their learning career they have been given only lower-level questions.

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 student involvement and participation. One way to encourage these activities is to pause for a full five to seven seconds after you have asked a question. it has been demonstrated that his "wait time" can increase learning since it gives students a chance to think through the question and compose a reply. One of the skills you should attempt to develop as a TA is to wait for a student response. This will not be an easy matter; time goes by unendurably slow when you are in front of a class, especially if you are paying attention to its passing.

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.

Building Student Retention

Unless a classroom teacher uses variables of retention, the retention curve of a student will drop to below 30 per cent after just 2 days! Here are some suggestions given by Carol Cummings in her book "Teaching Makes a Difference" (1983, Snohomish Publishing Company, Snohomish).

Original Learning          +          Practice          =      Retention
1. meaning1. amount
2. modeling2.when
3. meaningful processing3. how

Make it Meaningful

  1. Build a bridge to information the students already know (association).
  2. Organize the material logically and relate the information to some recognizable pattern.
  3. 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).

Modeling (demonstrating, picturing, diagramming, etc.)

All students (and we are all students, really) have different learning styles. We learn by observing others, by imitating models, by exploration. Every teacher should design and conduct activities that include more than just "sitting and listening."

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 "right-brained." In short, you should be encouraging visualization, tactual/kinesthetic experience, and attention to all sensory stimuli. Reading from the textbook, listening to a lecture, answering questions on multiple choice tests -- these are all left-brained activities. Can you guess why so many of our students have difficulties in our classes?

Meaningful Processing

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


The amount of practice will depend, of course, on just how much time is set aside for it in sections. Do you spend more time on the whole picture, or do you emphasize the individual parts? Research has shown that learners should experience the integrated whole first and then practice the parts.

When should practice occur? Immediately after the lecture. This is one strong argument for having lab exercises that correspond closely to what was lectured the day or two before sections.

How? Practicing does not mean reading, or listening, or watching the same thing one more time! The best type of practice is practice that requires the learner to meaningfully process as s/he is learning and practicing. This require students to "use" the material in a way that's meaningful to them.

Increasing Student Motivation

"Students are not passive receivers of information -- they choose what they want to attend to in class." (ibid. p. 123) Outside of the use of high anxiety (you will fail the course if you don't ....), there are other ways of motivating students: having them achieve success, giving them knowledge of results, raising their interest level, increasing their level of concern.


The most motivated student in your section is most likely going to be the "A" student. Who will be asking the most questions? Appearing the most interested? That same student. Who is likely to be the reluctant learner (if s/he shows up at all)? The learner who has experienced repeated failure. Unfortunately, you will see a number of students who have experienced repeated failure or near-failure in their science courses.

How to help your student feel success?
  1. 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.
  2. Give clear and precise directions. Write them on the board; model a step or two; check initial student understanding.
  3. Provide constant feedback.
  4. Correct as promptly as possible.

Knowledge of Results

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


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

Level of Concern

The fear of losing something that you need or want (status, success, esteem, etc.) will MOTIVATE. Level of concern is that fear of losing something you need or want. "Level of concern is just like medication when you're ill. Without it you won't get any better; with too much you'll really be sick; only with the right dosage will you get well. (ibid.)

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.

Ensuring Active Participation

If students learn by doing then we need to get students (all students) to do. We can do this by covert or overt behavior.

Covert behavior is behavior we can't see. We need to allow students time to think. The minimum time is 3 seconds! Some words we can use to encourage covert behavior: consider, imagine, remember, recall, be aware, plus others.

Overt behavior is that we can see and measure: verbal answers, written answers, raising hands, tell your neighbor, or other behavior. High achievers tend to volunteer more and give more correct answers. Low achievers (notice those students who don't look you in the eye, who are pretending to be searching for the answer?) usually don't volunteer, and may have trouble with the answer. What do we as teachers want as reinforcement that we are doing a good job? The correct answer! Whom do we tend to call on? The high achievers that will give us that answer.

Here is a simple chart (ibid. p. 144) that gives some practical ideas about how to elicit both covert and overt behavior, and how to raise the level of concern for each and every student so that you, as the TA, get active participation.

CovertOvertLevel of Concern
think about ...write on scratch paperwalking around to look at answers or listen
visualize...finger signalslook at me when you are ready with an answer it over with a neighbordeck 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 answersome students respond at whiteboard; others write at seats -- then compare answersput 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 handnod your head when you're ready
just suppose ...thumbs up if you agree; down if disagree; wiggle hand if not surebe 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? Because we are used to having only the high achievers answer questions! Another reason? Because it is more work for the teacher! The students may also find the active participation concept strange. Why? Because they are used to having only the high achievers answer questions! But, the above steps work! All you need to do is adapt them to your teaching style. Don't give up if initially the procedure doesn't work. It takes time to learn that each and every student is responsible for learning the material, and each and every student is expected to participate.

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 disk, halo, bulge, nucleus on them to see who was paying attention to the lecture on the Milky Way.

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

Go for it!