Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for January, 2020

Teaching: Working with grad TAs

Note: I have been gone, but I have some things to say, and this is a forum where I have lots of space (unlike Twitter), so I will use this space to collect my thoughts. Maybe they will be helpful to you again, as a refresher, or for the first time. Enjoy – or not. You don’t have to read it.

I am getting nervous. In less than two weeks, I am walking into a classroom in a new university, a new department, and a course I have never prepared before. I am having nightmares – stress dreams – about teaching. I have had two already where I walk into class without my syllabus or anything on the first day. Those dreams definitely kicked me in the pants to get on top of my syllabus. Syllabus done – check – so we definitely have something to do on the first day. Nightmares subsiding.

After the learning goals, calendar for the class, and syllabus, I think about my teaching team. This semester, I have a small class, and will have 0.5 teaching assistants assigned to me to help with grading and teaching. At my new school, the TA has assigned office ours in a general learning space (awesome!) so they can help any student who comes in. Also, unlike my old university, the TA is responsible for a recitation or discussion session each week for the class – DOUBLE AWESOME! But, also a lot of responsibility for this person. Honestly, I am not sure what to recommend for this person. Please comment if you have suggestions.

Apart from that, I have some pretty clear ideas for how I would like my TA to work with me in the class. Each year, I write a set of expectations for the TA, and we meet to discuss it in person before the class starts. It somehow gets longer every year – mostly due to prior failures making me realize that I need more information. Here is what I say:

Physics 216 is the second physics course in the physics major and many of the students are freshmen. This is an exciting course because not only do we get to introduce the students to the world of physics, but we also help to set the tone for their career in the department for the next 4-5 years. Please take a look at the syllabus to get the information on the course and the expectations and notes I wrote for the students. Also, send me edits, when you find errors or typos!

As with many of our courses, the students have a variety of backgrounds. Some have passed out of Calculus I and II, some are taking it concurrently. I will be going over a lot of the math in class, but many will know it already. The diversity in their math skills and background makes teaching physics courses challenging.

For the graduate TAs: This is a HALF TEACHING ASSIGNMENT, so I expect you will need to put in 7-8 hours per week most weeks for this assignment. There may be weeks with more time (exam weeks). There will be weeks with less. The active learning class is Tuesday and Thursday 12:30 – 1:50 pm, and I expect you to be there during the class. This will be a bit less than 3 hours per week. There will be some grading of the daily warm-ups and in class work; this is basically graded on participation. There is also one long-answer homework problem that needs to be graded each week. All the grading should take only about an hour each week. You will also need to run a recitation for the class for one hour per week and the typical, required two hours per week in the Physics Clinic, which will serve as your office hours.

Expectations: I expect you to be respectful of the students and coach them in their learning. You are not to do the work for them. Coaches instruct and guide – they do not teach by doing it for the student. In class and discussion section, encourage the students to work together and to get up and try it on the boards. Please approach the students with the mindset that they can learn from failure. Failure is nothing to be afraid of and will ultimately help them to succeed, as long as they learn from their mistakes. Many cultures and societies associate failures with shame, and this stigma inhibits learning. I would like you to encourage a positive, growth mindset around failure, so that students take risks with their learning.

I enjoy teaching in a team atmosphere. If you want to make a change, notice good or bad things in the class, or have other suggestions, please let me know. I will likely ask for a 15 minute debrief each week, so we are on the same page about the class, schedule, materials, and students. Please let me know when a good time for these weekly meetings is, so we can put it in our calendars.

Your job is to:

  • Let me know all your information including your office location, office number, and email address. I will put this information on the syllabus.
  • This course is an active, team-based learning course. The students will do physics every day in the class. So, you will need to be there for every class. In the class, you will walk around and help students with their group work. There are about 10 students right now, but I am hoping a few more students might come into the class.
  • Office Hours: My office hours will be in the evening of Mondays (5-6:30pm) and Tuesdays (7-8:30pm). Not all students will be able to make those times, so it would be good to have additional times with someone familiar with the class. I will let students know when your scheduled times in the Physics Clinic are, so that they can come to you specifically. I will likely call these your “office hours” because that is the language I am used to using. Please let me know as soon as possible what time your office hours are, so that I can inform the students on the syllabus and Blackboard page.
  • Grading: There are two main types of assignments for this class: homework and in-class work. The homework is mostly online, using a system called I will get you a free account, so you can see what the students are watching for videos, what the problems look like, and their homework, so you can help them. The daily, in-class work will be organized for each group in a folder assigned to that group. The work will be distributed and picked up using that folder. Graded work should also be distributed in the folder.
    1. Homework: The students have three kinds of homework: Online Prelecture videos and quizzes in FlipItPhysics (, online long-answer questions in FlipItPhysics, and long-format written homework. The online assignments are automatically graded online.

The one long-answer question per week is the one that I would like you to grade. Please write a complete solution to the problem that I can scan and post to the website. Using your solution, please assign and distribute 10 points to the problem to use it as a rubric for the grading. Using your rubric, please grade the long-answer questions. If you find that many students are missing large sections of the solution you think should be there – resulting in missing points for correct answers, come to see me. We can discuss if the students need to show those steps or not. In general, I would prefer for students to demonstrate all their thought processes in writing. If you have questions about the grading or for a particular homework many students are doing poorly, please come to talk to me.

You might find that the students have worked out a different solution than yours. This is an awesome part of physics, but it can be a pain for grading. If there is a different solution, which is correct, please make a new rubric for that solution, so that students can earn points for their correct answer.

In general, when grading, please treat the students how you would want to be treated. Use your rubric and add helpful comments if they had a conceptual error or just a minor math mistake. Strive to be fair and coach them.

  1. In class work: In addition to homework, there are two other types of in-class work that need grades recorded: warm-up problems and daily group work. The warm-ups will be slips of paper where students will work on logic puzzles, basic math, or other problems. The daily group work will be worksheets for students to work on together in class. Since the class meets twice per week, there will be two of these each week. These will both need grades from you.

When grading these in class assignments, you will not need to grade for accuracy – please just grade for participation. Did the students make an attempt to complete the problems? Did all the group members put their name on the sheet? The grade should mostly depend on if the students completed the assignment. Sometimes it might be too much for some students or groups to complete in the class, so it doesn’t need to be fully complete, but it does need to be attempted. Each week, you will be responsible for collecting and grading the in-class work.

  • Grade Records: After grading the work and before returning it to me, you must record the grades of every person in an Excel spreadsheet.
    1. Save the spreadsheet as P216-S2020-MM-DD.xls, where the MM-DD is the date in (MM = month as a two-digit number, and DD = day as a two-digit number).
    2. Every week, open up the last spreadsheet and put in the new grades.
    3. Then, save the spreadsheet with a new name with the new date. Send the spreadsheet to me, and I will save it, too.
    4. By the end of the semester, we will both have numerous spreadsheets all saved. By saving multiple copies, we are less likely to lose the grade data. Losing the grades is very bad, so this method will allow us to not have this problem. Also, it will keep us organized each week.
    5. I will not use the online gradebook. I cannot make it work, and I absolutely hate it. If you want to put the grades into Blackboard, we can discuss how best to do this, but I have never been successful with it in the past and cannot guarantee success this year.
  • Recitation/Discussion Session: This is the first year for me to have a TA who runs a recitation section. I would like to discuss with you how you want to run this session, and what you want the students to learn there. Do you want it to be review? Do you want to lecture? Do you want it to be enrichment – doing harder problems with more challenges? Do you prefer to let them work on homework in groups and solve problems? Let’s sit down and discuss, and we will make a plan, and I will re-write this.
  • Exams: This course has three midterm exams and a final. They will be long answer. I will proctor them in class and grade them myself.

Midterm Exam Dates:

Thursday, February 13th, in class

Thursday, March 12th, in class

Thursday, April 23rd, in class

Final Exam Date (subject to change) :

Tuesday, May 5th, 3-5pm, in classroom

All exams are cumulative. It might be useful to hold extra office hours during the week of the exams. Please let me know if you are doing this, so I can announce it. Hopefully, we will be able to respond to the students who need it.

  • Substitute for me in class. There will be times when I am away to give talks or due to illness. During those times, you will be required to fill-in for me in class. I will give you the warm-ups and daily work copies for the class before, so that you will be able to run the class the same way I usually do.
  • Pay attention. If you notice a student having a particularly hard time or not attending class, please let me know as soon as possible. I will attempt to contact the student and make a meeting. Developmentally, college-age students can suffer from depression or anxiety – often for the first time ever. It often manifests as missed classes or assignments. If a student is struggling in this way, we have an obligation to reach out.
  • Wise criticism. Please grade and offer advise using wise criticism. This means to let the student know that you think they can do it, show them what they got wrong, and offer suggestions for improvement. The most important part is letting them know that you have confidence in their ability to learn the material and that failing is not a bad thing – especially in class. In fact, it is better if you can see them while they make a mistake, so you can help them see it. For instance, if they are struggling with dividing fractions, be specific about the criticism, so they can improve. Do not offer general platitudes or passive aggressive comments.
  • Harassment. Harassment or bullying will not be tolerated in the class. People need to feel free to try and fail in order to learn. If you see someone treating students or students treating each other in a negative way that affects someone else’s learning, please let me know as soon as possible. I will address the situation. If one of the groups is not working at all, please let me know, so I can adjust them.

So, what do you think about this? Do you do something similar? What am I missing? I’d love to hear from you with suggestions or edits. Feel free to comment below.

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