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Bouncing back from a not-great evaluation


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This is my first semester TAing, a once a week discussion section for a lecture class. We're often in a museum to discuss objects as part of our discussions, and my professor came to observe one of these such recitations. The evaluation wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. He generally described a "looseness" that may lead to students not taking recitation seriously and indicated that I should structure the class more definitively, talk louder, and step in more often to impart information.

I don't disagree with these critiques, but I think I had been relying on students to provide most of the information by asking them a series of questions to lead them through the main arguments from the readings. I don't want them to think they don't have to do the readings because I'll summarize them for them in class, and I think I'm having a hard time striking a balance between lecturing and "leading discussion." Especially with more difficult readings. Any advice for a new TA in taking control and being more assertive in a recitation that is supposed to involve the students at the same time?

Also more generally, bouncing back from a so-so teaching evaluation?

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I can't actually offer any advice, but like you, I just got back some (student) evaluations and was upset for a while. Nobody was mean or anything, but I always have difficult accepting criticism and it's apparently even more difficult for me when that criticism doesn't come from an authority figure.

I teach a once a week conversation class, and while the class is very low-key (P/F, no exams or homework), I've found that it's really hard to get students to participate, so I end up either talking at them or leading activities that are, apparently, quite boring. So I completely understand.

The only advice I can offer is to just be kind to yourself. You are a new TA and you're what, 2 or 3 months into this? It's just the beginning. (These are all things I try to tell myself). The thing I've found with teaching is that, while it's unfortunate that an entire group of students is on the receiving end of my struggle to become a good teacher...well, it's inevitable. At least you're trying to improve your class, and that's definitely something students can appreciate. In fact I'm planning on taking 10-15 minutes out of my next class to talk with them about some changes I'm planning on making for the class. Just make sure you actually take the professor's suggestions -- I'm sure he is only trying to help. And don't be too hard on yourself! (Once again, I try to remind myself about that...)

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I think the advice we can offer will depend on the character of the "looseness" of your discussions. Is the trouble that you're letting students run off on tangents? That you can't get a high enough participation rate? That there's not enough structure to the session?

If the trouble is tangents, I'd say that the thing to do is jump in more often and be a bit more directive. If the trouble is participation, start cold calling. (I tell students they're allowed to "pass" if they don't know the answer, and reiterate that it's okay to give the wrong answer.) I find that cold calling not only ups participation because I'm calling on students to supply the answers, but it also encourages my quiet students to start speaking up more in class, of their own volition.

If the trouble is structure: I'm in a bit of different situation in that I carry full instruction responsibility for a small class (23 students), but I tend to structure class discussion in various ways. Some days we work together as a class in a very traditional format, but other days we break into groups first before reporting back to class (sometimes all groups work on same activity, other days each group works on a different discussion question to present to class), jigsaw, begin class with a freewrite that feeds into discussion or other write-to-learn activity, discuss with pairs before reporting in.... In short, I work to find ways to structure the class that still rely on student work and effort (and don't have me handing them information).

I wonder, too, if perhaps some body language would help the character of your discussions (as you mentioned that your prof asked you to "talk louder"). It is possible to develop a teaching style that is more assertive and directive while at the same time remaining approachable and encouraging student input, so it needn't sacrifice the ethos you're working to cultivate.

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Thanks for your replies...I'm trying not to take the evaluation personally, but it's hard to remember that even though I'm new at this, I don't have to ace it on the first try.

I think the main trouble is that while I come with a structure in mind, usually in the form of a series of carefully planned questions that lead the students to the larger idea or theme, the discussion doesn't necessarily take that route. So it's not that the students are going off on tangents, but rather that the discussion doesn't seem to add up to much, which is where I'm going to work on coming in with a more assertive takeaway, or even begin with a summary or clear idea that we can then discuss. I luckily don't have issues with participation, all my students but a few are eager to contribute, I guess I just need to direct their enthusiasm more effectively into a productive conversation---just knowing what questions to ask and which avenues to pursue on the fly is difficult! Especially for an over-planning grad student who has difficulty winging it when the script is not followed.

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Learning to facilitate discussion well is really, really hard. I finally feel like I'm starting to get better at it myself after three years of teaching, but I still have days when I walk out of the classroom thinking, "Geez, I'm such a loser."

Anyway, FWIW, some suggestions for planning discussions: one is to try to plan so that you have a short (emphasis on SHORT) list of very, very important take aways that must be covered in some way during the discussion. One, two, maybe three main ideas that you absolutely must either pull out of student responses (and then emphasize and elaborate on) or will lecture on if discussion isn't going the way it should.

I like this approach personally because it helps me break up the linearity of trying to script one path to the takeaway points. It also helps me feel like we accomplished something; and if the students find other points of interest to talk about, then that's icing on the cake.

My second suggestion is, I suppose, a reiteration from up above: get students thinking in the direction of your main idea by assigning some kind of directed response for homework, or by asking them to freewrite or jot down notes in response to a question designed to get them thinking in the direction of one of your take-aways. I always feel like I'm on surer footing with this kind of start.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think the main trouble is that while I come with a structure in mind, usually in the form of a series of carefully planned questions that lead the students to the larger idea or theme, the discussion doesn't necessarily take that route.

This always happens. The discussion is rarely going to go the way that you've planned it.

I agree with runonsentence in that you should have a short list of key takeaways that have to be covered. Ask your questions, and direct your students' conversation, around those takeaways. This may be three major points. It also may be a good idea to at least hint if not directly state to your student that there are major themes in the work that need to be talked about.

One problem I realized from taking a mixed seminar with undergrads (although I wasn't teaching it at the time) is that undergrads tend to look at discussion seminars as a chance to talk about what they liked about pieces, or their own personal experiences related to articles, or (at best) to summarize articles. It takes them a little while to recognize that you're not trying to summarize but synthesize, analyze, extract information from the articles. If you directly state that there are three major themes in such and such piece and then ask them what they think those are, you can start to foster discussion and then it won't come as a shock when you curtail their story about how they went to Hawaii last summer and saw that art piece in their hotel room.

I always thought that reader response papers - 1-2 pages of reaction to the material that were "lightly graded" in check-minus/check/check-plus fashion - were very useful. Not only did it ensure that you were reading the material, it also gave the professor the heads-up on what people were pulling from the material and how deeply they were engaging with it. Another tactic that a professor used is using our university's Wiki space. We were required to post one 1-2 paragraph response to the readings AND to respond to one other student's response to the readings. Then they read it and had an idea of what we had been thinking about,

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One problem I realized from taking a mixed seminar with undergrads (although I wasn't teaching it at the time) is that undergrads tend to look at discussion seminars as a chance to talk about what they liked about pieces, or their own personal experiences related to articles, or (at best) to summarize articles. It takes them a little while to recognize that you're not trying to summarize but synthesize, analyze, extract information from the articles. If you directly state that there are three major themes in such and such piece and then ask them what they think those are, you can start to foster discussion and then it won't come as a shock when you curtail their story about how they went to Hawaii last summer and saw that art piece in their hotel room.

I always thought that reader response papers - 1-2 pages of reaction to the material that were "lightly graded" in check-minus/check/check-plus fashion - were very useful. Not only did it ensure that you were reading the material, it also gave the professor the heads-up on what people were pulling from the material and how deeply they were engaging with it. Another tactic that a professor used is using our university's Wiki space. We were required to post one 1-2 paragraph response to the readings AND to respond to one other student's response to the readings. Then they read it and had an idea of what we had been thinking about,

Yes, agreed with both of these!

I sometimes let students start off by responding quickly to the reading (letting them get their "I didn't like it" responses out of their system) and then tell them that it's time to move on to analyzing, or to putting it in conversation with other texts we've read. Depending on what level you're teaching (freshmen have much more trouble with this than sophomores and juniors, for instance) this can sometimes take some work.

I like to ask students to respond to one idea in the reading that I call their attention to, or ask them to report back on one or two main ideas/take-aways they got from the reading, on Blackboard and have it due before the start of class. It can be really helpful to know what they already do/don't understand, and where they're coming from, when planning discussion out.

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