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UIC TA Handbook - Classroom Management

By Janet Engle

Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Education
UIC College of Pharmacy


Classroom Environment

One of the most important roles of the teaching assistant is to establish a classroom environment that is pleasant and conducive to learning. Some of the ways you can establish good classroom rapport include:

  • Come to class early and spend some time talking with your students. Getting to know the students as real people and giving them the opportunity to get to know you can go a long way towards developing classroom rapport.
  • Start class on time. Do not waste the time of students who are on time to accommodate late students.
  • Allow students to complete their comments or responses. Listen to what the student is saying without comment. Use non-verbal messages such as nodding to indicate that you're interested in the student's comments.
  • During your class, observe your students. If they look confused, talk to them. Find out how many of the students are confused and what they do not understand. If you are unable to find a better way to explain the concept during that class period, move on but seek advice from a faculty member and plan to address the concept again during the next class.
  • Students will respond to an enthusiastic teacher. If you show your interest in a subject and share with the students your experiences and anecdotes, it will help the students to develop an interest in the subject matter. Capitalize on existing interests that the students have. Why are they taking the course? Relate the course material to student interests whenever possible.  If the course is required and the students do not see the relevancy of the course, take the time to explain how they will use the information you are teaching, later in their major or in their careers.

Student Participation

Many new teaching assistants are concerned about how to encourage student involvement while maintaining control of the classroom. Your students will have a wide range of skills, attitudes and learning styles. Regardless of their abilities, all students should have an equal chance to participate in class. Structure discussions so that everyone has a role. Asking each student to give a short presentation is one way to accomplish this. In large classes, breaking the students up into small groups to solve problems or discuss a case is another way of giving students a chance to participate. Ask questions of the class that are open ended with several possible responses so that more students will have an opportunity to respond. Try and include hesitant or shy students in your discussions. Generally, if you treat the students with respect, are approachable and enthusiastic, it will go a long way towards encouraging students to participate in class. (See section on Active and Collaborative Learning Strategies, and Meaningful Discussion Sections.)

Providing Support and Advice to Students

Many teaching assistants are unsure about their role when a student comes to them with personal or emotion­ al problems that are unrelated to the course itself but may be affecting grades or class attendance or participation. If you are comfortable with the student, many times the best approach is to just listen. You may wish to ask a few questions to help clarify the situation. If you have some experience with the situation that is presented (e.g. room­ mate quarrels) and can offer advice, do so. Be aware of your own limitations as you offer the advice. Acknowledge the limits of your skills with the student. If the situation is something that you are not comfortable dealing with or is of a serious nature, suggest that the student seek help in your college's Office of Student Affairs or with the Counseling Center. If possible, try to refer them to an individual in these offices rather than just the office. It may be helpful if you facilitate setting up an appointment for the student. You may want to enlist help from the course coordinator or faculty member in serious situations. Your role is not to offer ongoing counseling to students.

Communication Skills in the Classroom

In order to effectively establish a classroom environment which encourages learning, good communication skills are critical. The primary role of any speaker is to speak with his/her audience rather than speaking at them. Communication skills affect the way you present information to the class, establish credibility and control of the class, and create rapport with your students. Here are some basic tips for effective communication:

  • Do some research about your audience. Do the students have any background in the information you will be presenting? Is it a required course or an elective? Do the students feel that the course material will be relevant to them? By knowing more about your students, you will be able to tailor your presentation to meet their needs.
  • Good non-verbal communication is an essential part of reaching your audience. Project personal warmth by using your facial expressions such as smiling. Try to maintain eye contact with your students at least two-thirds of the time. Find a few friendly faces and use them as points of reference. Look directly at people's eyes, not above, below or to the side.
  • Avoid using jargon. Use clear and precise language.
  • Listen carefully to student responses.
  • Use humor when appropriate, but avoid tasteless or malicious comments.
  • Be sensitive to non-verbal communication from your students. If they appear to be confused or bored, stop and ask for some feedback.
  • Avoid the temptation to tell the students everything you know about a subject, "data-dumping." Point out the relevant points and give information about other sources if they would like to learn more.

Question and Answer Techniques

Answering questions both in and outside of class is one of your most important roles as a teaching assistant. Students may want to seek clarification or may have come up with a question on the topic that was not answered during your class. The Q/A session is an excellent opportunity to reinforce points from your class. Questions are your best gauge of students ' interest and understanding; they tend to ask questions on points of greatest interest to them.

When answering questions, concentrate on the individual asking the question. Show complete interest in the questioner; do not shuffle notes or otherwise act distracted or bored. Repeat each question to ensure the other students hear it and you understand it. This also allows you time to pause and think about your response. Listen for content and intent. Check the facial expression, body language and tone of questioner's voice. Make sure of the true meaning of the question and whether the words used match that meaning. Keep answers short and to the point. Verify the questioner's satisfaction with the answer. Admit it if you do not have an answer; do not try to fake it.

Some don'ts for answering questions include the following:

  • Don't grade questions (e.g., "That is a good question..."). If you don't say it to everyone then the next questioner who is not told it was a good question may think, "Hey, why wasn't my question just as good?"
  • Don't argue with anyone, get angry or excited.
  • Don't allow one person to ask all the questions or dominate the Q/A session.
  • Don't answer with: "obviously", "as I said during class", etc.
  • Don't give a single answer to two-part questions; treat them as two single questions to avoid a confusing answer.
  • Don't get drawn into commenting on information you have not seen nor heard of (e.g. if someone says, "I read in today's New England Journal of Medicine... and you haven't seen it, don't fake it).
  • Don't use condescending or judgmental gestures (hands on hips, pointing finger, etc.).

Some responses that may be helpful in difficult situations include: "perhaps you have information that I am unaware of"; "what do you (believe, recommend, practice, etc.) and why?"; "perhaps we could discuss that after class". The primary point to keep in mind is that the students ask questions, but you must stay in control of the class.

Providing Feedback

One of your roles as a teaching assistant is to provide feedback to students. Students should be given feedback as soon as possible. Always be patient and polite. It is important to treat every student with respect. If a student asks you a question that you feel he/she should know the answer to, you may guide the student to sources of information that may help answer the question. It is never appropriate to ridicule someone with statements such as, "You should have learned that in high school," or, "It is so simple, why don't you understand it?" Sincere efforts on the part of your students should be recognized even if the result is not at a satisfactory level. If negative feedback is necessary, try to be sure it is not directed at the student as a person but as a comment on a particular content, product, behavior or performance. Since positive comments are usually most effective, try to praise what has been done correctly whenever possible.

Student Conflict

You may encounter difficult or disruptive students during your tenure as a teaching assistant. It is important to address such behavior right away and not hope that it will just go away.  Some students have good intentions and do not mean to be disruptive. Many times, discussing the behavior that causes disruptions with the student is enough to resolve the problem. Be sure to do so privately, not in front of the class. If a student is not well-meaning and continues to cause disruptions in your class, you may want to politely address the issue in class. For example, if a group of students continually laugh among them­ selves during your lecture, you can walk over to them and ask them if they have a question about the material or do they want to share anything with the class. You can also talk to the whole class in a more generic manner about the problem. Acknowledge that students are talking or laughing during class and that this activity disturbs other students. Note that if it continues, you may ask the offending students to leave. If a student continues to be disruptive or disrespectful to you, discuss your problem with the course coordinator or other experienced faculty member. Other faculty may have experienced similar situations and will have useful insights for you.

Students with Special Needs

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. A person with a disability is defined as having a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. Some examples of disabilities include AIDS, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, hearing impairments, learning disabilities and visual impairments. It is the student's responsibility to request special accommodation for the disability but a faculty member can initiate the discussion. For example, a statement may be placed on the class syllabus that indicates that students with documented disabilities who would like to discuss academic accommodations should contact the course coordinator.

UIC's Office of Disability Services is available to answer any questions you may have regarding accommodating students with disabilities. All accommodations that you agree to provide to a particular student should be arranged through this office. Disability services will pro­ vide students with a letter to give to faculty, which verifies that the student has a disability. Information regarding the accommodations that should be made for the student is also contained in the letter.

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