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UIC TA Handbook - Working with Students Outside of the Classroom

By Nancy A. Wall

Former Teaching Assistant, Social Work
Jane Addams College of Social Work

 

Introduction

Consider the following situation:

Carol is a returning student who last attended school several years ago. Her first writing assignment is filled with factual inaccuracies; poor use of resources; spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. She has been given an opportunity to resubmit her work but must first speak with the TA during office hours. She is embarrassed that she did so poorly.

My first step was to go over the assignment to see if she understood what was required. We then reviewed her paper to see what problems there were. Next we reviewed her resources. We did a walk-through of the paper and talked about how she would use her resources to write her revision. I encouraged her to come back with questions as she wrote the paper. Her resubmission was much improved as were her subsequent efforts.

The Importance of Office Hours

Office hours are a useful addition to an instructor's repertoire of teaching methods. They provide a time for the student and TA to review class material, go over assignments and tests in greater detail, and provide a chance for the student and TA to get to know each other. Discussions during office hours give the TA an opportunity to under­ stand the student's strengths, as well as any difficulties the individual may be having with class material.

Each department has its own guidelines about office hours. It is important for the TA to be familiar with these guidelines. The particular role a TA plays may also dictate various office hour procedures.

Office hours need to be announced in class and printed on the syllabus, as well as being posted on the door of the TA's office.  In addition, it is a good idea to have them posted in a central location where other staff can find them. The TA should be scrupulous about keeping office hours.

Students may be reluctant to use office hours, because they may not know what to expect. The purpose of the TA's office hours should be briefly outlined in class for the students.

Many professors and TAs find it useful to schedule time for each student in a class during office hours early in the semester. This can help reduce the initial anxiety a student may feel about the course and may help to clarify issues raised in class. It is the TA's responsibility to set the tone for the visit, keeping the session professional and focused on learning. Keep the door to the office open during office hours; this signals that the one-on-one meeting is a positive situation. A friendly tone works well with students and keeps them focused on the task at hand.

Students are sometimes reluctant to bring up difficulties they are having in class. A contact with the TA may pro­ vide the comfort level a student needs to broach the subject. In an individual discussion, the TA can see what the student grasps about the course content and what is presenting problems. The TA can use the student's strengths to build a foundation for further learning. The content can be tailored to the student's individual needs in a session with the TA.

Re-teaching material is also an important piece of a TA's work. For students who need remedial work, an individual learning session with a TA may help a student articulate his or her difficulties and help motivate her or him to do additional work to improve skills. For a student with a disability, an individual session with a TA can help the TA understand what reasonable accommodation needs to be made for the student. TAs need to be aware of resources on campus to improve basic study skills, writing and math skills and where to send students who need more help.

Group Meetings

Meeting with groups of students during office hours is often a good idea. Students frequently have the same concerns about the class. A group meeting allows for students to work cooperatively with the instructor on problems.

In a beginning course in social work, I use this strategy in conjunction with an assignment on careers in social work. Students are required to research one of five fields of practice. There are several resources each student must read. I group the students by field of practice and have one or more meetings with each group. I also encourage the students to meet outside of class time. During the group meeting, we discuss the materials. The students are allowed to divide the work of finding resources among the group members. After they have found and read the material, I again meet with the group to answer questions. While each student must write an individual paper, I encourage them to work on their drafts together to facilitate understanding. The students seem to enjoy the inter­ action, and the papers have improved since I started using this method.

Review Sessions

TAs often hold review sessions for students. Using old exams to review students review is one way to help students prepare. Students can also write suggested test questions based on their class experience and use these in a review session. Another method is to prepare a list of questions for students to study which will be used during the review session.

Using E-mail to Communicate with Your Students

E-mail can be a helpful resource for the TA. Just as it is useful to obtain the home phone numbers of students, you may find it helpful to get your student's e-mail addresses.

E-mail can be an effective strategy with students who are shy or reluctant to speak up in class. Asking for feedback via e-mail can generate information about how class activities are reaching the students, how they perceive the atmosphere of the class, or questions they hesitate to ask. Students often make useful suggestions for changes in the class via e-mail.

Some students may be unfamiliar with the university's computer systems. To acquaint students with the computer systems, a class activity involving e-mail is useful. For example, the class might be instructed to request approval for the class project via e-mail. It is important to keep track of missing e­mail assignments and follow-up promptly.

Advising

Many students ask their TAs for advice about courses and beginning students may want to talk about a future major. When an individual student needs academic advising, a TA should be familiar with the department, college, and campus-wide resources. Often the student's questions may be a relatively simple matter which the TA can handle.

Students often bring personal problems and concerns to the TA. This can be disconcerting or troubling to a TA whose role is primarily educational. Sensitivity to a student's concerns is important. While the TA needs to communicate to the student a sense of interest, in-depth personal counseling is not appropriate, and the student should be referred to the appropriate services if necessary. Students have a wide range of campus resources available to them to assist with personal difficulties. The campus counseling services, academic counseling, student financial services, and disability services are just a few the TA should know.

REFERENCES

Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey·Bass.

McKeachie, W.J. (1994). Teaching Tips. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath and Company.

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