A Question to TA's

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A Question to TA's

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Set 19, 2007, 11:16am

I was just wondering if anyone has suggestions on how to do with about 80 mostly freshman students who seem to not know how to read a syllabus, and want everything handed to them on a silver platter because they are "special."

Not that all of my students are bad, some are amazingly awesome. And obviously not all freshman are automatically horrible students. My problem is that I have a very low level of patience and this is my first semester as a teaching assistant. I realize that I might have to tell some of them the same thing over and over, but I have a hard time doing this.

Unfortunately to make things worse, my class is required for people outside of the department (it is introduction to anthropology). What this means is that there are many students in the natural sciences who have never had to have discussion sections or who want everything to be very objective and concrete. I should be thrilled to be exposing new people to issues of human diversity (which I feel is important in any major), but sometimes I get extremely aggrivated with hearing the same questions - that I have already answered - over and over again.

I'm sure there are some of you who have encountered similar if not identical issues, any suggestions/feedback would be greatly appreciated!

Set 20, 2007, 6:58am

I've been a TA, and I've used two ways successfully to deal with the endless stupid questions. First, if you've gone over it many times in section, tell the student politely that you have gone over that in class before, and in order to not take up valuable discussion time, they should ask their classmates after class. Second, if you have one that you get repeatedly from a bunch of different students, it might be useful to send out a general explanatory e-mail to everyone through Blackboard or whatever you use, and start off with something along the lines of "Due to the number of questions on said issue, I wanted to clarify..." Then you can say if they ask again, please refer to my e-mail on September 20, it is all explained there.

Hope that helps a bit. Neither way totally wipes out the questions, but it should reduce the volume a bit, and it puts the responsibility on them to get the information that you've made available.

Set 20, 2007, 3:11pm

I've found posting things on a course website (whether it be through Blackboard or Oncourse or whatever) helps quite a bit. It also cuts down on excuses for assignments not turned in on time.

Set 20, 2007, 10:39pm

Actually, the strange thing is that we do have a course website. There is lots of useful material up that would be so helpful to them, if they would look at it. I have emphasized the use of the site in every class, but so many of them don't bother to check it b/c they would rather passively sit back and read emails sent to them, or look at handouts in class, rather than actively voluntarily check out this information. I didn't think to tell them to "ask their classmates". That might help in fielding questions. One problem is that the class is huge (over 1000 students) and I think they are getting mixed information from friends in different discussion sections b/c we all kinda set our own guidelines. Thanks for the advice!

Set 21, 2007, 9:59am

1000 students is a huge class, the most I've had to deal with is 75 at a time. I think in that big of a class, you have to tell them to take responsibility on their own for finding out information regarding the class, especially if it's on the website. They're in college now, they can take a bit of responsibility for themselves. In a smaller class I would be more flexible and understanding, but I would think you would just get snowed under in that big a class. Tell them to get their act together and check the website. Another thought is that you could even give them a list of places (website, previous e-mails, other classmates) where they should check for information BEFORE they come to you to ask it.

Set 21, 2007, 11:04am

Another option is to refer any disruptive questioners to your office hours (assuming you have them). And then to keep your office hours schedule firmly.

Out 16, 2007, 2:34am

wow, suddenly my class of 29 students doesn't feel that big at all...

I TA a 300 level class, and whenever I start to think about spoon-feeding them information, I remind myself that they are in third- or fourth-year, and that, by this point, they SHOULD know a thing or two about personal responsibility, reading directions, and finding information out on their own. And when I think back to my huge first-year courses, I remember how much the massive lecture hall courses were about weeding out the people who weren't able to fend for themselves in a university/college environment.

As a TA, it is not your responsibility to lead these ADULTS by the hand. They should be smart enough to figure it out on their own, and ambitious enough to do so... knowing that their marks (and future academic path) depend upon it. And if they don't, maybe they don't belong in college. This isn't higher-level high school, this is post-secondary (non-mandatory) education.

I know it's heavy-handed, but quite frankly, there's a reason why it's called the "Ivory Tower" and why we have such things as trade school and career college.

I would still take the tack of saying things once, repeating them, and then repeating them yet again... three times should emphasise things enough (and you can always take the route of saying "when I repeat something, that means it's important, so you should take note of it"). Anything else, like everyone above has said, could be put in some sort of archivable (and independently accessible) format where you don't have to repeat yourself all the time.

Then again, I'm marking exams right now, and these third- and fourth-year students haven't mastered reading questions correctly...

Out 18, 2007, 12:40am

I actually have decided that I forgive at least one of my sections b/c today they performed wonderfully during my evaluation. My co-advisor was very impressed, which makes me happy. They were all very talkative and managed to at least make it less obvious that they hadn't read the entire book. :)

Nov 2, 2007, 6:55pm

Another update? I'd be curious to hear how things ended up for you.

Nov 2, 2007, 11:29pm

So this week can be referred to as "Grade Drama" week. Our suposedly nifty electronic grading system had a major meltdown, today was the last day to drop classes, I found out yesterday I had to manually enter grades, I had a presentation, a paper, and a nasty cold, and I recieved about a million emails along the lines of "where is my grade?", and I finally entered grades about 5 hours ago.

I am now going to go read something totally unrelated to anthropology. Stormed Fortress anyone? :)

Oh and sleep, did I mention I haven't slept much this week?

Editado: Nov 3, 2007, 6:38pm

Ugh, I've had those weeks. Definitely not fun, so hang in there!

Every class has its particular percentage of those who actively participate, those who participate when asked, and those who refuse to participate. I find these groups of students often have a corresponding grade status in the class. Sometimes, that's just the way it goes.

20/20 hindsight, here are some things to try next semester:

On the first day of class, give them notes. Highly suggest they should write these down so there isn't any confusion later. In the notes, explain you only give notes and assignments in class. If they miss a class, they need to get their notes or assignments from a trusted classmate (from YOUR section). This puts ownership on students to attend or create a solid network for themselves.

Next, tell them that before the next class meeting they must review the syllabus on their own and email you (or post on a message board, if your class has an online component) with three questions about the syllabus, with the promise you will answer them before the add/drop date. The nice thing about this is 1.) you're making their comprehension of the syllabus an assignment, 2.) you have an email / message board basically acting as a receipt that they've read and understand the syllabus, and 3.) you're able to make your syllabus clarifiations all at once.

The message board option is nice, because if down the road they have questions, you can refer them to the message boards and your responses to student questions.

Finally, if there's so much great information on the websites and you want them to review it so you don't have to take up class time talking about it, try these three steps: 1.) put it on the syllabus that they are responsible for reading and understanding all information on the course website and the online materials may appear on the test, 2.) explain on the first day (in those wonderful notes I mentioned) you have a concepts-driven class, meaning if they don't make an attempt to learn concepts as they come along, they will get left far behind in a simple matter of weeks; it's up to them to stay current and learn, and 3.) require them to read and take quizzes on the material before coming to the next class meeting.

I use many of these tactics to great success in my "Introduction to Composition" and "Introduction to Creative Writing" sections.

Nov 15, 2007, 1:36am

I consider it necessary to shock new students a little if they're unprepared. Not enough to fail them, but when a freshman/first-year doesn't know that they have to read a syllabus and find things out for themselves, then mollycoddling them won't help. Give people who deserve it a bare pass on their first assignment.
To promote discussion, I made stupid jokes in periods of silence. If they want me to stop, they can talk. Alternately, be extremely patient and sit there in silence until someone says something useful. Be prepared to sit there for 15 minutes or more. Someone will crack.

Nov 24, 2007, 12:32pm

I concur with the above post about waiting them out during the silent periods. They will crack. I've been known to keep time and tell them how long the big pause was.

For next semester you could try the following: Give a quiz about the syllabus on day two. Or, have students sign a form stating that they have read and understand the syllabus. The latter, in particular, can make them take it more seriously. Also, I know several people who have a stock email prepared that refers students to the syllabus when such questions arise.

Nov 25, 2007, 7:32pm

I concur with a nice shocking quiz. When I was a freshman I took honors calc and the first test the teacher nailed me for stupid things he had mentioned on the syllabus that we needed to include in our work and I ignored it. I got a 51% , mind you I had never gotten less than an A on math before. It was the best wake-up call though, and I appreciated it all through college and now in seminary.

Nov 27, 2007, 6:25pm

I don't think students have to sign anything saying they've read and understood the syllabus, k8s. I think putting a clause like that in the syllabus works well enough, and in a he said / she said grad situation, the department will always defer to what's on the syllabus.

Mar 7, 2008, 6:37pm

Actually, I start my face-2-face classes by telling them that the syllabus is a legally-binding document in any dispute and have them sign that we went over it in class.
In my online classes, that statement is in a bigREAD ME FIRST file AND two other places, AND I give them a quiz which only about 1/2 of them end up taking.

Editado: Mar 14, 2009, 3:00pm

There are self-help books for first-years which if they read them would make your and their time more productive. I picked one of these up the other day, in Oxfam, to bring my purchase over a fiver, Stella Cottrell "How to Study Skills" or something like that. I think you can put the un-ready on the spot, essentially show them up. If you turned up in an orchestra and played the wrong notes people soon twig it, but students in higher education too often hide behind some future examination rather than continual improvement model which they should've signed up for. Alternatively you could stream the group so that you cover the tough descents with the good skiers only.

Editado: Nov 8, 2009, 5:53pm

I'd like to add my advocacy for the most andragogical (as opposed to pedagogical) approach possible.

What I mean is that adults should be treated as capable, responsible adults, not as perpetually "transitioning" adultolescents.

I find that making your expectations as clear as possible is the best way to avert confusion. N.B.: There's a difference between making your expectations clear and being a tyrant.

After ten years of part-timing/TA'ing, I've also become convinced that some students really do want to get a rise out of you, and that cool detachment, pointing to your policy, and saying "I'm sorry" work wonders. Let the few spoilers puff up like pouty toads. They'll learn. You can defuse their personal woundedness in other ways: making eye contact and smiling at them in class; asking them to meet with you in your office for a friendly chat; putting them in charge of something.

Always put the onus for course responsibility and any remediation outside of class hours back onto the student. You'll quickly earn a reputation for being tough but caring.

A big part of my job (as I see it) is to teach, explicitly, what academic life demands of students and what I and other instructors expect of their work (for the young'uns, this frequently includes explaining what behavior is unacceptable/ counterproductive/self-defeating). I also disabuse them of the notion that the university is somehow not "the real world," a fantasy to which many juniors and seniors subscribe.

The more connections I can get them to make between what we're studying and the so-called "real world," the more basic concepts (e.g., why it's important to cite sources correctly) I can get across to them successfully. Start with their passions and their unquestioning devotion to careerism and work up from there.

And, of course, be friendly, but remember you're not a peer of theirs. Keep a stash of Kleenex handy, but don't bring it to their dorm.

Ago 30, 2011, 5:48pm

Thanks for all the advice here; I start next week.

Ago 30, 2011, 10:53pm

Good luck! Don't let them run over you and you'll do fine. My experience has been that most of them do well when held accountable for something. I teach college freshmen full-time, and they appreciate it (maybe not immediately, but they do) if you tell them first and foremost: "you are adults, therefore you can read the syllabus on your own, and only come to me when all other options have run out." They'll love you for that - especially if you can temper it with being friendly, open, and available for help.

Ago 31, 2011, 6:18pm

I know that this is old but....

>They should be smart enough to figure it out on their own,

Doesn't that backfire though? I would think that if you start having enough students failing under a TA that the college would be looking at it as if it's a problem with the TA.