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First Class or Section Meeting

The first class or section meeting sets the tone for the entire semester. Here are some tips for starting off on the right foot.

  • Try to act calm and assured. Chances are undergraduates are beginners in your field —they're nervous, too.

  • Handle necessary administrative details first. Be sure that students have a copy of the syllabus. Reiterate course requirements and policies stated by the instructor.

  • Introduce yourself. Write your name on the board.

  • Take attendance. This will help the students to settle in and allow you to begin learning their names. Some TF/CAs prefer to have students introduce and talk a bit about themselves to break the ice.

  • Reiterate the objectives of the course as a whole. Explain policies on attendance, late papers, class conduct, and grading.

  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the course. You may want to explain your academic interests and how the course fits in. Discuss how the course might be "useful" to undergraduates.

  • Set office hours and tell students how to get in touch with you to make an appointment or to discuss a problem. Do you prefer email? Your departmental mailbox? Your office? Should students call you? What time is convenient?

You should do some actual course work during the first meeting. This will communicate to the students your seriousness of purpose and also give them a better idea of what the class will be like. Students at Brandeis "shop" for classes until the tenth day of instruction. To avoid disruption to the class later on, help them to make an informed decision as early as possible.

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Leading Class Meetings and Discussion Sections

Depending on various factors (the subject matter, preference of the section leader, and nature of the material to be covered), the format of the class can range from loosely­focused, free discussions to highly­directed recitation sessions. Regardless of the format, the class or section leader should create a comfortable atmosphere for student interaction. You must become comfortable asking questions and facilitating discussions. Here are some tips on how to run your class or section in an organized, productive fashion.

  • Have specific, substantive goals—what you want students to discover and learn. Design questions and materials to achieve these objectives.

  • Observe classroom dynamics carefully, especially during the first few weeks. Notice who pays attention, tends to participate, sits in the front, comes prepared, and takes notes. Be aware of any personal interaction among students that may lead to difficulties later on.

  • Insist that students attend their assigned section. Student "migration" will make it difficult for you to establish a stable, comfortable atmosphere for discussion.

  • Some students may ask to switch to your section "because it's better than their own," according to their friends. Encourage them to stay where they are and to share notes with their friends. Explain the benefit of two different points of view.

  • If it becomes apparent that there is a distinct difference in the way students are treated by different section leaders in the same course, enlist the instructor’s aid.

  • Try to assess the academic level of the class. Insofar as it is appropriate and feasible, adjust the pace and material accordingly.

  • Make sure that students are aware of their responsibilities during the section period and clearly explain how participation will influence their course grade.

  • Refer to students by name.

  • Never come unprepared. Read or reread all assigned materials before the section no matter how well you feel that you already know the subject matter. Bring pertinent materials with you to class. Otherwise, how will you know "what the author is talking about on page 79?"

  • Avoid asking questions for which you expect one specific response. Trying to read your mind rather than thinking critically about the material may discourage students.

  • Be kind in your criticisms and generous in praise for intelligent, articulate responses.

  • Design your questions carefully. Pose questions that elicit a variety of responses and allow students to express their own views and perspectives.

  • Sum up: at the end of the session, review important points raised. This will help the students feel that they are taking something concrete away with them.

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Engaging Students

Engaging students is one of a TF/CAs most difficult challenges.

  • Make it clear from the beginning that all students are expected to participate by speaking and listening to each other. Mandatory attendance policy helps to ensure that students come to class. If Woody Allen is right­­, “showing up is 90% of success”­­, you will help students just by requiring that they come to class.

  • Meet with shy or non­participatory students outside of class to discuss strategies to help them to participate. Ask them to prepare a position on an issue or find out topics that are of greatest interest to them. Let them know that you will direct questions on these topics toward them during class.

  • Have reticent, shy students read aloud as part of their contribution to the course.

  • Do not suffer from "pause panic." A few seconds of silence might be enough to encourage students to venture a response. Wait a little while before calling on someone. (Thirty seconds will seem like an eternity!) It takes some students longer than others to formulate their answers.

  • Do not rush to answer your own question if no one offers an immediate response. Guide the students; do not lead them.

  • Use the board to list the main discussion questions and to record important points.

  • To ensure that students are prepared at the beginning of the semester, assign two or three students to lead the discussion each week. Feel free to call on them if the discussion comes to a halt. This can also give a basis for their participation grade.

  • Have a plan, but be flexible. Pose follow­up questions to encourage students to focus on issues that they, perhaps unexpectedly, find controversial or unclear.

  • “Team A and Team B” strategies: Divide the students in the section into smaller groups. Have them collaborate on group activities and then present collective opinions to the class.

  • Encourage students by positively reinforcing all responses whether they are correct or incorrect. Attempt to reinterpret or redefine incorrect responses to tactfully put the discussion on a productive track.

  • Rephrase student questions or responses and redirect them back to students. 

Do not panic if the discussion becomes heated when controversial or highly emotional issues are raised

  • Try to regain control of the situation. Ask students to step back. Put the debate into a broader perspective before resuming discussion.

  • Poll the class to solicit the opinions of each student.

  • Interrupt the exchange and have all students spend several minutes writing about the issue. This will allow time for tempers to subside and for you to collect your thoughts and re­channel the discussion.

  • Race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and even differing levels of students’ preparation influence the classroom dynamics in every learning environment. Fostering a friendly and inclusive classroom atmosphere is a difficult task for even the most experienced TF/CA. Astute TFs/CAs recognize diversity and promote sensitivity.

  • Try to assess your own conscious and unconscious biases. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I made uncomfortable by students whose backgrounds differ from my own?

  • How open am I to nontraditional modes of expression or styles of learning?

  • Do I make assumptions about various student groups?

  • Do I shy away from potentially sensitive topics even when they are directly related to the subject matter at hand?

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Teaching a Lab Section

Teaching a lab section offers you a unique opportunity to interact with students on an individual basis and to help them to discover the connections between the physical world and the theory presented in lecture. The lab is also a good environment for relating students' course work to current topics of research. To get the most out of your teaching experience, it is important that you come into every lab well prepared.

  • Be safe. Familiarize yourself with the emergency procedures. Know where the eyewash, safety shower, fire extinguisher, and nearest telephone are located. The students must know too.

  • Give students a list of your expectations; go over them on the first day of class. You may save yourself some work in the long run.

  • Run through the lab procedure yourself with the equipment that the students will use. This is the time for you to find trouble spots.

  • Familiarize yourself with the theory behind each lab. You do not want to be caught off guard with a question you are unable to answer but should know.

  • Anticipate likely questions. For example, "Why do they tell you to make measurements with the current going both ways through the coil?" or "Once you plot these points on your graph, how are you going to find the best straight line through them?" This will not only help the students to make connections; it will give you an idea of how well they understand the material.

  • Start on time. Some labs are particularly long and students may need to leave for other classes, commitments, or dinner!

  • You may want to give a brief talk before starting the lab. Point out potential problems with the experiments, tricky equipment, important measurements to make, etc. By pointing these out before lab, you may avoid answering the same question 20 times. Then again you may not, but it's worth a try! Also, reiterate the significance of the experiments.

A lab section is a good place to enhance your teaching skills. Try to find ways in which you can help the students to help themselves. Often they will learn more by you not answering a question than by you answering it. Help them to find the answers to their own questions by asking them about what they do know. Show them how you make connections. If you think of a new analogy for a problem, use it. If it does not get through, try something else.

Finally, show all students respect and consideration and they will reciprocate. Although teaching a lab requires an enormous amount of time and energy, it can be extremely rewarding.

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Assignments and Grading

Every TF/CA experiences that rising sense of dread when grading or commenting on student papers, exams, or lab reports. Discuss with your faculty instructor your concerns about fairness and consistency, grading student work, and about how to word or vary comments. Establish clear standards to evaluate papers and exams before you begin to grade them. Check and recheck with the instructor to calibrate your standards.
Below are some suggestions for setting and maintaining standards, conveying praise and criticism in a productive manner, and safeguarding your sanity throughout the grading process.

  • Provide pre­exam support.

  • Encourage students to see you during office hours to discuss any difficulties they might be having.

  • If you are making up a quiz, test, or assignment, make sure all directions are clear. Always try to take the exam yourself first; that way you can iron out any problems before they become an issue during the exam.

It is essential to maintain consistency, especially when grading a large number of papers or when teaching only one section in a large course. Some tips:

  • In consultation with the faculty instructor and other TF/CAs, compile a set of sample answers. Discuss the "ideal answer." Agree on criteria for assigning grades.

  • Share exams with TF/CAs in other sections. Pick out three or four assignments and read through them without making any marks or comments on the original. Compare your assessments.

  • If you are evaluating many papers, periodically re­read one of the first you graded to ensure consistency.

  • Try grading tests section­by­section by reading all students' answers to the same question before proceeding on to the next question.

  • Consider grading papers and exams anonymously. It is easier said than done, especially with papers submitted electronically, but try it for exams and quizzes. Building as much objectivity as possible into the process will pay real dividends over the long run.

  • Set and state policies for acceptance of late assignments. Adhere to them strictly.

  • Let students know the policy regarding extensions.

  • Avoid giving such extremely detailed guidance that students expect an "A" for merely following your directions.

  • Return graded work as quickly as possible. If you cannot return a set of assignments on time, let the class know and tell them when to expect their work.

  • Never post grades with names or social security numbers. If you have to post grades publicly, devise a system that masks the identity of the person receiving the grade.

  • Never return assignments by placing them in a box outside your office or in the departmental office. You are violating a student’s right to confidentiality and inviting someone to take a paper that is not his/hers for possible use in some other course. If someone wants an assignment returned, and you cannot find a safe and convenient way to return it, ask for a self­addressed stamped envelope.

  • Remember that it is against Brandeis policy to offer extra credit or optional work to students on an individual basis. If a student wants to do extra work to make up a poor exam grade, gently deny the request. If you do it for one person who received a “D,” you are obliged to do it for someone who received a “B+.“

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Comments on Assignments
  • Weigh your comments carefully and offer concrete suggestions for improvement.

  • Communicate criticisms fairly. Accentuate the positive, if possible.

  • Balance criticism with reassurance and guidance on how to improve.

  • In most cases you do not need to teach writing conventions, but do respond to it.

  • Grammatical, spelling, or syntax errors should not be ignored.

  • Warn students that poor writing may conceal or obfuscate good ideas and detract from their grade. Encourage them to seek help from the Writing Center and to choose, whenever possible, writing ­intensive courses.

  • Comments should not be designed to defend the grade that you have given.

  • Comment extensively and provide critical feedback. Use the technology; Microsoft Word contains easy­to­use tools that allow you to correct papers electronically. You can save time by storing frequently used comments in a customized grading toolbar and returning papers to students electronically.

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Additional Resources

The Committee for the Support of Teaching (CST) is comprised of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and administrators. Their website contains extremely useful materials on teaching methodology, discussion groups, student participation, lecturing, student diversity, testing, grading, syllabus development, learning activities, etc. As you prepare to teach or face challenges in the classroom, take advantage of this resource.

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Academic Integrity

Your personal approach and teaching style have a profound effect on the way students learn from you about the material you cover, setting priorities, respecting authorship, and fulfilling obligations. How you communicate about academic integrity matters greatly and sets the tone in your classroom. There are many ways to create an atmosphere of integrity in your section and among your students:

  • Emphasize and discuss the statement on academic integrity inserted in the syllabus. Brandeis University publishes its expectations about academic integrity in the student code of conduct entitled Rights and Responsibilities. The Department of Student Rights and Community is responsible for this volume, as well as for the adjudication of alleged violations of its contents.

  • Give clear guidelines about assignments and papers, and specify the circumstances under which collaboration is acceptable.

  • Require that students develop their own ideas and substantiate them; direct them to analyze or compare what they have learned, not merely restate data, themes, or ideas in the readings. Keep in mind that academic conventions vary by region of the world, and some students have been exposed to years of locally­legitimate practices that are not acceptable in the American higher education culture.

  • Design testing situations that discourage cheating, (e.g., randomizing questions, using different versions of an exam, assigned seating, and active proctoring).

  • Work closely with any student who seems unclear about how to properly reference primary and secondary sources. Referrals such as tutors, LTS and The Writing Center can all be helpful. LTS provides informative guides and even workshops to assist students in learning proper citation. The practice of paraphrasing is a specific concern, and students should cite paraphrased material.

Remember, students have a contractual relationship with Brandeis, and as an instructor you are charged with upholding the institution’s end of the contract. Violations of our policies on academic honesty must be referred to The Department of Student Rights and Community

Standards ( SRCS) for adjudication through the Student Conduct Process. Using the TurnItIn.com feature for assignment submissions on LATTE, can be a simple and effective way to detect plagiarism. Additionally, entering content from student assignments into a Google Advanced Search can also be helpful in identifying plagiarized content.

For further guidance managing any specific situations that may arise with a student in your course , please contact Melissa Woolsey, Assistant Director of Student Rights and Community Standards,. She can be reached at 781-736-­5075 or mwoolsey@brandeis.edu.

Working closely with the faculty instructor of your course should establish clear guidelines and promote a climate of academic integrity at Brandeis. This means that you may not sanction any student (e.g. lower the grade or require additional work) based on suspicion of academic dishonesty without referring the matter to the SRCS, by filing a Community Standards Reports (CSR). The CSR form can be found on the SRCS website.

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Proctoring

Proctoring is intended to inhibit or prevent students from cheating. As a TF/CA you may be asked to proctor an examination or you may give an examination. Bear in mind the following guidelines:

  • Students should not have clothing or books on the floor near the desks where they are taking the examination. Announce clearly, before distributing test materials, where you want these items to be placed.

  • If there are enough desks or seats in the examination room, tell students to sit at alternating desks or in alternating rows.

  • Hand out test materials face down and instruct students not to turn the examinations over until told to do so. This prevents students at the front of the room from starting the examination before those in the back.

  • Be aware of what is going on in the room during the exam. Do not bring study materials or papers that need your complete attention. Walk around the room from time to time or pick a seat in a different location if there is more than one person proctoring. 

  • If you think someone is cheating, stand quietly nearby but do not interrupt the examination. If that is not possible, make sure you can identify the student and the examination booklet when the exam ends. If you think Student A is copying from Student B, make sure you can identify both exams.

  • Do not accuse a student of cheating during or after the examination. Brandeis regulations regarding the handling of these matters are designed to protect the rights of accusers and accused. 

Take the booklet(s) to the faculty instructor, describe what you have seen and why you are suspicious, and work with the professor for further analysis and action. Record your initial observations while the details of the incident are still fresh in your mind. If a charge of academic misconduct is raised, you must be as clear as possible about what you saw, and if there is a hearing at a later date your credibility as a witness will be higher if you can provide documentation of what you saw.