For the love of teaching: One TA’s collaborative guide to success!
Vivian Stamatopoulos, LA&PS
When I was asked to write a short article about my experiences as the 2015 recipient of the Presidents University Wide Teaching Award, I was thrilled to share my insights with my fellow educators. My first impulse was to start sharing all the tools I have added to my teaching repertoire over the years but then I had a different thought: Why not get the students involved and bring their voice to the table? Following that ah-ha moment, I reached out to my students and inquired into what they felt were the greatest strengths and weaknesses of any and all educators they have been exposed to here at York University. By expanding the field of focus to encapsulate more than just my own personal teaching style, I was able to gain insight as to what others may be doing that is particularly ingenious but more importantly, I could share that feedback with all of you!
What follows is a thematic analysis of the key feedback received from my students, intermixed with some of my experiences:
TOP TEACHING STRENGTHS:
- Prioritize student engagement and encourage independent thinking.
Students consistently praised educators who encouraged them to contribute to classroom discussion via intellectually stimulating and collaborative conversation. Indeed, as graduate students we are taught that our new role is to become producers versus mere consumers of knowledge and as it would appear, our students similarly appreciate contributing to the production of classroom knowledge.
- Apply subject material to real life situations and experiences.
Applying higher order theories or concepts to real-world events presently unfolding helps students develop those crucial critical thinking skills that extend well beyond our classroom walls. Many students cited this practice as helpful in making sometimes prosaic, sometimes overwhelming concepts make sense in ways not initially conceived. Moreover, I have found that students enjoy when recent news stories that may or may not be directly related to the weekly content are discussed critically as a way to kick-start the weekly tutorial.
- Show great enthusiasm and passion for learning and teaching.
For me, probably the most consistent praise I receive from my students relates to the energy and positivity that I bring to my classroom. As TA’s, we have an important opportunity to influence and inspire our students and demonstrating genuine care and concern for their intellectual growth is a simple yet effective strategy. As a practical recommendation, TA’s should carefully choose which courses they will be teaching based on their own interest, expertise and excitement level. My experience teaching courses that I love has made all the difference to both my student’s success but also my own.
- Be upfront and accessible:
Students cited appreciation for educators who were upfront about their expectations regarding coursework, especially as it pertained to the grading of assignments, exam and areas for student improvement. Being accessible to students was another frequently occurring theme, with students valuing TA’s who were both approachable but also available to talk, email, or meet in person when additional guidance was needed. Along these lines, students cited a range of highly valued TA strategies from one on one skype discussions to meet times arranged outside of traditional office hours to my own 24 hour-or-less email response rate.
TOP SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT:
- Not planning tutorials or lectures.
Of the criticisms received, several related to unplanned or unstructured weekly lectures or tutorials. Students appreciated when educators, especially TA’s, came to tutorial prepared with a structured learning plan versus simply reiterating what was discussed in lecture. Conversely, when I have anticipated what students may find helpful, by providing self-developed exam review study guides for example, I have found that students are greatly appreciative and cite it as helpful in alleviating some of the pressures of exam periods while improving their performance.
While there are many rules and guidelines available to educators here at York, sometimes unique situations benefit from an approach that is flexible and catered to the individual’s needs. At the beginning of every year, I ask my students to notify me if they have any requests related to how I may help them get the best out of their time with me. Although the majority of students do not require a differentiated teaching strategy, accommodating those that do often amounts to the difference between their staying the course versus withdrawing altogether.
- Maintaining power differentials.
A frequent criticism related to educators who, in the eyes of students, enjoyed “power trips” or “playing god”. Students cited a clear preference for collaborative teaching environments that sought to reduce (versus intensify) power differentials between teacher and student, with some citing how even seating strategies (e.g., sitting in a circle versus in rows) helped to advance that goal. While maintaining a balance between being your students’ equal as well as their leader can be tricky at times, students also appreciated efforts of educators to make the university experience less intimidating. For me, incorporating my own personal real-world life lessons into the material (especially when they are potentially embarrassing) makes me more relatable to my students while engendering an environment of trust that is then reciprocated in kind.
Whether you are a first time TA or seasoned course instructor, never be afraid to learn and modify your techniques based on past and present experiences. Speak with your colleagues, share best practices and be open to new and unique teaching styles. Last but not least, speak to your students! We have much to learn from them as well.
A heartfelt thanks goes out to all of my wonderful students for sharing their feedback with me. You are all the reason I love my job so much.
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