Dal TAs ‑ ready for class, eager to help

PD sessions help Dal's teaching assistants get classroom ready

- September 20, 2012

Assistant Professor Matthew Schnurr speaks at TA Days. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Assistant Professor Matthew Schnurr speaks at TA Days. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

Marking papers, leading labs and tutorials, delivering lectures, and helping students with assignments — in many ways, teaching assistants are a crucial part of the Dalhousie academic experience.

But aside from the actual nuts and bolts of teaching and marking, new TAs commonly report worries like how to deliver an engaging lecture, whether they will know the answers to students’ questions, and how to address issues of plagiarism if they encounter them.

These anxieties are exactly why the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT) has been holding its annual Teaching Assistant Professional Development Days for the last decade. The centre’s mission in these sessions is to ensure Dalhousie’s TAs are properly equipped to step into the classroom, whether for the first year or the fifth time around.

This year’s TA Days were held on September 11 and 12.

Guidance and support

“Sometimes in graduate programs there is guidance for teaching but often there isn’t,” says Kate Thompson, graduate teaching assistant with the CLT. “So it’s really refreshing I think for TAs to get specific instruction about skills they need to develop.”

What began ten years ago as a small half-day event with only 30 attendees has since evolved into a two-day event that welcomes nearly 150 graduate students attend from around the university. The event features presentations and workshops from faculty, as well as graduate students who have past experience as TAs.

“Some graduate students have just brilliant ideas, they are so enthusiastic and engaging, that TA Days is an opportunity for them to share some of those ideas with other graduate students,” says Suzanne Le-May Sheffield, interim director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching.

Some of the topics covered in the sessions are very practical: how to mark an assignment, how to help your students write better, how to oversee a lab, and so on.

Other sessions are intended to provide guidance on teaching itself, in the event that attendees are called on to deliver a lecture or entire course.

The closing plenary, which featured presentations by Mary Anne White from chemistry, Todd McCallum from history and Matthew Schnurr from international development studies, provided tips on how to encourage “deep learning” in students. For example, Dr. McCallum shared that he often dresses in character when he does his lectures on the history of pop culture, and brings in objects from that time period for students to interact with. Dr. Schnurr talked about simulating mock environmental negotiations for his second-year sustainability class, and Dr. White explained how discussion groups can help connect class topics to the real world. All three emphasized participatory learning and having students take part in engaging, interactive activities.

TA Days also included information sessions on the CLT’s Certificate in University Learning and Teaching, which masters students, doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows can acquire.

Building skills

“I think students just like to have the opportunity to have some professional development and to cut down the anxiety and apprehension about what it is they are supposed to do,” says Sheffield of the enduring popularity of the event.

Ashley Doyle, a second-year MA student in sociology, attended for her second time this year. “It was really useful and I took a lot away from it in terms of being more comfortable with the whole idea of having a class to TA."

Tara Tapics, a PhD student in oceanography, agrees. “A little development is always a good thing. It’s also good to get to know the other TAs. It’s a good networking thing: you can see what other people are doing. I think teaching is an ongoing learning experience."

That’s a sentiment that the CLT firmly believes in, and which is why TA Days is not the only professional development opportunity for teachers that it offers.

CLT also holds regular workshops and discussion groups open to graduate students and faculty to help teachers strengthen their skills year-round.

Visit the Centre for Learning and Teaching website to learn more.


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