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What are some common teaching challenges faced by GTAs?


You have little teaching experience, but you are committed to becoming a good teacher.  How should you begin?

Research shows that college instructors not only have a major impact on how much their students learn but also on their students' evolving attitudes toward learning.   Below are some guidelines to help create an effective-learning environment that engages your students:

  • Students frequently complain that the courses they take seem pointless or confusing. To help reduce their confusion, construct your course around specific learning outcomes and make these outcomes clear to your students throughout your syllabus, instruction, assignments, and assessment. 
  • Challenge your students with hands- and minds-on learning experiences.  In other words, don't bore your students with lectures. You can structure a class in which your students are actively thinking, interacting, exploring, and discussing. Think about it...what's more interesting to you—passively watching a PowerPoint presentation about visual art or passing around an original piece of art as you discuss it with a group of students? Better yet, let them get their hands dirty...let them experience creating art for themselves.
  • Before, during, and after class—or through emails—connect with your students in conversations that support and engage them.  Ask your students what they're learning...not only in your class but in their other courses as well...and ask them what they find most interesting, confusing, energizing, etc.  Let your students know when you think their questions are thoughtful, when their presentations are effective, and when their ideas are provocative.

Encourage students to explore and then articulate how what they're learning in your course is applicable not only to their interests but also to their other courses. Through their assignments and in informal conversations, ask them to consider these connections. For example, you might ask students to discuss together, write independently, or role play about how they envision the information they are exposed to in your course could be used by them in their chosen fields or in their chosen careers.

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Your students seem bored or unmotivated.

Challenging-but-achievable, meaningful, hands-on, and minds-on learning experiences will always motivate your learners. You can provide these experiences by establishing clear learning goals, active-learning assignments, and by helping students explore how your course connects with their lives, with their other courses, and with their careers.  Research also shows that students are engaged by dynamic instructors who show passion for their disciplines. 

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Your students complain about your tests and seem frustrated with how you assess their learning.

Assessment should be clear, should be directly related to your course goals, and should contribute to the overall learning process.

If you aren't clear with your students about what you plan to assess and how you plan to assess it, you can expect them to become frustrated and overwhelmed.  In your syllabus, consider listing your specific learning outcomes, and then explain how you intend to assess students' achievement of those outcomes. For complex assignments such as presentations or papers, it may help your students if you provide rubrics that outline key areas of focus and levels of mastery.

A well-designed course with specific learning outcomes will promote student learning. You already know how frustrating it is when an instructor lectures about one thing in class but asks about another on the test. For effective teaching, keep this simple plan in mind: Align your student learning outcomes, instructional methods, assignments, and assessment. For example, if one of your learning outcomes is that students will "know how to interpret the quantitative results of a research article," it doesn't make much sense for students to simply memorize statistical formulas and regurgitate these formulas on a test. Because you set a learning outcome for students to be able to interpret results, you should assess them on this interpretation skill. 

"Formative assessment" can provide your students with feedback on what they've learned and allows them an opportunity to improve upon it. But does this mean more work for you?  Not if design your course wisely. You might even consider having your students assess one another's work, revise it, and then submit the revision to you.  Student-to-student assessment is beneficial to both the creator and the reviewer of the work. 

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Some students may struggle with the work and fail your course.

Adjusting poorly to college can be related to poor college preparation, learning difficulties, or psychological distress. UC offers several campus resources for students who experience such problems. If your students confide in you about their struggles, or if you notice students having a tough time, maybe you can help them out.  Sometimes students simply need encouragement or suggestions for more effective studying. But other times, student problems are far beyond your expertise. You can help those more difficult students find the appropriate campus resources. Those resources designed to help students with academic, financial, and personal issues are listed below. 

  • Counseling Center (556-0648)
    This professional center is staffed to help students at UC deal with personal issues. Students may confide in you such things as feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or that they're abusing alcohol.  If you sense a student needs more than just your kind ear or some of your great advice, you may suggest taking steps to address the problem.  The center is available for graduate-student use, too, if you should ever need it. Fees are covered by student health insurance and/or based on the student's ability to pay. Learn more
  • Learning Assistance Center
    Sometimes students need more help or more time than you can give. Students who need extra help can contact the Learning Assistance Center, a center that supports students on their road to becoming independent learners. The Learning Assistance Center helps students better handle time management, study skills, peer mentoring, and peer tutoring...and it's all free. Learn more
  • Writing Center
    Helping your students learn to write well can be time intensive, but it's well worth the effort. The Writing Center is designed for students who require a good deal of attention.  Learn more

Remember, thoughtfulness goes a long, long way, so we recommend that you tactfully follow up with your students after you've made any of these referrals.

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Students can be disruptive, rude, and/or argumentative.

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Be prepared with active-learning plans for each class meeting, and be prepared for disruptions so you're not caught off guard.  Decide beforehand how you will handle the more common classroom disruptions: cell phone use, texting during class, disruptive talking, and students showing disrespect toward you or other students.  Consider reading our ProfPost article on incivility in the classroom. 

In your syllabus and through your actions, be clear about your expectations for classroom behavior. Your confident presence in the classroom helps to ensure a successful-learning environment for all of your students. Passive learning leaves room for disruptive behavior, so strive to design classes that engage both hands and minds.  If a disruptive situation arises, try addressing it in a way that re-engages your students in learning. Unaddressed, disruptive behaviors will likely continue if you don't handle them immediately.

For situations in which you or your students no longer feel safe, call the Campus Police:  556-3911

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What if students skip your class and then want help catching up? Ugh.

Would you want to attend your own class? If students feel that attending your class is boring or confusing, or if they consider what you teach them to be useless in their lives or in their careers, then you can expect to have trouble with students skipping your class. However, given that you have created an effective learning environment, it is reasonable that you should expect good attendance.

Having your attendance policy clearly stated in your syllabus will save you a lot of time and will eliminate back-and-forth emails about whether or not you'll excuse broken-down cars, grandmother deaths, puking, pulled muscles, a strict boss, etc. You may wish to inquire among your department faculty for samples of syllabi containing different types of attendance policies.

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A student asks you for help outside of class. Over drinks. At his/her dorm. Should you consider it?

Uh, probably not. The safest approach is to keep your relationships with students strictly academic, especially while they are enrolled in your class. However, developing close relationships with students is enriching for both the teacher and the learner. As you become more personally involved with students, it may help to keep these insights in mind:

  • There's no need for you to become your students' private, on-call tutor. If you find yourself overwhelmed by a needy student, by all means...call for back up.  Refer your student to either the Writing Center or the Tutoring Center.   Both of these centers are staffed to provide students with one-on-one assistance. 
  • Students may very well come to you to discuss their personal problems. If you feel comfortable with that, then be sure to listen, and acknowledge that your students' problems are heard. We suggest, however, that you resist offering advice. If students divulge psychological problems that are beyond your expertise or if they struggle with problems you feel uncomfortable discussing, please direct those students to the Counseling Center.
  • UC strongly discourages professors and GTAs dating and/or having sexual relationships with their students because of the possibility of perceived coercion. An intimate relationship with a student may seem a good idea at the time, but the possible effect on the student's learning, disputes over grades after a break-up, and your reputation in the department and with other students are important consequences to consider. It's better to put the relationship on ice until any chance of the student taking another course from you is over. For more information about this matter, refer to UC's policy on sexual harassment.

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Students may ask challenging questions that are beyond your expertise.

You don't know everything, and you don't have to. If your students stump you with questions, that's a good thing—it gives your students some insight into how a smart person in your discipline goes about problem solving, and this is a skill invaluable to their educations.

You may find it helpful to remember that there are many different ways of answering their many different questions—you can always acknowledge the questions that stump you as challenging ones and try to show students how you might go about thinking through the answer to it. Even better, consider this a great learning opportunity and ask for volunteers to research the question and report back. You can also invite those students who have laptops in class to research the question right then and there on the internet. This is also a good opportunity to direct them to great internet resources such as CNN, the government census, The NY Times and also to academic search engines.

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Students may take some "shortcuts" in your class (yes, it's probably inevitable).

The university has guidelines for dealing with academic dishonesty and plagiarism; however, it is ultimately the course instructors who decide how they'll deal with this issue.

Proactive, open discussions regarding academic dishonesty and its consequences—including addressing this issue on your syllabus and during your first class meetings—will help students understand that working honestly through difficult problems and assignments will improve their learning and will make them more educated people. And ensuring that students are clear about your definition and your consequences of academic dishonesty can prevent the dreaded "I didn't know!" scenario. 

While many instances of dishonesty are obvious, most will occur in what are considered the gray areas. For example, some students may not understand when they've crossed the line from paraphrasing and into plagiarism because they may not know how to cite information correctly. This can be especially true of students who come from educational systems or cultures that define plagiarism differently.  Providing students with information about these boundaries at the beginning of the course keeps their responsibility in these matters ever before them. 

If you determine that students have taken "shortcuts" rather than doing the work in your class, use consequences that deter this behavior in the future but also allow them to learn from this experience. One possibility is to allow students to resubmit their work according to the policies you have listed in your syllabus for work that is late. Additionally, you might require them to present additional papers on plagiarism...maybe a paper that requires a conference with you. The more serious offenses can result in failure of the assignment or the course; this action, of course, should be initiated by your department chair or program director. Remember, you're a GTA, and you do not/should not have a lot of power in this area. 

These resources can also be helpful:

  • Blackboard SafeAssign Anti-Plagiarism Tutorial
    If you are concerned about plagiarism in your class, check out CET&L's SafeAssign tutorial. SafeAssign is a tool in Blackboard that detects copied text by comparing your students' work to the Internet and other online databases. With support from FTRC and CET&L, the SafeAssign tutorial was developed by Julie Breen, a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program. Julie's work garnered first-place accolades in the Graduate Division of the Excellence in Professional Writing category in the English Department's 2009 Annual Writing Competition. 
    Start the SafeAssign tutorial
  • UC Library's Website on Plagiarism
    The library website and our wonderfully resourceful librarians are terrific when it comes to addressing issues of plagiarism. You may want to consider scheduling your entire class for a library visit and having a librarian explore this issue with them...that way, your students will begin to understand that this isn't simply one of your pet peeves...it's really a big deal in higher education.
    Learn more
  • Office of University Judicial Affairs
    This site lists the university guidelines and procedures for dealing with academic misconduct. This is also a good site to place in the resources section of your Blackboard site.
    Learn more

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Question we haven't answered yet?

The Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning is here to help.  Feel free to call us with your questions pertaining to teaching and learning.

Contact CET&L.

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